Answers to Some Questions
BobbyC asks me some questions about ethics and political theory. I answer below the fold.
1 – can you actually use moral rules and utilitarian calculation to make decisions? Do you? Or do you have the answer, and then seek to construct such arguments by way of explanation?
I think moral rules can very often be used. Utilitarian calculation is much harder, and I only rarely find it useful. The act of summing utilities and disutilities demands all kinds of knowledge that we just don’t have, and there is good reason to believe that people’s self-reports on these matters are neither stable over time nor accurate in the moment. I often suspect that utilitarians only say that they are doing moral calculus, when really they are doing something else, possibly something that by their own standards would be less respectable—like relying on habit or disposition.
I, of course, am perfectly fine with relying on habit or disposition. As I said in the original post, I am strongly inclined toward virtue ethics, and that’s just what virtue ethics asks us to do (while all the while paying attention to the cultivation of our own character, so we have better and better dispositions to rely upon in the future).
Do I sort of “know” the answer and then seek to construct an argument that fits it? Sometimes, yes. I think it’s best to be frank about this, because we all do it from time to time. Undeniably. And that’s even before we get into the psychological research suggesting that a great deal or maybe even all of our justification takes place after the fact.
This is a problem in any type of ethical system. But it’s less so for virtue ethics, because part of virtue ethics concerns itself with the development of steady traits of character that incline people who have them toward right action:
A virtue such as honesty or generosity is… a character trait—that is, a disposition which is well entrenched in its possessor, something that, as we say “goes all the way down”, unlike a habit such as being a tea-drinker—but the disposition in question, far from being a single track disposition to do honest actions, or even honest actions for certain reasons, is multi-track. It is concerned with many other actions as well, with emotions and emotional reactions, choices, values, desires, perceptions, attitudes, interests, expectations and sensibilities. To possess a virtue is to be a certain sort of person with a certain complex mindset. (Hence the extreme recklessness of attributing a virtue on the basis of a single action.)
Do [ethical rules] explain much to you or do such arguments distance you from understanding your views of right conduct?
I think a lot depends on context. Although I’m drawn toward virtue ethics, I’m also drawn toward deontology. I find both to be plausible. Both yield similar results in many cases, even if they do ascribe different internal states to the ideal person, and even if they do sometimes conflict. Deontology is a lot more oriented toward universal rules, of which it largely consists.
How do I decide which system to favor? Very roughly, my rule is “virtue ethics for self, family, and friends; deontology for acquaintances, strangers, and enemies.”
The reasons for this are many and strong. Virtue ethics has always been about the cultivation of the self, about caring thoughtfully for one’s own spirit and making sure that it reaches its greatest potential. Virtue ethics has also constantly been associated with friendship, and with the idea that in friendship, the spirit has much to learn and teach. Mankind isn’t meant to be alone, but to have friends, and to share with them a passionate attention to the good.
But the reign of virtue in the public sphere is horrifying. The idea of a stranger — or a mob of them — caring for my soul is the very image of a boot stamping on a human face forever. What is needed here is emphatically not a passionate attention to the good; in public, with strangers, the reign of virtue is Terror.
What we need instead is a robust system of basic respect, an ethics that safeguards the individual from the passions of the democratic process, the dangers of modern technology, and the enormous powers of the state. And this is what deontology supplies: the individual is not a means to something greater, not as a clay to be sculpted. One may consent to that kind of treatment, I think, only among close friends. It takes a trust that the public sphere cannot manufacture.
It is almost as if modern philosophy needed deontology — with its highly abstract, formalized principles, and its treatment of individual autonomy as sacrosanct — for dealing with the hundreds of strangers whom we encounter and/or affect through our actions every day. This kind of mass-on-mass intereaction didn’t happen in Aristotle’s time, but it did in Kant’s, and it does in ours. Deontology is too cold for friends, but it’s a salvation against the mob. It makes humans of them.
2 – I like your objection to strict deontology that one may find oneself a “choiceless deontologist” – that’s a powerful objection. But then you embrace an incremental pragmatism, as if this is a sort of prudent band-aid. Isn’t your objection to strict deontology actually devastating to the whole idea that you have useful and reliable rules?
I would say no. Given the necessity of choice and the restrictions on our alternatives, one might want to say that deontology is a flawed idea. But it’s not obvious that this is the case, and I’ve already given the reasons why I don’t think it’s wise to abandon it. Deontology does great work to justify many things that our government gets more or less right, and I certainly don’t want to abandon it in favor of my other ethical foundation. Not for public life.
My choicelessness on the dimension of anarchy versus government might be the result of a defect in my own knowledge, or in that of the society where I live. In such cases, a prudent band-aid isn’t so bad, I don’t think.
3 – Presumably you live at an American std of living. So do I. How do you justify this morally? Do your rules say it is immoral for the single mom to shoplift baby clothes? Do those say it is immoral for you to buy premium scotch and not buy baby clothes for her kids? Do you eat mammals? How do we know we got the good rules again?
These are questions that can’t easily be answered without reference to economics.
One thing I will say is that I do not think it is immoral to buy luxury goods while other people experience a significantly lower standard of living. The trade in luxury goods employs many, many people; should the rich put them out of work? Would that be better?
Answering questions like these requires in every case considering many causes and effects, often reaching out into the imponderable. Charity in particular is an enormous puzzle; much work suggests that what we are doing when we give to charity is really more about our selves and our self-images, and how we wish to depict ourselves to others — and not, strictly speaking, about human welfare. (How dare you give to the arts, when the same amount of money could buy thousands of mosquito nets for Africa? How dare you — this is counterintuitive — how dare you give to more than one charity, when clearly there must be one most-deserving charity, and when smaller donations mean higher processing costs?)
Which is not to say that we don’t give to charity. We certainly do. It’s just to say that we should not view charity as an unproblematic and absolute moral good. I think it very obviously isn’t.
To the deontologists, are you really going to hold onto your rules in the face of reality? If your rules are subject to revision when they come face to face with real life, what good are they (I mean in the way you want them to have force)? You may like your rules; have them to yourselves. Please reconsider whether you really trust them, much less can recommend them without big disclaimers (such as “don’t use these rules when they clearly stop working; you’ll know”).
Rules of deontology tend to be of a type that adjust themselves not through correction — my hypothesis was mistaken — but through re-deployment: my rule remains correct; my error was to think that it applied in this situation, in this manner, when really a consideration also stemming from the same coherent ruleset overrides here, owing to facts I hadn’t previously appreciated. It’s not, in other words, that I come to doubt an idea like “respect the autonomy of others.” It’s more like I will often learn how better to respect the autonomy of others, given considerations about them that I hadn’t appreciated before.
Of course, that might be a cop-out, but it doesn’t seem that way to me.