Saturday, August 11, 2012

Excuses Excuses. Does moral philosophy answer the wrong question?

At a recent conference, a colleague and friend of mine from the AAPAE – Dr Peter Bowden –questioned the importance of moral philosophy to applied ethics. As the editor of a new book on professional and applied ethics, Bowden reflected that most of the chapters on professional ethics, all written by professionals, practitioners and teachers in the field, didn’t talk much about moral philosophy. To be sure, all the authors of course appealed to a variety of principles, values and virtues. But most of these norms arose more or less out of the practice and nature of the profession itself, rather than the edicts of philosophies. Moreover, most of the chapters considered the ways in which ethical practices in institutions and professions could be strengthened – discussing the varying merits of codes of conduct, moral leadership, whistle-blowing protection and so on. All this was done without any appeal to moral philosophy, and such topics are, all the more, not subjects with which moral philosophy tends to concern itself. 

As such, Bowden suggested, moral philosophy appeared somewhat irrelevant to applied ethics.
As a moral philosopher, I of course leapt to the defence my profession. I pointed out that moral philosophy was needed when the answers to moral questions were not clear or held by consensus, and when people demanded to know why they should, in fact, act morally. These problems for the most part were not the focus of Bowden’s book. When it comes to professional ethics, there is usually an adequate consensus on what should be done – what is required are measures to ensure that it does in fact happen. In cases where there is controversy we do indeed see a substantial input from moral philosophy, and this was reflected - for example - in the book’s chapter on bioethics.

But Bowden’s argument did make me reflect in a number of ways on the relevance of moral philosophy and its impact on making the world a better place. I’ll get to some of my other worries in later posts, but for today I want to reflect on the possibility that moral philosophy isn’t much use in making people live better lives, or treat others more decently, because it focuses, from a practical standpoint, on the wrong questions.

My speculative hypothesis (and I have no evidence for it beyond anecdote and (ahem) personal introspection) is this: People aren’t bad because they don’t feel they have reasons to do the right thing. Rather, they are bad because they feel they have countervailing reasons entitling them to do the wrong thing in this case. Moreover, those countervailing reasons are not on their face narrowly egoistic or selfish.

To explain. Moral philosophy (and religion too, for that matter) tends to provide reasons for why people should, generally speaking, be decent to each other. But outside philosophical disputations, I speculate that ordinary people (non-sociopaths) don’t harbour any real doubts about this matter. They are well aware in some fuzzy non-theorized way that they should be decent to each other – whether motivated by sympathy or empathy, a sense of fairness, reciprocity and equality, tradition and community, or a vague sense of the taboo, I think ordinary people believe they do, in fact, have good reasons to be civil. When moral philosophy comes along and gives a metaphysical account of why people should be moral, they are answering a question most people rarely ask or lose sleep over.

But to say that people accept that they have good reasons to be moral is not to say that those reasons are always – or even often – decisive. Quite the contrary. One can fully believe – as a general matter – that one should be nice to other people, but at the same time believe in this specific instance that one is justified in not being so.

In other words, it is not large-scale doubt about the demands of morality that is operative when ordinary people do the wrong thing, but is instead the perceived presence of defeating considerations that morally justify not doing the right thing in the specific case.

What might those defeating considerations look like? Well, the pithy pocket-card above is the facetious version. Here’s a (only somewhat) more sober list:

·         Victim 1: ‘I (or the identity group to which I belong) have been historically wronged. To find fault with me is to blame the victim and mistake the real culprit.’

·         Victim 2: ‘I’m fighting against the oppression of the identity group to which I belong. You are probably complicit in my oppression.’

·         Crusade: ‘I’m on an artistic/aesthetic/environmental/humanitarian crusade. If I don’t fulfil my role, civilization as we know it will collapse. (Or, if civilization is a bad thing, then if I don’t fulfil my role, civilization as we know it won’t collapse.) The good I do makes up for the toes I step on.’

·         Resistance 1: ‘You’re all part of the dominant, patriarchal, hegemonic, capitalist, conformist, politically correct, elitist (etc) paradigm.’

·         Resistance 2: ‘There is a worldwide conspiracy that I know about but you don’t. On my shoulders falls the responsibility to act (or the fatalistic reason for inaction) that accompanies my privileged knowledge.’

·         Exigency: ‘There are exigent circumstances due to a stressful personal emergency. Again.’

·         Reciprocity: ‘Everyone else does it, so I have in response. I’m just pre-empting your ultimate betrayal.’

·         Casualty: ‘I’m just an honest person trapped in an immoral system, doing what I need to get by and do my job.’

·         Sneering: ‘Nobody else lives up to my high moral standards, or subscribes to my particular political ideology, so I am justified in my treating them in this way.’

(Unfortunately for my argument, it will perhaps only persuade if it is at least a little offensive. That is, unless the reader feels they themselves flirt with the above excuses when they are setting about doing the wrong thing, they will likely not think that these types of excuses are the problem I contend them to be. If it is any consolation, since I fashioned the list, the reader is entitled to presume they are at least somewhat a recognizable part of my own moral psychology.)

The point here is that when we encounter someone being mean, callous, power-hungry, destructive, self-aggrandizing, insensitive and dominating it is probably not the case that they have decided, ‘God is dead; anything is permitted,’ nor even, ‘Kant is dead; everything is relative’. They have no dispute whatsoever with the moral law in general, they just have located a convenient reason to set it to one side in this case. 

And in the next case as well, usually.

Note two points, (a) I think all of these excuses are in some sense workable. That is, I can imagine being in a situation where one or other of these excuses applied, and it really did constitute a reason for behaving what (in less extraordinary situations) would be shoddy or downright wrong.

(b) None of the excuses are strictly selfish. That is, none of them imply that one’s selfish desires are entitled to trump moral considerations. To the contrary, the excuses are positively dripping with moral unction. What makes them selfish is that they are (I posit) believed in order to excuse selfish and uncivil behaviour; they are the moral patina in which we clothe our vices, jealousies and asocial tendencies.

Now it is true, to be sure, that moral philosophies in principle have the resources to deal with these excuses. Indeed, the very nub of Kant’s moral system and his Categorical Imperative is, roughly speaking, not to make a special rule in your own case. And (for another example) Bernard Gert’s Common Morality only allows exceptions to rules to be made when the practice of the exception for the reason given in the particular case could be publically accepted – and I take it most of the excuses above would fail this test in the situations they are invoked.


More often than not, moral philosophies do not in fact speak to these types of rule-breakers. They envisage the signature problem as being naked self-interest, and morality as the cure. But in the foregoing excuses, it is precisely morality that is the problem, precisely morality that is the weapon wielded against human decency. So too, philosophy is as likely to fuel as to prohibit these excuses. Moral philosophy has always been a breeding ground for radical political ideologies and ‘speaking truth to power’.  And since Socrates stumbled out of Plato’s cave, philosophy has distinguished the behaviour of those-who-know-the-inner-truth from the dupes seduced by appearances. It has more than a little in common with conspiracy theory.

Ultimately, if what I have said here is right, the key moral problem facing us a lot of the time is not egoism, but exceptionalism – a belief in a profound personal specialness that justifies – morally justifies – the waiver of the rules. And it’s a problem for applied ethics because any person could enthusiastically nod their heads in agreement throughout any number of moral philosophy and applied ethics courses and books without ever having to confront the central reasons they behave badly.

None of this, of course, is to impugn moral philosophy as a practice, pursuit, study, reflection or profession (which would put me out of a job, after all). But if the reader thinks there is at least something to what I have speculated here, then it should give us pause in thinking that the best way to run courses in applied and professional ethics (such as are increasingly incorporated into science, law, medical and other degrees, for instance) is to introduce students to moral philosophy. For in doing so we may not be answering the questions that need confronting. 

The danger is not, or not only, the rational egoist. 

It is the self-righteous exceptionalist.

1 comment:

William Ferguson said...

I don't know Hugh .. I think I take exception to all that.