Monday, February 11, 2008

The Bivalence of Moral Reflection

As I continue to reflect on the moral behavior of ethics professors and others prone to moral reflection, I find myself increasingly attracted to the idea that moral reflection is bivalent. Ethicists behave no better than others, on average, not because they don't engage in real moral reflection, and not because moral reflection is inert, but rather because moral reflection has the power both to lead one toward and to lead one away from moral behavior.

I have long thought this about religion. Religion is not a behaviorally inert superstructure we weave over what we would do anyway, but rather a powerful cause of behavior -- both good behavior (such as charity) and immoral behavior (such as religious wars, close-mindedness, denigration of others). In the end, the good and the bad seem to me roughly to balance out across people (as the empirical evidence also suggests), though for any particular individual religion may work mainly toward good or evil. (I doubt many people have good self-knowledge about which way it works for them, though!)

Moral reflection (in either a religious or a secular framework) can work toward good by increasing one's attunement to the moral dimensions of one's actions; by undermining cheap rationalizations; by helping one see better what morality (or at least one's own value system) requires; and (as Nussbaum and Hume and Mencius have stressed) through imaginatively extending one's sympathy and understanding. However, moral reflection is also a tool of rationalization -- and the more skilled one is at moral argumentation, the more readily one can find rationalizations for what one wants to do.

Suppose you unintentionally walk out of a library with a book, forgetting to check it out. You're not caught. Months later, you vaguely consider whether you should return the book, or whether you should just keep hanging on to it. Any philosopher worth her salt could construct a bevy of rationalizations. Conventional thinking seems to demand returning the book. (In fact, I've found that ethics books are more likely to be missing from academic libraries than other books.) Conventionally, one should not engage in sexual relationships with one's students, or outside one's marriage. A danger of independent moral thinking is that it invites self-serving rationalizations for setting aside convention in one's own case. (I'm reading a biography of Einstein, who complacently justifies his extramarital affairs, painful to his wives, with a theory of the natural non-monogamy of men.) Of course, not reflecting morally has its moral dangers, too! Whether reflection or its absence is more apt to lead us astray is an unsettled empirical question. My sense, both from personal experience and from empirical research, is that it's roughly a tie.

Suppose we grant all this. The question then becomes: Under what conditions, or with what supports, does moral reflection promote rather than impede moral behavior?


Jonathan Jenkins Ichikawa said...

Probably this is too trivial, but:

Under what conditions does moral reflection promote rather than impede moral behavior? When it's good moral reflection!

Anonymous said...

The thing about life is that the ethical issues we face are usually very mundane, while philosophers tend to want to deal with "big issues" or interesting cases. Trolley problems make for interesting class discussion or brain scan research, but serious discussion of everyday morality would seem to most philosophers as beneath them, little more than sunday-school indoctrination and moralizing.

However, I think you'd need to make these everyday issues the centerpiece of your philosophical thinking in order have them translate into ethical behavior in everyday life.

It's also a problem for philosophy in that it tends to be outwardly focused. Even if it's not how "you" should behave, it's how "people" should behave. It's perfectly consistent (and frankly quite natural) to think that "people" should behave a certain way, and to try to convince others to behave in that way, while still choosing to act a different way yourself.

Allan Karlsson said...

I don't know what the empirical research shows, but one idea that 'virtue ethics' promotes is that moral action is more about becoming a virtuous person than simply thinking about the best ethical position to take on an issue. So moral reflection must accompany moral transformation.

However, the issue is not really solved by this. If I am just rationalizing my own moral values then I am not really engaging in moral transformation. And why would someone seek transformation in the first place if moral rationalizations don't call for it. In other words, why should Einstein want to seek moral transformation when he has found a good rationalization for his present moral state?

I would say that community can come into play here, but as you already said, religious communities can bring people to moral transformations that run in both directions. We don't want to simply assert that custom is king, or do we?

Life experiences, especially when supported by communities, can bring about moral transformation that accompanies moral reflection. But these are often accompanied by suffering and pain. Most Americans would now agree that slavery is immoral, even in the South. But this kind of moral reflection happened corporately and not just individually. It was also achieved in great pain. The civil rights movement was another step in this same transformation.

Another moral transformation is happening today concerning environmental ethics. More people are changing their behavior. (I only hope that it will not be accompanied by great suffering.)

My point is, however, that these transformations are societal, not individualistic. But it took individuals with moral conviction to bring about the wider moral transformation that most people would not have undergone even if they had thought about it.

I don't think my answer is adequate. But I hope you see where it is pointing.

Anibal Monasterio Astobiza said...

-The better skilled is one in moral reasoning better he justifies his actions- that´s in a nuttshell the axiom in your characterization of moral reflection as bivalence
(you can use it for one´s own benefit or for the benefit of others in order to gain a position in the social arena).

My question is, how this awesome insight in moral psychology, bears fit in the debate of moral realism: wheter moral values, moral judgements, moral learning refer to something to be expected to be universal or to be perceive for all, because if moral facts are just pieces to be managed by an individual at his will and skill in reasoning, they lost their objectivity and become part of the subjective power and realm of those with the better moral reflection to do machiavellianism.

Jarrod said...

I can't find the article--but there was a survey (in a medical journal) showing that doctors and nurses tended to have one opinion, and the medical ethicists another, across a variety of medical scenarios. (I find myself siding with the doctors: the ethicists are missing something if they consistently don't agree with the medical practitioners.)

A religious parallel might be the distinction between orthodoxy and orthopraxy. It's like there's this extra factor that makes theory "stick." I think that factor's always been there, so it wouldn't be surprising to find that moral philosophers didn't behave exceptionally better than others.

The question is, What is this "sticking" factor? And can good ethical theorizing (of an individual) happen at all in the absence of good ethical practice (of the same individual)?

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Thanks for all the comments, folks!

It's good to hear from you, Jonathan. it does seem that good moral reflection would on average lead to moral behavior more often than bad moral reflection (where I interpret the normativity of "good" here to be epistemic rather than moral) -- but it would be nice if we could specify it more precisely!

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Anonymous: That's certainly one issue in play. Thinking about trolley problems isn't very connected with everyday action. But I also find it eminently plausible to suppose that ethicists, on average, engage in more philosophical-style moral reflection on their everyday behavior than do non-ethicists, even if such reflection isn't the focus of their research. If so, then the issue still arises.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

I like your suggestion, Quotidian. One thing that I would expect is that ethicists will on average be farther along in such transformations than non-ethicists, if part of the positive force of ethics is that it makes it easier to break from conventional practices. (The converse is that when the conventions are good, the ethicist might more easily rationalize than others, as in the Einstein case.)

Anibal: That's a tough set of issues! Can I dodge the metaethics for now, though, and just focus on the kinds of behaviors for which there is a broad consensus (except among self-justifying rationalizers!) about the morality or immorality of the behavior -- such as hurtfully cheating on one's spouse, stealing library books, engaging in self-serving backstabbing politics in department meetings, etc.?

That's interesting, Jarrod. I'd like to see that article! Let me point out, though, that if ethical reasoning is still good even if not sufficient, one would still expect those who engage in a lot of it to be on average better than those who don't -- unless this extra "sticking" factor is by a large margin less common than habits of ethical reflection.

MT said...

I think you might want to consider this partly about speed, or about coming to a moral decision in a timely fashion; where "timely" may in cases mean "in time to act on urge" or in others "in such time as the moral matter at hand deserves contemplating, given the stakes." Along those lines, religion might simply offer license not to reflect--or not at length-- because it offers rules, and 1) rules can be read "fundamentalistically" (having no exceptions) and 2)rules have breadth (categorical imperatives with potentially nonsensically large categories).

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Sorry, MT, I'm not sure I follow!

MT said...

I wasn't answering what "the question then becomes," it seems to me now as I reread, but what the question had been. I imagine I was reacting to reflection in the context of whatever was the question seeming to be too vague or too abstract to yield a sensible answer. For example, there's the (pre)reflecting one could do while poised on a dubious act, which is liable to be colored by your religion or lack thereof. There's being a reflective person in general, and having (pre-pre)reflected on a kind of behavior in advance of the circumstance where you find yourself poised on just such a behavior, which certainly seems liable to influence your course of action. Then there (plain-old)reflection at length on having done something fleeting and coming to regret or rationalize or endorse what may have been an ethical judgment on the fly; which is liable to affect future choices construable as similar in kind. Maybe there's more. My point about time and efficiency was to do with these on-the-fly choices or pre-rationalizations. Ultimately, I'm dubious about this whole inquiry, because so much of what we do is, in the moment, unconscious, and on reflection only understood through an act of either good or bad rationalization necessarily. I worry that's not being accounted for in the question. Do philosophers realize know that most thinking isn't conscious? Do they care? Shouldn't they? I'm thinking maybe after Descartes dismissed that arch-deceiver hypothesis it's been all downhill.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Well, I sympathize with you for being worried about what the heck I mean by "reflection". I don't know either, other than that I'm pretty sure there's a sense of the term in which ethicists tend to do more of it, regarding ethical questions, than non-ethicists. It's something I need to sort out better.

I agree with you that most thinking isn't conscious -- I think. Except that I'm not sure what "thinking" is either!