Hope and complicity.

South Africa is a hard place to feel hopeful.

I’ve been thinking a lot the past few months and years about the survivability of progressive and radical politics. How do you remain motivated and politically engaged in a world that is so horrifying on so many levels? I wonder is part of the moderation of people’s politics as they get older a kind of burn out, rather than just a self-serving shift to the right to protect newly accumulated wealth. Perhaps it’s Paris, but I don’t know how people can remain sane in the face of a lot of what happens in the world.

I spoke with a friend this weekend about the deep, intractable political divisions here, and about how impossible it seems for him to have productive political discussions with white South Africans. I don’t know how people don’t go insane here. The white people in the BMWs drive around pretending not to see the black people begging at the traffic lights. The black people begging at the traffic lights somehow, somehow, smile at me through the windshield.

Complicity is toxic. A huge part, the main part, of why I couldn’t live here is the extent of the complicity I would feel. It’s also why living in Australia is so difficult. How do you avoid feeling complicit when you are so comprehensively outnumbered that you can’t hope to effect any structural change, and so any good you might do is bounded by an unjust system?

What would happen if my neighbour with his two BMWs seriously morally confronted the wealth inequality here? How would he live with himself? It’s the same problem with veganism and climate change. Confronting the scale of the problem and the extent of your complicity in it, and your powerlessness to stop it, threatens your sanity. It seems impossible – how could the world be so limitlessly unjust? How are we to live in such a world?

“If the rule you followed led you to this…”

Scott Alexander over at SlateStarCodex just wrote an interesting series of musings in response to a blog post by a David Chapman, which was itself a summary of a guy called Robert Kegan’s work on different “stages” of thinking as they apply to ethics. Kegan posits these stages as being developmental (that is, linear), which I’m not entirely comfortable with, but I do think the model has significant descriptive power in terms of how people think about ethics, regardless of how you want to rank those modes of thought.

To summarise very briefly (based on Chapman’s summary, which may be a total bastardisation of Kegan’s work, since I haven’t read it). Stage 1 is being an infant, with no ethical component to experience or behaviour. Stage 2 is what you see in toddlers and primary school age children, where ethical behaviour is essentially transactional and other people’s concerns are instrumental – “If you let me play with your doll, I’ll let you borrow my coloured pencils”.

Stage 3, or what Chapman refers to as “communal” ethics, generally appears in adolescence and is a mode in which other people’s interests become valuable in themselves – this is an ethics that prizes loyalty and maintaining relationships. So if I’m your friend and something hurts my feelings, it’s wrong for you to do it, because we’re friends and my feelings should matter to you. If you do it anyway, apparently you cared more about whatever it was than my feelings, and our friendship isn’t that important to you. You have betrayed me. I wouldn’t have done the same to you.

Stage 4 or systematic ethics is when you move into the area of abstract reasoning about ethical problems – where you make ethical decisions based on principles rather than solely on the basis of the consequences of your specific actions for people you care about and your relationships with them. You knew that sleeping with my ex would hurt my feelings, but he and I broke up a long time ago, and you don’t think it’s reasonable for one person’s feelings about a past relationship to prevent other people having their own relationships indefinitely. You made your choice not because you don’t care about our friendship or my feelings, but by applying a general principle – it’s okay to sleep with people’s exes if the relationship was a long time ago. If you’re lucky, I’ll understand.

Stage 5 or meta-systematic ethical thinking is type of thinking which involves comparing systems and contemplating the purpose of systematic thinking itself. In this stage you might realise that the systems we use to govern out ethical thinking are not laws in themselves, but actually merely tools that we use to solve ethical problems. So you could espouse the principle above, apply it, and threaten our friendship – but equally, you could choose another principle, say, “Bros before hoes”. Which one of these you chose depends on the kind of person you are, what you value, and what kind of thinking you find intuitive. If you’re a quantitative type of person, you’ll be drawn to utilitarianism (is your happiness and that of my ex a greater concern than my pain?). If you’re a hand-washing coward I’m sorry I mean a principled and noble spirit, you’ll be drawn to deontology (sleeping with friend’s exes can’t be forbidden, or nobody would ever get laid). If you have a strong sense of justice and fairness, you’ll be drawn to Rawls, and so on (have I found another boyfriend while my ex is still single, miserable, and in need of being cheered up?).

Both Alexander and Chapman talk a bit in their entries about how systematic thinking looks to communal thinkers – that is, it looks calculating, insensitive and selfish. What the hell do you mean you have principles – you just fucked my ex! We’re supposed to be friends! What they don’t talk about, because they are what my friend Andy calls Hyper-Rational-Dude-Bros (and I say that with love, as a lover of rational dudes) is that from a meta-systematic perspective that’s a totally fair assessment of systematic ethics. (Maybe because they didn’t want to be so arrogant to suggest that they’re at stage 5 – it’s cool, I’m cool with it, we’re doing this, let’s go.)

Here’s the thing about systematic, principled ethical thinking – jeez it’s appealing when it lets you disregard the feelings of people whose feelings you really wanted to disregard anyway. The reason it seems calculating and insensitive to communal ethical thinkers is because it is. A lot of feminist critique of Kantian ethics in particular takes this view – that the whole practice of reducing ethics down to a system of rules that totally disregard the value of interpersonal relationships is fucking warped, and reduces human beings to computers spitting out “42”. What the hell is your ethics for, if it lets you wash your hands of the harm you do to the people close to you? How could that system have even a tangential connection to “doing the right thing”?

As is probably clear, I have a lot of time for that critique. The reasons for that, though, are themselves things beyond my control – what Thomas Nagel refers to as “moral luck”. I’m a woman, and whether it’s genetic or conditioned, I appear to be much more ethically concerned with other people’s feelings and welfare than most of the male, systematic thinkers I know. I’m also a staunch consequentialist, and again, that’s for reasons of intuition and sentiment, not due to careful weighing up of its merits as a system. Non-consequentialism viscerally repulses me – I have a genuine reaction of disgust to a lot of its applications. And I know that many non-consequentialists have the exact same response to many applications of utilitarianism, in particular.

And this is the thing about meta-systematic ethical thinking – you can recognise that the systems you’ve chosen are actually somewhat arbitrary choices, and can be arbitrarily disregarded, if you want. If you’re a utilitarian because you like numbers, not because utilitarianism is actually the best tool for every single ethical job, then you don’t actually have to use it for every single ethical job. And that means that you can decide to retain some of communal ethics in your thinking at the expense of systematic thinking, if you want to value your relationships.

Rigid systematic ethical thinking is actually a fool’s errand, if you’re a deep thinker. Perhaps it’s possible to be a strict Kantian and live a normal life (I’ve never met anybody doing it), but trying to apply utilitarian thinking to your everyday life will fuck you right up. Look at Peter Singer. The demands of strict utilitarianism are impossible; they cause most people deep moral conflict, suicidal guilt, and total revulsion at various points in their lives. Smug Kantians will tell you this is proof that it’s a bad system and you should read some Kant, but Nagel has a better answer.

There are no answers to many ethical problems.

The discomfort we feel watching Peter Singer try to pretend that he would torture an infant to death to save a city from terrorists shows that that is not a satisfactory answer to the problem of the rights of the one versus the rights of the many, but it doesn’t imply there must be a better answer. Those questions don’t have answers. We don’t live in a morally rational universe, ethics is not mathematics, and you are not a computer. Searching for the single unifying ethical theory of the universe will either send you insane or, ironically, turn you into an asshole. When there are conflicts between the interests of your loved ones and your ethical principles, you should struggle with that. It’s not a moral failing.

You can try to be a purely systematic ethical thinker, if you want. As a consequentialist I think the world would be better if more of us tried to be more systematic, and I try to be reasonably systematic in my own thinking. But I accept my own limitations and the limitations of the world I live in, and I accept that other people’s feelings often matter to me regardless of whether I think they’re in the right. Communal ethical thinking isn’t sufficient to solve complex interpersonal conflicts, let alone societal conflicts, as Alexander and Chapman rightly point out. Applied exclusively and without reflection it can be absolutely monstrous. But the sentiments that underlie that type of thinking have value, because people have value. Even when they’re wrong.

Further reading, if you’re into this sort of thing:
Wittgenstein’s Lecture on Ethics at Cambridge
Thomas Nagel, Moral Luck