The End of Ethics? Part II

Further background for
Emerging From "The End of Ethics?"
(or: last spring, I was hopeful)

From Grad Idea Forum (4/10/05): The Medusa stare

At what point do one's personal relationships...turn into societal influences?

There's one pretty rich answer to Judie's query in next week's New York Review of Books (4/28/05). The review there of Kwame Anthony Appiah's new book on The Ethics of Identity insistently refuses the binary we were (as always re-) constructing together a week ago. It begins by calling "overdone" the conventional contrast...between "rootless cosmopolitan" and the rootedness of traditional societies:

Appiah offers a defense of 'rooted cosmopolianism'...a decent respect for what we have inherited is consistent with a wish to do something novel with it....we acquire an individual identity by acquiring a social identity...that is not a straitjacket....we acquire both our individuality and our sense of who we are by learning how to fill the social roles available to us...What we are faced with is a tension between a respect for the variousness of different ways of life and a wish to help individuals to emancipate themselves from any one of them if they so choose...

Appiah repudiates any suggestion that we should attach all our loyalties to some particular culture...Appiah fears what he calls the Medusa stare of an exaggerated respect for culture...benign campaigns to secure respect...can end by trying to impose one canonical identity on individuals...Rooted cosmopoltians are citizens of the world who employ the resources of the particular cultures to which they are attached in order to construct their own individual lives.

How different, that "Medusa stare," from Judie's description, above, of how new information comes in... and changes the story--. That's what the fixedness of nostalgia inhibits, what the freedom of time-and space-traveling enables.

From Evolution and Intelligent Design Forum (9/25/05): the problem with relative 'truth'

we have to go further: for some stories...relative "truth" relevant

Can we go even further? "Relative 'truth'" is to me a really confused and confusing, miguided and misguiding concept.

The BMC Philosophy Department is sponsoring a series of visits by Anthony Appiah, and (in connection w/ his seminars) the Graduate Idea Forum is beginning to read his new book, The Ethics of Identity, which uses John Stuart Mill as a traveling companion to think--very deliberatively and carefully--through the relationship between individual liberty and identity politics. Curled up with that book this weekend, I found myself digging my way back into Tim's useful metaphor of the ecosystem :

"Human nature is...a tree, which requires to grow...according to the tendency of the inward forces which make it a living thing"....Mill's...metaphor makes the constraints apparent: a tree, whatever the circumstances, does not become a legume, a vine, or a cow. :

But this is only half the story. The rest is that, :

for it to make sense, it must be an identity constructed in response to facts outside oneself, things that are beyond one's own choices...To create a life is to create a life out of the materials that history has given you....our self-construction is...a creative response to our capacities and our circumstances......we are collectively created...

What seems really important to me here is both the refusal to oppose the individual to the collective (the insistence that we are made relationally, out of our interactions with others), AND the insistence that we not confuse/conflate the first- and third-person standpoints (Appiah actually takes this move from Kant, who quite famously distinguished between the first, in which we conceive ourselves as causes, and the third, in which we contemplate our actions as effects). What's helpful here is recognizing that each of these distinct purposes is just a point of view, neither more "real" or "true" than the other: the logic of structure (which yields causes for action) and the logic of agency (which yields reasons for action) belong to two distinct standpoints; when we conceive ourselves as practical we are simply selecting the latter. But to call this "truth"--even "'relative' truth"--is to hide the action of choice and badly confuse the two standpoints. For instance...

the charming fairy tale of "once upon a time," that the universe...didn't care and... went on changing without being much affected by humans or their squabbles is of course not "true." We know, from what we have seen of the result of our misguided attempts to 'control' nature in New Orleans, to take only the most recent and awful example, that our squabbling stories and our stubborns actions are affecting the universe (or @ least the shape of one of its fragile coasts...)

From an essay called "Soul Making": A Project of Intelligent Amendment (10/18/05);
part of an exhibit about No Need for Drawing Lines in the Sand:

Each of us is born in a corner of the earth and at a particular moment in historical time, lapped round with locality. But school and universities are places apart where a declared learner is emancipated from the limitation of his local circumstances and from the wants he may have happened to have acquired, and is moved by intimations of what he has never yet dreamed....they are, then, sheltered places where excellence may be heard because the din of local partialities is no more than a distant rumble. (Michael Oakeshott, The Voice of Liberal Learning, 1989)

Evoked in The Ethics of Identity,
by Kwame Anthony Appiah (2005)

....I started this reflection with some passages quoted by Anthony Appiah, who is paying a series of visits to Bryn Mawr this semester, and who is interested in the process of what he calls "educative soul-making." Appiah closely follows John Stuart Mill....As someone whose soul is very much shaped--and has been repeatedly amended--by the work of both dead and living writers with whom I spend most of my time, I'd like to give those guys the (temporary, nearly) last word:

Mill: "To human is indispensable to be perpetually comparing their own notions and customs with the experience and example of persons in different circumstances from themselves"....

Appiah: "it is the differences we bring to the table that make it rewarding to interact at all....In a single city state there is no wisdom."

From Brown Bag Forum: letting religion in: biological morality (10/29/2005):

I've just put up a summary of the discussion which Tamara Davis and Karen Greif led yesterday on genetic engineering. I came late into the conversation, and was still trying to find my ground by the time it ended. But I wanted to note here the thought beginning to form for me, as our discussion broke up. It was provoked by Maria's impatient, "How did religion get in the door?" I think religion got in the door because scientific procedures violate the world views of many people in this country, and I think it's appropriate/necessary/right that we have a public conversation about the ethics of such procedures. And what I think we need, in this conversation, is a "biology of morality" or a "morality of biology"--a thinking through (rather than a shrugging or ducking) of the moral claims based on what we know about biological systems.

I take this idea from the good series of lectures Anthony Appiah is giving @ Bryn Mawr this month on The End(s) of Ethics. Appiah is actually attempting to "reconstitute the moral sciences," repairing the early 20th century split between philosophy and psychology (for instance), returning philosophy from its abstractions to a grounding in and accountability to the material world, making the exploration of ethics "more experimental"....if most of us act instinctively, not knowing why we do what we do, if most of what we do occurs tacitly, without our awareness--how arrive @ ethical theory and judgments?)

...[Similarly??] Scott Gilbert led a brown bag discussion about"fictions and fetuses", in which it was suggested that

the "problem can be laid at the feet of the biologists," who are at fault for describing DNA as "the blueprint of life" (rather than, more accurately, as "a structure which interacts with other structures to bring into a new structure into being")....Perhaps the most important thing a biologist can do is make the point that humans are diverse, that human development is diverse, and that--given such diversity--there is no clear "right or wrong" in any of these cases....the message from science should be that there is no single criterion for making such a decision....

From Diversity forum ( 11/14/2005): attending:

Since I was the one who--trailing the 60's in my wake--insisted last Friday afternoon that the personal is political, I want to try and lay alongside the previous post a somewhat different way of understanding the problem--and a different possible (more interactional and relational) answer.

For starters, I take "politics," as we took it in last Friday's discussion about The Politics of Sexual Orientation, to mean "having an impact on others." I agree (of course) that our actions cannot but have consequences. And I would say it follows necessarily that--whatever our intentions--the personal is inevitably political.

What really puzzles me is the insistence, here, on the importance of "intention." I gave over a good part of last month to Anthony Appiah's multiple seminars and lectures about "the end of ethics." Though my sense was that Appiah himself finally "ducked" the philosophical implications of the psychological experiments he described in such detail, he did quite usefully describe multiple examples of our not knowing what we are doing--or why we are doing it. Much of our knowledge is tacit.

So: if we act--mostly--without understanding why we are acting; if we don't know ourselves very well--and can't know others' intentions any better, I'm puzzled by the need to make "intentionality" such an important line in the sand. I might intend to alter others' behavior directly by (say) forming a political action group. But it's certainly possible (I'd say actually more likely) that I will change others' behaviors (not to mention my own) by unintentionally going about my business, tending my garden, engaging in random conversation with whomever passes by.

I don't know why I do most of what I do. And I certainly can't know what will influence others to chose one particular action over another (think of all the failed attempts at parenting, of trying to raise children to have a certain character or disposition which happens not to be the one they either possess or desire). In fact, the harder I try to influence someone else to move in any particular direction, probably the less successful I will be.

So: I don't at all think it's the case that, unless we preserve a space for the personal, we will "live in a world of watchdogs and be ones ourselves." Another place to draw the line in the sand (if one need be drawn; I'm still not convinced it's necessary) would be not before politicizing the personal, but afterward. That is: acknowledge that all acts have social consequences, that we are inevitably related to--and have effects on--everything else on this planet, but we can also decide NOT to be bound or guided by anticipating others' reactions to what we do.

To say that the claim that "all action is political" can mean being watched, being judged, feeling the need to justify--and so to be paralyzed--is of course one possible way to experience the inevitably political repercussions of the personal. But there are other ways, explored for the past few decades in particular by feminist scholars who (for instance) replaced an obsession with "the male gaze" with the look of "attentiveness." That sort of work draws on the tacit notion that what we are looking at may not be what we are attending to (how often have you looked in one direction, while actually noticing changes taking place somewhere else?). It's a very different sort of look: curious about what's up, but neither controlling or policing what's happening. And it's a look that, as political beings, we can learn.

Return to Working Group on Emergence
Return to Universe Bar
Return to Center for Science in Society