Tuesday, January 16, 2007

The Scientific Ethicist, part I

SteveG at Philosopher's Playground addresses the question of workplace romances (Love Conquers All -- Even Ethics?, January 16, 2007).

There is (in modern society) a general ethical rule against a supervisor and his or her subordinate having a sexual relationship. Can there be exceptions to this rule? Steve quotes a FoaF, "Don't do it unless you are sure it is for real. It's ok, if and only if she is, in fact, the one," and asks, "It's only morally right, if she is Miss Right. Is this right? Does 'happily ever after' trump 'do unto others?'"

How should we consider these exceptions philosophically? Steve offers us two analyses: We should give "finding a soul-mate" a privileged moral status in the model of Aristotelian virtue. The most charitable interpretation ("Who needs Kant[1] when you can just read Cosmo," doesn't seem like much of an argument) I can extract of the alternative is that the rule asserts a deontic imperative which doesn't admit exceptions.

The presentation of both sides of the issue depend on fundamentally unsupported premises: The Aristotelian: "True love is our highest aspiration," thus "giving it a privileged moral standing," versus the Kantian: "You accepted the position of manager and that contractually binds you to certain obligations and one is not to pick up the employees."

The Aristotelian story of virtue suffers from a vicious circularity. How are we to determine what human virtues should be by examining how humans are? If we want to draw any nontrivial conclusions about how people should be distinct from how they actually are, we have to bring in something other than how people are; the alternative is the trivial "people should be how they are". Kantian ethics[2] are even worse from a deductivist perspective: They depend (based on how you read Kant) on the arbitrary adoption of completely unsupported ethical or meta-ethical premises.

I don't want to say that Aristotle and Kant have nothing to say about ethics; they have a lot to say, much of it profound. But neither manages to prove anything at all about ethics; indeed the criticism has been leveled that both philosophers merely rationalized the prejudices of their respective societies and cultures.

Just as neither alternative has a good foundation, neither alternative completely appeals to our intuition. One the one hand, I think most people see the "true love" exception to have real merit. On the other hand, the rule itself has intuitive value, and there's really no way to know if the exception applies until after you've broken the rule. And a rule which admits to arbitrary exceptions is no rule at all.

These unsatisfactory alternatives do not appear only in the particular case of workplace romance; start picking at this thread with a skeptical view and, one way or another, you'll simply unravels three thousand years of ethical philosophy.

No set of laws, ethical rules or social mores has ever come even close to capturing its own members' ethical intuitions. Worse yet, moral intuition is itself a moving target; people's moral intuitions change dramatically over time, and it's hard, perhaps impossible, to rule out the bias towards our own ethical intuitions when examining those of our predecessors and neighbors. Furthermore, any deductive foundation for an ethical system is going to founder on the same criticism which has undermined deductive foundationalism in epistemology: How precisely do you establish the truth of those premises which are not themselves deduced from true premises?

When two alternative answers to a question are neither decisively justifiable nor uncontroversially intuitively appealing, the obvious response is pick a side and hope to shout down your opponents. Just kidding! The obvious response to try and ask a better question.

For three millennia the question in ethical philosophy has been: What true premises should guide our choices? Find the true premises, and we can deduce all of ethics. Stated so bluntly, though, we can see the self-reference: "What true premises should guide our choices?" "Should" is an ethics word; the whole point of trying to find these premises is to use them to determine what we should do. Self-reference is a huge clue that we need to ask a better question. (At least until logicians find a way to apply the same kind of rigor to self-referential formal systems as they can to ordinary hierarchical systems.)

One way to avoid self-reference is to ask the fundamental question epistemically: How do we know things about "true" ethical systems? And, as it happens, we have a brand-spankin' shiny new epistemological system at hand: Science.

To apply science to the issue of ethics, we have to start by talking about the facts, statements uncontroversially accepted as true (usually on the basis of perception). Once we have a some of facts, we try to construct various falsifiable explanations for those facts, and begin the whole tedious (to philosophers) business of self-correcting scientific examination.

So what sorts of things might qualify as facts--i.e. uncontroversially true statements--in the ethical sense? What sort of theories, in general, might we construct to explain those facts? If we apply science, do we get anywhere near our intuitions about how an ethical system should be? And if not, which should give way: Our meta-ethical intuitions or scientific epistemology?

Stay tuned for tomorrow's episode of The Scientific Ethicist! [cue credits]


[1]"Who needs Kant?" by itself is a good question; the correct answer is not immediately obvious.

[2]Or at least how I've usually seen Kantian ethics presented. Since I don't speak German, I'll have to take my friend Ernie Lundquist's word for it: "It's not enough to not understand Kant in English translation. You have to learn German so you can not understand him in the original."

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