The End of Ethics?
Working Group on Emergence
Universe Bar
December, 2005

Emerging From "The End of Ethics?"

Anne Dalke Betting (Batting?)
Against "Anthony Appiah,"
In a Serious Game about the Irony of "Character"

"We are not outside the game, not the umpire but the players."

To understand irony--or satire--one needs some distance,
has to be able to stand outside, "beside," and look across
(as Anthony Appiah says, "Ironism isn't for homebodies.")

A meditation on replacing what Appiah calls
the "Medusa stare of exaggerated respect for culture" w/
the Medusa stare of exaggerated respect for the character of self:


1. Appiah's central claim:
that philosophy made a terrible mistake (after the death of William James)
by separating itself from psychology,
by distancing itself from our internal life, and
by distancing "self" from the material world,
from economics and politics.

2. Appiah's offer:
to reduce this distance between philosophy and the human sciences,
to reconstitute the moral sciences by grounding ethics in experimental psychology,
to explore the experiential foundation of our reasoning,
by replacing the "highly idealized psychology" which currently governs thinking about ethics
with new models of human nature, grounded in contemporary empirical findings,
based on a growing body of research into (for example) what actually motivates kind behavior.

I asked him why he thought the split occurred in the first place.
He had two answers:

That was the end of Lecture 1, and I was pumped!

Week Two--Seminar with Faculty from the Center for International Studies:

"in the long run, we would be better off without religious identities,"
"but a life lived in The Truth is more valuable than one that is not."
Acknowledging that this was an "unfortunate Protestant formulation,"
and a thoroughly "unphilosophical investment in truth,"
Appiah distinguished between the epistemological difficulties of
knowing we have arrived at truth (yes, always dicey) and
the claim that (nonetheless) "truth matters"
(as per Nietzsche: "it is better if one's life were not based on a big mistake").
The "pay off" for truth was that "it was not just made up, but a common project."

The Problem here--as became even clearer in the second lecture,
"The Case Against Character"--

was that current work in experimental and social psychology
undermines the concept of a consistent character.
We are all situationalists;
context always influences our behavior (and usually does so unawares).
"Our access to what goes on in our head is no more accurate
than our understanding of what goes on in our kidneys."

People do not know why they do what they do;
the reasons they give for their actions are unreliable justifications.
Turns out we are guided, not by moral heuristics, but by mood
(for instance, a good smell or a found coin will make us more likely to help another in trouble).
We respond to circumstances rather than act out of "character."
Truly trivial things move us, and those motives are not apparent to us;
basically, if we feel more cheerful, we will be more helpful.

So, 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 then arrive @ ethical theory and judgments?
This was the question concluding Lecture 2:
must we give up on constructing character,
to focus on creating situations conducive to good acts?
Put less emphasis on moral education, and
more on building situations in which people can act well?

Appiah was clearly troubled by what the data was telling him:
that we are not "purely rational";
he wanted to be able to think of humans not just as reactants, but
as agents capable of shaping their own ethical characters.

Things got worse in Lecture 3, "The Case Against Intuition,"

when he delivered multiple challenges to the reliability of moral intution:
the same options, described differently (w/ different framing events), will yield different answers:
people are risk averse when thinking about gains, willing to risk when thinking about loss
(whether you think you are "saving 4000" or "letting 2000 die"--
even though the outcome is identical--will make all the difference in your decision-making).
An understanding of "what is right" can be shifted by changing the description of what is being done.

Cf. Haidt's experiments @ UVA:
respondents were hypnotized to experience disgust in response to the words "take" and "offer,"
then asked to judged (entirely innocuous) moral infractions based on cue words:
"It just seemed that he was up to something";
"he was a popularity seeking snob;"
"I don't know why it's wrong, it just is."

Such intuitions are based on "corrupted data,"
but most moral judgments are shaped by such priming.
Most of our responses are irrational,
and we just make up theories after-the-fact to justify them.

As exemplum, Appiah traced the long intellectual tradition of "trolley problems,"
(in which respondents are generally willing to pull the switch to change the track,
but won't actually push a fat guy onto the track to stop the train...)

These are significantly different responses to requests
to act in a way that has unintended side effects,
as opposed to "intentionally doing a bad thing."
But this heuristic differs from almost all the decisions
we have to make "in the real world":
it is a "high stakes/narrow option" situation,
a moral emergency of great significance with clear-cut, simple choices,
in which you have a short time (and no time to get more information),
and in which you are the only one who can act.

What is wrong with the trolley example is that "God never gives us 2 options";
moral intelligence usually means deciding what the options are.
"Quandry ethics," which relies on preframed choices,
mistakes the actual character of what we have to do,
where the hardest task is often figuring out what to take notice of.
There is never a guarantee that we know all we need to know, to make a moral decision.
Such moral heuristics involve the "myth of the given";
real world situations "don't come framed."

It is our moral task to frame them,
to meet the challenge of "figuring out what game we are playing."

Final Lecture: The End of Ethics?

Appiah promised (but failed) to pay off some of his promissory notes.
On the one hand, he described the "rough morality" he was offering as
"less of a clinic, more of a wellness center,"
claimed that he was "not offering solutions to conundrums,
or answers to an SAT check sheet,"
that normative discourse misses what most matters:
the particularity of any given situation.

When talkative strangers on planes ask, "What is your philosophy?"
Appiah responds, "Everything is more complicated than you thought."
"There is no general decision theory; give me a case."
"Abstraction is a vice; simplicity is no advantage."
"A decision is never just generally 'good';
it is always good FOR something."

But--and here is where I think Appiah got stuck:
in his attachment to John Stuart Mill's "nonutilitarian insight" that
is it "not what we do, but who we are";
that everything that confers our individuality matters:
we need to recognize ourself to ourself,
need to tell ourself a story about ourself
which constitutes the "feel of self to self."

A sense of honor, he claimed, is tied up w/ the stories we tell about ourselves;
if we engage in an action which deeply alienates us from ourselves,
if we do something we didn't think we were capable of,
we may have to decide that our prior concepts of ourself were misguided.
And--as far as I could tell--Appiah was not willing to allow for that sort of revision.
He maintained that each of us has a self--
(quoting Foucault) "has to create ourselves as a work of art"--
to which we are being--or should be attempting to be--true.

The "proper question," he said, is not
"what God thinks," but "Who am I? What am I to do?"

I think more careful questioning needs to distinguish the first query from the second,
to "let go" of the "essential (and fundamentally ethical) character" with which
Appiah replaces God--i.e., as foundational "good."

The Ethics of Identity makes two central claims: that

However, by the end of his month @ Bryn Mawr,
Appiah had severely limited the range of possible amendments,
by valorizing both the construction of character and the social nature of its cultivation.

The last evening ended with a student's question about whether Appiah saw his work
as aligned w/ that of Richard Rorty. He responded,
"I have a rhetorical disagreement w/ Rorty about truth;
I just don't understand why he thinks it unhelpful to have a regulative ideal."

I'm still puzzling over that one--since it seemed that
Appiah had spent a month showing us precisely why it was unhelpful,
and why it gets us hung up.

He had replaced what he calls
the "Medusa stare of exaggerated respect for culture" w/
the Medusa stare of exaggerated respect for the character of self.
He had given us all the observations to suggest that
it's way past time to let go of a idealized, rationalist model of human behavior,
but wasn't willing to go where that data (inevitably) took him...

and us?
On Beyond Post-Modernism: Discriminating Stories

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