Compassion and the moral emotions (Nussbaum)

image: Philoctetes injured on Lemnos

How can the atrocities of the twentieth century lead to the creation of a better version of humanity? One theme to explore involves the moral emotion of compassion, and the idea that this is an emotion that human beings learn through experience and reflection. Crucially, we need to explore whether knowledge of history can help to inform the development of a culture of compassion. Both John Kekes and Susan Neiman provide some useful insights into the key question: how should a current generation engage with the history of the atrocities of the past century? Kekes contributes to this idea through his discussion of moral imagination, and Neiman contributes through her analysis of Rousseau’s theory of the malleability of human nature.

The philosopher who has shed the most light on compassion is Martha Nussbaum. In “Compassion: The Basic Social Emotion” (link) she explores the importance that compassion and pity play in the moral ordering of human social life. (The subject is treated as well in Part II of Upheavals of Thought: The Intelligence of Emotions.) As the title suggests, Nussbaum regards compassion (or pity) as a prerequisite moral emotion for much of social life; and she believes that it must be learned. Moreover, literature, drama, and history can be crucial components of that learning.

Tragedy, as ancient Athenian culture saw it, is not for the very young; and it is not just for the young. Mature people always need to expand their experience and to reinforce their grasp on central ethical truths. To the young adolescent who is preparing to take a place in the city, however, tragedy has a special significance. Such a spectator is learning pity in the process. (39)

If we believe that the ability to imagine the ills of another with vivid sympathy is an important part of being a good person, then we will want to follow Rousseau in giving support to procedures by which this ability is taught. Much of this will and should be done privately, in families. But every society employs and teaches ideals of the citizen, and of good civic judgment, in many ways; and there are some concrete practical strategies that will in fact support an education in compassion. (50)

Nussbaum approaches the topic of pity or compassion through the story of Philoctetes, as related by Sophocles. She finds that Sophocles provides a nuanced and reflective demonstration of the emotion, within the context of a complicated social story. The value of literature in exploring moral concepts has been a strength of Nussbaum’s approach to moral philosophy for a long time, and its use here is illuminating.

Nussbaum rejects the Humean view that emotions are the contrary of reason, knowledge, or deliberation; instead, she argues that at least some emotions, like pity and compassion, embrace both representation of the world and affective response to the world. Compassion is a crucial part of inter-personal knowledge: “compassion, in the philosophical tradition, is a central bridge between the individual and the community; it is conceived of as our species’ way of hooking the interests of others to our own personal goods” (28). Further, “compassion is a certain sort of reasoning” (29). And “all compassion is “rational” in the descriptive sense in which that term is frequently used—that is, not merely impulsive, but involving thought or belief” (30-31).

Here is the analysis of pity or compassion that Nussbaum attributes to Aristotle:

Pity, Aristotle argues, is a painful emotion directed at another person’s misfortune or suffering (Rhet. 1385bl3ff.). It requires and rests on three beliefs: (1) the belief that the suffering is serious rather than trivial; (2) the belief that the suffering was not caused primarily by the person’s own culpable actions; and (3) the belief that the pitier’s own possibilities are similar to those of the sufferer. Each of these seems to be necessary for the emotion, and they seem to be jointly sufficient. (31)

Nussbaum does not explicitly draw the connection between compassion and evil here that I believe is crucial — in fact, she does not explicitly discuss “evil” in either of these works — but the tie is straightforward. One fails utterly to understand the Holodomor or the killing pits of Poland or the Cathar Crusade if one fails to imagine the pain, suffering, and loss that each of these historical events involved, for millions of human beings. (Nussbaum refers to this particular form of moral blindness in her treatment of Emile in Upheavals; 322.) And, conversely, if one has a strongly developed capacity for the moral emotion of compassion, it is hard to see how he or she could consent to playing the role of an Eichmann or a Stangl. Here is a relevant comment by Nussbaum in the context of the dehumanization of the victims so often observed in the Holocaust and other instances of genocidal conduct:

This fact explains why so frequently those who wish to withhold pity and to teach others to do so portray the sufferers as altogether dissimilar in kind and in possibility. In The Destruction of the European Jews, Raul Hilberg shows how pervasively Nazi talk of Jews, in connection with their murder, portrayed them as nonhuman: either as beings of a remote animal kind, such as insects or vermin, or as inanimate objects, “cargo” to be transported. (35)

Nussbaum refers in Upheavals of Thought to other demeaning and dehumanizing mechanisms through which committers of atrocities reconcile their actions — for example, by portraying the victims as unclean and disgusting. “Thus the Germans forged the will to carry out the atrocities”(Upheavals, 348).

To what extent are our moral sensibilities subject to growth, education, and development? Like Susan Neiman (link), Nussbaum draws a connection to Rousseau and his treatment of the emotion of pity in Emile. She finds that Rousseau’s analysis of this moral emotion captures the fullness of reasoning and affect that she has described; and, crucially, she finds that Rousseau believes that compassion must be learned:

If Emile really does the cognitive work, if his imagination really contains the thoughts of pity, with all their evaluative material, in such a way that they become part of his cognitive makeup and his motivations for action, then he has pity whether he experiences this or that tug in his stomach or not. No such particular bodily feeling is necessary. To determine whether Emile has pity, we look for the evidence of a certain sort of thought and imagination, in what he says, and in what he does. (38)

And in Upheavals she returns to Rousseau:

I think that this, indeed, was Rousseau’s idea, when he said that Émile would learn compassion without hierarchy if his teacher taught him to focus on the common vulnerability of all human beings. “Thus from our weakness,” he concludes, “our fragile happiness is born.” Surrendering omnipotence is essential to compassion, and a broad compassion for one’s fellow citizens is essential to a decent society. (350)

Moreover, Nussbaum believes that the “teachability” of compassion is important: human beings and human cultures can improve their capacity for compassion through reflective experience.

If we believe that the ability to imagine the ills of another with vivid sympathy is an important part of being a good person, then we will want to follow Rousseau in giving support to procedures by which this ability is taught. Much of this will and should be done privately, in families. But every society employs and teaches ideals of the citizen, and of good civic judgment, in many ways; and there are some concrete practical strategies that will in fact support an education in compassion. (50)

Nussbaum believes that immersion in literature can assist with this learning. But I think she would agree with the idea that a close and honest reading of historians like Tim Snyder, Primo Levi, or Alexandr Solzhenitsyn can help with this form of moral development as well.

So several things seem clear. Compassion is crucial for recognizing the evil of the twentieth century; further, we can deepen our capacity for compassion by honestly confronting the atrocities of the period; and — just possibly — our future history will be better than our past because of this honesty. And Rousseau’s comments about compassion in Emile suggest another possibility as well: that we become different people, and our culture becomes a different culture, through this kind of immersive experience.

Evil in the Peloponnesian War?

Recent posts have focused attention on the topic of the evils that occurred in the twentieth century: genocide, deliberate mass starvation, mass enslavement, and totalitarian dictatorships. I have been inclined to argue that these evils are sui generis — that the bad events and actions of the past were indeed bad, but they were qualitatively and morally distinct from the horrors of the twentieth century. So I argue that the evils of the twentieth century require special treatment by the philosophy of history.

In presenting these ideas recently to a seminar of philosophers and historians I was challenged to consider whether actions and events of past centuries were indeed different in kind, or whether the difference is simply one of magnitude and remoteness in time. So here is a test case to consider: were the actions in war by Athens and Sparta during the Peloponnesian War instances of evil, or were they rather just bad deeds?

One definition we might try out for “evil” in human affairs is this: Evil actions by states are actions that deliberately lead to wanton human suffering and death on a large scale with no regard for the human value of the innocent human beings who are harmed. The key moral ideas here are the intrinsic value of each human life, and the general human obligation to refrain from harming the innocent. And “wanton” is also a morally-laden term; it might be paraphrased as “unmotivated, motivated only by self-interest, or undertaken without regard for moral limitations”. This attempt at definition of evil in human affairs corresponds roughly to the Christian theory of just war: the deliberate violence of war must be justified on the basis of a “just cause”; violence should be directed intentionally only against combatants; violent harm inflicted on the innocent (non-combatants) should be minimized and unintentional (the principle of double effect); and unavoidable violent harm inflicted on the innocent should be “proportionate” to military necessity. And these ideas, in turn, underlie much of the current international law of war, including the provisions of the Geneva conventions (link). How might these ideas about evil apply to other epochs of human affairs?

Consider, for example, the Athenian siege of Melos and its horrific aftermath. In 416 BCE during the Peloponnesian War between Athens and Sparta, an Athenian naval force attacked the city-state on the island of Melos. Melos was neutral in the war between Athens and Sparta, but was perceived by the Athenians to be friendly to Sparta. In 416 the Athenian force demanded the unconditional surrender of the city-state or face complete destruction. Melos refused to surrender immediately, but eventually surrendered following a crippling siege by the Athenian forces. Following the surrender all the men were killed and the women and children were sold into slavery. Thucydides represents the reasoning of the Athenians in a passage referred to as the “Melian dialogue” in History of the Peloponnesian War (tr. Richard Crawley; link):

Athenians. For ourselves, we shall not trouble you with specious pretences—either of how we have a right to our empire because we overthrew the Mede, or are now attacking you because of wrong that you have done us—and make a long speech which would not be believed; and in return we hope that you, instead of thinking to influence us by saying that you did not join the Lacedaemonians, although their colonists, or that you have done us no wrong, will aim at what is feasible, holding in view the real sentiments of us both; since you know as well as we do that right, as the world goes, is only in question between equals in power, while the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must. (Book V, chapter XVII)

Here is Hobbes’s translation (link):

Ath. As we therefore will not, for our parts, with fair pretences; as, that having defeated the Medes, our reign is therefore lawful, or, that we come against you for injury done; make a long discourse without being believed: so would we have you also not expect to prevail by saying, either that you therefore took not our parts because you were a colony of the Lacedæmonians, or that you have done us no injury. But out of those things which we both of us do really think, let us go through with that which is feasible; both you and we knowing, that in human disputation justice is then only agreed on when the necessity is equal; whereas they that have odds of power exact as much as they can, and the weak yield to such conditions as they can get. (Book V, sect. 89)

The Athenian negotiators stick to their line: the weak must defer to the strong, the Lacedaemonians will not come to your aid for the same reason that we press upon you — their own self-interest. The Melian negotiators confer among themselves and decide to stick to their principles and to defend their freedom:

Melians. Our resolution, Athenians, is the same as it was at first. We will not in a moment deprive of freedom a city that has been inhabited these seven hundred years; but we put our trust in the fortune by which the gods have preserved it until now, and in the help of men, that is, of the Lacedaemonians; and so we will try and save ourselves. Meanwhile we invite you to allow us to be friends to you and foes to neither party, and to retire from our country after making such a treaty as shall seem fit to us both. (Book V, chapter XVII)

So the war continues. After some additional weeks of siege the outcome is decided:

The siege was now pressed vigorously; and some treachery taking place inside, the Melians surrendered at discretion to the Athenians, who put to death all the grown men whom they took, and sold the women and children for slaves, and subsequently sent out five hundred colonists and inhabited the place themselves. (Book V, chapter XVII)

The outcome is described calmly by Thucydides, but it is atrocious. It was cruel in the extreme — the execution of all male residents of Melos after the Athenians prevailed, and sale of the women and children into slavery. Moreover, this was a deliberate and purposeful act, a deliberate policy of state — not an instance of troops running amok, a regrettable instance of atrocities in the heat of war. 

And yet the Melian dialogue, as conveyed by Thucydides, has the measured and philosophical tone of a Platonic dialogue; in fact, I could imagine teaching this text in a course in the introduction to philosophy. The Athenians have a moral position which they are pleased to present, explicate, and advocate: Their position is that it is perfectly moral for the strong to dictate terms upon the weak; the gods have no objection, since this is their own principle of conduct; and it is morally acceptable that the penalty of refusal is complete annihilation. The Athenians make no apology for their position, nor show any embarrassment at the moral stance they are taking. The Athenians even have a reason why moderation and accommodation cannot be considered: “our other adversaries will think us weak and will no longer consent to our rule”.

So was the Melian massacre … evil?

Several points seem evident in Thucydides’ account of the Peloponnesian War. First, massacre and enslavement were “acceptable” means of waging war within the prevailing Hellenistic theory of war. And they were woven into statecraft through the role that these kinds of actions had in establishing the “reliability” of an adversary: if Melos does not comply, it will be annihilated, and other adversaries are thereby warned. Further, Hellenic conceptions of state action and the conduct of war reconciled massacre, enslavement, and the threat of these horrific punishments with their conception of piety (respect for the gods): the gods wage war in just this way. But this is now a question for us to pursue: Does the fact that massacre and enslavement were morally comprehensible within the fifth-century BCE Greek mental framework of the morality of war and the actions that fell within the range of the imaginable mean that these strategies were less than evil? Should the moral and normative ideas of Hellenic thinkers, rulers, and citizens make a difference in our evaluation of this event?

Moreover, the Melian dialogue makes it clear that massacre and enslavement were not “wanton” in the sense of “unmotivated” or “unjustified”. Rather, the Athenians take pains to explain the utility that these strategies have within their calculus of cost and benefit in running an empire. 

Second, it is also clear that “we” no longer accept massacre of the innocent or enslavement of the survivors as morally acceptable strategies in war. “Our” moral ideas about the conduct of war give great moral weight to the value of each human life, and we morally condemn those who massacre the innocent — whether from expediency or hatred. (I place the pronouns in quote marks because the experience of Bosnia (1995), Rwanda (1994), or Turkey (1915) demonstrates that modern leaders and citizens are still ready to countenance massacre as a legitimate action for the state.) But this poses a second major question for us: Is it legitimate or appropriate for us to apply our own moral principles across most of human history to that period of time 2,500 years ago when the city states of Athens and Sparta were at war? Or must we defer instead to the moral frameworks of the historical period — the Platos, Aristotles, and Thucydides of the Hellenic world? Can we adopt a universalistic conception of “just war” and apply it to Athenian behavior, or is this rather a “presentist” error of moral reasoning?

Third, we are compelled to ask a question of pity and empathy: how could a great people like the Athenians — or the individual soldiers of the Athenian forces — impose slaughter and death on their fellow human beings in these circumstances and for these flimsy reasons? How could they fail to recognize the human tragedy that this action represented, repeated over and over through the multiple acts of murder? This was a slaughter of the innocent — many hundreds of innocent male citizens of Melos — and enslavement of many hundreds more innocent women and children — how could these horrific actions be sanctioned and carried out?

Here is one more complication raised by the Melian dialogue: is it possible that the scheme of argument offered by the Athenians is an antecedent to yet another horror of the twentieth century — fascism and the doctrine that a state with the military power to subdue its neighbors should do so? We might take the moral framework of the Athenians (as presented by Thucydides) as fundamentally an anti-moral framework: an endorsement of the idea that there are no moral principles whatsoever that can, or should, constrain the statesman in the conduct of affairs of state. Seen in this way, the conduct of Athens over Melos is atrocious for its deliberate, explicit rejection of any moral constraints whatsoever on its conduct as much as for the specific actions it undertook — massacre and enslavement. And perhaps this is precisely the moral position taken by the Nazi state, or that taken by Slobodan Milošević in Serbia in the 1990s.  So perhaps the evil described in the Melian dialogue, and found in the behavior of Athens in the Peloponnesian War, was the evil of amorality itself, and with it, the germ of fascism.

Issues of ethics in philosophy of history

Most writings in the philosophy of history have focused on issues of epistemology, method, and explanation. But our history as human beings is thoroughly invested with moral significance, and the philosophy of history needs to reflect on the moral issues raised by historical experience. Historians themselves have moral responsibilities; but perhaps more compellingly, all of us have responsibilities as participants in history to honestly confront our own pasts and the historical events that have influenced us, and acknowledge the often morally repugnant circumstances that this honesty will reveal.The professional responsibilities of historians have occupied much of the discussion of history and ethics within philosophy in the past few years. Here is Brian Fay’s description of the topic in the special issue of History and Theory devoted to these concerns (Fay 2004):

In proposing the topic for this Theme Issue the editors of History and Theory wished to revisit afresh a question that has periodically been urgent to those who think and care about the discipline of history, namely, the relationship between historians, the practice of history, and questions of ethics. Put succinctly: do historians as historians have an ethical responsibility, and if so to whom? Are there ethical commitments that historians have whether they like it or not? Are there ways that historians can either insulate themselves from ethical commitments (insofar as these commitments infect historical research and render it unable to function as it should), or re-conceive these commitments so as to practice history better and to understand the nature of their endeavor more accurately?

The special issue is worth reading as a whole; each article adds something to the question, in what ways does the practice of history create obligations or responsibilities for the historian? Perhaps the most striking and original of the contributions to the History and Theory volume is the contribution by Andrus Pork, “History, Lying, and Moral Responsibility” (link). Pork’s perspective is especially interesting because he was Estonian and intimately familiar with Soviet lies. Pork opens his essay in a very striking way:

Scholars’ moral responsibility for truth, for the objective content of the results of their investigations, is a somewhat neglected problem in Western English-speaking critical philosophy of history. Nor has this problem found much theoretical attention in Soviet philosophy of history. At the same time the process of reassessing and rewriting Soviet history in the light of glasnost has helped to reveal the magnitude of distortions, lies, and half-truths in Soviet historiography over a number of years. The process of rediscovering what actually happened in the past has made history (at least for the time being) a very fashionable subject in Soviet intellectual life, and has also raised painful moral questions for many older historians who now face tough moral accusations by their colleagues, the general public, and perhaps by their own conscience. (321)

Crucial to Pork’s moral framework is his conviction that historians must accept the idea that there are “approximately true representations” of events and circumstances in the past. He acknowledges that an account is never complete, it is always selective, but it may also be false; and it is the historian’s job to try to ensure that the statements and descriptions that he or she brings forward are approximately true and are appropriately supported by relevant evidence. Fundamentally, Pork defends a commonsense conception of historical truth: ” I think that it is morally wrong to suggest that it is never possible to show objectively that some historical accounts are closer to truth than others” (326). Pork’s central concern in this short essay is the topic of lying about the past. Pork distinguishes between “direct lies” (falsification of facts about the past) and “blank pages” (deliberate omission of important details in a historical account), and suggests that the latter are the more insidious for the field of historical representation. He refers, for example, to Soviet historiography about Soviet behavior in the 1930s: “Many other important historical facts that now surface (like the stories about massacres of thousands of people in 1937 and in the following years near Minsk in Byelorussia) were simply absent from history books of that [Stalinist] period.” Pork offers a more detailed and extensive example of Stalinist historiography based on the annexation of Estonia to the USSR in 1940. Stalinist histories that refer to this case use a combination of direct lies and “blank pages” to completely misrepresent and obscure the facts of Soviet coercion of Estonia. For example: “The existence of the secret protocol to the Molotov-Ribbentrop treaty was usually not explicitly denied; rather it was simply not mentioned” (325). 

So it is a moral responsibility of the historian to refrain from omitting salient facts from her account. We might take this point a bit further and argue that historians have a positive obligation to deliberately and actively seek out those aspects of the past for research that are the most morally troublesome—for example, the origins and experience of slavery during the eighteenth century in the American South, or the role of the Gulag in the Soviet Union in the twentieth century. We may reasonably fault the historian of the American South in the nineteenth century who confines her investigation to the economics of the cotton sector but ignores slavery, or the historian of the USSR who studies the institutions of engineering research in the 1950s while ignoring the fact of forced labor camps. Historians have an obligation to squarely confront the hard truths of their subject matter. There are many ways to twist the truth, and leaving out crucial parts of the story is as much of a deception as misrepresenting the facts directly. This is what Pork refers to as “blank page” deception. “For example, if the important fact of who started the war is omitted from the historical account, but detailed descriptions of some particular battles are given (as is the case with many Soviet accounts of the 1939-1940 Soviet-Finnish war), then we clearly have a morally blameworthy selection of facts” (328).

The thread of honesty and truthfulness runs through all of these ethical issues. Tony Judt (1992) argues that a people or nation at a point in time have a collective responsibility to face the facts of its own history honestly and without mythology. Judt’s points can be distilled into a few key ideas. Knowledge of the past matters in the present; being truthful about the past is a key responsibility for all of us. Standing in the way of honest recognition is the fact that oppressors and tyrants are invariably interested in concealing their culpability, while “innocent citizens” are likewise inclined to minimize their own involvement in the crimes of their governments. The result is “myth-making”, according to Judt. The history of the twentieth century has shown itself to be especially prone to myth-making, whether about resistance to Nazi occupation or refusal to collaborate with Soviet-installed regimes in Poland or Czechoslovakia. Judt (1992) argues that a very pervasive process of myth-making and forgetting has been a deep part of the narrative-making in post-war Europe. But, Judt argues, bad myths give rise eventually to bad collective behavior—more conflict, more tyranny, more violence. So the work of honest history is crucial to humanity’s ability to achieve a better future. Judt expresses throughout his work a credo of truth-telling about the past: we have a weighty obligation to discover, represent, and understand the circumstances of our past, even when those facts are deeply unpalatable. Myth-making about the past is not only bad history and bad politics, it is morally deficient. (A more extensive treatment of Judt’s argument is provided in an earlier post; link.)

Consider the normative and value challenges created by the need for the historian to confront and honestly present the very repugnant features of the past. Anna Wylegala takes on this kind of project in her recent article “Managing the difficult past: Ukrainian collective memory and public debates on history” (link). Here is the abstract of her article:

This article analyzes the status of difficult historic events in Ukrainian collective memory. Difficult elements of collective memory are defined as those which divide society on basic matters, such as identity and national cohesion, and events which are being actively forgotten because of the role of Ukrainians as perpetrators. Three such issues were analyzed: World War II and the role of the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA), the Holocaust, and the ethnic purge of Poles in Volhynia and Eastern Galicia in 1943-1945. Utilizing data from quantitative and qualitative studies, the author showcases the significance of these issues for contemporary Ukrainian identity and Ukraine’s relations with its neighbors. In particular, the evaluation of World War II and the role of the UPA in Ukrainian history polarizes Ukrainian society to a great degree. At the same time, this element of national history is used to construct a common, anti-Russian identity. The difficulty of relating to the memory of the Holocaust and the ethnic purge in Volhynia is of a different character. These events are problematic for Ukrainian collective memory because they demand a painful settling of accounts with the past. At present, only Ukrainian elites are willing to work on these subjects, and only to a limited degree, while the common consciousness either denies or ignores them altogether.

What does she mean by “difficult”? I would paraphrase her meaning as unsavory, repugnant, and inconsonant with one’s identity as a “decent” people. “It is associated with certain events which refuse to simply become part of history and instead trouble contemporaries, demanding attention and provoking strong emotions.” These are events that “demand a painful settling of accounts with the past”. This is exactly the kind of issue that Tony Judt addresses in “The Past is Another Country: Myth and Memory in Postwar Europe”. And Wylegala makes a compelling case for the idea that Ukrainians must come to grips with this past if they are to move forward as a more just society.

It is indeed the case, then, that the search for historical understanding forces us to consider moral issues. These issues have to do with the moral value of fidelity to truth. But more fundamentally, they have to do with issues about collective identity and integrity. We want to know who we are; and that means knowing honestly what we have done, and attempting to understand these moments of collective cruelty and immorality. This means, in turn, that the philosophy of history must confront these issues.

(A recent post offered a more indirect way of articulating related ideas about history, memory, and moral identity (link). There I formulated an allegory about a forgetful but long-lived individual who wants to make sense of earlier episodes in his life. Perhaps if Max von Sydow were still around it could be the basis of a short existentialist film! Here are two scenes from Ingmar Bergman’s allegory about life’s meaning and death, Seventh Seal (clipclip).)

Ethical disasters

Many examples of technical disasters have been provided in Understanding Society, along with efforts to understand the systemic dysfunctions that contributed to their occurrence. Frequently those dysfunctions fall within the business organizations that manage large, complex technology systems, and often enough those dysfunctions derive from the imperatives of profit-maximization and cost avoidance. Andrew Hopkins’ account of the business decisions contributing to the explosion of the ESSO gas plant in Longford, Australia illustrates this dynamic in Lessons from Longford: The ESSO Gas Plant Explosion. The withdrawal of engineering experts from the plant to a remote corporate headquarters was a cost-saving move that, according to Hopkins, contributed to the eventual disaster.

A topic we have not addressed in detail is the occurrence of ethical disasters — terrible outcomes that are the result of deliberate choices by decision-makers within an organization that are, upon inspection, clearly and profoundly unethical and immoral. The collapse of Enron is probably one such disaster; the Bernie Madoff scandal is another. But it seems increasingly likely that Purdue Pharma and the Sackler family’s business leadership of the corporation represent another major example. Recent reporting by ProPublica, the Atlantic, and the New York Times relies on documents collected in the course of litigation against Purdue Pharma and members of the Sackler family in Massachusetts and New York. (Here are the unredacted court documents on which much of this reporting depends; link.) These documents make it hard to avoid the ethical conclusion that the Sackler family actively participated in business strategies for their company Purdue Pharma that treated the OxyContin addiction epidemic as an expanding business opportunity. And this seems to be a huge ethical breach.

This set of issues is currently unresolved by the courts, so it rests with the legal system to resolve the facts and the issues of legal culpability. But as citizens we all have the ability to read the documents and make our own decisions about the ethical status of decisions and strategies made by the family and the corporation over the course of this disaster. The point here is simply to ask these key questions: how should we think about the ethical status of decisions and strategies of owners and managers that lead to terrible harms, and harms that could reasonably have been anticipated? How should a company or a set of owners respond to a catastrophe in which several hundred thousand people have died, and which was facilitated in part by deliberate marketing efforts by the company and the owners? How should the company have adjusted its business when it became apparent that its product was creating addiction and widespread death?

First, here are a few details from the current reporting about the case. Here are a few paragraphs from the ProPublica story (January 30, 2019):

Not content with billions of dollars in profits from the potent painkiller OxyContin, its maker explored expanding into an “attractive market” fueled by the drug’s popularity — treatment of opioid addiction, according to previously secret passages in a court document filed by the state of Massachusetts.

In internal correspondence beginning in 2014, Purdue Pharma executives discussed how the sale of opioids and the treatment of opioid addiction are “naturally linked” and that the company should expand across “the pain and addiction spectrum,” according to redacted sections of the lawsuit by the Massachusetts attorney general. A member of the billionaire Sackler family, which founded and controls the privately held company, joined in those discussions and urged staff in an email to give “immediate attention” to this business opportunity, the complaint alleges. (ProPublica 1/30/2019; link)

The NYT story reproduces a diagram included in the New York court filings that illustrates the company’s business strategy of “Project Tango” — the idea that the company could make money both from sales of its pain medication and from sales of treatments for the addiction it caused.

Further, according to the reporting provided by the NYT and ProPublica, members of the Sackler family used their positions on the Purdue Pharma board to press for more aggressive business exploitation of the opportunities described here:

In 2009, two years after the federal guilty plea, Mortimer D.A. Sackler, a board member, demanded to know why the company wasn’t selling more opioids, email traffic cited by Massachusetts prosecutors showed. In 2011, as states looked for ways to curb opioid prescriptions, family members peppered the sales staff with questions about how to expand the market for the drugs…. The family’s statement said they were just acting as responsible board members, raising questions about “business issues that were highly relevant to doctors and patients. (NYT 4/1/2019; link)

From the 1/30/2019 ProPublica story, and based on more court documents:

Citing extensive emails and internal company documents, the redacted sections allege that Purdue and the Sackler family went to extreme lengths to boost OxyContin sales and burnish the drug’s reputation in the face of increased regulation and growing public awareness of its addictive nature. Concerns about doctors improperly prescribing the drug, and patients becoming addicted, were swept aside in an aggressive effort to drive OxyContin sales ever higher, the complaint alleges. (link)

And ProPublica underlines the fact that prosecutors believe that family members have personal responsibility for the management of the corporation:

The redacted paragraphs leave little doubt about the dominant role of the Sackler family in Purdue’s management. The five Purdue directors who are not Sacklers always voted with the family, according to the complaint. The family-controlled board approves everything from the number of sales staff to be hired to details of their bonus incentives, which have been tied to sales volume, the complaint says. In May 2017, when longtime employee Craig Landau was seeking to become Purdue’s chief executive, he wrote that the board acted as “de-facto CEO.” He was named CEO a few weeks later. (link)

The courts will resolve the question of legal culpability. The question here is one of the ethical standards that should govern the actions and strategies of owners and managers. Here are several simple ethical observations that seem relevant to this case.

First, it is obvious that pain medication is a good thing when used appropriately under the supervision of expert and well-informed physicians. Pain management enhances quality of life for people experiencing pain.

Second, addiction is plainly a bad thing, and it is worse when it leads to predictable death or disability for its victims. A company has a duty of concern for the quality of life of human beings affected by its product, and this extends to a duty to take all possible precautions to minimize the likelihood that human beings will be harmed by the product.

Third, given that the risks of addiction that were known about this product, the company has a moral obligation to treat its relations with physicians and other health providers as occasions of accurate and truthful education about the product, not opportunities for persuasion, inducement, and marketing. Rather than a sales force of representatives whose incomes are determined by the quantity of the product they sell, the company has a moral obligation to train and incentivize its representatives to function as honest educators providing full information about the risks as well as the benefits of the product. And, of course, it has an obligation not to immerse itself in the dynamics of “conflict of interest” discussed elsewhere (link) — this means there should be no incentives provided to the physicians who agree to prescribe the product.

Fourth, it might be argued that the profits generated by the business of a given pharmaceutical product should be used proportionally to ameliorate the unavoidable harms it creates. Rather than making billions in profits from the sale of the product, and then additional hundreds of millions on products that offset the addictions and illness created by dissemination of the product (this was the plan advanced as “Project Tango”), the company and its owners should hold themselves accountable for the harms created by their product. (That is, the social and human costs of addiction should not be treated as “externalities” or even additional sources of profit for the company.)

Finally, there is an important question at a more individual scale. How should we think about super-rich owners of a company who seem to lose sight entirely of the human tragedies created by their company’s product and simply demand more profits, more timely distribution of the profits, and more control of the management decisions of the company? These are individual human beings, and surely they have a responsibility to think rigorously about their own moral responsibilities. The documents released in these court proceedings seem to display an amazing blindness to moral responsibility on the part of some of these owners.

(There are other important cases illustrating the clash between moral responsibility, corporate profits, and corporate decision-making, having to do with the likelihood of collaboration between American companies, their German and Polish subsidiaries, and the Nazi regime during World War II. Edwin Black argues in IBM and the Holocaust: The Strategic Alliance Between Nazi Germany and America’s Most Powerful Corporation-Expanded Edition that the US-based computer company provided important support for Germany’s extermination strategy. Here is a 2002 piece from the Guardian on the update of Black’s book providing more documentary evidence for this claim; link. And here is a piece from the Washington Post on American car companies in Nazi Germany; link. )

(Stephen Arbogast’s Resisting Corporate Corruption: Cases in Practical Ethics From Enron Through The Financial Crisis is an interesting source on corporate ethics,)

What is the role of character in action?

 

I’ve been seriously interested in the question of character since being invited to contribute to a volume on the subject a few years ago. That volume, Questions of Character, has now appeared in print, and it is an excellent and engaging contribution. Iskra Fileva was the director of the project and is the editor of the volume, and she did an excellent job in selecting topics and authors. She also wrote an introduction to the volume and introductions to all five parts of the collection. It would be possible to look at Fileva’s introductions collectively as a very short book on character by themselves.

So what is “character”? To start, it is a concept of the actor that draws our attention to enduring characteristics of moral and practical propensities, rather than focusing on the moment of choice and the criteria recommended by the ethicist on the basis of which to make choices. Second, it is an idea largely associated with the “virtue” ethics of Aristotle. The other large traditions in the history of ethics — utilitarianism and Kantian ethics, or consequentialist and deontological theories — have relatively little to say about character, focusing instead on action, rules, and moral reasoning. And third, it is distinguished from other moral ideas by its close affinity to psychology as well as philosophy. It has to do with the explanation of the behavior of ordinary people, not just philosophical ideas about how people ought to behave.

This is a fundamentally important question for anyone interested in formulating a theory of the actor. To hold that human beings sometimes have “character” is to say that they have enduring features of agency that sometimes drive their actions in ways that override the immediate calculation of costs and benefits, or the immediate satisfaction of preferences. For example, a person might have the virtues of honesty, courage, or fidelity — leading him or her to tell the truth, resist adversity, or keep commitments and promises, even when there is an advantage to be gained by doing the contrary. Or conceivably a person might have vices — dishonesty, cruelty, egotism — that lead him or her to act accordingly — sometimes against personal advantage.

Questions of Character is organized into five major sets of topics: ethical considerations, moral psychology, empirical psychology, social and historical considerations, and art and taste. Fileva has done an excellent job of soliciting provocative essays and situating them within a broader context. Part I includes innovative discussions of how the concept of character plays out in Aristotle, Hume, Kant, and Nietzsche. Part II considers different aspects of the problem of self-control and autonomy. Part III examines the experimental literature on behavior in challenging situations (for example, the Milgram experiment), and whether these results demonstrate that human actors are not guided by enduring virtues. Part IV examines the intersection between character and large social settings, including history, the market, and the justice system. And Part V considers the role of character in literature and the arts, including the interesting notion that characters in novels become emblems of the character traits they display.

The most fundamental question raised in this volume is this: what is the role of character in human action? How, if at all, do embodied traits, virtues and vices, or personal commitments influence the actions that we take in ordinary and extraordinary circumstances? And the most intriguing challenge raised here is one that casts doubt on the very notion of character: “there are no enduring behavioral dispositions inside a person that warrant the label ‘character’.” Instead, all action is opportunistic and in the moment. Action is “situational” (John Doris, Lack of Character: Personality and Moral Behavior; Ross and Nisbett, The Person and the Situation). On this approach, what we call “character” and “virtue” is epiphenomenal; action is guided by factors more fundamental than these.

My own contribution focuses on the ways in which character may be shaped by historical circumstances. Fundamentally I argue that growing up during the Great Depression, the Jim Crow South, or the Chinese Revolution potentially cultivates fairly specific features of mentality in the people who had these formative experiences. The cohort itself has a common (though not universal) character that differs from that of people in other historical periods. As a consequence people in those cohorts commonly behave differently from people in other cohorts when confronted with roughly similar action situations. So character is both historically shaped and historically important. Much of my argument was worked out in a series of posts here in Understanding Society.

This project is successful in its own terms; the contributors have created a body of very interesting discussion and commentary on an important element of human conduct. The volume is distinctly different from other collections in moral psychology or the field of morality and action. But the project is successful in another way as well. Fileva and her colleagues succeeded in drawing together a novel intellectual configuration of scholars from numerous disciplines to engage in a genuinely trans-disciplinary research collaboration. Through several academic conferences (one of which I participated in), through excellent curatorial and editorial work by Fileva herself, and through the openness of all the collaborators to listen with understanding to the perspectives of researchers in other disciplines, the project succeeded in demonstrating the power of interdisciplinary collaboration in shedding light on an important topic. I believe we understand better the intriguing complexities of actors and action as a result of the work presented in Questions of Character.

(Here is a series of posts on the topic of character; link.)

Amartya Sen’s commitments

A recent post examined the Akerlof and Kranton formalization of identity within a rational choice framework.  It is worth considering how this approach compares with Amartya Sen’s arguments about “commitments” in “Rational Fools” (link). 

Sen’s essay is a critique of the theory of narrow economic rationality to the extent that it is thought to realistically describe real human deliberative decision-making. He chooses Edgeworth as a clear expositor of the narrow theory: “the first principle of Economics is that every agent is actuated only by self interest” (Sen 317, quoting Mathematical Psychics). Sen notes that real choices don’t reflect the maximizing logic associated with rational choice theory: “Choice may reflect a compromise among a variety of considerations of which personal welfare may be just one” (324). Here he argues for the importance of “commitments” in our deliberations about reasons for action. Acting on the basis of commitment is choosing to do something that leads to an outcome that we don’t subjectively prefer; it is acting in a way that reflects the fact that our actions are not solely driven by egoistic choice.  “Commitments” are other-regarding considerations that come into the choices that individuals make.

Sen distinguishes between sympathy and commitment:

The former corresponds to the case in which the concern for others directly affects one’s own welfare. If the knowledge of torture of others makes you sick, it is a case of sympathy; if it does not make you feel personally worse off, but you think it is wrong and you are ready to do something to stop it, it is a case of commitment. (326)
The characteristic of commitment with which I am most concerned here is the fact that it drives a wedge between personal choice and personal welfare, and much of traditional economic theory relies on the identity of the two. (329)
Sen thinks that John Harsanyi made an advance on the narrow conception of rationality by introducing discussion of two separate preference orderings that are motivational for real decision-makers: ethical preferences and subjective preferences. (This is in “Cardinal Welfare, Individualistic Ethics, and Interpersonal Comparisons of Utility”.)  But Sen rightly points out that this construction doesn’t give us a basis for choosing when the two orderings dictate incompatible choices.  Sen attempts to formalize the idea of a commitment as a second-order preference ordering: a ranking of rankings.  “We need to consider rankings of preference rankings to express our moral judgments” (337).

Can one preference ordering do all these things? A person thus described may be “rational” in the limited sense of revealing no inconsistencies in his choice behavior, but if he has no use for these distinctions between quite different concepts, he must be a bit of a fool. The purely economic man is indeed close to being a social moron. Economic theory has been much preoccupied with this rational fool decked in the glory of his one all-purpose preference ordering. To make room for the different concepts related to his behavior we need a more elaborate structure. (335-336)

Here is an example.  “I wish I liked vegetarian foods more” is an example of a second-order preference ranking: it indicates a rational preference for the first-order ranking in which the vegetarian option comes ahead of the lamb option over the ranking in which these options are reversed.  And Sen’s point is an important one: the second-order ranking can be behaviorally influential.  I may choose the vegetarian option, not because I prefer it, but because I prefer the world arrangement in which I go for the vegetarian option.  Or in other words, one’s principles or commitments may trump one’s first-order preferences. 

Significantly, Sen’s thinking on this subject was developed in part through a conference organized by Stephen Körner on practical reason in the 1970s (Practical Reason: Papers and Discussions).  This is significant because it focuses attention on a very basic fact: we don’t yet have good theories of how a variety of considerations — ethical principles, personal identities, feelings of solidarity, reasoning about fairness, and self-interest — get aggregated into decisions in particular choice circumstances.

Other economists might object to this formulation on the basis of the fact that second-order preference rankings are more difficult to model; so we don’t get clean, simple mathematical representations of behavior if we introduce this complication.  Sen acknowledges this point:

Admitting behavior based on commitment would, of course have far- reaching consequences on the nature of many economic models. I have tried to show why this change is necessary and why the consequences may well be serious. Many issues remain unresolved, including the empirical importance of commitment as a part of behavior, which would vary, as I have argued, from field to field. I have also indicated why the empirical evidence for this cannot be sought in the mere observation of actual choices, and must involve other sources of information, including introspection and discussion. (341-342)

But his reply is convincing.  There are substantial parts of ordinary human activity that don’t make sense if we think of rationality as egoistic maximization of utility.  Collective action, group mobilization, religious sacrifice, telling the truth, and working to the fullest extent of one’s capabilities are all examples of activity where narrow egoistic rationality would dictate different choices than those ordinary individuals are observed to make.  And yet ordinary individuals are not irrational when they behave this way. Rather, they are reflective and deliberative, and they have reasons for their actions.  So the theory of rationality needs to have a way of representing this non-egoistic reasonableness.  This isn’t the only way that moral and normative commitments can be incorporated into a theory of rational deliberation; but it is one substantive attempt to do so, and is more satisfactory (for me, anyway) than the construction offered by Akerlof and Kranton.

(I also like the neo-Kantian approach taken by Tom Nagel in The Possibility of Altruism as an effort to demonstrate that non-egoistic reasoning is rational.)

Teaching philosophy

What is it that we expect students to learn when we teach philosophy? Is philosophy an arcane and charmingly useless vestige of a nineteenth-century university education?  Or does it have something crucial to add to the liberal education of the twenty-first century — whether in the arts and sciences or in pre-professional schools?

Philosophers would probably answer this question in a wide variety of ways.  In my own case, I have several high-level goals in mind when I approach a new group of undergraduate students in philosophy.  I hope to help them to develop in several ways:

  • to gain a set of intellectual skills: analysis, reasoning, clarity of thinking and exposition, open-mindedness and a readiness to try to see a problem from multiple points of view
  • to learn some of the developed approaches to “philosophical” problems: knowledge, ethical behavior, individual rights, social justice, the authority of the state, the nature of rationality, the meaning of human life
  • to gain an engaged involvement in some great thinkers and their theories and reasoning in detail
  • to gain some meaningful acquaintance with some important philosophical theories (utilitarianism, empiricism, mind-body materialism, ordinary language philosophy …)
  • to gain an ability to see the connections between philosophical reasoning and real human problems — scientific knowledge, addressing poverty or racism, resolving conflicts of value or conflicts of interest or desire, …

Most of these goals have to do with developing intellectual capacity — imagination, reasoning, analytical ability, critical capacity to probe behind ordinary assumptions — more than gaining specific bits of knowledge about the history of philosophy.  Students are exposed to pieces of philosophical traditions that result in exam questions such as these: What was Anselm’s ontological argument?  What was Russell’s paradox?  What were the higher pleasures according to J. S. Mill?  But the real learning goal isn’t that the student should have the ability to draft a short Wikipedia entry on one of these topics.  Rather, the goal is that he/she has enough of a set of analytical and critical skills so that she can pick up a philosophical problem; explore and develop the problem with insight and imagination; consider a variety of ways of addressing the problem; and put forward a philosophical argument that attempts to resolve the problem.  The student needs to learn how to think — philosophically, imaginatively, and critically.

It is true, of course, that being able to formulate and resolve a philosophical problem requires a degree of acquaintance with the systems and theories that previous generations of philosophers have brought to bear on the problems they raise.  So it is important to have grappled seriously with Anselm, Russell, or Mill.  And this means taking seriously the positions these philosophers and others advanced and the intellectual frameworks within which they reasoned.  So a degree of knowledge of some of the fields and traditions of philosophy is an important intellectual attainment for a philosophy student.  But the goal of pursuing this knowledge is not so that the student can become a mini-expert on Anselm or Russell; rather, the goal is to broaden the set of intellectual frameworks and reference points on the basis of which the student’s philosophical imagination can address new problems.

This approach addresses one of the large dichotomies that we have to face in designing a university curriculum: the split between “intellectual skills and capacities” and “mastery of content”.  My position puts primary emphasis on the former over the latter.  One might ask, in good philosophical fashion, why we might want to make this choice?  My own reason has to do with the highest goal I think universities ought to pursue: to help their students to gain a rich range of skills, tools, and intellectual resources on the basis of which they can address the widest range of problems they will face in their civic and professional lives.  When a philosophy student graduates, attends law school or business school, and enters the world of professional activity, he/she may not be able to reproduce specific arguments from the course she took in epistemology or the philosophy of science.  But what we hope is that the challenge of working with those arguments as an undergraduate, challenging and dissecting the assumptions the philosopher made, and considering alternative solutions to the problem, will have given him/her a broad intellectual range and acuity, and a flexible and imaginative ability to think through a set of issues.  And, we would hope, these skills are highly transportable, from the context of philosophy to the practical intellectual challenges of being a good doctor, lawyer, or engineer.  Ultimately the intellectual capacities of imagination, analytical ability, critical insight, and intellectual rigor are the best and most enduring attainments of a good liberal education.

This goal has to do with intellectual capacity and imagination.  But we have another and equally important goal as well in designing a university education or a philosophy course.  This is the goal of helping our students become engaged and morally motivated members of the organizations and communities to which they belong.  We would hope that our students have cultivated an ability to think independently and seriously about the issues of social justice and personal conduct that arise in the society that they are helping to constitute; and we would hope that they have acquired some of the components of personal seriousness that lead them to act with conviction on the basis of their moral ideas.  The transition from narcissism to engagement is not an automatic or inevitable one, and a suitable learning environment in the university can have a large impact on this process of personal development.  So my hope in my own philosophy classroom is that students will have an opportunity to explore and challenge their own moral ideas; to come to see how the contemporary world measures up with respect to those ideas; and to see that their own engagement in issues of community, justice, and social progress can make a meaningful difference in the state of their world.

Some of this process of critical self discovery can happen in the classroom.  But some of it is best stimulated by the other activities that can help students get engaged in the important social issues of their day — poverty alleviation, literacy, racial disparities, etc.  Involvement in organizations such as Habitat for Humanity or Amnesty International can give students a genuine understanding of the needs their world presents to them, and the difference that their engagement can make.  And the teamwork that unavoidably accompanies all these activities gives a concrete illustration to the student of the value of collaboration.

This line of thought converges with one of the common refrains of current thinking about pedagogy: the idea of the student as an “active learner.”  As Socrates and Habermas illustrate in the images above, a very large part of teaching philosophy is the challenge of getting the student to think for himself/herself.  The student needs to take on the intellectual challenge as a serious one; and he/she needs to expend the real mental effort required to understand and deal with the problem.  This can’t be distilled into an artful lecture by the professor; rather, it seems to require dialogue and intellectual exchange.  The student needs to be engaged in the debate; and he or she needs to be brought to see the stakes of the issue.  (In spite of the vast lecture hall that Michael Sandel confronts in the third image above, he too is capable of engaging and challenging the students in his classroom.  Here is a video of a lecture from his Harvard course on justice.)

http://www.youtube.com/v/kBdfcR-8hEY&hl=en_US&fs=1&

The moral sentiments

One of Adam Smith’s contributions to the study of philosophical ethics is his book, The Theory of Moral Sentiments. It is an interesting work, one part descriptive moral psychology, one part theory of the emotions.  Here is the opening paragraph (link):

How selfish soever man may be supposed, there are evidently some principles in his nature, which interest him in the fortune of others, and render their happiness necessary to him, though he derives nothing from it except the pleasure of seeing it. Of this kind is pity or compassion, the emotion which we feel for the misery of others, when we either see it, or are made to conceive it in a very lively manner. That we often derive sorrow from the sorrow of others, is a matter of fact too obvious to require any instances to prove it; for this sentiment, like all the other original passions of human nature, is by no means confined to the virtuous and humane, though they perhaps may feel it with the most exquisite sensibility. The greatest ruffian, the most hardened violator of the laws of society, is not altogether without it.

So Smith asserts as a matter of empirical fact that there are common moral emotions and feelings — sympathy, pity, compassion — that underlie human social and moral behavior.  And the most basic kinds of morally motivated behavior — altruism in particular — are explained by the workings of these natural emotions of empathy with other human beings.  So Smith posed a fundamental question: is there an innate human moral psychology, beyond the reach of training and teaching, that accounts for our willingness to give to others and sometimes sacrifice important interests for the good of others?  Why do firemen rush into the highly dangerous environment of a large fire in order to rescue the people inside?

Now fast-forward to the post-Darwinian world; look at the human organism from the point of view of the study of primate behavior; and ask this key question: Is there an evolutionary basis for social behaviors? Are there emotions supporting cooperation that were selected for through our evolutionary history? Is a moral capacity hardwired?

Philosophers have treated this question in the past.  Allan Gibbard’s Wise Choices, Apt Feelings: A Theory of Normative Judgment is a particularly good example. Here is how Gibbard describes the situation.

Consider now human beings evolving in hunting-gathering societies.  We could expect them to face an abundance of human bargaining situations, involving mutual aid, personal property, mates, territory, use of housing, and the like.  Human bargaining situations tend to be evolutionary bargaining situations.  Human goals tend toward biological fitness, toward reproduction.  The point is not, of course, that a person’s sole goal is to maximize his reproduction; few if any people have that as a goal at all.  Rather, the point concerns propensities to develop goals.  Those propensities that conferred greatest fitness were selected; hence in a hunting-gathering society, people tended to want the various things it was fitness-enhancing for them to want.  Conditions of primitive human life must have required intricate coordination–both of the simple cooperative kinds involved, say, in meeting a person, and of the kind required for bargaining problems to yield mutually beneficial outcomes. Propensities well coordinated with the propensities of others would have been fitness-enhancing, and so we may view a vast array of human propensities as coordinating devices.  Our emotional propensities, I suggest, are largely the results of these selection pressures, and so are our normative capacities. (67)

One of Gibbard’s key points is an analytical one. He argues against the idea of there being specific moral content, ethical principles, or moral emotions that are embodied in the central nervous system (CNS) as a result of variation and selection. Instead, he argues for there being a hardwired set of more abstract capacities that have CNS reality and selection advantage: the ability to learn a norm and to act in accordance with it.  (Richard Joyce makes a similar point: “Evolutionary psychology does not claim that observable human behavior is adaptive, but rather that it is produced by psychological mechanisms that are adaptations.  The output of an adaptation need not be adaptive” (5).)

This is the part that seems counter-intuitive from a simple Darwinian point of view. Wouldn’t an organism possessing a genetically determined disposition to act contrary to its mortal interests almost necessarily have less reproductive success? So shouldn’t such a gene quickly lose out to a more opportunistic alternative? Gibbard considers the evolutionary arguments surrounding the topic of altruism (including Richard Dawkins’ Selfish Gene), and concludes — not necessarily.  It is possible to mount an evolutionary argument that establishes the fitness-enhancing characteristics of some specific kinds of altruistic behavior.

So what does the current research on this topic add to what we already knew?  And, can we draw any interesting connections back to the venerable Smith?

In fact, there seems to be a new surge of interest in the topic.  A number of philosophers and psychologists are now interested in treating moral psychology as an empirical question, and they are interested in working back to the evolutionary environment in which these human capacities emerged.   (For example, Richard Joyce, The Evolution of Morality and Walter Sinnott-Armstrong, ed., Moral Psychology, Volume 1: The Evolution of Morality: Adaptations and Innateness.)  Particularly interesting is research by Michael Tomasello and his collaborators.  Tomasello is the co-director of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology.  He argues that human beings are hardwired for cooperation, empathy, and social intensionality in a very interesting recent book, Why We Cooperate.  A great deal of his research has to do with experiments and observations of human children (9-24 months) and of young non-human primates.  He finds, essentially, that infants and children display a range of behaviors that seem to reveal a natural readiness for altruism, sharing, coordination, and eventually following of norms.  “I only propose that the kinds of collaborative activities in which young children today engage are the natural cradle of social norms of the cooperative variety.  This is because they contain the seeds of the two key ingredients” (89-90).  He presents a range of experimental data supporting these ideas:

  • Human infants have a pre-cultural disposition to be helpful and empathetic (12-14 months) 
  • Human toddlers adjust their cooperative and normative behavior to be more attentive to the behavior of others: generous to the generous and not to the ungenerous. 
  • Human infants and toddlers have a precultural disposition to absorb and enforce norms. 
  • The emotions of guilt and shame to be hardwired to conformance to norms. 
  • Infants appear to take a “we” intentional stance without learning.  They are able to quickly figure out what another agent is trying to do.
  • Chimps differ from human infants in virtually each of these areas. 

Here is a particularly interesting piece of evidence that Tomasello offers in support of the idea that human evolution was shaped by selection pressures that favored social coordination: the whites of the eyes in the human being.  Almost all non-human species have eyes that are primarily dark; whereas human eyes feature a large and conspicuous circle of white (the sclera).  The whites of the eyes permit an observer to determine what another individual is looking at — allowing human individuals to achieve a substantially greater degree of shared attention and coordination.  “My team has argued that advertising my eye direction for all to see could only have evolved in a cooperative social environment in which others were not likely to exploit it to my detriment” (76).

So does this recent work on the evolutionary basis of moral emotions have anything to do with Smith and the moral sentiments?  What the two bodies of thought have in common is the idea that there is a psychological foundation to moral behavior, cooperation, altruism, and helping.  Pure maximizing rationality doesn’t get you to “helping”; rather, there needs to be some psychological impulse to improve things for the other person.  Where evolutionary psychology differs from Smith is precisely in the nature of the explanation that is offered for this moral psychology; we have the advantage of having a pretty good idea of how natural selection works on biological traits, and we are therefore in a better position than Smith was to explain why human beings possess moral sentiments.  What we cannot yet answer is the question of the nature of the mechanism at the level of the central nervous system or the cognitive system, of how these moral sentiments are embodied in the human organism.

(It is interesting to contrast this line of argument with that of Tom Nagel in The Possibility of Altruism.  Nagel argues against the moral psychology of Hume — very similar to that of Smith — and argues that altruism is actually a feature of rationality.  We behave altruistically, fundamentally, because we have a rational representation of the reality of the external world and of other persons; and to recognize the reality of another person is immediately to have a reason to help the other person.  So no “motor” of moral emotion is needed in order to explain altruistic behavior.  On this approach, we don’t need to postulate moral sentiments to explain moral behavior; all we need is a rich conception of practical rationality.)

Democracy and agency in development ethics

Development ethics is an area of applied ethics that attempts to explore the moral issues involved in global social and economic transformation.  Key to the urgency of the field is the fact of massive global poverty, hunger, and inequality.  The current situation of the world’s poor — in Egypt, India, Mexico, Sudan, or Brazil, for example — is entirely unacceptable from a human point of view.  And governments, organizations, and individuals have positive moral obligations to work towards reducing these forms of massive suffering, and helping construct social and economic institutions that systematically reduce poverty.  So much is clear from the 60,000 foot level.  But how much more specificity can we provide about the bad of poverty, the principles of global justice, or the goals of development, so that moral theory can provide something of a guide to policy and action?  To what extent can we usefully connect moral theory to the practical challenges of designing workable development strategies?

Philosophers and social scientists have made a series of efforts at formulating a foundation for development ethics since the end of World War II.  Early contributors were Denis Goulet (Development Ethics: A Guide to Theory and Practice) and Robert Chambers (Rural Development: Putting the last first).  But the major progress in the field occurred through the writings of Amartya Sen and Martha Nussbaum, in the formulation of the “capabilities approach” to development.  Sen argued that the fundamental goal of development should be to create social and economic institutions within which every individual is enabled to fulfill his/her capabilities and to realize the functionings of a full human life (Development as Freedom).  And Nussbaum extended this idea with particular emphasis on the ways in which gender inequalities in development have deeply harmed women in the developing world (Women and Human Development).

There is now a third generation of thinking in the field of development ethics, well represented by David Crocker’s excellent recent book, Ethics of Global Development: Agency, Capability, and Deliberative Democracy.  (Other important examples include Sabina Alkire, Valuing Freedoms: Sen’s Capability Approach and Poverty Reduction and Bina Agarwal, A Field of One’s Own: Gender and Land Rights in South Asia.)  Crocker has been actively involved in the formulation of theories of development ethics for decades, and is the founder of the International Development Ethics Association (IDEA).  This is an important forum for philosophers and practitioners to come together to discuss the ethical issues of development.  Crocker has been an exponent of the capabilities approach throughout his career, and has succeeded in deepening the debate by insisting on the importance of bringing the moral theories into direct engagement with the realities and practices of development.

The current book takes an important step forward.  It is framed around the foundation of the capabilities approach; but it goes beyond existing capabilities theory by emphasizing the crucial role of agency and democracy within development.  The capabilities approach focuses on achieving a form of society in which individuals can realize their capabilities and enjoy high quality of life.  This is a focus on the outcome of development.  Crocker refocuses this picture to emphasize the intrinsic and instrumental importance of the agency of the people involved in development — the process of development.  And people best exercise their agency through a deliberative, participative process — through a democratic process.  So Crocker’s ethics of development might be described as a joining of the capabilities approach with current theorizing about deliberative democracy.  (Here is an earlier post on deliberative democracy.)

So what does this emphasis on agency and democracy involve?  Here is a concrete example: Indian economist V. K. Ramachandran’s description of how the development process works in West Bengal and Kerala.

http://www.youtube.com/v/1goTqlr17QE&hl=en_US&fs=1&

Here and elsewhere in the interview Ramachandran describes a process through which the West Bengal development agencies conduct their work.  They consult broadly with social groups, labor organizations, feminist organizations, and local communities and villages.  Proposals, goals, and strategies are developed through these consultations and deliberations; and the ultimate policy package is intended to represent a synthesis of the insights and claims of the various groups involved in the process.  So the process represents a practical illustration of the approach advocated by Crocker.

Why is a deliberative process along these lines appealing? First, it captures a set of social ideals associated with Rousseau and Marx about the value of individuals and groups self-constituting their goals and values through reflection and deliberation. Rather than the World Bank or the OECD Development Assistance Committee imposing a set of goals on a country or region (liberalization, more rapid urbanization, improvement of markets), the people of the region should have the opportunity and responsibility of setting their course and choosing the strategies they will pursue. Development should proceed through a process of local self-determination, and such a process is itself an intrinsic good.

Second, there is the idea is that the goals chosen through such a process will be in better alignment with the needs of the region, and will be better embraced by the people affected, because they have been refined and chosen through a deliberative, democratic process.  Policies developed through a democratic process have a greater level of legitimacy with those affected by the policies.

Third, there is the expectation that the people of the community will have a better factual understanding of their natural and social circumstances, and will therefore be better able to formulate strategies that will work in the given environment.  So Crocker and others expect that a process of deliberative democracy through which development goals and strategies are selected by a given community will have a higher probability of succeeding.   (Notice the convergence between this set of ideas and Scott’s critique of “high modernism”; link.)

This set of values suggests several institutional features: decentralization of decision-making, massive consultation, and a requirement of equality among citizens.  Can we be confident that such a process will work well to reform society and reduce poverty and inequality?  Ramachandran highlights one obstacle to this process in the interview posted above: the fact of extreme inequalities of wealth and poverty in rural India.  But if the social setting is one of great inequalities between landlords, tenants, and landless workers, then to what extent can the requirements of democratic deliberation take place?  Ramachandran argues for the necessity of agrarian reform (land reform and caste reform) as a necessary precondition for just economic development in India.

Decentralization of decision-making raises another potential problem — the myopia of the local.  A development plan that may be best for West Bengal as a whole may be undesirable to many communities; so how can we expect the process of deliberative democracy to arrive at a good outcome for the state as a whole? (The collapse of the Tata Motor Nano project in West Bengal perhaps illustrates this possibility.)  And the massive consultation involved in this ideal poses its own problems of practicality.  Can we be confident that such a process will come to a resolution, or will debate continue indefinitely?

Archon Fung and Erik Olin Wright address practical responses to some of these issues in Deepening Democracy: Institutional Innovations in Empowered Participatory Governance.  Here is how they set the stage for their analysis:

As the tasks of the state have become more complex and the size of polities larger and more heterogeneous, the institutional forms of liberal democracy developed in the nineteenth century — representative democracy plus techno-bureaucratic administration — seem increasingly ill suited to the novel problems we face in the twenty-first century.  “Democracy” as a way of organizing the state has come to be narrowly identified with territorially based competitive elections of political leadership for legislative and executive offices.  Yet, increasingly, this mechanism of political representation seems ineffective in accomplishing the central ideals of democratic politics: facilitating active political involvement of the citizenry, forging political consensus through dialogue, devising and implementing public policies that ground a productive economy and healthy society, and, in more radical egalitarian versions fo the democratic idea, assuring that all citizens benefit from the nation’s wealth. (3)

David Crocker’s focus on the importance of the values and practices of deliberative democracy within the development process is an important step forward.  It helps to make more tangible the implications of the capabilities approach for specific development challenges; and it gives substance to the priority that Sen and Nussbaum accord to “freedom” as a central development value.

(Some readers may also be interested in my 2003 book, The Paradox of Wealth and Poverty: Mapping the Ethical Dilemmas of Global Development. This book likewise places the capabilities approach at the center of the analysis.)

Rawls and decision theory

John Rawls’s A Theory of Justice was a strikingly original contribution to political philosophy upon its appearance in 1971.  Against the prevailing preference for “meta-ethics” in the field of philosophical ethics, Rawls made an effort to arrive at substantive, non-tautological principles that could be justified as a sort of “moral constitution” for a just society.  The theory involves two fundamental principles of justice: the liberty principle, guaranteeing maximal equal liberties for all citizens, and the difference principle, requiring that social and economic inequalities should be the least possible, subject to the constraint of maximizing the position of the least-well-off.  (The principle also requires equality of opportunity for all positions.)

Two elements of Rawls’s philosophical argument were particularly striking.  The first was his adoption of the anti-foundationalist coherence epistemology associated with Quine and Goodman (SEP article by Jonathan Kvanvig); so Rawls conceded that it is not possible to provide logically decisive arguments for moral positions.  Though his theory of justice has much in common with the ideas of Kant and Rousseau, Rawls rejected the Kantian idea that moral theories could be given secure philosophical foundation.  It is rather a question of the overall fit between a set of principles and our “considered judgments” about cases and mid-level moral judgments.  He refers to the situation of “reflective equilibrium” as the state of affairs that results when a moral reasoner has fully deliberated about his/her considered moral judgments and tentative moral principles, adjusting both until no further changes are required by the requirement of consistency.

Another and perhaps even more distinctive part of Rawls’s approach is his use of the apparatus of decision theory to support his arguments in favor of the two principles of justice against plausible alternatives (including especially utilitarianism).  Essentially the argument goes along these lines.  Suppose that representative individuals are brought together in a situation in which they are expected to make a unanimous and irreversible decision about the fundamental principles of justice that will regulate their society; and suppose they are profoundly ignorant about their own particular characteristics.  Participants do not know whether they are talented, strong, intelligent, or eloquent; and they do not know what their fundamental goals are (their theories of the good).  Rawls refers to this situation of choice as the original position; and he refers to the participants as deliberating behind the veil of ignorance.  Rawls argues that rational individuals in these circumstances would unanimously choose the two principles of justice over utilitarianism.  And this conclusion is taken to be a strong basis of support for the two principles as correct.  This is what qualifies Rawls’s theory as falling within the social contract tradition; the foundation of justice is the fact of unanimous rational consent (albeit hypothetical).

Once we connect the question, “what is the best theory of justice?”, with the question, “what principles of justice would rationally self-interested persons choose?”, there are various ways we might proceed.  Rawls’s description of the original position is just one possible starting point out of several.  But if we begin with Rawls’s assumptions, then it is natural to turn to formal decision theory as a basis for answering the question.  How should rational agents reason in these circumstances?  How should they decide which of several options will best serve their future interests?  And one point becomes clear immediately: the choice of a decision rule makes a critical difference for the ultimate choice.  If we were to imagine that decision-making under conditions of uncertainty mandates the “maximize expected utility” rule, then one choice follows (utilitarianism).  But Rawls argues that the expected utility rule is not rational in the circumstances of the original position.  The stakes are too high for each participant.  And therefore he argues that the “maximin” rule would be chosen by rational participants in the circumstances of the original position.  The maximin rule requires that we rank options by their worst possible outcome; and we choose that option that comes with the least bad outcome.  In other words, we “maximize the minimum.” (The maximin rule was described by von Neumann and Morgenstern in 1944 in their Theory of Games and Economic Behavior.)

Notice that this analysis involves a question of second-order rationality: not “what outcome would the rational agent choose?”, but rather “what decision rule would the rational agent follow?”.  So it is the rationality of the decision rule rather than the rationality of the choice that is at issue.

Another important qualification has to do with defining more carefully what part of the theory of rationality Rawls is using in this argument.  It is sometimes said that Rawls applies game theory to the situation of the original position; and there is a certain logic to this interpretation.  Game theory is the theory of strategic rationality; it pertains to that set of situations in which the payoff for one participant depends on the rational choices of other participants. And the original position seems to embody this condition.  However, the requirement of unanimity and the complete absence of a context of bargaining makes the situation non-strategic.  So Rawls’s use of rational choice theory does not involve game theory per se, and he is not interested in demonstrating a Nash equilibrium in the OP.  Instead, he believes that there is a single best strategy that will be chosen by each individual–the two principles of justice.  (Here is a good brief description of the main assumptions of game theory.)

One might ask whether the two features singled out here — anti-foundationalism and decision theory — are consistent.  If Rawls’s theory of justice depends on an argument within formal decision theory, then why is it not a foundationalist argument?  (And in fact, Rawls on occasion refers to his argument as reflecting a “kind of moral geometry”.)  What makes Rawls’s use of decision theory “anti-foundationalist” is the fact that this argument itself is philosophically contestable.  Reasonable decision theorists may differ about the rationality of the maximin rule (as John Harsanyi argued against Rawls).  So the appeal to decision theory does not obviate the need for a balance of reasons in favor of the approach and the particular way in which it is specified in this situation; and this in turn sounds a lot like the role of physical theory and methodology within Quine’s notion of “The Web of Belief.”

(A mountain of words have been written about Rawls’s moral epistemology.  Here is Samuel Freeman’s excellent article on the original position in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy; here is a useful compendium of the history of rational choice theory; and here is an old article of mine on the epistemology of reflective equilibrium.)