Monday, June 16, 2008

My Perfectionist Account of Ethics

I've been meaning to post a few details about my "conception of the good" for a number of months now. The process of arriving at this view has been a long one, and this account of morality is something I have only come to affirm in the last 2 years or so. This account has been shaped by both my professional and personal life. My general thoughts today will draw exclusively from the latter (my inspiration from the former comes from an excellent article by David Brink on what he calls "metaphysical egoism", as well the work of Socrates, Plato, Aristotle and many other philosophers and thinkers).

Here I offer these brief comments not for the purposes of developing a rigourous philosophical account of ethics, but rather to emphasis the practical implications of the view I now endorse. So the goal of this post is to offer some insights that might help us flourish as human beings (rather than just as scholars)!

This account of ethics and the good is not something that explicitly guides my day-to-day decision-making. Rather, invoking and developing this account of the good helps me make sense of my own life (my aspirations, desires, fears and anxieties) and inspires me to further develop and grow as a reflective, moral agent. So in terms of trying to relate this account of the good to my own life, I appreciate the virtues of seeing this account as a "provisional" view, a kind of life-long "work in progress"! And I think that is the healthy way to approach the challenge of living a decent, moral life.

Let's start with the "foundations" of a theory of morality. Despite being raised in a somewhat religious household and attending two Catholic elementary schools, I am now (and have been for a number of years) a firmly committed (indeed, militant) atheist. To ground something as important as morality on the superstitions of the existence of fairies, pixies or gods is, well... let's just say it is something I no longer seriously entertain. There are so many interesting, fascinating things to learn and contemplate that I find it a real bore investing one's energies in talk of "the supernatural". The life we have "here and now" is the only life we have to live. Such is the fate of all living things (though this is not reason to despair!...).

Where, then, do we turn to in terms of laying the foundations of morality? This is perhaps the biggest challenge facing secular ethics.

Kantians derive their account of ethics from a maxim (like the Categorical Imperative (CI)) that rational agents can derive a priori. So to be a moral agent that can grasp the fundamental philosophical issues of morality, one must be able to detach themselves from their own passions and desires. The importance of autonomy continues on in contemporary neo-Kantian accounts of justice. John Rawls, for example, founds his account of "justice as fairness" on the importance of the separateness of persons (and replaces the CI with his decision procedure known as the original position).

Rather than emphasis the importance of autonomy and the separateness of persons, my conception of morality and the good emphasizes the fact that we are interrelated. More specifically, that we are psychologically connected and continuous with others. So the values and aspirations of my children and wife are part of my own values and aspirations (and vice versa). To love another is to extend oneself in them (to hear their voice in your own mind, even when they are not physically present).

Interpersonal (as well as intrapersonal) self-extension is thus the key to the account of ethics that I personally subscribe to. In other words, love is the foundation of morality and the good life. I know that will sound corny to many, but I think this has the potential to provide us with a sophisticated account of morality that actually has some real explanatory power (in terms of explaining the way we really do behave) and it can also generate some sage prescriptions in terms of how we ought to live our individual and collective lives.

So how does self-extension permit us to flourish, and how does it generate other-regarding duties? This vision of ethics begins by accepting humans for what we really are-- we are temporal, social beings with limited and fallible cognitive capacities. These limitations pose numerous problems for us as we contemplate how we ought to live (e.g. limited information, biases). To overcome these shortcomings we need to place a premium on our deliberative capacities. And we cannot do this if we go through life as isolated "Robinson Crusoes".

The fact that humans are not self-sufficient at producing a complete deliberative good provides us with an incentive for fostering interpersonal self-extension. By extending ourselves in others we enlarge our menu of options (thus gaining new information, new insights, etc.). The details of how different kinds and degrees of self-extension promotes one's eudaimonia is of course a very complex issue. And I won't be able to get into all the details here. In part because I think this ethic has real force only when it is developed as a "particularlist" ethic (that is, when worked out in the confines of one's own life, with all the diverse variables that arise with respect to different people's lives and circumstances). But let me offer some general points, for a coherent account of ethics must be able to make such points if it is to serve as a guide for people in diverse circumstances.

Firstly, it is worth emphasising how forging intimate relations with others expands our deliberative good. Take the family, which I believe is the most important institution. The love between a child and parent enhances the deliberative good of all. By caring and loving for a child a parent's deliberative good is enhanced in numerous ways. It permits one to better understand the vulnerability of our species, and the importance of trust and love. Once a parent has held their new born child in their arms, fed him, changed him and helped settled him in bed, he or she will see all of humanity in a new light. Becoming a caring, loving parent changes your identity in numerous ways.

Likewise, being a child loved by parents and grandparents profoundly shapes one's perception of the world. You learn the values of love, trust and reciprocity. You appreciate the challenges people and relationships face, as they can grow and evolve. Such relationships permit us to profit immensely from the experiences and wisdom of those who have faced the challenges that now await us. Rather than stumbling through life, searching blindly for love, happiness and financial security, hopefully the virtues and knowledge instilled in us by those we have historically depended upon will help us better navigate these challenges.

I could go on... mentioning how forging links with those of the opposite sex (be it a mother, sister or wife) can open one's eyes to patriarchy... how witnessing the eventual physical and cognitive decline of a loved grandparent can help one prepare for the challenges of the future as well as appreciate the many things we tend to take for granted (like our health).

Developing our deliberative capacities requires we go beyond just extending ourselves in our friends and families. There are very good reasons for fostering self-extension in a diverse range of people who are not intimates (e.g. compatriots, non-nationals). Doing so enlarges our menu of options, and helps us overcome the biases and limits of our time and place. This can be accomplished by staying abreast of the world's news, reading novels, appreciating art, etc. There are many different ways of becoming psychologically connected and continuous with others. And forging these relations often motivates us to aid others.

So let me finish these brief reflections with this final point. If one wants real happiness, then they should aspire to consult with many different people and sources. "Many minds" are better than one! The same advice would apply to a healthy polity. Society should consult with many different deliberative bodies before deciding how to proceed. We rely on the input of elected legislatures and executives, as well as the specialized expertise of judges and administrators. A virtuous person, like a virtuous society, will rely on the counsel of many. The big mistake is to think that one can be self-sufficient at living a good life, something which I think autonomy-based accounts of ethics risk doing.

So anyone who asks the question "How should I live my life?" is heading in the right direction because they have already developed the habits necessary for living a reflective life. At the end of the day I think Socrates was correct: "the unexamined life is not worth living". And you are more likely to examine your life critically if you extend yourself in others. So a loving philosopher (by which I mean one who "loves wisdom", not someone employed as an academic philosopher!) is perhaps the ideal of the moral agent!

Martha Nussbaum poignantly captures the real meaning of love in her interview in the Guardian here. The interviewer asks her "What does love feel like?" To which she responds "It's not a feeling, it's a relationship, a way of life".

To aspire to love, to actually love and to be loved... that, my friends, is the truly good life! Our desire for love is evident in the great art works of humanity, like this passionate poem, the beautiful painting of "Mère à l'enfant" by Picasso above, and this song. May we all find love and flourish!