Sunday, August 4, 2013

in which I come out (swinging) as an ethical intuitionist

Reading John Rawls's A Theory of Justice as a libertarian was illuminating in many ways, not least of which was how surprisingly libertarian his ideas are. Yes, he has his "difference principle", by which no policy leading to unequal outcomes should be implemented unless it benefits those worst off in society, and yes, he advocates a redistribution of wealth. But he also proposes that certain civil liberties are absolute, and the world is not enough to justify their abridgment. That's further than even I'm willing to go.

But perhaps the most valuable thing I got out of the book was learning the name for what my own peculiar take on ethics actually is. Rawls taught me that I'm an ethical intuitionist. These are the passages from Rawls, himself no intuitionist, that led me to this conclusion (A Theory of Justice, Section 7):
Intuitionism holds that in our judgments of social justice we must eventually reach a plurality of first principles in regard to which we can only say that it seems to us more correct to balance them this way rather than that.
We cannot take for granted that there must be a complete derivation of our judgments of social justice from recognizably ethical principles. The intuitionist believes to the contrary that the complexity of the moral facts defies our efforts to give a full account of our judgments and necessitates a plurality of competing principles. He contends that attempts to go beyond these principles either reduce to triviality [...] or else lead to falsehood and oversimplification, as when one settles everything by the principle of utility. The only way therefore to dispute intuitionism is to set forth the recognizably ethical criteria that account for the weights which, in our considered judgments, we think appropriate to give to the plurality of principles. A refutation of intuitionism consists in presenting the sort of constructive criteria that are said not to exist.
The distinctive feature, then, of intuitionistic views is [...] the especially prominent place that they give to the appeal to our intuitive capacities unguided by constructive and recognizably ethical criteria.
There's a prominent portion of political philosophy devoted to ideal theory--that is, describing the nature of the ideal, just society. These attempts commonly attempt to describe--and normatize--all of human ethics with one or a few principles. So we have utilitarianism and its variants, which reduce all ethical considerations to some kind of sum of individual pleasures or happiness units minus discomforts (or utilities minus disutilities). But it's easy to walk this theory off a cliff of some absurdity like slavery, whereby the utilities of slaveowners might outweigh the disutilities of slaves (and how do you compare utilities between distinct persons?). Of course in the 21st century we all know deep down in our bones that the utilities of slave owners (qua slave owners) and their defenders (qua defenders thereof) count for, in technical terms, fuckall. Oppressors like slave owners are real life utility monsters.

Or you have "rights" paradigms, whereby ethical considerations are delimited by certain rights of individuals (or groups?), like the right to free speech or to property or to the pursuit of happiness. But rights paradigms can be driven off a cliff too by the mere question "Says who?" Are rights from God? I don't believe in God, and neither do some reasonable folks I know. Do rights come from nature or are they self-evident? They're not self-evident to me, and all a priori derivations I've seen transparently reduce to simple assertions. Even if you accept that rights are something more than nonsense upon stilts you can run into problems if you take any given right to be absolute. Imagine a thought experiment where the salvation of some large number of people required the one-time sacrifice of an innocent child. Would we really bite the bullet and take that child's right to life to be inviolable?

Or you have "contractarian" paradigms, whereby justice is determined by the deliberations of some wise--or even better, ignorant--posse of ... well, deliberators--folks like you, me, and Joe the Plumber. But of course there never actually is a contract that anyone really decorates with her Jane Hancock. And the contractarian methodology encompasses the authoritarianism of Hobbes, the liberal egalitarianism of Rawls, and the classical liberalism of Locke--at the end of the day it's really just some political philosopher describing from his armchair the way things ought to be, the particulars of which are just as susceptible to malicious thought experiments as other hopeful theories.

The point of the above is that any attempt to derive the rules bounding ethical behavior inevitably leads to absurdities if interrogated by a sufficiently ornery interlocutor, and the absurdities are usually arrived at well before any exotic desert island, lifeboat, or trolley problems are deployed to their characteristically devastating effects. And why shouldn't this be so? The thing that all of these ideal theories have in common is that they attempt to reduce complex-adaptive realities to bite-size, deterministic formulae. It is unclear to me that physical reality itself--the domain of that most hallowed and rigorous science, physics--can be described neatly in closed form by immutable mathematical formulae. Why would we think that ethical behavior, which is so much more mushy and complex, could be so cleanly described?

Of course all of these theories have been tweaked in multiple ways to take the edge off and to avoid biting some bullets, but this can only go so far without the tweaks beginning to look like contortions. And the contortions beg the question: is it the theory that provides the ethical solutions or acceptable solutions that guide the theory?

Ethical intuitionism acknowledges all this and says "Don't panic." This doesn't mean that these ambitious efforts are all in vain. Physics is useful even without a grand unified theory, and the same is true for ethics. Constructing a theory of ethics or justice can provide perspective. Where one theory of justice gives an absurd result, perhaps another can step in and offer something more useful. Is this getting the cart before the horse, picking among theories for something that gives us what we want to hear? Yes. The ethical intuitionist embraces the use of moral gut checks, acknowledging that this what we do anyway with any theory. Our moral guts have a lot of experience not only from our evolutionary past but from our everyday interactions with others in society. We check our guts for what seems right, but we continue to develop theories of justice, rights, utilities, etc, to help us understand why our intuitions give the results they do, and more importantly, to shed some light on problems where our moral guts are completely out of their element. Our intuition leads our reason on and on in an iterative dance.

If we can't rationally deduce our way to ethical truth, does that imply moral relativism? Probably, but moral relativism isn't as bad as it's made out to be. As uncomfortable as it might be at first, it is just a fact that we have no guarantee of moral truth, and likely the best we can do is fumble in the dark.

While it was John Rawls who taught me I was an ethical intuitionist, I found succor in Amartya Sen and the Idea of Justice, which I read shortly after aToJ. Sen's approach to justice is not to characterize what a perfectly just society looks like. It is instead to start with the world as it is, with its clear and present injustices, and suggest movements toward greater justice in areas uncontroversial to most moral frameworks. It doesn't matter if liberal egalitarians and Randian libertarians disagree on the fundamentals of justice if, for a given issue, their prescriptions for justice intersect.

I almost titled this post the Idea of Jelly, because it is impossible to pin Sen down to strong normative declarations. When Sen discusses human rights or other controversial, underivable devices, he merely presents them, describes their usefulness, and quickly acknowledges these devices do not solve the problem of justice when it comes time to describe their theoretical deficits. He refuses to ride any idea off a cliff.

I found Sen's treatment of rights especially illuminating. Where in my youthful innocence I yearned for an a priori, irrefutable derivation of natural rights (negative rights of course, of the libertarian variety), it never occurred to me that even were such a derivation possible it would nevertheless not be accepted by those subscribing to competing philosophical systems. Sen doesn't even try to argue that rights come from anywhere. Rights are asserted in the forum of public reason and whatever survives scrutiny is--not true--something we can work with.
The 'existence' of human rights is obviously not like the existence of , say, Big Ben in the middle of London. Nor is it like the existence of a legislated law in the statute book. Proclamations of human rights, even  though stated in the form of recognizing the existence of things that are called human rights, are really strong ethical pronouncements as to what should be done. They demand acknowledgement of imperatives and indicate that something needs to be done for the realization of these recognized freedoms that are identified through these rights.
As an ethical intuitionist, I think this is the best we can do. But on the bright side, I actually think it's enough for progress.