August 17, 2013, by Stephen Mumford
Ethics Begins at Home
I’m not a moral philosopher (and sometimes joke that I’m an immoral one). But certainly morality is an area of the arts that concerns every single person. We all have ethical deliberations to face on a regular basis. Some have a strict and explicit code according to which they live while others get by on instinct. There is simply no escape from moral questions, however. They confront us constantly and as free agents we have to choose appropriate courses of action, where even refusal to act is itself a moral choice.
Although philosophers and sometimes religious experts are thought of as the authorities on all theoretical matters relating to ethics, I find myself often let down by the behaviour of theoreticians. There are always exceptions, of course, but I’ve found that knowing moral philosophy doesn’t always make someone a better person. It seems that one can know the theory without having the good wisdom to implement it. Worst of all, some philosophers even hide behind their argumentative prowess to justify acts clearly recognizable as bad.
How can we get over this problem, that theory can become so detached form the practicalities of action? There are two ways of looking at ethics. There is a Kantian tradition (Immanuel Kant pictured) in which to be ethical is to act in accordance with general rules, rationally justified. But I’ve been more attracted by a very different approach known as particularism (a view developed by Jonathan Dancy). The particularist thinks that each particular situation will have a unique set of moral features that have to be evaluated as a whole, in isolation from any absolute rules. Telling the truth may tend to produce the right result but not always. There are some contexts in which it will have the opposite effect. As much as anything, the right moral decision to make will be highly context sensitive. The difficulty of morality is being perceptive and skilled enough to judge on the relevant contextual factors.
But there is another aspect of particularism that I like. General theories could be separated from reality but one can instead look at morality as something consisting in particular concrete decisions and actions. Good and bad are not merely abstract concepts but exist in particular good and bad acts. And this gives the agent the possibility of a direct acquaintance with the good, when they encounter it. I recently had an ethical encounter of my own, which I related on Twitter. It felt satisfying to experience the good at first-hand.
Schopenhauer once wrote something to the effect that all of the history of theoretical ethics had never improved one person – and had never been intended to do so. It’s a bit like wondering if the history of aesthetics had ever improved anyone’s taste. Of course not! Rather, these are attempts to deal with concrete things at an abstract level.
These days there is a developing picture about ‘hardwired’ morality – to some extent, morality emerges from moral feelings, and moral feelings emerge from as-yet poorly understood facts about our biological systems. Hence the ‘contextual’ moral knowledge or moral sentiments to which you allude. The importance, and the weakness, of developing abstract moral systems, IMO, is to try and bring some consistency to bear on the whole thing! However, abstract concepts rarely re-create the richness of contextual knowledge. In my view, this has something to do with the failures of creating AI from purely algorithmic approaches – the richness of human intuition transcends our ability to script.
I do agree with you about both of these points : 1/ ethical deliberation concerns everyone of us and 2/ neither religious people nor moral philosophers behave better than us (of course, there are exceptions).
But those facts lead me to a conclusion which is quite different from yours.
I would say that moral philosophers should not try to formulate neither rules nor values. A better philosophical point of view is a metaethical one : they would better investigate the conditions under which a decision is an ethical decision. My conception is inspired by Jonathan Lowe’s conception of metaphysics : metaethics should investigate the ultimate structure of what ethics could be.
I propose to interpret the kantian categorical imperative not as a moral imperative but as a metaethical rule : it says us what condition our decisions must satisfy to be considered as ethical ones. This metaethical rule may be too strong but it is not the point we are discussing here.
Kant has never forbidden us to lie, because his imperative does not forbid contents of action. But, as you say, lying is a canonical example in Kant’s practical philosophy. To put it in a few words, I would say that interpreting Kant as if he had forbidden us to lie leads us to overstrain the contrast between him and particularism. On the contrary, if we take seriously his claim that the moral law regards the form of our will, the contrast is more tenuous.
I think the real opposition can be drawn between the kantian imperative of logical coherence and David Lewis’ position for he thinks that we may have to disobey our duties in order to fulfill them.
What’s the difference between particularism and Aristotelian virtue ethics? Aristotle’s actual views, I mean. Is particularism the particularity minus the good character over time?
Genuine question. I don’t know most of the names for the contemporary positions.
The term ‘virtue ethics’ covers a range of claims. One of which is that character is normatively prior to right action because right action cannot be codified into rules. Aristotle held this. One can (as you say) be a particularist without the claim about the normative priority of character.
Moreover, one can be a virtue ethicist who agrees with Aristotle that character is normatively prior to right action without also agreeing with him on the reason for that.
Moreover, some people call themselves virtue ethicists just because they think that, as a matter of psychological fact, the best way to ensure right action (or, good action) is to develop certain character traits. Thus, a virtue utilitarian thinks the utility principle correctly captures morality, but also thinks that one ought to concentrate on developing the right character traits rather than one worrying about each action in its own right. Virtue Kantians hold a parallel position. There is still something Aristotelian (well, ancient Greek in general) about this: it is still a focus on character in practical ethics.
Hope this helps. Martha Nussbaum has a nice paper on this, ‘Virtue Ethics: A Misleading Category?’ which goes into a lot more.