All Ethics Roads Lead To Ours?

In the latest Philosophical Investigations, Olli Lagerspetz reviews James Sterba’s The Triumph of Practice over Theory in Ethics.  Lagerspetz summarizes the book’s thoughtful premise: 

There is, I think, some reason for suspicion of the dexterity with which ethical theorists often find rational reasons for conclusions that we would favour anyway on intuitive grounds. The official idea is that theoretical thinking helps us make ethically correct decisions by way of deductive reasoning from a general theory of morality. However, in practice, it seems that the process rather goes in the opposite direction. Certain answers are implicitly treated as foregone conclusions, and philosophers, on the contrary, vindicate their own theories by showing that the expected answers can be derived from them.

Despite seemingly vast differences of principle between leading ethical theories of today’s academia – various professedly Kantian, utilitarian and Aristotelian approaches – their proponents show only a marginal disagreement over matters of substance. Their largely converging practical recommendations reflect the general sensibilities of their own age rather than views actually held by Kant, Mill, or Aristotle. Today, there are no Aristotelian advocates of slavery and no Kantian opponents of female higher education.

People often argue that disagreements about ethics suggest there is no ethical truth.  But in some ways this lack of disagreement can seem just as suspicious.   

Added: If our specific moral beliefs are better than those of Kant, Mill, or Aristotle, what exactly caused that improvement, if not better abstract ethical theory? 

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  • Stuart Armstrong

    I agree with James Sterba entirely. After all, what causes us to choose an ethical system to advocate in the first place, apart from the ethical values we’ve integrated from our society?

    Today, there are no Aristotelian advocates of slavery and no Kantian opponents of female higher education.
    And these beliefs were biased by their own societies…

    The interesting question that springs out of this is: given that all ethical systems are biased by their enviroment, can we still say that some ethical systems are superior to others?

  • Matthew C

    Yet more evidence for the “Rationalizing animal” hypothesis. . .

  • http://profile.typekey.com/mpianalto/ Matthew Pianalto

    I wonder what the “triumph” of practice over theory is, if our basic moral views are prior to our moral theories. As someone who works in ethics, what Lagerspetz reports is not surprising – that “theory” gets adopted to the extent it can back up our previously held moral views also raises a question about Kantian and utilitarian theories themselves: just how flexible are they? Do normative theories do any work? (Or are they simply a way to gloss our moral convictions in fancy dress?)

    can we still say that some ethical systems are superior to others?
    I, for one, think the answer to Stuart’s question is yes. I may be expressing a bias here, but it seems that “ethical systems” which further extend notions of “fair treatment” or “equal consideration” more consistently (say, by not excluding members of a particular race or sex from considerations altogether, or by allowing or encouraging pretty obviously harassing behavior) can be said to be “superior” – I would prefer the term “better” or “more sensible.” At least, one seems to be doing better – morally – if one is receptive to reasons and criticism, and acknowledges that moral decisions are always going to be subject to questioning and critique. (This is sometimes called the “essential contestability” of moral claims.)

    Really, I’m not hopeful that an “ethical system” like Kantianism or utilitarianism is going to solve our moral problems: at best, they provide us ways of thinking about our moral problems (perspectives we can take in order to get away from our own, potentially biased and merely self-interested perspective).

  • David J. Balan

    Modern liberal morality, broadly understood, is not something that we already had and then came up with a bunch of post-hoc justifications for. We used to not have it, and very recently. And we got it largely as a product of self-conscious, intentional philosophizing. So the fact that most decent moral philosophizing leads to something like liberal morality is neither a coincidence nor a sign of bias; it’s a sign of progress.

  • http://profile.typekey.com/robinhanson/ Robin Hanson

    David, I’d like to know a lot more about this “self-conscious, intentional philosophizing.” Who did it, what exactly did they do, and how did it tell us about moral truth?

  • http://profile.typekey.com/mpianalto/ Matthew Pianalto

    Robin, the answer to your added question – as I suggested in the comment above – involves reference to the idea that we have extended the scope of our moral concern: to women, to minorities, to animals. Some, like Kant, will argue that this extension of moral consideration is nothing more than the rational (and consistent) application that I am not to treat others merely as means to my own ends, because doing so implies that I determine the worth of their lives. (Granted, Kant’s view itself does not easily extend to animals, since Kant thought that being rational was the basis of attributing instrinsic value to a being; of course, this means Kant’s theory may also have difficulties dealing with “childrean and idiots.”)

    Others, like Hume or Adam Smith (and more recently, Martha Nussbaum), would claim that giving equal moral consideration involves extending the reach of sympathy – acknowledging, for example, that others besides members of my “in-group” have experiences, can suffer, or are concerned about their lives and how they are treated by others. Learning to “identify” to some extent with others enables us (psychologically) to countenance them in our moral decision-making.

  • http://profile.typekey.com/robinhanson/ Robin Hanson

    Matthew, are you saying that we learned that more creatures than Kant, Mill, or Aristotle thought are truly worthy of moral concern? If so, what could have been the evidence for drawing this new moral conclusion?

  • http://profile.typekey.com/mpianalto/ Matthew Pianalto

    Well, if you read Mill, you’ll see that much of our “liberal morality” was laid out by Mill, but I see that what you’re really asking is whether we should speak here of learning what is true.

    I don’t know that I would want to speak of learning here; at least, we don’t learn that minorities deserve equal moral consideration in the way that we larn that water is comprise of hydrogen and oxygen. My quick response is that in such cases we “learn” that the kinds of reasons we might give for giving some people (say, our “in-group”) moral consideration apply equally well to others (the “out-group”), OR that the reasons for giving the prior group preference do not stand up to criticism. (“What IS the relevance of skin tone to the right to vote?”)

    Am I saying that, e.g., Aristotle and Kant had simply misapplied their own theories? Not really. Honestly, I don’t know what Aristotle thought about slavery, but it might be that he simply ignored the issue (didn’t think about it). I tend to think that this is a fruitful way to open up a moral discussion: “Are you simply ignoring a problem?” In my dissertation (in progress), I spend a great deal of time looking at the sexual harassment case Jensen v. Eleveth Mines (which is the basis of the recent film North Country), and discuss the extent to which those who worked in this mine may be reasonably criticized for refusing to acknowledge that there was a sexual harassment problem in the mines.

    Supposing these defiant mine managers eventually admit that there was a problem, what did they learn? Did they learn that the women were suffering? No, because that was the basis of the complaints. If anything, they acknowledged that suffering, and that there was no defensible justification for the (mis)treatment suffered by the women working in the mines.

    Of course, to employ this notion of “acknowledgement” seems to assume, or imply, that there are “objective” values, or that there are morally relevant facts “out there” to be acknowledged. The “problem” with morality – i.e. the nature of the beast – is that we can’t simply “step out” of our moral frameworks in order to assess our moral situation (including our moral beliefs) – we are always “working from within” a normative framework: values, even the minimal values of seeking truth, avoiding bias, maintaining consistency, are always at work. And so there is likely little distinction between learning something new about morality and acknowledging what our own values commit us to (if we are thinking fairly and consistently).

  • http://yootles.com Daniel Reeves

    Recommended related reading: An essay by hacker Paul Graham on “What You Can’t Say”:
    http://www.paulgraham.com/say.html
    (from his book, Hackers and Painters)

    First 2 paragraphs:

    Have you ever seen an old photo of yourself and been embarrassed at the way you looked? Did we actually dress like that? We did. And we had no idea how silly we looked. It’s the nature of fashion to be invisible, in the same way the movement of the earth is invisible to all of us riding on it.

    What scares me is that there are moral fashions too. They’re just as arbitrary, and just as invisible to most people. But they’re much more dangerous. Fashion is mistaken for good design; moral fashion is mistaken for good. Dressing oddly gets you laughed at. Violating moral fashions can get you fired, ostracized, imprisoned, or even killed.

  • TGGP

    How do we know our moral beliefs are “better” than those of Kant, Mill and Aristotle? Because they are ours and theirs are theirs. I am sure they would find our beliefs silly if we could explain ours to them. I do not know of any moral facts they did not know and could be made aware of that would cause them to agree with us.

  • http://profile.typekey.com/hollerith/ Richard Hollerith

    I second the recommendation of What You Can’t Say

  • michael vassar

    With respect to Mill, and to most of us modern ethically concerned rationalists, our specific moral beliefs seem to be those of Mill to a fairly close approximation.

    With respect to Aristotle and Kant, Aristotle’s ethical beliefs were explicitly non-universalistic and embedded in a particular society, and had more to do with answering a question that we would understand as “how to be admired” than one we would understand as “how to be good”. Kant’s were explicitly an attempt to justify a set of conclusions that he saw as already being determined, e.g. the morality of the rational strains of Christianity in his day. Neither of them were trying to answer the question that Mill was.

  • http://profile.typekey.com/robinhanson/ Robin Hanson

    Daniel and Richard, I love almost everything Paul Graham writes.

  • Nick Tarleton

    TGGP, why have call moral beliefs ‘beliefs’ rather than ‘preferences’ at all if there is absolutely zero basis for comparison?

  • Rue Des Quatre Vents

    The engine of moral change is technology. Yes, the first telegraph produced Florence Nightengale. The television gives us Peter Singer. If our moral beliefs have improved over those of Kant, Mill or Aristotle, then it’s not because we think better, but because we saw people suffering on the tele.

    I fear psychopaths and academic moral philosophers. Everyone else gets along just fine.

  • TGGP

    Nick, don’t blame me for terminology. To emotivists like myself they are basically preferences.

  • Rue Des Quatre Vents

    Moral philosophers are seismographs. Priests, peers, profit, novelists, comedians, and movie stars are earthquakes.

  • Stuart Armstrong

    but it seems that “ethical systems” which further extend notions of “fair treatment” or “equal consideration” more consistently (say, by not excluding members of a particular race or sex from considerations altogether, or by allowing or encouraging pretty obviously harassing behavior) can be said to be “superior”

    According to my/our values, yes. And any system that claims, say “jews are genetically inferior” is wrong, factually wrong. But what about “all jews should be treated as inferior beings”? Why is this less theoretically valid than “fair treatment is good”?

    You can argue that people who follow “fair treatment is good” tend to follow it because they believe in it, while people who follow “all jews should be treated as inferior beings” do so for other reasons (for ex, because they believe jews to be inferior/evil, etc…)

    But those two criteria (no wrong facts, and consistency on the part of your believers) seem awfully feeble tools for judging ethical systems. Is there any other way in which “fair treatment is good” can be defended? How is it better than, say, Nietzschean ethics?

  • http://profile.typekey.com/mpianalto/ Matthew Pianalto

    Stuart, yes, consistency alone is “feeble” and not just in the case of morality. If I deny particular (inductive) scientific claims, then I can consistently believe that God created the world in seven days and that the human race began with Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden.

    If someone were to put forth the claim, “all Jews should be treated as inferior beings,” it seems that – if we want to talk to such a person at all – we should ask, “Why could you possibly accept such a claim? Should we treat them this way because they ARE inferior?” Suppose – to avoid the “no wrong facts” criterion – this person says, “No, I’m just saying that’s how we should treat them.” (I assume this is the direction you were headed.) Here, shouldn’t we simply ask again, “And why do you think that?” When we ask this second time, we are NOT asking for evidence of inferiority, so then what are we asking? We could have, equally perhaps, said, “I suppose that means you think that differences in the way we treat people do not need to be supported by, or motivated by, differences in the people themselves.”

    Surely our anti-Semite could deny this: “Life isn’t fair. Why should I be fair?” What can we say in response? We might ask, “Well, what exactly is the alternative?”

    “Doing what I prefer to do.”

    “But what, in this case, makes your preferences special? Or at any rate, how is this not on par with simply acting arbitrarily?”

    “It’s not arbitrary because this is how I choose to live. This is my ‘bedrock.'”

    “Well, I just don’t see how one could stake their moral conviction on such a claim without having SOMETHING besides mere preference to say in favor of it.”

    Yes, this imagined conversation involves (on the part of the anti-anti-Semite) a substantive presumption in favor of a “fairness principle.” You might ask, “Well, why is the burden of proof on the anti-Semite rather than the other person?” I.e. what is there to say in favor fairness itself (to address your final question)?

    I suppose one might appeal to something like John Rawls’ “veil of ignorance” where we attempt to select some basic moral (or political) principles without knowing what our social position in the society where these principles will be implemented: not knowing our position makes it impossible for us to go in for principles that would allow for preferential treatment of our own interests, which, of course, we would like. But barring a way to give preference for ourselves, it seems that at least we would like for the rules to be fair – that whomever I turn out to be in this society, my interests get fair consideration.

  • TGGP

    The entities behind Rawls “veil of ignorance” are not people. They are “free-floating wraiths or disembodied somnambulists“. Such things do not actually exist, so we cannot know how they would make decisions. Who we are is part of how we think and our ideals that we project on imaginary beings are still going to reflect on our own preferences and beliefs.