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Complexity in Ethics

1. Epistemological Issues

Epistemological Ethics

I’m trying to work up an ethics based in an epistemology that takes account of (1) the need for openness to new ideas and (2) a Socratic admission of ignorance. I think there’s a way to derive this from Nietzsche’s idea of responsibility as it appears in Genealogy of Morals, and also from some hints in Davidson to the effect that, in encountering others, we must use the principle of generosity in interpreting their utterances.I’ve recently begun looking at “virtue epistomologies,” which I think are on the same basic track (and that would be in keeping with a reading of Nietzsche as a virtue ethicist). The notion of “responsibilism” as it’s been put forward by American virtue epistemologists seems apposite here.

I’d note that the Nietzschean notion of responsibility includes something like responding to others, rather than acting upon them or reacting to them (in the sense that those terms are indicative of the brute form of master morality and standard slave morality.) Combining this with the idea of a responsibilism as it occurs in, for example, Lorraine Code, would produce a richer sense of responsibility.

For Code, responsibility implies an active role for the knower. Code notes that responsibility implies a duty to other knowers in assessing their positions, and thus makes our forms of knowledge not only true or false, but also right or wrong, in the sense of praiseworthy or blameworthy. I think Nietzsche would concur, and both agree on the extreme complexity of knowing which prohibits a simple epistemic theory from governing all knowings. I think Davidson would agree, following on Tarski’s suggestion that there is no one single criterion of truth, and further, that there’s a moral quality to epistemology in that our ethics have to govern our claims to knowing.

I’ll try to sketch this out in more detail, but some key points:

Responsibility would add to reliability of method; we cannot guarantee the reliability of our knowings, and no method is universally reliable. Responsibilism accepts this, and takes responsibility for its claims, while admitting that they are fallible.

Responsibility means responding to the other’s position; not merely reiterating methodological claims, but carefully evaluating competing claims and their methodological means.

Otherness cannot be assumed to be unknowable or purely alien. I think Davidson’s argument in “On The Very Idea of a Conceptual Scheme” lends itself to this position. It respects the other, and assumes that he/she makes sense, and that there must be common ground insofar as the form of life needed for making knowledge claims must be at least partially shared. We cannot say what a language that is completely untranslatable would look like, but it is hard to imagine that it would actually be a language, a means of communication, because if it were it would have to share such concepts as “language” and “communication,” which would mean that it would have translatable terms and concepts. So “radical otherness” not only doesn’t make sense, it’s also somewhat patronizing and irresponsible: it exoticizes the other, and assumes that the other is not saying anything comprehensible. It’s notable, though, that for Davidson, as for Wittgenstein and any non-foundationalist, while we can assume that something is shared, virtually any single element can fail to be shared; it’s simply that not everything can fail to be shared at the same time, and a great deal must be shared just by virtue of the commonality of there being a linguistic system (and all that that implies) at all.

2. Ethics as Mathematics, Ethics as Engineering.

(The purity of the ought, the complexity of the mean)

A common trait in academic ethics and politics is “purism,” or the tendency to reduce everything to a single principle. This has also been called the “pyramid” model, wherein we build up from a firm base, such as “act as though the maxim of my will were universal,” or “free markets guarantee all freedoms” or etc. Purism, then, would be indicated by a system that found absolute answers to all questions by submitting them to the pure doctrine. For example, in utilitarianism, we always know what to do if we can just figure out what will produce the greatest good for the greatest number.

In contradistinction to this are those ethics and politics that are impure, that tinker with this and that, and that don’t worry about absolutely fidelity to an idea, or even absolute cohesion of principles. Something like a pragmatic ethics would work this way, and Aristotle’s virtue ethics, which seeks a “mean” but which understands that there is no simple principle for the mean, and that greater experience helps us, but does not guarantee, that we will find the mean.

In some ways, this is like the distinction between pure mathematics and engineering. In pure mathematics there is, at least in principle, a right answer at all times (at least in certain areas). In engineering, instead, we may use the math to get a good guess at the right answer, but then we usually have to go in and make slight adjustments. Working on a car, for example, is not a process of simply doing what the manual says; rather, it’s following the manual and then altering our movements and adjustments as we see what kind of output we get.

In ethics, perhaps the purest of the purists was Kant. So pure is he in his doctrine that he demands we tell a murderer the location of his or her victim, lest we violate the principle “do not lie.” In some ways, it seems that Kant simply cannot accept the complexity of the situation, and reverts, autistically, to an absolute even when the fuzziness of the world demands that we modify our choices.

Aristotle (who is not entirely free from purism himself) hold, rather, that the mean that we aim at in each situation is hard to find, and this is in part because there is not one single principle of action that guides us, but rather conflicting principles. We should not be cowardly, but we should not be rash. And while being concerned about our bravery, we must also be concerned about our kindness, though not so that we are too kind as to over-indulge, but not with so little kindness that we are cruel.

Indeed, the right action in any given situation is not something that is expressible in the spoken part of ethics. Thus, Aristotle’s distinction between the intellectual virtues (those we are taught and that we learn in words) and the moral virtues (those we acquire by practice and habit.) THis distinction is deeply un-Kantian: for Kant, to fully know the right is all that is needed. For Aristotle, fully knowing the right is in and of itself worthless. We must have developed the character, through practicing in the muddy and multi-faceted world of situations and events, in order to be good.

This is most obvious in the problem of the conflict of obligations (Bernard Williams –Morality: The Peculiar Institution). In a purist (or perhaps we could call them ‘monist’ ethics) there is no possibility of a conflict of obligations, because some one obligation will override. It’s possible that we could, due to the limits of our knowledge, be in conflict, but perfect knowledge would reveal the one right action. For example, if I had an obligation to a friend, but then saw a stranger being beaten in the street, I would be morally obliged to help the stranger, even if it meant missing my appointment with my friend. As a utilitarian, I would merely ask which produces the greatest happiness: clearly, my lateness for my appt. with my friend produces less unhappiness than my lack of assistance in the beating, so etc.

However, in a more complex ethics, and “engineering” ethics, we can accept that there are, in fact, conflicting obligations, real moral conflicts. When Antigone goes to bury her brother, she breaks the law. When Iphigenia does not go to bury her brother, she violates a familial duty. Neither of them can be said to be in the right! In fact, that’s the point of the story. It’s a no win situation. What’s accepted here is the inherent complexity of ethical situations.
Some ethics hold that it is the case that there is a correct answer to any ethical question, an ethically correct decision in any situation. An ethics of complexity might accept that there is not a single correct answer. Just as there are many ways to get the engine working again in a broken down car, some of which will cause wear on the cylinder, some of which will burn excess oil, etc, and there may be no best answer, sometimes there’s no ethically best answer. As another analogy, consider medicine: I can give someone antibiotics, but that will cause stomach distress. I can treat that with, say, Pepcid, at the cost of quality of food absorption. If I’m treating a cancer patient with these drugs, I can never be sure which symptom to treat and which to exacerbate. The complexities of medicine sometimes eliminate the possibility of a single correct answer.

Ethically, we are usually in an engineering situation. For the purist, there’s always a way to remain blameless: indeed, blame is at the center of many purist ideas of ethics. For the complex ethics, such as a virtue theory, there may be no way to remain fully blameless. If the purist sees his friend after missing the appointment, he need feel no guilt: he did what was right. The complex theorist might still feel remorse or guilt, even knowing he made a good choice. He can blame himself if the relationship sours as a result, he can blame fate, but he can still feel that something went wrong, and not feel fully justified.