Book Club: Practical Philosophy — 2 — Practical ethics

“Practical ethics is a branch of moral philosophy involving the systematic use of philosophical thinking to identify and resolve questions of values and conduct as these arise in the various departments of human life.”

So begins the first section, after the introduction that we have discussed last time, of John Haldane’s Practical Philosophy: Ethics, Society and Culture. Having dispatched, fairly convincingly, of David Hume’s famous “is/ought” problem, and having reassured us, a bit less convincingly, of the reality of human agency, Haldane is now ready to move on to different types of ethical inquiry in practical philosophy.

The first important distinction he makes in this section of the book is that between psychological and philosophical aspects of moral questions. There is plenty of room for empirical research on what motivates people, for instance, to act in certain ways. And such research is the province of the disciplines of psychology, sociology, and history. But such disciplines are not well equipped to answer more fundamental questions, regarding whether a particular action or thing is good or bad, and more broadly what constitutes good or bad in the first place.

Helpfully, I think, Haldane distinguishes among what he calls different “floors” of ethical investigation. His classification looks something like this:

Ground floor: concerned with basic questions of values, like is friendship good? Is honesty always the best policy? Is human life inviolable? Is justice more important than liberty? Is it okay to impose suffering on animals?

First floor: concerned with justification of moral judgments, along the lines of: if imposing suffering on animals is wrong, why is it wrong? More broadly: what makes some things good or bad?

Second floor: concerned with meta-ethical theorizing, that is the choice among different frameworks for thinking about ethics (e.g., deontology, utilitarianism, virtue ethics), as well as what is the nature of moral judgments themselves (e.g., realism, emotivism, etc.).

One way to think about this scheme is that ground floor questions are the ones we often debate in public or private; first floor questions assume a particular ethical framework within which to debate, and second floor analysis is concerned with which ethical framework one should use and why. Moving from ground to first to second floor one moves from immediate to increasingly abstract questions.

Most people — say, outside of professional moral philosophers — are only interested in ground floor questions. But they don’t realize that those are predicated on first floor analysis, which in turn depends on second floor issues.

Let’s consider an example, from one of the above mentioned questions: is honesty always the best policy? In other words, are there situations where lying or deceiving people is ethically admissible? This is a “ground floor” question, and I assume pretty much everyone will have an answer. But what is that answer based on? It depends on your first floor-level ethical framework. 

For instance, I espouse virtue ethics, which is focused on improving an individual’s character. Therefore I think that honesty is almost always the best option, not only for the other person, but for myself. Being dishonest all the time, or even frequently, undermines my own character. It’s bad for me. However, I also recognize that sometimes the virtuous thing to do is to deceive people. When my grandmother was near the end of her life, I made a point of not getting into discussions of the afterlife, because I knew that my take (there ain’t none) would upset her. Why do that, since she had nothing to gain from it? So I guess my answer to the question “is honesty always the best policy?” is: it depends, but mostly yes.

Of course, that’s not the end of the story. One could reasonably ask me why I prefer virtue ethics to deontology, or utilitarianism, or communitarianism, or ethics of care, or a number of other options on the table. I have thought about it quite a bit, and I have come up with what I think are reasonable arguments. For instance, it seems to me that deontological systems are too rigid, while utilitarianism is impractical (how do we estimate the long term consequences of our actions, and how do we calculate the greatest good for the most people?). Virtue ethics has the advantage of being flexible and yet characterized by clear objectives, and — as a bonus — it encourages people to be less judgmental of others (because the focus is on improving oneself, not on assessing the morality of other people’s actions).

Then again, of course someone — say a utilitarian — could argue with me on the second floor level. And even a fellow virtue ethicist could disagree with my first floor analysis. Which in turn means that we would of course disagree on the ground level response.

None of this is to say that ethics is subjective, or that the only tenable position is ethical relativism. It is just to acknowledge that there is plenty (but not infinite!) room for reasonable disagreement on all three floors, and that disagreements at the second level reverberate all the way down to the ground. That is one reason why it would be helpful if more people, at least from time to time, engaged in some degree of meta-ethical self-reflection.

Unfortunately, not only most people don’t seem inclined toward meta-ethical reflection, when challenged they appear to unreflectively assume the worst answer on the market, which was debunked by Plato 24 centuries ago, and which Haldane briefly considers and rightly dismisses: God.

One of the most delightful and philosophically profound Platonic dialogues is the Euthyphro, where Socrates converses with the title character about “piety,” meaning knowledge of the right thing to do, ethically speaking. Socrates asks Euthyphro, who is cocksure of the righteousness of his judgments, how does he know that he is right.

Euthyphro says that what is right is what the gods love (and adds that of course he knows what the Gods think!). But Socrates points out that this means that righteousness is entirely arbitrary, a question of might makes right.

Euthyphro then backtracks and goes for the other horn of the dilemma that ever since bears his name: the gods love what is right because it is right. Ah, says Socrates, but that means that there is an external source of morality, independent of the gods, and which we could, in theory, be able to access without, shall we say, the need for a middle-god.

At this point Euthyphro doesn’t know where to go next. So Socrates says: “Then we must begin again and ask, what is piety? That is an enquiry which I shall never be weary of pursuing as far as in me lies; and I entreat you not to scorn me, but to apply your mind to the utmost, and tell me the truth. For, if any man knows, you are he; and therefore I must detain you, like Proteus, until you tell.” (Notice the Socratic sarcasm…)

But Euthyphro beats the most hasty retreat in the history of philosophy: “Another time, Socrates; for I am in a hurry, and must go now.”

Plenty of theologians have attempted to get out of Euthyphro’s dilemma, but have failed. The most common strategy is to claim that it is in the nature of God to be good. But this line of reasoning still gets impaled by the second horn of the dilemma: in order to agree that God’s nature is good we need some sort of independent standard of evaluation. Lacking that, we fall back on the first horn.

I truly think that if more people were familiar with Euthyphro’s dilemma the world would see less religious hatred and violence.

The question, however, still remains: what do we appeal to in order to arrive at objective ethical judgments? Here the only viable answer, I think — and Haldane agrees with me — is the sort of naturalistic ethics first articulated by Aristotle and the Stoics and nowadays endorsed by people like Philippa Foot and Alasdair MacIntyre.

The idea is that what is ethical is what helps human beings to live and flourish, and what is unethical is whatever gets in the way of those goals. That’s because those are the natural goals intrinsic in the very nature of humanity as a biological species.

Just like light, water, and minerals are good for a plant, because those are the ingredients of a good vegetable life, so community, friendship, love, and reason are the ingredients of a good human life. Of course, there is more than reasonable one way to cash out this type of naturalistic ethics, which is why there are different schools of thought that espouse it (Aristotelianism, Epicureanism, Stoicism, Confucianism, Daoism, and so forth). 

This multiplicity of acceptable answers to the question of what constitutes a good human life explains why there are several options available on the second floor of Haldane’s classification. But it also makes clear why not all options are viable. Fascism, say, is a bad philosophy of life. Objectively so, because it undermines human flourishing, regardless of how many people seem to think otherwise. I would argue the same about Ayn Rand-style Objectivism, though for different reasons.

One more important thing to note here: objective ethics doesn’t mean universal ethics, though the two concepts are often confused. What is objectively good for a plant, say, is not objectively good for an amoeba. Analogously, certain things about human nature (e.g., our high degree of sociality) are objective facts, from which certain ethical consequences logically follow (e.g., cooperative social life is better than constant antagonism and a state of permanent war). But that’s only because we are talking about Homo sapiens. If we were instead talking about other species on earth, or about Martians, things might be different. It depends on their nature and what counts as flourishing for them.

(Next time: family and why they matters)

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