Sunday, January 16, 2005

Moral Clarity

The New York Times > Magazine > The Way We Live Now: The Moral Cataclysm

Bush's call for moral clarity may be a travesty of both words, but it speaks to a genuine need. People want it so badly that they are willing to project it where it's lacking -- or settle for moral simplicity instead. And we are right to beware of simplicity that offers feel-good kitsch and frank manipulation in place of moral reflection. But it would be wrong to reject moral sentiment just because it can be misused.

Most people, including most academics outside of philosophy, don't know that there's such a thing as ethics. They assume that there are, on the one hand, codes of conduct--professional ethics for various disciplines and theological ethics for different religions--and on the other hand murkey sentimentality. "Moral clarity" is a matter of buying a code of conduct with clear, simple rules--all else is sentimentality. Professional ethics only concern behavior on the job; for an overarching code of conduct we look to religion. Sentimentality may soften the edges of our commitment to a code of conduct in an agreeable and appropriate way but without commitment to a code of conduct we are left with mud, murk and moral relativism.

This isn't a conjecture. We discovered this in a class 2 years ago when, after years of hearing undergraduates use the words "ethics" and "morality" in funny ways I decided to ask the class whether they thought ethics and morality were different and, if so, what the difference was. The consensus that they did was overwhelming so in standard professorial manner I wrote "ethics" and "morality" on the board and asked the class to characterize what they thought these two concepts were all about.

The consensus was again overwhelming and almost perfectly reflected the consensus of non-philosophers at a workshop on "ethics across the curriculum" that I'd attended a few weeks earlier. "Ethics" was, students agreed, "rational" and could be articulated; "morality" was a matter of feeling and couldn't be articulated much less argued for. Ethics, they agreed, should govern our conduct in business, the professions and public life: there were rules for doctors, lawyers, managers and politicians and they should be followed. Morality was for private life and should govern life in the family and among friends. Most were skeptical about about religious ethics though and thought that religion, to the extent that it was of any interest at all, was about morality and had no place in business or public life.

Some of the more astute students then took the next step and opined that the problem with Liberals was that they were sentimental, short-sighted and confused ethics with morality. If an employee was incompetent but had a wife and seven children to support, Morality said you should keep him on but Ethics said you had to fire him: liberals just didn't understand that managers had an ethical obligation to produce results and that firms had a fiduciary responsibility to their shareholders to maximize profits. It was the same in public life: Liberals just didn't realize that if you taxed the pants off of people to provide for the poor it would undermine incentives, lower GDP and make everyone worse off; they also didn't realize that there were Bad Guys out there who would beat us up if we didn't have jails, armies and get-tough policies. Charity was terribly important--around the edges to heal the wounds--but couldn't be central without disastrous results.

This reminded me of one of C. S. Lewis' Narnia books where, after the boys are issued with weapons to fight for righteousness, Lucy is given a box of elixers with supernaturally curative powers because it's unseemly for women to fight. (I detest C. S. Lewis) The idea now was that guys, both male and female, fight the good fight in management, the professions and public life--girls, both male and female, follow after healing, salving wounds and dispensing charity. When Tsunamis strike the girls come out with their magic healing medicine boxes. If the Market beats people down they operate little charities and faith-based initiatives to make their people's lives better. That's compassionate convervatism. But woe to all if we let the compassion, the woman business, take over.

We ground our teeth and thought, you wait, you just wait. "We" isn't royal, or authorial or any figure of speech but the plain English first person plural: this was a team taught course I did with a colleague in econ. One of my colleagues at my first job, at Northern Illinois University, recalled going to dos with Gustav Bergmann who would lie on his back on the floor with a bottle of beer on his belly and who, listening to the paper a miserable junior colleague was reading would chant, "You wait, you just wait" before beating the crap out of the miserable untenured victim or grad student. I do this myself to the best of my ability.

We didn't convert most students, which wasn't the aim, but we got across the idea that the views they opposed weren't just naive and couldn't simply be dismissed: conservative views can't simply be dismissed, liberal views can't simply be dismissed and addressing that question of how to live ones life is hard, takes some time and thinking about. Most Americans don't seem to get this and it's a stinking shame that most colleges don't require a course in ethics to get students clear about how to deal with this stuff. That required ethics course is part of the Catholic tradition and, contrary to what parents think, at most places it isn't a matter of telling students that they shouldn't screw around. They get the real thing. I'm a pariah at my place because I have a big mouth but I'm happy and proud to teach at a Catholic college.


Eddie said...

As I've written in a recent post, I don't care much for ethics as a branch of philosophy. Every ethical theory I've run into strikes me as wrong or unhelpful, and I've come to think that this is inevitable. It is better, I believe, to make sense of human institutions, and then discern what kinds of conduct are appropriate to each. I don't care too much for the weight your students are putting on the public/private distinction, but I am sympathetic to the thought that life is divided into different spheres and we respond to those spheres accordingly.

In other words, I think we would do better to undertake a philosophical anthropology, or maybe a philosophy of history, and then make claims about what constitutes moral behavior, rather than using a notion of ethics to craft our politics.

Finally, I don't quite get the "you just wait." Wait for what, again?

H. E. said...

I am sympathetic to the thought that life is divided into different spheres and we respond to those spheres accordinglySpeaking of spheres, consider planetary motion. We're looking for simplicity and power so a theory that explains how they all operate be reference to the same fundamental principles is better than one that appeals to the peculiar sui generis natures of Mars, Venus, etc. Why assume that ethics is different, that we shouldn't even be looking for a unified account at a high level of abstraction? Seems the burden of proof is on the ethical pluralist.

Wait for what, again?Wait for us to show you different--and I think we did. Team teaching with an economist we're both on the same page: more-or-less preference utilitarians granting that some wrinkles have to be ironed out.

But let's get a little more real here. We've all been in social circumstances where conforming to the rules for "appropriate" behavior makes us miserable and doesn't seem to do that much for anyone else. When people become reflective they ask why they should follow these rules and end up concluding that some are warranted, others unwarranted. Then the game is to see whether we can articulate criteria for sorting them out. That's the beginning of wisdom.

It's all very well when the shoe doesn't pinch: indeed follow custom when it comes to "things indifferent." But I suspect you underestimate the extent to which behaving "appropriately" be difficult or impossible for people, generate real misery and thwart their desires. Either "appropriate" behavior produces a good utilitarian result (pleasure, happiness, desire satisfaction--take your pick) or it doesn't. If it didn't would you be prepared to say that in spite of the fact that that behaving "appropriately" makes people miserable and thwarts their desires that's what we ought to do or not? If not, appropriate behavior isn't criterial and it's just an empirical conjecture that appropriate behavior is conducive to bringing about whatever is.

Eddie said...

"We're looking for simplicity and power so a theory that explains how they all operate be reference to the same fundamental principles is better than one that appeals to the peculiar sui generis natures of Mars, Venus, etc. Why assume that ethics is different, that we shouldn't even be looking for a unified account at a high level of abstraction? Seems the burden of proof is on the ethical pluralist."

I agree that a unified account would be preferable, so in that sense I guess the burden is on the ethical pluralist, i.e., why not look for possible solutions first in those places where solutions seem the most pleasing? The alternative, which I find myself supporting, is to admit that the world is tragic, that it is a place with incommensurable goods that no theory can reduce to unified formulas. I haven't come to this position with any great joy.

In another sense, however, the burden is on us all equally to make the most plausible case. I am not simply assuming that the unified theories are mistaken; I am reporting the conclusions I've drawn from my experience of them. Utilitarianism, for example, strikes me as the effort to elevate a signal (pleasure, a feeling of satisfaction, etc.) to the level of a highest good. Not only does this seem a false representation of my experience, since I make use of signals rather than living for them, but it also seems to me that it ultimately provides a standard that is largely useless for comprehending and making judgments about concrete situations. Even if I were to affirm that human institutions are (or should be) designed to maximize pleasure, I don't see where this reasoning would take me any further. I would still need to set myself to the task of grasping how each institution uniquely attempts to accomplish this end. I'm trying to imagine, for example, a utilitarian solution to Achilles' dilemma at the beginning of the Iliad, and I am failing.

My emphasis on institutions over unified formulas shouldn't be taken as a defense of custom or conformity. One can criticize an institution, not because it fails some general theory, but because it fails itself. (I take it you were doing this recently with your criticism of the diluted mission of the contemporary university.) Or one can ask why some institutions pass away or change radically, with a thought that some of our institutions need to pass away or change radically as well. As Socrates puts in the Republic, we see the soul writ large when we consider the various functions of the community.

"...would you be prepared to say that in spite of the fact that that behaving "appropriately" makes people miserable and thwarts their desires that's what we ought to do or not? If not, appropriate behavior isn't criterial and it's just an empirical conjecture that appropriate behavior is conducive to bringing about whatever is."

I'm not trying to use appropriateness as a criteria, since that would just be another unified theory. But, yes, I think that there are plenty of situations where people are made miserable by what they ought to do.

H. E. said...

Do you think there are situations where everyone, not just the agent, is made miserable by what ought to be done? I'm not promoting hedonism anyway, but preference utilitarianism.

I don't remember what Achilles dilemma was but I do think that it was stupid of Oedipus to blind himself and stupid of Antigone to make a fuss about burying her brother, and that societies that have codes of honor and duty that support this sort of behavior are crumby.

Athens didn't "fail itself" and from a distance it looks just great. But a society where illiteracy is the norm, 2/3 of the population are slaves, women are in purdah, war is standard procedure for getting slaves and booty and the overwhelming majority of the population drudges all their waking hours so that a few artists and literati have the leisure to produce the Glory That Was Greece is crumby.

Eddie said...

Your response seems to follow my own thinking that utilitarianism is foremost a political philosophy and then secondarily an ethics. That is to say, it is the ethics of a classically liberal political order. The idea that everyone's happiness matters and should be considered in the political order is a powerful idea, much more powerful to me than the effort to formulate a calculus for utility maximization. In saying this, I am not denigrating utilitarianism in my own eyes, because my point all along is that we should begin by grasping institutions and then work our way back to the individual.

Furthermore, as an American conservative, I am interested in conserving a classically liberal regime, so I am happy to have available a utilitarian calculus as a rule of thumb. Nonetheless, I hesitate to think that this ethics accounts adequately for those institutions that precede liberal politics and that are still important to us, such as family (clan) and the church. We pay a price for our mass aggregation of individual happiness that does not, as far as I can tell, even register upon utilitarian ethics. Do we not, for example, owe something to the dead, even at the expense of our collective satisfaction?

(Side note: Achilles went to war to assist Agamemnon in retrieving Helen from the city of Troy. Agamemnon dishonored him, however, so he was put into a no-win situation: continue fighting, but with the clear indication that he is subordinate to Agamemnon and not acting simply out of friendship, or withdraw from the fighting and watch his friends perish without his help. My sense of the tragic is that there is no right answer here, that we are witnessing the incongruous edges of different loyalties and commitments.)

H. E. said...

Duties to the dead are controversial but I think preference utilitarianism can accommodate them because the content of our preferences can be for states of affairs that don't figure in our experience and among the states I prefer some are posthumous states. The special worry is when am I harmed or benefitted by a posthumous state I want or don't want. But that's no more or less problematic than when does x who is awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor posthumously get it and, short answer, I think that can be dealt with. It's mainly residual hedonist intuitions that worry people, the idea that being harmed or benefitted can't be a mere Cambridge change. According to preferentists it can.

When you strip the literary varnish off the world of the Iliad it's Afghanistan, a brutal, tribal culture where women are awarded as prizes and stolen, tribal warlords rape and pillage and trivial crap serves as a justification for violence, death and devastation. It's a thrilling fantasy and the rules of the game pose intriguing dilemmas but a completely crappy world, in part because the rules are crumby to begin with.

Marie Antoinette played shepherdess in her royal cowshed but wouldn't have wanted to be a real shepherdess with all the muck, drudgery and tedium, and no way out. That's the appeal of the world of the Iliad and all romantic fantasies about heroic ages and exotic cultures, and for that matter fantasy computer games. I get the appeal--I find this stuff thrilling and interesting myself. But it doesn't follow that the states of affairs they represent would be ok if they actually obtained--and in fact where they actually do obtain, Afghanistan, the middle east, immigrant communities in Europe, we think it's bloody awful.