On Philosophy

August 12, 2007

Ethics As Discovered Through Experiment

Filed under: Ethics — Peter @ 12:00 am

Most modern thinking about ethics involves trying to determine a set of rules or methods with which to judge actions, and people, as good or bad. Ideally, with such a set of rules in hand, we are then to be guided by them, so that all our actions are good, by their standards. But this is not the only way to look at ethics. Once upon a time Aristotle said that the ethical thing to do was whatever someone who had been raised right (a virtuous person) would do in that situation. The idea, I suppose, being that real life situations are complicated, but that from the right motivations and right priorities the best course of action will naturally follow. But of course not everyone is raised right, so Aristotle also came up with a way to imitate them. His advice was to seek the mean between emotional extremes, and act as if we were guided by that mean.

The problems with this stem not from the idea that certain people might just do the right thing because of their parenting, which could be the case no matter what your opinion of ethics is (they may have been raised with an almost instinctual grasp of the rules). What is problematic is the idea that seeking the mean between emotional extremes will bring us closer to the virtuous person. Consider, for example, someone who feels excitement when the virtuous person feels fear. Clearly adjusting that excitement to an average value will not being this person closer to the virtuous person. Another, similar, problem is that it may not be possible for some people to determine what the average emotional state is, some people may feel emotions very strongly or very weakly, and thus their sense of what is average would be off.

But if we are truly attempting to emulate the virtuous person there is a much easier way. As per the standard approach to ethics we form a system of rules about what to do and what not to do. But, unlike the standard approach, instead of evaluating this system based on how intuitive it is or the principles it is derived from we evaluate it by observing virtuous people and seeing how closely they stick to the rules. If the break the rules then we know our system is flawed, and that we must revise it, thus making ethics a kind of experimental science (specifically a subfield of psychology studying a very small group of people). And, after some time, we would arrive at a set of rules that, if we were to live by them, would allow us to emulate the virtuous person almost perfectly.

But there is a problem with this project: how do we select a group of people to describe as virtuous? Aristotle describes them as well raised, but the attitudes and actions of the “well raised” vary. A in the past a well raised southern gentleman or roman noble would have approved of slavery, but no one well raised today would. (In fact, approving of slavery is probably a sign that you haven’t been well raised.) This puts us in a bit of a bind. Either no one is well raised (or, at least, we aren’t aware of who is and isn’t well raised), what is right can vary, or the places where they differ aren’t matters of ethics. I suspect Aristotle himself would have gone for the third option, as unacceptable as that seems to us now. Although I am no Aristotle scholar I am willing to bet that he would have seen being integrated into society properly (mental and social wellbeing) as being of high ethical value, and hence issues like slavery simply aren’t that ethically important. This is not, as it might first seem, a form of relativism, it is not to claim that the ethical status of slavery varies, but it is to say that ethics is indifferent regarding slavery, which I find that unpalatable.

Obviously the idea that what is right varies from culture to culture is equally unpalatable. Which leaves us with only one alternative, to accept that we don’t know who has and who hasn’t been raised well. But that undermines the entire project. And not just the project of determining ethical rules by studying virtuous people, but the idea that what the virtuous person does is right. Technically it doesn’t undermine the possibility that it is correct, but it undermines our ability to say anything about what is right, given that. Take Aristotle’s claim that we should seek the mean. How did Aristotle know that the mean was an approximation to the emotional state of the virtuous person? Presumably because he was raised to be a virtuous person, or knew virtuous people, and with that experience arrived at these guidelines. But if we can’t in fact know who the virtuous people are then these guidelines are just a shot in the dark, and it is quite possible that extreme emotions are appropriate at times.

Naturally this does not exhaust Aristotle’s resources (the man must have done nothing but write from morning until night). Aristotle could lean on the idea that we are to maximize our wellbeing, and hence need to seek the mean because the mean is best for our wellbeing. And he could argue that people in a state of elevated wellbeing tend to do the right thing. But this is to retreat away from the idea that the core of ethics is being raised right, and to embrace the standard idea that there are certain principles (maximizing wellbeing) from which ethical behavior follows. I won’t say anything about whether that principle works as a system of ethics or not, whether it does or doesn’t is beside the point, because by retreating to it we have retreated to a position that can be analyzed using all the standard tools, unlike the relatively unique idea that the virtuous person is the ultimate ethical standard.

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