Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Ethics in the First Person

Bernard Williams begins his classic Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy with a quote from Plato:

It is not a trivial question, Socrates said: what we are talking about is how one should live (Republic, 352d).
Williams highlights the impersonality of Socrates' question:
"How should one live?" -- the generality of one already stakes a claim. The Greek language does not even give us one: the formula is impersonal. The implication is that something relevant or useful can be said to anyone, in general... (1985, p. 4).
The generality of the question, Williams says, is part of what makes the inquiry philosophical (p. 2).

Williams' thought seems to be that philosophy starts impersonally and then works its way back to the personal question as a particular instance. But I'm inclined to think that to begin with the general question is to set off in the wrong direction. Good philosophy is self-critical -- grounded in a sense of one's own capacities for critique and especially one's limits and biases. Before painting the universe in your philosophical colors, know the shortcomings of your palette.

Yes, these are impersonal considerations for starting with personal reflection -- exactly what is needed to persuade someone inclined to start with the impersonal!

A simple conversion of "How should one live?" to "How should I live?" is one way to go. But to the extent you're moved by the thought that it's best to start with self-critical evaluation, a different type of starting place beckons.

For example: Am I a jerk? If yes, I should probably shut up about how others ought to live and work on myself. Being a jerk is not only a moral failing, but -- in my analysis -- also an epistemic one, a failure properly to appreciate the perspectives of others around you. A jerk ethicist not only is likely to be viewed by others as hypocritical or noxiously self-rationalizing but also works, I suggest, with an epistemic disability likely to taint his conclusions.

If I am part-jerk, then my next thought maybe ought to be whether I'm okay with that; and if I'm not okay with that, what might I do about it -- a very different line of thought, and a very different plan for self-adjustment than is likely to arise from impersonal reflection on how one ought to live. Similarly, I might reflect on: "Am I a loving husband?", "Do I engage in lots of self-serving rationalizations?"

You might object: Such first-personal questions carry presuppositions of exactly the sort philosophers should question, e.g., whether being a loving husband is a good thing to aim for. We should back up and consider the more abstract questions first, such as how ought people live in general. I reply: The answers to these more abstract questions also build in presuppositions, though less visibly to me the less light I shine on my own moral and epistemic failings.

Such first-personal moral epistemology is difficult and uncertain work. If I aim at a critical first-person ethics, I must take a hard look in the mirror, and I must think carefully about the relation between what I think I see and what is really there. I must vividly fear that I am not the person I previously hoped and thought I was.

This is a less pleasant task, I find, than the abstract task of figuring out how everyone in general should live, and a different kind of philosophical ambition.


Ted said...

Eric Schwitzgebel--1st person skeptic extraordinaire--arguing for the primacy of the first person in ethics?!?

Just giving you a hard time--I realize you're only arguing for a sort of moral priority, and that this doesn't require any epistemic priority for the first person perspective.

One might still be a bit surprised by your claim: "The answers to these more abstract [non-first-personal] questions also build in presuppositions, though less visibly to me the less light I shine on my own moral and epistemic failings." The objection would be that the presuppositions are more visible with the general questions *because* those questions aren't targeting me specifically. (Perhaps my psychological defense mechanisms are more likely to interfere when I ask hard ethical questions about myself.)

Regardless, I assume you're not trying to *discourage* either type of ethical inquiry. (Both have their place, surely.) Rather, I take it your main goal is to highlight an imbalance toward the general/abstract questions, when really the whole point is to influence the thinking/behavior at an individual level.

That is an important point which I heartily applaud.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Thanks for your thoughtful comment, Ted! Yes, I'm not trying to discourage general inquiry. But I am inclined to think that presuppositions still tend to be less visible with the general questions if one doesn't turn a skeptical eye on oneself as the source of the premises and intuitions.

On your point about moral and epistemic priority, I would suggest that combining the priority of first-person inquiry with pessimism about the success of first-person inquiry is in no way inconsistent (as you note) but rather a conjunction that points toward pessimism about the likelihood of substantial success in most cases.

Anonymous said...

Let me at least reiterate an observation from Josiah Royce in 1908. He noted that philosophers who think globally about the world's ills are characteristically do-gooders at a loss, not knowing where to begin, what to do, besides lamenting injustice. He preferred provincial philosophers and do-gooders who try to fix things locally. So, Jane Addams saw homelessness and sought to remedy it in Chicago. So, others set up soup kitchens for hungry children. So, MLK sought voting rights and civil rights in Alabama.

I do not think it is a matter of 1st person perspective, especially since I agree with Zen Buddhists about the centrality of the no-self moral perspective. Rather, I would say it is a matter of orientation, of what Royce called enlightened provincialism.

Seize on specific suffering and work to end it, rather than lament, no matter how eloquently in the NYRB or the Phil Review about suffering in general. We might call this orientation philosophical activism. It's a kind of spiritual engagement with the needs of others.

-- David Glidden

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Thanks, David – very interesting observations! I’m inclined to agree, based on casual impressions about averages, that it is the people who are pulled in by the demands of local suffering who tend to do more good in the world than the people who focus mostly on global conditions.