Saturday, November 21, 2015

Various Jottings on Applied Ethics and Refugees

* I tend not to like teaching what goes by the label 'applied ethics' in my Ethics courses. For one reason, the label is a bit absurd, since if you are teaching ethics with any intelligence at all, it is all applied, by the very fact that it is ethics. Unapplied ethics is nothing but useless words, which is an irony given that 'applied ethics' is usually just a bunch of arguments and not any actual application itself. What people usually mean by 'applied ethics' is 'discussion of topics that are politically controversial, or that one wishes to be politically controversial'.

What is more, this discussion tends to be removed from reality, and involves teaching rather complicated and strained arguments on matters in which the real-life arguments, the ones that cause the controversy in the first place, are relatively straightforward. This is inevitable. People tend to be intellectually timid and, under the hypocritical masks of intellectual humility or of being nice or of being righteous already, or by feigning relativism (since many relativist responses in real argument are feigned as an attempt to avoid having to argue), or with a scorched-earth obnoxiousness, or simply through uncooperative silence, will in real life try to shut down rational disputation. (We all have a tendency to all of these things, and lapsing into them occasionally is merely human. But (1) what is important here is how this works out on a large scale rather than in individual cases, and (2) I think it can be argued that modern societies in particular tend to reward intellectual cowardice in the face of argument.) They will not trust complicated arguments in matters of controversy, so widely controversial matters will tend in reality to involve relatively simple points of contention; and using more complicated arguments in the course of such controversies without suffering retaliation for the mere fact of doing so is an art-form that most people do not learn and that no one learns perfectly. The evidence for both these points litters every discussion of a controversial ethical matter one ever finds. But people who teach ethics classes tend to shut down the crude, simple arguments of real life, failing to take into account properly whether the arguments might be good as first approximations or crude summations of serious ethical reflection, or, perhaps more egregiously, whether the arguments might suffer from the fact that ethical vocabulary in controversial matters tends easily to be become confused and confusing.

And this is not even getting into the fact, of course, that most people who think they are teaching controversial topics fairly, and without any hint of persuasion tactics that do not depend on the quality of arguments, are often kidding themselves.

* Some of the things that one might discuss under the label 'applied ethics' inevitably come up in ethical discussions. But there is a good reason for not treating them as stand-alone. And there are kinds of topics that should come up (and will in any properly run ethics course) that wouldn't usually be discussed in such courses, but would make more sense to discuss than many of the things that do. For instance, one of the things that happens to come up when I briefly look at ethics in business contexts is the notion of time-theft. Students always take the idea for granted; but as I point out, it's very difficult to make sense of the idea if you are utilitarian, Kantian, or an Aristotelian virtue ethicist, and they have difficulty defending the notion at all, despite almost all of them thinking it's a genuine ethical issue. (The discussion is always very fun for me, although occasionally frustrating for the students. I always ask, for instance, why 'time-theft' doesn't imply that employment is a form of slavery, in which you are selling yourself for a period of time, and the only answer that they can usually come up with is that people could just not be employed if they have a problem with it.) Here is a notion explicitly purporting to be a matter of ethics that people regularly come into contact with, and almost nobody ever examines it in an ethics class. There are lots of such things floating around. People don't know much about civil service, despite its being by its very nature an ethical reform of government; and say astounding things about medical triage, an ethical term that is regularly twisted for implications that are exactly opposite of what the whole purpose of the idea originally was; and put great weight on not harming people without putting much time or thought into how one determines what is harmful; and attribute to mere consent powers that verge on superstitious. And one doesn't even have to get into any kind of definite controversy: how much have most people thought about topics like forgiveness or mercy or patience or thoughtfulness to others or niceness or hospitality, despite the fact that these things are day to day realities of living an ethical life, involving ideas everyone uses?

* [ADDED LATER] Historically in aesthetics, people tend to focus on the beautiful and the sublime, although occasional other concepts, like the picturesque or the suspenseful, have become topics of interest. But there has been a recent move toward looking more closely at 'everyday aesthetics' and the concepts involved -- which will, of course, include the beautiful, etc., at times, but also includes things like the cute or the tidy -- which are in some ways interesting on their own and sometimes intersect with the big, grand concerns in unusual ways. It seems that one could easily have an 'everyday ethics' analogous to this. Why always focus on the big, controversial issues? Why not focus occasionally on the small, homely ones? They are often as rewarding, and sometimes more illuminating.

* I find much of the discussion of the refugee crisis coming out of Syria to be a good example of the tendency of modern politics always to drive the discussion to focusing on the wrong question. The question everyone seems to ask is, "Should nations let in refugees (without such-and-such tight constraints)?" But, whatever the moral importance of this question, it is not morally the most important question. The most important question, if we are actually concerned with morality at all, is "What do the nations do with the refugees they let in?" Or, as we might well put it, the single most important idea in doing justice to refugees is not 'refugee' but 'refuge'. A refuge obviously takes in refugees; but how one manages to be a refuge is the key matter of importance, and whether one really offers a refuge at all is perhaps even more important. To take people in while offering them nothing but ghettos and welfare dependence, or economic exploitation in the ever-restless pursuit of cheap labor, or an uncertain life of unjust treatment, is not really to offer refuge at all. The question that matters most is about what kind of refuge to be.

* The more political discussions I witness the more I am convinced that serious work needs to be done on what might be called the quasi-virtue ethics of national character. National character was once a minor but seriously considered topic in ethics. Hume discusses it, for instance, and that there is such a thing falls out easily from his account of moral assessment. According to Hume, when we make a moral judgment, what we are actually doing is judging character; so if we make moral judgments about societies/peoples/communities/nations/groups, we are attributing some kind of moral character to them as societies/peoples/communities/nations/groups. And Hume thinks this notion of a unified character for a people is entirely explicable in terms of "sympathy or contagion of manners" combined with social pressure, even given the variation within the population itself. Regardless, it seems clear enough that we keep talking about nations and societies and groups of people as having particular virtue-like or vice-like character traits (compassion, hypocrisy, generosity, and so such), so this is something that should at least be examined.

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