Tuesday, May 28, 2019

Contextual ethics

This looks really interesting:

Contextual Ethics I:
Developing Frameworks for Contextual Approaches to Ethics
14-15 November 2019, University of Southern Denmark


Context has become central in contemporary moral philosophy in two distinct ways. Firstly, in the popularity of ’bottom-up’ approaches to a large range of topics such as hope, human nature and moral change. Philosophers engage history, anthropology, literature and empirical research in order to investigate and answer their questions (e.g. Nussbaum 1990; Lear 2006; Appiah 2008, 2010). Secondly, ‘context’ becomes central in the developing meta-ethical stance, we have coined ‘contextual ethics’, found in the work of moral philosophers such as Cora Diamond, Alice Crary and Margaret Urban Walker. A recurring theme in their work is that ‘the ethical’ cannot be exhaustively captured theoretically but is inherently open and interwoven with numerous aspects of human life. This gives context ethical prominence. We can formulate moral rules of thumb such as ‘Do not lie’ and develop general moral frameworks, and these principles and frameworks can be better or worse guides in moral life. But we can never deduce from the rule, what we ought to do in any given situation. This will always depend on the particular case and context. This insight has important consequences for work in moral philosophy.

The aim of this workshop is to discuss how to integrate contextual concerns into moral philosophy and develop adequate theoretical frameworks for research on contextualized ethics.

Please send proposals of no more than 250 words to: ce@cas.au.dk. Proposals should include: title, author name and title, affiliation, email address. Deadline for receipt of proposals: 15.8.2019. Notification of acceptance will be by 1.9.2019.

[What follows is a response to this call for papers. It might sound at times, especially early on, like a criticism, but it isn't. As, I hope, becomes clear as I go on.] 

I like the bottom-up approach, but it's hard to do. And I've never really tried to teach ethics that way to students, although I also try to avoid the kind of approach that presents a small menu of theories and then invites students to apply them. I have a draft of a post somewhere on teaching ethics, so maybe I'll dig that up and finish it one of these days.

In the meantime, I'm interested in the relation between rules and contexts. A rule won't tell us exactly what to do or how to do it, but it seems that it can tell us something. If I try to live by the rule "Help those in need" and I meet someone clearly in need, the rule tells me to help them. Perhaps there are complicating factors (someone else is already helping them, I am not qualified to give the kind of help they seem to need, helping them will mean not helping someone else nearby who seems even more in need, and so on) but perhaps there aren't. It might be perfectly obvious what my rule requires of me in this situation.

Rules can also tell us what not to do. Rosalind Hursthouse tells the story of Anscombe telling the story of a woman who was hiding Jewish people from the Nazis when the Gestapo knocked on her door. She could not lie, Anscombe says, and so instead she embarrassed the young officer by acting as if she had mistaken him for some beloved relative. He got out of there as quickly as he could, no lies were told, and no one was taken away to be murdered. The story is important because it shows that the standard idea of a moral dilemma (e.g., you must either lie or give someone up to be murdered) is artificial. In real life, it is sometimes possible to find a third, better alternative. Another reason why the story matters is that the appearance of facing a moral dilemma is a big part of what the context was in this case. That is, the woman's absolute rule against lying played a big role in making the situation what it was. It wouldn't have been a dilemma if she had no problem with lying to Nazis. And it wouldn't have been a problem at all (from her perspective) if she had been an obedient Nazi. So rules, I think, (can, sometimes) help make contexts what they are.

It's also worth bearing in mind that contexts are not simply given. They can be imaginatively reconceived, as Cora Diamond points out that Socrates does when faced with the dilemma of staying in prison and being executed or letting his guard be bribed so that he can escape. Socrates does not find a third, better alternative, but he does re-describe his situation in a way that helps him decide what to do.

None of this is to deny that what we do will always depend on the particular case and context. But it does, I think, bring out how that idea is not as simple as it might sound (not that this will be news to the conference organizers, but it might be to others). The context will affect/determine which rules or virtues, if any, are relevant, and in what ways they might be relevant. And the rules or virtues in place (by which, in the case of virtues, I mean the character of the moral agent) will affect/determine the context. So it's complicated.

Which means that it would be a bad idea to adopt a slogan like "not rules but context," but something (if we need to think in terms of slogans) like "not just rules but contexts too" would be very good. And sometimes you don't really need any rules at all, or the relevant rules are so obvious that they don't need to be brought up. Someone who read it more carefully than I did told me that Ta-Nehisi Coates' case for reparations didn't actually make a case as such but simply set out a factual history. Nevertheless, something of this kind (whether or not it's true in this particular case) could constitute a powerful case. It can be very clear from a purely factual description that something ought to be stopped, for instance. (Or that something is owed to someone--Anscombe famously discusses cases of this kind.) This could be in cases where what is described is just so awful that nothing could justify it or, also, in cases where the description of the thing itself needs to be supplemented by descriptions of consequences, alternatives, or other facts. Sometimes, that is to say, facts are all you need. (Or facts plus a certain kind of character to react to those facts, if you like, but sometimes the character in question will be that of any normal human being.)              

Friday, May 24, 2019


I am not qualified to try to define or analyze populism, and other people who are much more qualified have written about it, but I nevertheless want to think about it, and I think there's a chance, however small, that I might end up saying something worthwhile that hasn't already been said. So here goes.

I think that, at least roughly (and technological advances aside), what a lot of people want is the kind of world portrayed in the Asterix books. There, people live in villages or small towns in which there is one blacksmith, one fishmonger, and so on, or perhaps a small number who, to the amusement of others, are rivals. Employment is basically self-employment, and the secrets to success are hard work, skill, and competitive pricing. So it's fair, and everyone benefits (with possible exceptions: see below). Each village in a given province is similar, but every province or country has its own peculiar culture. The British drink a lot of tea, the Spanish take siestas, etc. People everywhere are basically the same, but there is an entertaining assortment of cultures.

I'm sure things were never quite so rosy as this picture suggests. There have always been wars and plagues and serious inequalities of wealth and freedom. But it seems to be roughly what life was like before the industrial revolution, at least when times were good. The big disruptor of the Asterix model was industrialization, which means the end of cottage industry and leads more people to move into cities. This means there is greater efficiency and profit, but less equality. And if family and local charity were ever enough to take care of old, sick, disabled, and otherwise unlucky people (which is doubtful), they aren't any more.

Another disruptor is feminism (and, in the United States, the civil rights movement). The women in Asterix are much less likely than men to have their own businesses. This is still true, but less so (it seems to me, as I should add to every sentence here). This progress in terms of opportunities for women is good, but it means there is more competition for the fishmonger, etc., and a less cushy life at home as well. So women have more options and are, presumably, happier (which could also benefit men), but life is basically worse for men than it was. Justly, but people don't always care as much about justice as they do about their own comfort.

Thirdly there is globalization or free trade. Like industrialization and feminism, this is good overall, but it has its losers. If goods, including jobs, can easily move from one country to another then this is good for the world's poor (who need it most) as well as for business owners (who don't), but at least potentially bad for those in between, who perhaps find that they can buy cars more cheaply but no longer have as good a job as they once did. Globalization also means that each place comes to seem less unique and more like anywhere else (even if this appearance is combined with persistent deep differences of some kind).

Populism is unhappy about these trends. Hardly anyone opposes the industrial revolution, but plenty of people are unhappy about at least some of its effects. The left-wing version of populism, if there really is such a thing, opposes globalization and, especially, inequality. The right-wing version (which is much more noticeable) opposes feminism and globalization. But there is often more to it than this. Here's a list of other features:
  • Fight response (as in fight or flight). People on the right, and especially on the far right, like military stuff, but they especially seem to think of it as a necessary response to a perceived threat. Hence the 'response' part. I suppose this is part of why such people are called reactionaries.
  • Racism. The Asterix books are not exactly free of racism, even if it is intended to be friendly or at least inoffensive. And populism is always likely to involve stereotypes and caricature. But the right-wing version embraces this aspect of populism and digs its heels in (and mixes its metaphors). Cultures are not (regarded as) just different: some are (regarded as) better than others. And the (supposedly) better ones just happen to be those that come from around here, wherever here is in any particular case.
  • Social Darwinism. A major reason why cultures cannot be thought of as simply different is because they are conceived as being in competition with one another. This relates also to the fight response feature of this kind of mindset. Others are (perceived as) a threat. Their appearance requires a defensive response. So globalization, increased openness to interaction with strangers, just as such, is scary. 
  • Tribalism. This is related to racism but prior to it. A tribalist, in my sense, need not think of his or her tribe as better than any other. But they will think of themselves as a member of this or that tribe (rather than as simply an individual). Jonathan Haidt, if I'm remembering correctly, has found that conservative people tend to be sports fans, affiliating themselves with groups, such as sports teams. This is an aspect of Aristotle's idea of the political animal: we are naturally social beings. It relates also to the idea of justice found in Book I of Plato's Republic (but rejected by Socrates) that justice is a matter of helping one's friends and hurting one's enemies.
  • Relativism. Tribalism is also part of Devlin's idea that people need a society, which in turn depends on shared morals, and that these morals need not be particularly good. We just need to have some sort of code, and serious threats to this code cannot be permitted. The conventions matter much less than that we conform to them. This is hard to take seriously unless we abandon the idea that one set of conventions can be better than another. And (so?) one kind of right-wing person is a relativist about ethics. We are better than them, but not in a particularly ethical way. Betterness is more a matter of mere feeling. This is likely to be expressed in more concrete terms--we are more intelligent than them, more ethical, and so on--but if any specific claim to superiority is disproved it will be met with an "Ah, well, nevertheless..." What matters is not so much being better, or even good, as expressing and believing in the superiority of one's own tribe.
  • Irrationality, by which I mean positive hostility to reason (and science, expertise, etc.). Loyalty to the code of one's tribe means rejecting the very idea of objective or dispassionate assessment of norms. (Which is why I think it's questionable to link objectivity with white supremacy culture.) Passion must trump reason. And one's own tribe, and those like it, must be preferred to others, so there can be no respect for the "global community" or humanity in general. The Enlightenment can be championed as a feather in the hat of one's own tribe (if one happens to be European or white or more or less plausibly related in some such way to the Enlightenment), but actual Enlightenment ideals such as human rights or the value of reason (except as understood in tribal terms) are to be rejected. (Which all makes it unsurprising that populists are more likely to believe conspiracy theories.)
  • Anti-individualism. The group and its conventions come first, and assertions of one's own identity or ethics are a threat to this. They ought not to be argued against (although there might be some show of 'arguing', especially if one regards the Enlightenment as a badge of honor as described above) but should be suppressed in other ways, such as mockery and violence. So being trans or vegan, or different in many other ways, is not allowed. Once a kind of difference is conventionally accepted, though, then it's OK. So being gay might be accepted, but any kind of difference is always likely to be (regarded as) dangerous.
  • Immorality, i.e., positive opposition to (some) ethical behavior. The conscience, so far as it is the voice of reason or individual belief, is not to be trusted. It must be overcome. This takes "strength." And strength is already considered a virtue because of the importance of fight response, social Darwinism, and manliness.    
  • Manliness. The ideal person is a not-too-rational team player who is willing to fight, a manly man. This is likely to be an especially popular view among anti-feminists. There's been a lot of attention paid to young incels, but there are also a lot of bitter, divorced, older men out there. 
I don't mean that every populist has all of these features. But they do seem to go together, in practice as well as in theory, and perhaps thinking them through like this helps to bring the connections out.

OK, that's about all I have. If you're disappointed, try this instead: "What We Know Now About Bias". 

Wednesday, May 1, 2019

The meaning of Iris Murdoch's work

Philosophers were invited to write on a postcard (to be sent to a randomly chosen fan, I think) what Iris Murdoch's work means to them. The answers are available to read here. Some of my favorite philosophers are there, and it's interesting just to read all the answers as a kind of summary of what Murdoch has to offer.