Saturday, February 2, 2008
Posted by Jeff Lipshaw
The rage now in ethics, if you judge by the number of times it has shown up in the popular press, is experimental philosophy, and particularly what is rapidly coming to be known as "trolleyology." The basic hypothetical tests the limits of utilitarian thinking by positing, on one hand, the circumstance where you save five people, but allow one to be killed, by throwing the switch to redirect the runaway trolley, and on the other, where you are able to throw one very fat person in front of the trolley in order to save five. The experiments seem to show that people would sacrifice the one person to save five in the first case, but not in the second, there seemingly being something morally different (and less benign) about the action taken in the second.
First, I want to give credit where credit is due. Even though Marc Hauser published a book on the subject called Moral Minds, and even though the New York Times ran a Sunday magazine article a couple weeks ago by Stephen Pinker on "The Moral Instinct," the person in legal academia who was out ahead of the curve on this issue is John Mikhail at Georgetown. But when you pick up your New York Times Book Review section sometime between now and tomorrow morning, you'll see a favorable review of another treatment on the same issue by the well-known philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah, Experiments in Ethics. I haven't read the book yet - only the review - but my intuition accords with what appears to be Professor Appiah's take on all the experimental work: the experiments are ultimately going to fail to capture the complexity of moral decision-making in our lives.
Second, in my usual unambitious way, I have fixated recently on the concept of justice, at least in the mundane kinds of non-life-and-liberty-threatening contexts I've spent most of my professional life dealing with. There's a line from the book review that appeals to me. Appiah says, "In life, the challenge is not so much to figure out how best to play the game; the challenge is to figure out what game you're playing." The reviewer, Paul Bloom, a Yale psychology professor, says in response, "This is bad news for those who hope for a simple and elegant account of moral life, which includes many of us engaged in experimental philosophy." I continue to be intrigued by the way moral philosophy spins endlessly around unresolvable paradox, full account of which takes us either to a priori truths that precede experience (and hence testable scientific theory), or scientific conclusions about instinct that themselves seem so close to the a priori that the conclusions are barely testable. (My friend, Frank Pasquale, has dipped into this from time to time as well!)
Where does this all take us? I wish I knew. Notwithstanding the efforts of Plato, Aristotle, Hume, Rawls, Del Vecchio, and a host of others, all of whom are stacked up on my desk right now, nobody (not surprisingly) has nailed the issue. My own inclination, apparently like Appiah, is that there is something permanently unresolvable and non-algorithmic about any judgment, much less moral judgment, and the correct answer to the theorists seeking either a non-testable truth or a reductivist solution goes like this: "deal with it!" And, much to my great pleasure, on the subject of "deal with it," my very occasional but very important (whether she knows about it or not) intellectual mentor, Susan Neiman (pictured above), has a new book coming out in May, a follow-up to Evil in Modern Thought, entitled Moral Clarity: A Guide for Grownup Idealists. Here's a taste from the preface:
Looking back at traditional uses of moral concepts is not a search for foundations. I believe most of the interesting things philosophy can say about that search were already said by Immanuel Kant, who argued that the validity of our concepts cannot possibly be proved from outside experience, since they shape the possibility of experience itself. Not even this much can be said of moral concepts, since Kant held they were not about truth at all: truth tells us how the world is; morality tells us how it ought to be. Those who were dissatisfied with his answer spawned a small but tenacious industry devoted to proving our concepts are legitimate, the dominant business of twentieth-century philosophy. It may be possible to continue examining the problems with foundationalism or the nature of relativism forever. But for anyone more likely to be moved by Dylan than Descartes, the hour is getting late.
In short, as to the concurrent unprovability yet apparent decidability of moral issues, "deal with it."
UPDATE: Susan Neiman also has an op-ed in today's Sunday NYT on the nature of the Holocaust memorials in Germany.