Friday, June 30, 2006

Let's fisk: Ethics a-go-go.

Fisking this piece of nonsense (the first half; the second I don't care about).
There were protests last week when Ryerson University gave an honorary degree to "ethicist" Margaret Somerville. I insert quotation marks since I dislike adding syllables to a simple, rich term such as ethics. It's like calling starvation, racism and murder in Darfur, “humanitarian,” and not just human, issues.
I agree that the word "ethicist" is quite ugly. But what else do you call someone who studies ethics, thinks about ethics, and writes on ethics? The old word is "moralist", actually, but that's got a very negative connotation now. ("Moralistic" is a pejorative.)
The protesters may have assumed that an expert in ethics should be particularly ethical herself and that Dr. Somerville's restrictive views on marriage, child-raising and abortion, didn't meet that test. Personally I think the problem lies in the assumption.
The assumption is indeed false. Being an ethicist doesn't make one ethical -- although it does tend to make one better at justifying what one does ethically. However, I note that there's consideration as to whether Somerville's views are actually wrong -- that is, whether her claims that marriage is all about child-rearing actually are "unethical". That assumption is clearly up for grabs, and that assumption is what Somerville's work challenges, and challenging that assumption is why she received a doctorate. Talk about missing the point.
During my lengthy adolescent religious quest, I had a Bible teacher in Israel named Nehama Labovitz. I once asked her if she thought a person lacking faith could understand the Bible. "I think it is like a blind person could be the world expert in optics," she mused. "He would know everything about it. He just wouldn't know what he was talking about."
The example is nonsense. Firstly, the analogy doesn't fly. Having faith isn't a pre-requisite for understanding the Bible, in that anyone can read the words and the commentaries and come to some sort of understanding of it. Having faith is a pre-requisite for being Christian. Secondly, a blind person could indeed be a world expert in optics, in that optics is the science that explores the workings of light. To say that you have to be sighted in order to understand optics is rather like saying that a human being can't understand how creatures "see" with sonar. Of course we can -- we have to use analogies to do it, but we can. I'd imagine the same applies to the blind man's understanding of optics. Thirdly, it's pretty clear Salutin doesn't have a clue what optics actually is -- he thinks it's got something to do with seeing things, and that's only a small part of the story.
That's how I'd feel about ethicists, if I thought their discipline actually existed.
Need I point out how stupid this is? Well, I will, in just one more paragraph.
But I'm inclined to think it doesn't. It has no established body of knowledge or technique — unlike neurosurgery or auto repair.
Bullshit. Ethics has an established body of knowledge -- the number of works written on ethics is vast. Ethics has its own techniques (indeed, they are special applications of the general techniques of philosophy). I also note that his comparisons are to practical disciplines -- neurosurgery and auto repair both involve manipulating the world, somehow. Better comparisons would be to pure theory -- say, pure mathematics. Does Salutin think there's no "established body of knowledge or technique" to N-space vector algebra?
By its nature, ethics belongs to each person; all claims to expertise diminish that broad application.
Also bullshit. I don't know where he's gotten this "definition" from, but I get the feeling this is an argumentum ad dictionarium. The idea that the existence of experts diminishes the application of ethics to everyone is sheer nonsense. There are experts in dynamic forces, which govern the basic physical interactions of all physical objects. That there are experts doesn't mean that dynamic forces don't apply to all physical objects. It's a total non sequitur.
So do attempts to squeeze it into academic compartments such as bioethics, medical ethics (the Somerville niche) or journalistic ethics, in which I once held a “chair” at, come to think of it, Ryerson.
And now an appeal to personal experience, as if that's supposed to be significant. The baseless attack on academic comparmentalization (which is actually not as hard and fast as non-academics seem to believe) exposes the actual problem, which is that Salutin doesn't seem to like experts telling him he's doing things wrong. Rather than admit that he might be wrong, he's attacking the expertise and the institutional structure that supports it. Not terribly ethical, really, nor intellectually respectable.
The best writers on ethics are notably vague. Immanuel Kant, my fave, never tried to prove right and wrong exist; he said each of us knows that from "the moral voice within." Any rules he offered were dead simple: The only unambiguously good thing is the will to do good. Act as if your conduct could be a guideline for everyone. Treat others as ends, never as means.
To go back to the idea that there is indeed a body of knowledge for ethics, if Salutin was familiar with it, he'd know that Kant's ideas of the "good will" and the two formulations of the Categorical Imperative are notoriously slippery. There is an embarrassment of counter-examples to all Kant's claims. Furthermore, to claim that Kant didn't try to prove right and wrong exist is to misunderstand the place of the arguments in the The Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals , and pretend those in the Critique of Practical Reason and Critique of Pure Reason do not exist. Kant didn't try to "prove" right and wrong exist, in the sense Salutin seems worried about, because Kant didn't think you could prove anything existed in that sense. The confusion, says Kant, lies in overlooking the distinction between things as they appear (phenomena) and things as they are in themselves (noumena). Nothing can be known about noumena, for we cannot ever experience them; all we ever experience are phenomena. In that sense, we end up with a strong bifurcation of the world: pure reason tells us that the world consists of physical objects obeying laws of science and in strict cause-effect relations; practical reason, on the other hand, tells us that the world consists of many rational beings obeying laws they choose for themselves and who are free (autonomous). (More on Kant here, at the excellent online Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.)
I don't mean you can't explore ethical topics or speak usefully about them.
Yes, you do. You just denied there's any body of knowledge about it.
Dostoevsky wrote brilliantly on moral issues, but I don't think anyone would call him an ethicist or go to him for advice.
Well, the fact that he's dead makes it hard to go to him for advice. If you mean "go to his writings", then, in fact, people do, just as people turn to the Bible, or to Kant, or to whomever, for moral advice. As to being an "ethicist", well, probably not, because he was in the first instance a writer and not a philosopher; his thinking was not systematic. He may have had good insights, but they hardly form a rigorous system of thought.
When I held that comfy chair at Ryerson, I took it on the understanding that I felt there was no such thing as journalistic ethics. I didn't mean that in a snarky way.
Doubtful. Although it's nice to know one can be paid to hold a chair at a public university and think that the money one is earning is for doing jack shit. I note that Salutin just takes it as given that there's no "journalistic ethics" -- I wonder what, if any, academic papers he wrote to justify this. (This is why professionals should have to prove their academic chops before being allowed into universities. Often, even if they know how to do something, they don't know that.)
Just: Ethics is ethics, here, there and everywhere; we are all our own ethicists because that is our moral duty.
I find it funny that he can think ethics is personal and subjective, has no body of knowledge, and yet also think that the concept of "moral duty" is coherent.


Anonymous said...

I have BA and ThB degrees and I concur with your analysis of Salutin's arguments. There is a disturbing lack of critical thinking in his piece for someone who once held a chair in journalism.

ADHR said...

Especially when one considers that Ryerson is known both for its engineering programs (my step-brother is a grad) and its journalism programs.