Ethics

 

ETHICS

 

Lost in all the instruction across campus except perhaps in philosophy… the virtues. But over my 30+ years of teaching, I have refused to ignore certain teachings the classical masters considered most important, even as they have been discarded by others. Are they “subjective,” and therefore obsolete? Our theories presume, often uncritically, ideals that we think we should strive for such as “competent communication.” If all you strive for is “functional fitness,” then the notch you wedge yourself into is presented to you as a fait accompli. There is no reason for you to be, except as a plastic medium for filling holes. Piety, obedience, submission were not virtues for the Classical thinkers. For Confucius maybe but not Socrates. Ethics in science? Science presumes honesty in reporting outcomes. Humility in accepting results that disagree with your predictions. These constitute nobility. The virtues are essential to understanding the values cultures manifest and consequently conflicts among cultures as well as what, how, and why we communicate as we do (the intercourse of life). But in so many circles, value has been restricted to monetary exchange. Reading Spinoza, Kant, Levinas, Habermas, Rawls, Bentham, et cetera… on ethics is restricted to a single class in philosophy and a few erudite scholars in law schools. Rigorous understanding and comparisons of role ethics, pragmatism, deontological ethics, virtue ethics, discourse ethics (ala Habermas contra-Derrida)? Missing. For instance, deontological ethics hold that an action is itself right or wrong regardless of the consequences. You can do a bad thing that ends up leading to a good outcome but that does not excuse the bad act. I shot her in the stomach. She was taken to the hospital where they consequently discovered that she had bladder cancer and so if I had not shot her, this would not have been discovered and cured. I saved her life by shooting her. This is called consequentialism, which Kant rejected. For ethics to have value they must be fairly applied… consistent regardless of consequences which are another matter.

Most “ethics books” are akin to the prescriptive statements one used to see on Oprah – self-ordained “life-coaches.” What is ethical is whatever a group says it is. Actions justified by groupthink (“cohesion”). In this case, the overarching moral precept is to never disagree with the popular position. Under such conditions, surveillance and mind-guarding become moral actions and mindguards, self-appointed, self-righteous moral police. Some even root our morality in neuroscience. This is the meta-ethics, akin to the work of G. E. Moore’s Principia Ethica or Hume’s naturalistic fallacy (the equation of a moral property with a nonmoral one – equating the value of “goodness” with a certain configuration of contingent brain cells for instance) and the modus tollens of the open-question argument. Well, obviously you need a brain to think. Larry Churchill has argued that “Ethics, understood as the capacity to think critically about moral values and direct our action in terms of such values is a generic human capacity.” Dah, yeah, we are able to do this but that does not touch on the judgment being about moral values. That’s uncritically presumed. Nor does it touch on how one assessed an action to be good or bad. Just using the word “critical” does not mean anything. How do you assess? Are criteria used? How do you choose the criteria? Do circumstances affect the application of criteria?  Yes, we have a “capacity,” but again what does that mean? What constitutes good and bad remains untouched by Churchills’ “capacity” claim.  It also does not address how one thought is a value and another is not. Cogitation is cognition. Capacity does not even begin to tell me the essential differences between reflecting on the existence of a rock in my shoe or whether something constitutes a war crime. I can reflect on anything. What constitutes the capacity to reflect critically does not address the nature of the thing Churchill uncritically presumes, moral values. This does not beg the question. It misses the entire ballpark.  That’s the problem with reductionism. If I reduce morality or beauty or justice to biophysics, then I’m literally in a different academic department studying an entirely different phenomenon. To help you get what I mean here, I suggest the scene in Dead Poets Society where Mr. Keating instructs the students to “rip out” a reductionistic explanation of what makes a “great poem,” with “Begone Dr. J. Evans Pritchard, Ph.D.!” This is, appropriately, the virtuous effort opening minds. But again, reducing a category to contingency is a fatal mistake. Furthermore, and more bluntly, even the physical brain is a consequence of nurture, of social and environmental influences. For instance, malnutrition in the mother or child will affect brain growth. Why were they malnourished? Structural poverty? Drug abuse can affect the physical brain. A bullet to the head can affect the physical brain but it does not alter the morality of being shot in the head.  The human brain (forget the mind), will not develop without social interaction. In short, even the physical organ is a product of symbolic interaction and that leads to the type of mind and morality one has. You do resistance-training, and your muscles develop. Same with the brain. No interaction, no development. Those who punt and say morality is hardwired don’t even understand how the brain grows let alone understand Frege’s critique of reductionism. But even if we give this point, the feral human is unknowable because a human infant without extensive social support cannot survive beyond a few hours alone. Beyond that obvious fact, if we reduce ethics to neurophysiology, we have another issue. If this is true, then since my brain chemistry changes after eating lunch, I guess my moral bearings also change from pre-lunch ethics to post-lunch ethics. Neuronal networking takes lots of time and reinforcing messaging to develop stable structures. Socialization. Finally, if my morality is genetically hardwired, then there is no point in talking about it or writing books about it. I can’t change. If we allow for neuroplasticity, then again, we are back in the realm of social interaction and reduction to neurophysiology is reduced to mere rhetoric that adds nothing to the discussion because my physical brain, again, is decidedly a product of social interaction. Reductionism demonstrates a lack of understanding of the essential nature of the physical brain, let alone ethics and indeed communication. Basic hermeneutics aka structuration theory holds that social structures exist only so long as they are reproduced through behavior and that the reinforcement is itself according to the norms of the system. But the hermeneutic circle is not “vicious” because in the process of replication both endogenous and exogenous anomalies create small (sometimes large) variances (plasticity). Bluntly, I am not the program. I can follow it but we are not identical.  I am able to step out of the program and reflect on it. Instead of endlessly repeating the same pattern, a human can access the value of the pattern itself. While a computer may run in an infinite loop until it burns out, even a mule will get tired of walking in the same circle and go lay down in the shade. Intelligence is the ability to access the program, not merely follow it blindly.  Insofar as the brain is a system of neuronal connections, it is never the same twice. But ethical principles are transcendental which means they exist as part of the semantic field that does not belong to me. This gives them stability but also plasticity. We can change our principles. But if we do it too often they are not “principles.” And if we do it without collective knowledge, they hold no normative force. I can have my own private morality, but that is not morality. It is instead my opinion. And people get these mixed up all the time. Because I think, or want something to be good and right does not make it so. And just because the majority believes something is good or right (the consensus theory of truth and right), does not make it so. Popular belief is not the same as objective truth.  I participate in a semantic system (a culture) and thus, by participating, I maintain it. At the same time, it gives me identity. And so we have shared sense. But it does not “belong” to me. Nor do I to it. This would be the worst form of fatalism. Morality is not “in my genes.” Thwarting biological urges is part of collective preservation. It is social. “My principles,” are not mine alone just as English is not a private language of mine. And as Hegel pondered, complex systems contain contradictions that allow me to be part of it while also allowing me to question it.  I can reflect on the ethics and morality of behavior and structures. I can change and change it. Thus, despite profound brain trauma, indeed even if I am utterly incinerated and vanish, as long as others exist, ethical and moral principles are untouched (in fact if you adhere to the command theory of morality – divine laws, then we are talking otherworldly super-nature, which I do not personally believe in). We share moral and ethical beliefs and we do that through symbolic interaction, not through a common brain. Hence, we can sincerely disagree. People in a “group,” or “culture,” by definition share values and beliefs. They also sometimes disagree.  Group-members share moral and ethical standards. At the same time, there is greater variance from group to group than there is within a “group” community by definition.  Of course, this is possible not because we are different species with differing brains, but because we grow up in, are shaped by, and reproduce our respective cultures. Only since I was in graduate school has a concerted effort been mounted by scholars across the globe to create an ongoing project to establish and monitor values and beliefs; the World Values Survey conducted in over 100 countries.  And I do not mean Hofstede’s cultural dimensions which he borrowed from Talcott Parsons. But even the WVS misses some important points. For instance, each culture has its ideal person, and this is important to know. Ethics is fundamental to understand human behavior and the application of technique/technology. Plato would not teach the dialectic until and unless his students had first passed his ethics because τέχνη technē without φρόνησις  phrónēsis (prudence), and science without morality, are very dangerous. Husserl made this clear in his last book The Crisis of European Sciences and Transcendental Phenomenology which he wrote in part as an act of mourning the loss of his son in World War I. Naïve science at the turn of the twentieth century suggested that philosophy was useless, and ethics did not exist. Husserl bracketed the metaphysical exclusion of ethics and morality from “reality,” insisting that they were not merely real but paramount in human existence, that the mechanical might of modern technology demanded ethical oversight. Habermas discusses this also in his classic Knowledge and Human Understanding, as our common teacher, Hans-Georg Gadamer taught us both. To claim that ethics are not real, because they are not empirical objects is to then abandon responsibility for our empirical actions. And to claim they are real because they are neuronal-physical objects is to reduce them again out-of-existence because all the “building blocks” of the material universe have no qualitative differences. Eventually, through reduction, according to material metaphysics, everything becomes wave/particles, “in reality.”  So much for the human lifeworld. Nothing of human existence is real. It is all epiphenomenon. Color is an illusion. Sound, illusion. Taste… imagination, beauty, ethics, all illusions. Reality is just wave/particles governed by…???  Something not material…??? Laws???  The one thing even physicists cannot break. And what then of the ultimate goal of science, namely, to discover the laws that govern the wave/particles? Aristotle, as the champion of inductive reasoning and the inventor of modern empiricism, worked on his greatest book for many years, never completing it to his satisfaction and naming it after his son Nicomachus to underscore how precious his ethical studies were to him over and above his logics and physics (The Nicomachean Ethics).

There’s an old saying, “What Peter says about Paul, tells me more about Peter than it does Paul.” I think you can learn something about a person by those they admire, who their heroes are.  Here’s just a couple of people I admire. Also, I find people confuse admiration with envy. They are very different things. So what does Eric have to say about Rachel, Jacques, and John? They had integrity. They did what they wanted to do and what they thought needed to be done. They had courage and tried to make good differences. Okay so then what is “good?” Well, I tend to believe that Plato and Aristotle were on the right path and that others who copied them such as Ambrose, Augustine of Hippo, and Aquinas were right to do so. They relate to the ancient quadrivium. When you combine the trivium with the quadrivium you have the liberal arts founding on “thinking skills.” We can thank Proclus for the combination of the values of classical antiquity to later additions (repeated later by Boethius and Cassiodorus). The original four virtues enumerated by Plato were (1) Prudence (careful judgment -- wisdom). Next (2), Justice “Dikaiosýnē” Dike, one of the Horae along with Eunomia (“order”), and Eirene (“peace”). Dike is the spirit of moral order and fair judgment, also associated with Astraea, innocence, the warrior escort to Athena, or a manifestation of Athena (similar to Nike). We call her “lady justice.” Justice is widely seen as fairness. Without wise judgment or “prudence” justice may be missed especially if the third virtue (3), Fortitude is missing. Plato said that of the four Virtues, Fortitude which combines courage with endurance, the other three would falter. Fortitude is not blind bravado. Finally, we have (4), temperance or restraint. Discretion is the better part of valor and self-control is the first discipline. These formed the cardo or hinge to how we respond to the choices we face. Freedom is how we respond to what has been done to us. To understand human behavior “character,” we must observe these in our own and others actions. Socrates sought to discover what is courage, wisdom, justice, tolerance. Not easy. Once identified, then more critical questions come into focus.  Why can I not have more courage? Why can I not be more wise? Why can I not be more fair? More tolerant? If I can, how? These are the critical questions. No great ethicists are young. It takes a long time and much experience to just get this far.

To these Aristotle added often overlapping values; magnanimity, which is a mixture of generosity, benevolence, kindness, and fairness), liberality (open-mindedness, tolerance), gentleness (a combination of calmness and mildness), and curiously (to me) magnificence, which may have spawned the corruption that became the megalomaniac, his student, Alexander (who Aristotle may have had a hand in poisoning lest he return to Greece as a tyrant).  Here we have the foundations of the Western notions of chivalry, the gentleman with piety (something missing from the Classical nomenclature). The Greco-Romans were people of little faith or blind submission, but the courage to be curious and demand proof of claims. This is a fundamental divergence in the Western world. Just as I have published about, the history of the West is not “the” history. It is complicated and like the profound and sudden flipping of the magnetic poles that occur once in a while, the Western world has metaphysical flips. For a time spirit is real and the physical world is illusion. Then flip, the physical world is all that is real and the spiritual is an illusion. Then flip back.  The tension is fundamental. It affects everything from politics to values. What is real, matters.

I once asked a fellow at his retirement party, a man who had spent his life in academic administration with great success (which is rarer than you think), what was the secret. He said no secret.  “Assume nothing, listen carefully, learn, and reflect.” Active listening, we might call it. Sophia or wisdom is not jumping to conclusions. The truth is not always obvious. Who is right might surprise you. Your friend might be in the wrong while your enemy is right.  This is the temporal part of reflection and the self-discipline of suspending prejudice. Take the time to listen, learn, reflect before you act. Assume nothing. Plato makes this clear. Some are good at making the lesser argument appear the better. We all can be fooled.  Ask questions. Interrogate all sides, all angles, all presumptions. And act with temperance.

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