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Monday, Sep 04, 2017

Is flawed moral reasoning leading America astray?

More than ever, political disagreements are framed in absolute moralistic terms.

I t seems like only yesterday that we were chastising college students for moral relativism. It was said that students could not bring themselves to say whether Hitler, Stalin, and Pol Pot were bad or whether their actions were just examples of cultural diversity.

Now, like a gigantic school of fish, they have swerved from one extreme to the other, taking up a holy crusade of sorts to seek out and slay dragons which they see everywhere. In the process they have heightened racial, generational, and sex role tensions and made their university leaders appear weak and incompetent.

Every person uses a combination of maxims and practical experience to decide whether the actions they plan to take are right or wrong. Philosophers call this moral reasoning. But the sudden lurch between extremes suggests that, for whatever reason, they're not doing it effectively enough.

Last week, for example, tens of thousands of Bostonians, mostly students, enraged at rumors that there were “white supremacists” in their city and, like a lynch mob, marched to the city center to stop a tiny group of people from speaking in defense of freedom of speech. Corporations that pander to young people now routinely censor not obscene material but ideas with which they disagree politically. Intolerance has gone mainstream, and is framed in absolute moralistic terms. What the hell happened?

An amoral compass

The prevailing culture at our universities used to be to insist that all values are equal (which implies that there are no values at all). But it also demands that the students identify in terms of so-called progressive values. These two contradictory demands create internal conflict. As conserv­atives warned, students found that moral relativism is a philosophy of weakness that leads to cynicism and paralysis. So how to resolve this conflict without abandoning relativism?

One way is to identify with adversarial cultures in order to hasten the demise of their own. Another is to find scape­goats to blame for the failure of their ideas to provide moral guidance.

We often hear that progressivism is no longer a political belief but a religion. But while calling everything a religion makes a valid point, it is explanatorily empty. For instance, in The House of Government, a meandering 1104-page history of a building in the Soviet Union, Yuri Slezkine speculated whether Marxism is a religion. It was a waste of time: the term religion has been so emptied of meaning that it must take its place alongside racism, sexism, and fascism as words that are only useful as pejoratives.

A better explanation is that their new absolutism is a reaction to the impotence of moral relativism. Social justice warriors now define their values in absolute terms: ‘racism’ and ‘homophobia’ are, in their minds, truths whose existence and malevolence must not be questioned. Even suggesting the possibility that the warriors may be a bit overwrought is the moral equivalent of being Hitler, deserving of being ignominiously hauled in front of a Star Chamber, interrogated, berated and fired. Unquestioning acceptance and enthusiastic compliance have become absolute moral principles.

Why do we reason from absolute principles, and what's so bad about it?

Is there an alternative besides absolutism and relativism? In The Abuse of Casuistry: A History of Moral Reasoning, Albert R. Jonsen and and Stephen Toulmin say yes; yes there is, and it's called casuistry.

The term casuistry is a pejorative, but it shouldn't be, say Jonsen and Toulmin. In simple terms casuistry merely means case ethics or situational ethics, which were familiar to readers of advice columnists like Ann Landers and Dear Abby. It is a form of moral reasoning by analogy, in which principles are not absolutes but guide­posts, and right and wrong are deduced within their situational context.

This 1988 book is nominally a history of moral reasoning, but in fact it sheds enormous insight on our current situation.

The appeal of simple, absolute principles is that they appear to be objective, unchanging, and settled, which is to say they—like all fixed rules—eliminate the need to think and to figure out things over and over. The rules give the appearance of fairness and justice: rules are rules, after all, and they apply equally to everyone. But it is an illusion.

Jonsen and Toulmin show how it leads to disagreement where none should exist. In 1975 a committee* was set up to devise a set of guidelines for medical research. Its members came from all branches of society, including Catholics, atheists, liberals and conservatives. Despite their disparate backgrounds, when they used practical reasoning they came to virtually identical conclusions. When they reasoned from universal principles they came to opposite conclusions. Reasoning from principles was creating a divergence of opinion, which then amplified itself and caused ideological conflict:

On the one side are those who see some one particular set (or ‘code’) of rules and principles as correct, not just now and for them but eternally and invariably. Having made that commitment, they then regard anyone who does not share that code as ‘morally blind’ and so undeserving of respect. . . . On the other side are those who reject as unwarranted all attempts to define so unique and eternal a body of ethical principles binding on peoples at all times and in all cultures. . . . So (it seems) once we accept rules and principles as the heart and soul of ethics, no middle way can be found between absolutism and relativism.

Principles simplify decision-making, but produce rigidity:

The pursuit of justice has always demanded both law and equity; respect for morality has always demanded both fairness and discernment. If we ignore this continuing duality and confine our discussion of fundamental moral and legal issues to the level of challengeable principles, that insistence all too easily generates—or becomes the instrument of—its own subtle kind of tyranny.

Results-based moral reasoning, they claim, is an effective way of avoiding inflexibility in discussions about ethics. They point out that physicians make practical, rebuttable presumptions to make decisions about what action is right and wrong for the patient and recommend clinical medicine as a model for how moral judgments can be made. Their book is very well written and deserves greater recognition.

Jacques Cousteau and Aristotle

Aristotle called the physicians' mode of reasoning phronesis or practical wisdom. It is one of the three approaches to knowledge defined in Nicomachean Ethics. (The other two are episteme or analytically derived knowledge, techné or physical knowledge. Brain researchers recognize only two: declarative and procedural.) They are incommensurable: despite Blaise Pascal's condemnation of casuistry as a fraud, ethics is not and can never be a science.

This explains why, as Jacques Cousteau might have put it, we sink deeper into the depths of political ideology, we are struck, not by all the little fishies, but by the depths of misunderstanding and conflict that arise seemingly from nowhere.

How could it be that ideology itself, rather than one specific ideology, is the problem? If I argue that the temperature is too cold and you argue that it's not warm enough, we would see immediately that the argument is silly. But in more complex questions, where the key words like equality and justice are equivocated to mean different things to different people, we can't. So we come to perceive the world in different ways, we pay attention to different facts, and eventually we come to see the other as an obstacle and an enemy to be destroyed.

Most of our political arguments today are about moral issues: abortion, racism, and how to deal with hostile foreign governments. Moral relativism prohibits one from having an opinion on issues that directly affect one's life and identity. So people often decide their positions on these issues using moral reasoning, starting from from universal ethical rules and applying them deductively to particular cases.

But principle-based reasoning can be flawed in two ways: first, the universal rules themselves may be so poorly defined as to be merely codifications of our social roles. And second, the deductive process is flawed if the process of using a universal rule is ambiguously defined and if the terms we use have multiple meanings.

Faulty reasoning

On my first day in philosophy class, I sat way in the back reading the philosophical graffiti that had been carved into the wooden seats (this was some time ago). One was the familiar joke, considered highly amusing in those days: “To be is to do—Socrates. To do is to be—Plato. Do be do be do—Frank Sinatra". The other was “Where there is number there is beauty,” a quote from the fifth century Greek philosopher and geometer Proclus.

Heresy for philosophy they were, but how much more so for sociology. Yet we think of moral reasoning as something that can done precisely, as if with numbers—beautifully— as if syllogisms like “Meat that is low in fat is good for you. Chicken is low in fat. Therefore chicken is good for you” were convincing arguments.

That syllogism is wrong in too many ways to count. For one, biologists now know the first premiss to be false. There are other things wrong with the syllogism as well. But what if much of what has gone wrong in America is the result of this kind of faulty reasoning? How embarrassing, and how wasteful.

Fields that still command respect, such as science and our criminal justice system, have been explicitly set up to adjudicate factual and normative questions. Sometimes they resort to universal principles such as symmetry or equity, but they are most successful when they struggle with and overcome the appeal of absolute principles. Concepts of statistical probability and contributory negligence, reasoning from evidence and, yes, Ann Landers-style casuistry, are powerful tools that are too often lacking in contemporary political discourse.


Of course, principle-based moral schemes have a long history, including utilitarianism, an example of which is Jeremy Bentham's felicific calculus (the greatest happiness for the greatest number). Unfortunately, this simply moved the problem of defining morality to that of defining happiness: is it pain vs. pleasure, costs vs. benefits, or good vs. evil, in which case the definition comes full circle? A similar scheme was proposed by John Rawles, whose philosophy advocated for a welfare state.

In The Demon in Democracy, Ryszard Legutko says much the same thing: the combination of Western liberalism with democracy has revealed a flaw in how we do our moral reasoning. It has warped how we see the world and led us to faulty prescriptions for action. Our attempts to reason theoretically, imitating the hard sciences, while we still lack the intellectual scaf­folding to draw any solid conclusions, lead us inexorably into social chaos.

Thus, the social chaos created by today's social justice warriors may be the direct result of their struggle to find a valid way of reasoning about right and wrong. Because the educational system deprived them of the ability to reason about ethical issues, they created one on their own, and bequeathed to us a tangled web of censorship, hate, and intolerance. Thanks a bunch.

* The National Commission for the Protection of Human Subjects of Biomedical and Behavioral Research was a committee that drafted the Belmont report which established guidelines for informed consent and risk/benefit analysis in human research. Link

sep 04, 2017; last edited sep 11, 2017, 6:42 am

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