Saturday, February 2, 2008

New Works on Ethics - "Deal with It!"

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 Snfinal08_klein 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.

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In one, very important, sense, I think John Haldane gets to the heart of the matter:

"What we have within contemporary academic philosophy is a good deal of necessarily technical epistemology and metaphysics, some of it deployed in metaethics; a fair amount of subtle moral theory; and considerably more applied ethics. In almost none of these areas taken individually or collectively is there scope for, let alone evidence of, anything that begins to look like spirituality."

Why is the absence of anything close to spirituality troubling when it comes to moral theory, or applied ethics, or metaethics? Haldane writes that while metaethics is "substantial," philosophically speaking, "it is not itself normative but analytical and ontological." And while applied ethics *is" normative, "it does not provide a theory of value but presumes one or another such account." That leaves us with moral theory proper, "but while it is certainly concerned with value and requirement its domain is essentially that of right conduct in relation to moral subjects, and this is only a part of spirituality and perhaps then only *per accidens.*"

Yet at the risk of begging the question, why should spirituality fall within the province of philosophy?

"Thoreau wrote that the masss of men lead lives of quiet desperation. This is a sad thought, and though it is difficult to assess its truth there is evidence provided in imaginative literature, in the press, in doctors' surgeries, through personal acquaintance, and by knowledge of one's own circumstances, all of which suggest that many people are ill at ease with the human condition as they experience it. Many of us are desperate and many of us are sad, and the sources of our distress are not easily removed."

So, existentialist angst and something akin if not identical to the Buddhist diagnosis of suffering, as well as a basic premise of humanist psychology, should prompt us to consider afresh why spirituality matters to ethics:

"Certainly many privations may not befall one, but their very possibility casts a shadow across human lives. Those who are betrayed and bereaved, those who long for recognition or for love, those who are ill or dying, those who are clinically depressed, those who fear creeping insanity, those who feel used, whose who labour with mental or physical handicaps, or who struggle with sufferers, those who are victims of injustice, all are in a position to see into the frailty of the human condition, and to see beyond the possibility of immediate and temporary relief to the facts of unredeemed suffering, weakness, solitariness and death. In the face of all of this human beings often ask whether there is any spiritual truth that might counter, alleviate or otherwise help deal with these facts, and they often suppose that it might be the task of non-religious philosophy to identify such a truth or to show that there is none. Clearly this supposition is related to the still popular belief that philosophy has something to do with the meaning of life. Such, however, is the growing ignorance within the profession of the broad history of the subject, and such has been the extent of specialisation with accompanying technicality, that many philosophers are genuinely puzzled when they encounter these expectations. The fact that 'philosophy' means love of wisdom (philo-sophia) will be set aside as being of purely anitquarian interest."

Incidentally, Martha Nussbaum's book, The Therapy of Desire: Theory and Practice in Hellenistic Ethics (1994) as well as Pierre Hadot's What Is Ancient Philosophy? (2002) endeavor to recover for our own time and for philosophy a discipline and vocation once again close to its classical Greek forebears, thus a philosophy in which the concerns of its practitioners are within the orbit of a public that, today at least, subsidizes the profession. To the extent that they and others (e.g., those working on 'virtue ethics') are successful in this endeavor, the study of ethics will be nurtured once more within a philosophy not afraid to address the "meaning of life."

While Nussabum and Hadot look back to early Western philosophical traditions for inspiration, Joel Kupperman has looked eastward: "A running theme of this book [i.e., Learning from Asian Philosophy, 1999] is that much of importance has been forgotten or ignored in recent Western philosophy, especially ethical philosophy; and that great Asian philosophy, apart from its intrinsic interest, can be very useful in refocusing current philosophical enterprises."

In short, only when philosophy takes seriously the notion of spirituality will it be able to speak to the very masses that contemporary ethics deigns to address: and only then will it possess the possibility of motivating a significant number of us to courageously and persistently come closer to, if not embody, what "ought to be." Until such time, professional ethicists and moral philosophers have abnegated their professional and moral responsibility as intellectuals as adumbrated or outlined in our own time by the likes of Sartre, Said and Chomsky.

Please see Haldane's essay, "On the Very Idea of Spiritual Values," in Anthony O'Hear, ed., Philosophy, the Good, the True and the Beautiful (2000): 53-71.

Posted by: Patrick S. O'Donnell | Feb 2, 2008 4:48:10 PM

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