Friday, September 08, 2023

One Reason to Walk the Walk: To Give Specific Content to Your Assertions

Last week, I discussed some reasons we might not expect or want professional ethicists to "walk the walk" in the sense of living by the ethical norms they espouse in their teaching and research. (In short: This isn't their professional obligation; it's reasonable for them to trust convention more than their academic conclusions; and one can arguably be more objective in evaluating arguments if one isn't obligated to modify one's life depending on those conclusions.) Today I want to start talking about why I think that's too simple.

To be clear: I just want to start talking about it. I'll give one reason why I think there's some benefit to walking the walk, as an ethicist. I don't intend this as a full account.

Short version: Ethical slogans lack concrete, practical meaning unless they are grounded in a range of examples. One's own life can provide that range of examples, putting flesh on the blood or your slogans. If you say "act on that maxim that you can at the same time will to be a universal law", I have no idea what you are specifically recommending -- and I worry that you might not have much idea either. But if you put it to work in your life, then what it amounts to, at least as expressed by you, becomes much clearer.

Longer version:

Love Is Love, and Slogans Require a Context

A few years ago, signs like this began to sprout up in my neighborhood:

In this house, we believe:
Black lives matter
Women’s rights are human rights
No human is illegal
Science is real
Love is love
Kindness is everything

If you know the U.S. political scene, you'll understand that the first five of these slogans have meanings much more specific than is evident from the surface content alone. "Black lives matter" conveys a belief that great racial injustice still exists in the U.S., perpetrated especially by the police, and it recommends taking action to rectify that injustice. "Women's rights are human rights" conveys a similar belief about continuing gender inequality, especially with respect to reproductive rights, including access to abortion. "No human is illegal" expresses concern over the mistreatment of people who have entered the U.S. without legal permission. "Science is real" expresses disdain for mainstream Republicans' dismissal of scientific evidence in policy, especially concerning climate change. And "love is love" expresses the view that heterosexual romantic relationships should not be privileged above homosexual romantic relationships, especially with regard to the rights of marriage. "Kindness is everything" is also interesting, and I'll get to it in a moment.

How confusing and opaque all of this would be to an outsider! Imagine a time traveler from the 19th century. "Love is love". Well, of course! Isn't that just a tautology? Who could disagree? Explain the details, however, and our 19th century guest might well disagree. The content of this slogan, or "belief", is radically underspecified by the explicit linguistic content. Another feature of these claims is that they sound less controversial in the abstract than they do after contextual specification. The surface content of both "Black lives matter" and the opposing rallying cry, "all lives matter" is unobjectionable. However, whether special attention should be dedicated to anti-Black police violence, or whether instead pro-Black protesters have gone too far -- that's quite another matter.

The last slogan, "kindness is everything", is to my knowledge less politically specific, but it illustrates a connected point. Clearly, it expresses support for increasing kindness. But kindness isn't literally everything, certainly not ontologically, nor even morally, unless something extremely thin is meant by "kindness". If a philosopher were to espouse this slogan, I'd immediately want to work through examples with them, to assess what this claim amounts to. If I give an underperforming student the C-minus they deserve instead of the A they want, am I being kind to them, in the intended sense? How about if I object to someone's stepping on my toe? Of course, these sketchy questions lack detail, since there are many ways to step on someone's toe, and many ways to object, and many different circumstances in which toe-stepping might be embedded, and not all C-minus situations are the same. Working through abstract examples, though, at least gets us started on what counts as "kindness" and what priority it should have when it appears to conflict with other goods.

But here's what would really make the slogan clear: a life lived in kindness -- an observable pattern of reactions to a wide range of complex situations. How does the person who embodies the slogan "kindness is everything" react to having their toe stepped on, in this particular way by this particular person? Show me specific kindness-related situations over and over, with all the variation that life brings. Only then will I really understand the ideal. We can do this sometimes in imagination, developing a feel for someone's character and way of life. In a richly imagined fiction, or in a set of stories about Confucius or Jesus or some other sage, we can begin to see the substance of a moral view and set of values, going beyond the slogans.

In the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson, patriot, revolutionary, and slaveowner, wrote "All men are created equal". This sounds good. People in the U.S. endorse that slogan, repeat it, embrace it in all sincerity. What does it mean? All "men" in the old-fashioned sense that supposedly also included women, or really only men? Black and cognitively disabled people too? And in what does equality consist? Does it mean that all adults should have the right to vote? Equal treatment before the law? Certain rights and liberties? What is the function of "created" in the sentence? Do we start equal but diverge? We could try to answer all these questions, and new more specific questions would spring forth, hydra-like (which laws specifically, under which conditions?) until we tack it down in a range of examples. The framers of the U.S. Constitution certainly didn't agree on all of these matters, especially the question of slavery. They could agree on the slogan while disagreeing radically about what it amounts to, because the slogan is neither "self-evident" nor determinate in its content. In one precisification, it might be only some banal thing even King George III would have accepted. In another precisification, it might entail universal franchise and the immediate abolition of slavery, in which case Jefferson himself would have rejected it.

Kant famously disdained casuistry -- the study of ethics through the examination of cases -- and it's understandable why. When he took steps in that direction, he embarrassed himself. You should not lie even to the murderer at the door chasing down your friend. Masturbation is a horror akin to murdering yourself, only less courageous. It's fine to kill children born out of wedlock. Women fleeing from abusive husbands should be returned against their will. Servants should not be permitted to vote because their "existence, as it were, is only inherence". Kant preferred beautiful abstractions: Act on that maxim that you can at the same time will to be a universal law. Treat everyone as an end in themselves, never as a mere means. Sympathetic scholars can accept these beautiful abstractions and ignore Kant's foolish treatment of cases. If they work through the cases themselves, reaching different judgments than Kant himself did, they put flesh on the view -- but not the flesh that was originally there. They've converted a vague slogan into a more concrete position. As with "all mean are created equal", this can be done in many ways.

So as not to poke only at Kant, similar considerations apply to consequentialist mottoes like "maximize utility" and virtue ethicist mottoes like "be generous". Only when we work through involuntary organ donor cases, and animal cases, and what to do about people who derive joy from others' suffering, and what kinds of things count as utility, and what to do about uncertainty, and what to do about future people, etc., do we have a real consequentialist view instead of an abstract skeleton. It would be nice to see a breathing example of a consequentialist life -- a consequentialist sage, so to speak, who lives thoroughly by consequentialist principles (maybe the ancient Chinese philosopher Mozi was one; see also MacFarquhar 2015). Might that person look like a Silicon Valley effective altruist, investing a huge salary wisely in index funds in expectation of donating it someday for the purchase of a continent's worth of mosquito nets? Or will they rush off immediately to give medical aid to the poor? Will they never eat desserts, or are those seeming-luxuries needed to keep their spirits up to do other good work? Will they pay for their children's college? Will they donate a kidney? An eye? What specific considerations do they appeal to, pro and con, and how much does it depend on which particulars? The more specific, the more we move from a diffuse slogan to determinate advice.

The Power of Walking the Walk: Discovering the Specifics.

One great advantage of walking the walk, then, is that it gives your slogans specificity. Nothing is more concrete than particular responses to particular cases. Kant never married. (He had a long relationship with a valet, but I'll assume that's a rather different thing.) If Kant says, "don't deceive your spouse", well, I'm not sure he really ever confronted the reality of it or worked through the cases. On the other hand, if your father-in-law, happily married for sixty-plus years, says "don't deceive your spouse", that's quite different. He'll have lived through a wide range of cases, with a well-developed sense of what the boundaries of honesty are and how to manifest it -- what exceptions there might be, what omissions and vaguenesses cross the boundary into unacceptable dishonesty, how much frankness is really required, how to weigh honesty against other goods. This background of long marriage provides context for him to really mean something quite specific when he says "don't deceive your spouse". I might not understand immediately what he means -- those words could mean so many different things coming from different mouths -- but I can look to his life as an example, and I can trust that he has grappled with a wide range of difficult cases, which ideally we could talk through. His words manifest a depth that will normally be absent from similar advice from an unmarried person.

Ethics can be abstract. Kant was, perhaps, a great abstract ethicist. But if you don't apply your ethics to real cases, over and over, if you deal only in slogans and abstractions and a few tidy paragraph-long thought experiments, then your ethics is spectral, or at best skeletal. It will be very difficult to know what it amounts to -- just as, I've argued, we don't really know what "act on that maxim you can at the same time will to be a universal law" amounts to, without thinking through the cases. Maybe in private study you work through ten times as many cases as you publish in your articles or present in the classroom. But that's still a tiny fraction of the cases that someone will confront who attempts to actually live by a broad-reaching ethical principle; and what you privately imagine -- forgive me -- will probably be simplistic compared to the messiness of daily life. Contrast this with Martin Luther King's ethics of non-violent political activism or Confucius's ethics of duty and propriety. We who never met them can only get a glimpse of what their fully embodied principles must have been, as enacted in their lives. My point is not that they were saints. King, and presumably Confucius, were flawed characters. But when King endorsed non-violent activism as a means of political change and when Confucius said "do not speak unless it is in accord with ritual; do not move unless it is in accord with ritual" (5th c. BCE/2023, §12.1, p. 33), they had confronted many real cases and so must have had a much fuller grasp of the substance behind these slogans than it is realistic to expect anyone to obtain simply from reading and reflection.

The ethicist who does not attempt to live by their principles -- if they are principles that can be lived by and not, for example, reflections about what to do simply in certain rare or remote cases -- thus abandons the best tool they have for repeatedly confronting the practicalities, the limits, the conflicts, the disambiguations, which force them to work out the specific, determinate content of the principles they endorse.

Now there is a sense in which a view could have a very specific, determinate content, even if we don't know what that content is. Consider simple act utilitarianism, according to which we should do what maximizes the total sum of pleasure minus the total sum of pain. Arguably, each time you act, there is a single specific act you could do which would be right according to this view -- though also, arguably, it is impossible to know what this act is, since every act has numerous, long-running, and complicated consequences. In a way, the principle has specific content: exactly act A is correct and no other, though who knows what act A is? However, this is not specific, determinate content in the sense that I mean. To have a livable ethical system, the act utilitarian needs to develop estimates, guesses, more specific principles and policies; and different act utilitarians might approach that problem very differently. It is these actionable specifics that constitute the practical substance of the ethical view.

The hard work of trying to live out your ethical values -- that's how ordinary mortals discover the substance of their principles. Otherwise, they risk being as indeterminate as the slogan "love is love" removed from its political context.



"Does It Matter if Ethicists Walk the Walk?" (Sep 1, 2023)

"Love Is Love, and Slogans Require a Context of Examples" (Mar 13, 2021)


Paul D. Van Pelt said...

Eric: you have given good reasons for walking the walk, and, talking the talk. Specificity and context are meaningful ways of showing an audience you say what you mean; mean what you say. During the time of Kant, and given his checkered reputation, we have to wonder: did he care? Reasonings have, and I think are, changing. King, from all I know about him, did care. Jefferson, as a slave owner, walked the walk from his point of view, by espousing ideas that would stir patriots and warm the hearts of freedom loving men. But, Tom had skin-in-game too. He counted on his limited altruism to insulate slave ownership. And, largely, it worked. Even today, after scores of years, criticism of Jefferson is largely muted. In my opinion,reality and truth are way more contextual than they were, Jefferson's ruse, notwithstanding. People say, do and believe these interrelated sentiments to be whatever is made up as they go. So, more and more, walking the walk, becomes *whatever the traffic will bear* or, I will jealously guard my skin in the game.

chinaphil said...

This raises the problem that ethicists often research areas of life in which they do not directly participate. You can write about the ethics of war, corporate ethics, the ethics of art, or ethical issues relating to the opposite sex - while not engaging in war, being a corporation, producing art, or changing gender. Your recent article on ethical design for AI is a nice example: it's not clear how you personally might walk the walk on that one.

Paul D. Van Pelt said...

Very good. Kind of goes back to Wittgenstein, doesn't it? The Tractatus? If you don't know what you are talking about, don't open your mouth? I once thought less of Ludwig. I am changing my mind... Contextual reality goes both ways. Truth, some of it, is conditional....hmmmm...

Arnold said...

My short version of slogans in context...
...slogans can be aphorisms...

12 yrs ago I got lucky, finding Splintered Mind and learning about Philosophy of psychology...
...and I have learned "Philosophy of psychology" is a slogan needing context...

That Philosophy can be a search of what is here, and...
... that psychology can be walking the walk in what is here

Practicing exercises for staying with seeing hearing experiencing myself as forms of energy thru what is here...
...This seems is a forever purpose for of what is here

Simon said...

I think if a moral philosopher can't live by their philosophy - then either they lack personal integrity, or their philosophy is lacking in veracity.

Paul D. Van Pelt said...

Spot on. Part of my thinking, with an economy of words.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Thanks for the comments, folks! I basically agree. Yes, chinaphil, that's an important caveat, and I do think that it's reasonable to expect that when ethicists are expressing opinions beyond the territory on which they walk, the claims are going to be more skeletal and less tested in the fires of real-world complexity. That doesn't mean that the ideas will be entirely vacuous, useless, or unjustified, though.