Friday, September 26, 2008

Studying ethics

What do you think of when you hear the word "ethics"? What are the connotations?

As a postgraduate student who is currently meeting a lot of other postgraduate students, after "where are you from?" (which usually means they spoke before I did. If I speak first, then the first question is "are you from Australia?" (or "are you from Australasia?" for the more cautious ones)), the next question is almost always "what are you studying/researching?"

I have experimented with a variety of answers to this question: Divinity, Theology, Theological Ethics, Christian Ethics, Political Theology, Social Ethics, Moral Theology and more. But the only answer that seems to generate further discussion (and nearly always does so) is when I simply say "Ethics". Perhaps the others are too intimidating or simply incomprehensible, but ethics is something that people have an opinion about. And that opinion is frequently: "Why bother?" The study of ethics is seen as superfluous, with little claim to focused attention as a serious intellectual discipline.

Even putting aside a militant scientism that assumes only the natural sciences are genuine forms of knowledge, there seem to be two assumptions that lie behind this common response. The first is that ethics is simply personal: "Isn't it all just a matter of opinion?" In this case the questioner has swallowed the liberal paradigm in which "values" are a matter of personal preference and as such rational discussion or evaluation of one choice as better or worse than another is either trivial (on a par with criticising a preference for chocolate ice-cream) or even mildly offensive (like disparaging someone's fashion sense). As a long-term student (and occasional teacher) of literature, philosophy and theology, this objection and at least a few strategies to answer it are quite familiar: "It's not just opinion, but whether one's opinions are justified."

However, the second assumption has been a little more surprising (though perhaps it ought not to be). A few interlocutors have been audacious enough to claim or imply (and all this within seconds of meeting me) that ethics is peripheral to life: "I put in my ethics reports for my research, and then I have fulfilled my ethical requirements." Ethics is seen as simply a baseline minimum standard of behaviour, which, once satisfied, can be ignored so that life may proceed. I think this too is a result of liberalism. In a liberal society we conceive of ethical responsibilities through the language of rights. These rights are owned by each individual and some/all of them may be traded, exercised or waived by myself and threatened, broken or defended by others. However, such rights only relate to certain areas of life, leaving the rest of existence as an arena of "freedom" (or, to say what amounts to the same thing in other words: of the market).

In this view, most of our decisions have little or nothing to do with ethics, as long as we're not actively hurting someone else. Most of life is amoral. This also means that most of life is off-limits for rational deliberation. We can't decide which is a better or worse option because each option is simply a matter of personal preference (notice the link here with the first response). For whom are you going to vote? Well that's a private matter. Notice how only some political issues are called "moral issues", and they are ones in which someone's rights are at stake. I have discussed the limited range of this kind of rights-language at more length back here.

But this approach leaves ethics on the margins of our daily lives, only relevant in an emergency, like the fire extinguisher on the wall. Someone has to make sure it still works from time to time, and so ethicists are given a grudging acceptance for this basic maintenance. Or perhaps there is also a peripheral role to play in adjudicating line-ball cases, or areas of life that are particularly complex. The proliferation of ethics committees at hospitals is a symptom of this.

However, by reducing the ethical to observing the rights of others, morality is pushed to the margins, and life is lived in an ethical desert, with only an occasional cactus breaking the surface of a vast and featureless "freedom". In frustration, some attempt to plant more cacti, multiplying rights until they are trivialised into the right to do what I want any old time. By speaking only in a single tone of voice, an unconditional demand that my rights be respected, the rights-discourse is unable to resolve claims between competing rights: my right to bear arms vs your right not to be shot; your right to be born vs my right to avoid the complications a baby brings.

One serious challenge to the liberal consensus comes from natural law ethics, most pressingly represented in recent discussion by various streams of environmental ethics. There are simply ways of living that are against nature, and when you live contrary to nature long enough, nature fights back. This approach has the great advantage of irrigating the desert, bringing the life-giving waters of moral responsibility into every area of life so that all kinds of growth flourish until there is a veritable jungle of obligations. Soon we find that everywhere we step is squashing something.

Without denigrating the place of (a certain qualified form of) natural law ethics, my response in these conversations over the last few weeks has been to reach instead for virtue theory: ethics isn't just "do no harm", "violate no rights", but instead keeps asking questions like "who am I becoming?" In the jungle of life, where am I going and how I am getting there?


darin said...

Fascinating post on ethics. I am an ordained Baptist minister in the states and find myself drawn also to ethics. I have recently been reading a lot of Hauerwas, which sounds similar to some of what you posted, virtue based ethics, the weakness of only considering personal rights when thinking ethically, the problems of liberal society. I look forward to reading more.

Drew said...


I wonder, were the responses to 'ethics' as a discipline affected by the discipline of the responder?

At Macquarie at least, people seem to treat ethics as reasonably serious, and more than a base line - something integral to the way the university exists, the way business is done etc... but sometimes it seems as if it is aesthetic ethics - the appearance of ethics, the projection...

I'm writing a book review on virtue ethics at the moment... its a tricky area, I find.

All the best for making new friends!

Mike W said...

Of course the tricky bit is then 'how to decide what it is worth becoming'

byron smith said...

Darin - I've posted on Hauerwas a number of times previously. I find his work very stimulating, though would probably place myself closer to his long-term conversation partner Oliver O'Donovan (who is also my supervisor). I guess this post was simply noting that I find the language of virtue ethics to strike a chord with some people who haven't really thought much about ethics before.

Drew - What's the book?
What do you mean by the appearance of ethics? The appearance of being ethical or an ethics that looks good?
Yes, I'm sure the responses were affected by the discipline of the responder, though my sample size is too small to find a distinct pattern so far. I'll keep you updated if I notice one.

byron smith said...

Mike - yes, of course. But the post was already getting too long. That said, it is at least as tricky getting somewhere in a jungle as deciding where to go. It can also be pretty tricky trying to work out when and whether you have arrived. The whole business is tricky. Especially when there are lions.

Drew said...

and tigers and bears.

(Though would you ever find these three in the same place?)

when and whether you have arrived

Isn't it though? Certain U2 songs spring to mind.

The book is 'Experimental ethics' by Kwame Anthony Appiah - an attempt to marry experimental psychology with virtue ethics, and to argue for a broader disciplinary philosophy to boot. Very interesting book, very interesting on the complications involved in trying to nail down virtue and character.

Drew said...

Oops. The book is actually called Experiments in Ethics.

Martin Kemp said...

"are you from Australasia?"
Ha ha! So postgraduate...

Once I was asked in the UK whether I was from NZ ... I was surprised at how offended I was!!!