Monday, July 16, 2007

Ethics in the vacuum?

In his post "cooked up thought experiments and the viciousness of ethics" Matt Brown throws doubts one the usefulness of "schematic" examples or "intuition pumps" of the sort which are popular in many articles on analytic philosophy. He thinks this method is not only useless, but may even have pernicious consequences on the moral sensibility and capacities of the people who practice it.

I am quite sympathetic to the points he makes.

Something in the replies he received strikes me as displaying a lack of sensibility for the points Matt Brown lays forward. In a way, they are enlightening in that they reveal the nature of the problem with which you are dealing. Evan, for example, uses an analogy between physics and morality. This analogy appears less explicitly in many other posts, in that it clearly undergrounds the metaphors which govern ethical thinking in professional analytic philosophy. In particular I refer to the metaphor of values regarded as forces, and the idea that a moral problem has the same "shape" of a first-year problem in Newtonian mechanics. (The idea behind this being that, if we are able to discover the "fundamental laws" of moral reality, the "real mess" that we find out there becomes more manageable.) No doubt this is a powerful metaphor because of its connection to mechanics and engineering, one that is best expressed in the utilitiarian sensibility, and that fits utilitarians preoccupations with "social engineering".

But why should ethics be, even remotely, like physics? It is only the professional teacher of ethics who thinks that it can be useful to understand "ethical laws in the vacuum", as we may call them. Worse than that, it is only and exclusively the philosophers who recognize themselves in the school (scholastic?) of analytic philosophy.

Now there are already some good reasons to doubt that "ethics in the vacuum" is a good methodology, given that it is not even so popular among philosophers. What explains the success of this methodology or style is, I believe, only the irresistible instinct to mock natural science, especially physics. There might be at least three reasons for this. One is that since Descartes we cannot resist the appeal of mocking the methodology of the most successful intellectual activity of our time, and this is widely regarded to be science today. (but is science that good? Many philosophers, especially in Europe, doubt this.) The other might simply be the sociological fact that (I have heard) many people in the U.S. enter philosophy with a background in natural science. Notice that in Europe philosophy is usually regarded to be more connected with literature, and as a matter of fact European or "continental" philosophers regards such "illustrations" as relatively unimportant or even stupid. The last one might be simply the status that science has in U.S. culture, especially in its connection to the idea of technology, which is connected to the idea of money and of power. (American culture is also known for its "anti-intellectualism", a sort of insufferance for the "culture" of the traditional intellectual which cannot prove their utility - and the utility of the knowledge they represent - in practice.)
I believe that if we try to look for a justification, rather than a mere explanation, of why the methodology of "ethics in the vacuum" is so popular, it is difficult to find one. There is clearly no obvious analogy between ethics and physics, as Matt rightly points out. There is clearly no proof that the attempt to connect concrete moral problems to "morality in the vacuum" leads us to be better people.

As Matt points out, this leaves us with another disanalogy between ethics and science. While engineers are infinitely more able to bend the forces of nature to their own will than layman are, it is reasonable to doubt that something similar applies to the sort of "moral knowledge" that philosophers ought to possess. And this is an excruciating problem given that ethics is sometimes called "practical philosophy".

Beside that, this way of doing philosophy is undermined at the epistemological level by theories such as Dancy's particularism, with which the reader of this kind of blogs must be familiar. If Dancy is right, the method based on intuitions pump is flawed, in that there is no guarantee that the "general" principle we use to solve the intuition pump problem will carry to any other problem which differs to the other in some features. Moreover, if we see the matter as particularist do, we must think that the crucial exercise of moral sensibility is the one which consists in sorting out the morally relevant features of a situation. If this is true, the morally relevant and interesting activity takes place when we define an example , by cutting up reality in such a way that we decide what is relevant and what is not in that situation, rather than we propose a solution for it.

I am also stricken by d0031's definition of what ethics is about. He talks about people's beliefs about what is permissible, impermissible, and required. This is a characterization of the subject-matter that clearly virtue-ethicists would reject. Moreover, do you really find it that this is what people look for when they look for ethical guidance? My real-life experience is that the opposite is true. What may sustain the opposite belies is, I guess, the fact that ethical problems and the need for ethical guidance appear in contemporary discourse especially in connection to public issues raised by bioethics and other current political issues. It is in the nature of things that such problems are best dealt with something like a deontological code or with a group of laws. But clearly this is far from showing that ordinary people's knowledge and reflection that is relevant to ethics (such as for example the knowledge they require when they find themselves in cases like the boat example) is centered on the notion of obligation or requirement.

However, it is very difficult to rebel against this entrenched tendency. One of the reasons for this is that good philosophy is, in a very deep sense, good literature, and that "intuitions pump" and "ethics in the vacuum" are in so many ways simply received stylistic features that mark good moral philosophical literature of analytic stile. It is difficult to do away with features that make literature simple, elegant and pleasurable to read without having any clear alternative in mind.

If the success of philosophy in the vacuum is in very deep sense a matter of received canons of style, rebellion against this must work kind of differently from they way theories are improved in times of "normal science". For example, people who do not like that style should try to unite themselves and fight together, should try to get into power, and promote the people who think in similar ways. So this is my suggestion: find other people who share your dissatisfaction with this sort of academic philosophy and try to make some real change. I may join your camp.


Matt Brown said...

Thank you for your kind words. I like a lot of what you're saying here.

In fairness to my opponents, I believe that they would insist that we must appeal to some evidence to justify ethical theories, or to answer ethical problems, and since there are, unlike in science, no experiments or observations that can answer these questions for us, we can only look to our basic judgments on ethical cases. I think you're right, that this source of evidence is faulty, and that there are other sources, but one can't fault them for seeking evidence.

Second, I'm not sure that I would want to distance ethics from science completely, but I'd want to expand the notion of science away from value-neutral positivist towards a value-laden, creative problem-solving activity. John Dewey thought that we needed to make morals more scientific or more intelligent, but that we also needed to make science and intelligence more moral.

Michele said...

I think I agree with you along all the line. I am also influenced, if not by Dewey directly, by what Putnam says about Dewey and what he takes from him. To be more constructive, let me tell you what my insight is: like virtue- ethicists, I believe that the idea of finding universal rules or principles (prescriptions) does not work. But I do believe that we can work out a theory of certain sort. This theory of a certain sort must be thought like a guide to deliberation. The problem with universal rules and principles is that they attempt to do too much. But we can have something less, something more realistic. For example, moral theory can tell us if it makes sense to think about ethics (our way of being in the world and in relation to others) in terms of flourishing, of human development, or in terms of duties, or in terms of promotions of valuable states of affairs. I tend to believe that ethical reflection can show that the first model is a better guide to practical judgment. I also believe that some forms of practical judgments about the virtues and their connections to flourishing are better than others - that is to say - they provide a better way of framing problems.
practical philosophy, I shall say, ought be in large part a discussion about how to frame moral reflection. This is still moral theory, and some evidence can be found for it - especially, first-person experience of philosophers that should to try to apply methods of deliberations in their own life.