The Moral Imagination

Many years ago when I first wrote this post, a comment was made by someone calling himself “Auth” in which he (or she) characterized the poor as “folks who are usually smoking crack and pumping out babies at 1 a year.” I thought at the time that the comment, such as it was, deserved an extended response. So I wrote the following piece.

Some years ago during the Summer I was a visiting professor at the University of Rhode Island and taught a course in Ethics to a class of about 30 students. It was a good class and we had some lively discussions. At one point we were discussing Kant’s Categorical Imperative: “Act so the maxim of your will can serve as a universal law.” We tried to unpack the peculiar words in order to make some sense of them and perhaps see how they might help us resolve moral perplexities — which is the purpose of an Ethics course, after all. We decided that Kant was saying something like this: adopt a moral principle that would affect both yourself and others equally. Don’t think of yourself as the exception; we are all morally equal. In a word (though somewhat of an oversimplification) Kant was saying something very much like the “Golden Rule” — do unto others as you would have them do unto you.

The interesting part of the discussion came about when we were trying to use examples to see how the rule might be applied in a particular case. We finally came around to the case of a poor person who required assistance and we decided that anyone who was in the position of the person in need would want, even welcome, assistance. We all pretty much agreed — except for one student who simply could not imagine that he would ever be the person in need. He denied that it was morally right to help those in need if the rule depended on the one making the rule supposing himself or herself to be the person in need. He simply would not allow that the right thing to do was to help the other person. The entire class went after the young man to the point where I was genuinely concerned about his well-being. He never did change his mind.

It is possible the young man was just trying to draw attention to himself, or make a scene. But I suspected that he honestly could not imagine himself ever to be a person in need of assistance from someone else. He was not stupid by any means, though he certainly lacked empathy. But above all he lacked the faculty of imagination. He simply was incapable of putting himself in the place of another person — even for a moment. As a result after the discussion was over and I reflected on the class, I decided that this young man was incapable of acting morally in Kant’s sense of that term. If he were to do the right thing it would have to be by habit, training, or accident.

I think this is the case with the anonymous comment to my previous blog: the author of the comment simply cannot imagine that he might be poor and in need of assistance. Otherwise, how could he possibly take such a narrow, superior, unfeeling, condescending attitude toward another human being? I suspect that in this person’s mind, the poor are less than human — certainly nothing like him! Perhaps this is what allows such people to adopt the superior air. In any event, most of the comments on the blog suggested that “Auth” is in the minority: most people responded with feeling to the possibility that they might themselves be poor, given the uncertainty of today’s economy, for example, and that we do have an obligation to help those in need. I just hope that the majority of those who responded to the blog are typical of the rest of the people in this society. If they are like “Auth” or the student in that class then heaven help us!

The Sublime

The great German philosopher, Immanuel Kant, thought there were two things that were sublime: the starry sky at night and the moral law within. Increasingly, it seems to me, we are losing sight of both. Our collective attention is drawn away from the starry sky toward the electronic toys in our hands and the TV sets in our living rooms; and our introspection, such as it is, is directed toward getting in touch with our feelings. Kant thought we might capture the sublimity of nature by looking outward; we have decided it is more interesting to look at ourselves.

But, more to the point, the moral law that Kant speaks of is the single point of differentiation between animals and humans. We know a great deal more about animals than Kant did but none of our knowledge suggests that they have a sense of duty, a moral imperative to do the right thing. Oddly, some do it instinctively — like the macaque monkeys who refuse to subject their kind to pain even when promised a tasty reward, whereas humans most often do not refuse if an authority figure prompts them. But no animal other than humans, so far as we now know, can reason about right and wrong and determine which is which (whether or not we do so is another matter entirely). Kant only says that we have this capacity. It is a capacity, it seems to me, that we are increasingly unwilling or unable to exercise.

Morality for Kant consists in making choices, doing our duty, what we are called to do as rational beings. We have the capacity to determine what we want to do and distinguish between that and what we ought to do. The two are often in opposition to one another, most often. And there’s the rub! Most of us tend to focus on what we want to do and seldom ask ourselves what it is we ought to do — or so it seems. We are, as Martin Luther King might have it, losing sight of the moral high ground. This is true of us as individuals and as a nation. This is what Colin Kaepernick’s protest is all about, though few seem to realize it and see only a desecration of the American flag.

According to Kant the determination of what in a particular case is our duty is determined by the “categorical imperative,” which sounds a good deal like the Golden Rule when you come right down to it. It requires that we adopt rules that would apply to anyone anywhere. John Rawls, the Harvard philosopher, referred to “the original position.” What would we do if we were not privileged white folks with silver spoons in our mouths? What would we do in the original position when we have no idea what is to become of us, whether we will turn out black, white, red, as wealthy or as homeless people on the streets? If we adopted the perspective of the original position when faced with choices we would most often do the right thing: the thing we would have others do as well.

As it happens, of course, in this sophisticated age of ours we have reduced the starry sky to a puzzle to be solved and tend to ignore the moral law within just as we seem to have lost sight of the moral high ground — preoccupied as we are with the here and now of immediate gratification. In any event, all of this philosophical palaver is far too complicated for people who increasingly eschew reason altogether and prefer to simply go with the flow, do what feels right. Who’s to say? we ask.

My answer to this question has always been: anyone with a brain and the willingness to use it to ask the pivotal moral question, what should I do? Animals, it appears, cannot ask themselves that question. Growing numbers of humans refuse to do so. But in that refusal and our insistence on grasping the mysteries of the universe in a mathematical formula we lose our grasp on the two things that make our world sublime. And in doing so we reduce the glorious world and the better part of ourselves to dull, flat surfaces.

Reason In Ethics

One of the most common questions when it comes to ethical disputes is “Who’s to say?” This question reveals the skepticism so many of us experience when it comes to ethics, the conviction that it is really all just a matter of opinion. I have argued in previous posts that it is a good deal more than that, that ethical disputes are capable of resolution, there is a “right” and a “wrong” answer in ethics — if we can only find it. In the end, my claim rests on the notion that some arguments that support ethical conclusions are reasonable and others are not. But, one might say, who’s to say what is “reasonable”? To the goons who took over a federal park in Oregon their behavior is quite reasonable; to the rest of the world (excepting other goons) it is unreasonable, if not criminal. But, then, am I rejecting everyone who disagrees with me with a sweep of the hand as “goons”? Let’s take a look. I might say at the outset, however, that to jettison reason in ethics means that the only way to reject, say, Fascism is with the pathetic cry, “that’s just not the way we do things here in our neck of the woods.” This is absurd on its face.

A reasonable conclusion to an ethical argument resembles reasonable conclusions in any other field of inquiry: there is something stubborn about a reasonable conclusion that is absent in an unreasonable argument. But, who’s to say it’s “stubborn”? Isn’t this a matter of opinion as well? Not entirely, though subjective feelings certainly enter in. But a stubborn argument is one that is regarded as stubborn not only by the one advancing it but also by a neutral person who might be standing by. The British philosophers liked to talk about “the man  in the Clapham omnibus,” but since we are not British and we have no idea what the Clapham omnibus might be, this bears no weight whatever. American philosophers like to talk about “the man in the street,” but we now know that this is sexist and heaven knows we want to avoid sexism at all costs. So what’s left? I suggest that what is left is a jury of your peers.

What this means is that an ethical argument, like any other argument, can be tested for soundness (stubbornness) by asking whether a jury of our peers would be persuaded by that argument. For example, if I make the claim that discrimination is wrong and base it on the factual evidence that shows how discrimination renders the working place unfair to women — because we know about the “glass ceiling,” or that the average wage of the woman in the working place is so much lower than it is for the average male, etc. — and then if I add that this disparity violates the ethical principle of fairness, then I have put together a rather strong argument, one that is reasonable and can stand up to scrutiny by a neutral panel of my peers. But, someone might object, the so-called principle of fairness is itself subjective. I think not, and the case can be made by simply asking one who raises this question if he would regard it as fair if he were paid the same wage as the average woman doing the same job. Is it fair that two people doing the same work be paid differently? In other words, putting the shoe on the other foot engages the imagination of those who argue and makes the “stubbornness” of the argument apparent. In all honesty one cannot insist that he would in fact accept the same wage as another person who was paid less — unless he is perverse and simply wanted to argue for argument’s sake.

Ethical arguments involve ethical principles at some point, and there may be various ways to understand those principles. But the principle of fairness is fairly straightforward: just ask a 6-year-old child if it is fair that he (or she) be given a smaller piece of birthday cake than the child next to him (or her). It’s that simple. And another fundamental ethical principle is the principle of respect for persons. This principle is incorporated in the so-called “Golden Rule” and simply requires that we acknowledge that all persons ought to be treated with respect, ourselves included. It’s what we want and therefore what we can imagine everyone else wants as well. These two principles form the warp and woof of every major religion on earth and our collective social consciousness as well.

Thus, the notion of “reasonableness” in ethics is a notion that has weight. Arguments that are reasonable are ones that we ought to agree with whether we want to or not, even if it is terribly inconvenient. Thus, it is highly doubtful that those who insist that their stand in the federal park in Oregon was morally justifiable could put together an argument that is reasonable, that will stand up to the scrutiny of a jury of their peers. I dare say that will soon become apparent.