Human cultures as self-creating systems

Some philosophers and others have imagined that human beings are largely fixed in their most fundamental capacities — their “human nature”. Along with this idea is the notion that there are fundamental ethical and moral principles that are unchanging and serve always as guides to human action — and, perhaps, that philosophical ethics or theology help to identify these principles.

We can begin by asking, what is involved in a conception of “human nature”?

  • A conception of what human beings want; what motivates them
  • A conception of how human beings think; rationality and reason? Emotion? Passion? Sympathy? Compassion? Hatred? Fear? Envy? Indifference?
  • A view of the ways that human beings think about and interact with individuals and groups around them. Egoism and altruism; self-interest and commitment
  • A view of the effectiveness of normative systems

Against these views of permanence, I want to argue for the idea that human nature and human values are malleable and are best understood as a “self-creation” — a positing by generations over time about what human beings ought to be and to care about. Human beings create “cultures”, and these cultures orient individuals’ self-understandings, motivations, and moral ideas.

On this view, human beings have generalizable capacities for thinking, acting, and creating that permit us to create cultural systems that orient and underlie our behavior (link). And we have the ability to change those systems over time.

There is an intriguing resonance of this view with Sartre’s view that individual human beings define themselves through their freedom and their actions. This is his view that “existence precedes essence” for human beings. Steven Crowell describes this view in his SEP article on existentialism (link):

Sartre’s slogan—“existence precedes essence”—may serve to introduce what is most distinctive of existentialism, namely, the idea that no general, non-formal account of what it means to be human can be given, since that meaning is decided in and through existing itself. Existence is “self-making-in-a-situation” (Fackenheim 1961: 37). Webber (2018: 14) puts the point this way: “Classical existentialism is … the theory that existence precedes essence,” that is, “there is no such thing as human nature” in an Aristotelian sense. A “person does not have an inbuilt set of values that they are inherently structured to pursue. Rather, the values that shape a person’s behavior result from the choices they have made” (2018: 4). In contrast to other entities, whose essential properties are fixed by the kind of entities they are, what is essential to a human being—what makes her who she is—is not fixed by her type but by what she makes of herself, who she becomes. The fundamental contribution of existential thought lies in the idea that one’s identity is constituted neither by nature nor by culture, since to “exist” is precisely to constitute such an identity. It is in light of this idea that key existential notions such as facticity, transcendence (project), alienation, and authenticity must be understood. (Crowell, “Existentialism”)

But there is a wrinkle: Sartre’s view concerns the idea of the “self definition” of an individual human being, whereas the view I am exploring here concerns the idea of the self-creation of human normative and symbolic cultures. Communities over time created their systems of values and social practices that define their social behavior and their subjective identities. Greek cultures were in the process of making themselves through the centuries that separated Homer from Socrates and across the cultural differences separating Sparta from Athens. Deep as Sartre’s thinking about existentialism was, this view seems even more fundamental about the moral situation of humanity.

This is not a new idea. Johannes Gottfried von Herder (1744-1803) offered a historicist view of human nature, advocating the idea that human nature is itself a historical product and that human beings act differently in different periods of historical development. (Michael Forster’s essay in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy provides an excellent exposure to Herder’s philosophy; link.) Herder’s ideas are expressed in numerous works, including especially Ideen Zur Philosophie Der Geschichte Der Menschheit, Volume 1 (1791). Here is a representative passage from Reflections on the Philosophy of the History of Mankind (Book XV, chapter 2) (included in German History in Documents and Images):

2. The progress of history shows, that, as true humanity has increased, the destructive demons of the human race have diminished in number; and this from the inherent natural laws of a self- enlightening reason and policy.

In proportion as reason increases among mankind, man must learn from their infancy to perceive, that there is a nobler greatness, than the inhuman greatness of tyrants; and that it is more laudable, as well as more difficult, to form, than to ravage a nation, to establish cities, than to destroy them. The industrious Egyptians, the ingenious Greeks, the mercantile Phoenicians, not only make a more pleasing figure in history, but enjoyed, during the period of their existence, a more useful and agreeable life, than the destroying Persians, the conquering Romans, the avaricious Carthaginians. The remembrance of the former still lives with fame, and their influence upon Earth will continue eternally with increasing power; while the ravagers, with their demoniacal might, reaped no farther benefit, than that of becoming a wretched, luxurious people, amid the ruins of their plunder, and at last quaffing off the poisoned draught of severe retaliation. Such was the fate of the Assyrians, Babylonians, Persians, Romans: even the Greeks received more injury from their internal dissensions, and from their luxury in many cities and provinces, than from the sword of the enemy. Now as these are fundamental principles of a natural order, which not only shows itself in particular cases of history, or in fortuitous instances; but is founded on its own intrinsic properties, that is, on the nature of oppression and an overstretched power, or on the consequences of victory, luxury and arrogance, as on the laws of a disturbed equiponderance, and holds on coeternally with the course of things: why must we be compelled to doubt, that this law of Nature is not as generally acknowledged as any other, and does not operate, from the forcibleness with which it is perceived, with the infallible efficacy of a natural truth? What may be brought to mathematical certainty, and political demonstration, must be acknowledged as truth, soon or late; for no one has yet questioned the accuracy of the multiplication table or the propositions of Euclid. (link)

Herder is “historicist” about human nature. The logical implication of historicism is that human individuals become specific culturally instantiated persons through their immersion in a culture at a time. This casts doubt on all forms of “essentialism” about human nature and about the characteristics of a people or a culture. Cultures and their value systems are contingent; and the human individuals to whom they give rise are contingently different from their predecessors and successors in other generations. Or, in other words, human beings create themselves through history by creating cultures, norms, and schemes of thinking. It also has a radical implication for the possibility of change in humanity: our histories change us, and we change the histories we make. It also implies a radical anti-essentialism about social identities: there is nothing essential about being an Armenian, a Spaniard, a Buddhist, or a Jew. National and cultural identities have a certain stability over time. But they also change over time. National and cultural identities are themselves historically located and historically malleable.

Sonia Sikka’s Herder on Humanity and Cultural Difference: Enlightened Relativism is an excellent and detailed discussion of this aspect of Herder’s philosophy: culture, nation, “a people”, and a historicist approach to the concept of human nature. She argues that Herder endorses the anti-essentialism about “peoples” and identities described here.

Herder is actually not as strong a cultural essentialist as is sometimes thought. He explicitly acknowledges that cultures are not internally uniform, that they fuse to form new combinations, and that their evolution is shaped by interaction with one another. On the latter point, far from holding the view that cultures should shun foreign influence, Herder largely sees cultural interaction as a good thing, as long as it is not the result either of violence or of imitation arising purely from a sense of cultural inferiority. Sikka, 7

This historicist view of human nature stands in opposition to —

  • Philosophical fundamentalism — human nature is fixed and unchanging
  • Moral foundationalism — there is one permanent and unchanging set of moral principles that are binding at all times
  • Biological fundamentalism — human behavior is governed by a “code” created by the evolutionary history of our species

Against these ideas, this view holds that human beings are “general-purpose culture machines” capable of creating cultural and moral innovations that permit them to live better and more harmoniously together.

So what about biology? Has evolution made us into a certain kind of social animal after all, with pre-coded moral motivations and norms? some sociobiologists have imagined so. but philosopher Allan Gibbard provides a more plausible view in Wise Choices, Apt Feelings.

Human cooperation, and coordination more broadly, has always rested on a refined network of kinds of human rapport, supported by emotion and thought. A person sustains and develops this network, draws advantages from it, and on occasion keeps his distance from it. He does these things only in virtue of a refined configuration of emotional and cognitive dispositions….. (27)

We evolved as culture emerged through our evolving. We evolved to have flexible genetic propensities — propensities to be affected profoundly in response to culture. We evolved to interact with others, in response to culture, in ways that themselves constitute having a culture. We acquired not a shapeless capacity for culture, but perhaps a whole configuration of adaptations to the kinds of cultures humans form and sustain. (28)

So Gibbard’s view is that the evolutionary history of hominids took place in a setting of social groups, where psychological capacities supporting cooperation were favored (possessed selection advantage). Gibbard’s view, then, is that the evolutionary history of hominids (including homo sapiens) resulted in a species that had a range of psychological “tools” or capacities that could be activated or deployed in a wide variety of ways. This prepared homo sapiens to become “cultural animals”, capable of creating and living within social groups and cultural systems. And this process of creation had a great deal of flexibility — as human technological and linguistic capabilities also demonstrated great flexibility.

These ideas provide an important naturalistic basis for interpreting human morality and meaning: we human beings have created the cultural and normative systems in which we live, sometimes with deeply admirable effect and sometimes with monstrous effect. And we have the collective capacity to change our cultures. 

Further, this historicist / existentialist understanding of the human being within human culture is encouraging when it comes to the topic of “confronting evil”. It provides a basis for the idea that we are capable of changing our values and expectations of each other. And equally importantly, learning of the capacity of “ordinary men” to do horrible things can lead us to attempt to create new values and new institutions that make atrocities like genocide, mass enslavement, and state oppression less likely. Confronting the evil of the twentieth century with unflinching honesty, then, can change humanity.

Do norms and moral attitudes change over generations?

Moral philosophers have often written of ethical obligations, principles, and theories as if they were timeless and unchanging. Kant, for example, argued that moral obligations follow from the structure of rationality itself. The utilitarians — Bentham, Mill, Sidgwick — held that moral obligations are defined by the principle of maximizing happiness — whether in the time of Socrates or Neo (the protagonist in the Matrix).

But really — it is entirely unbelievable to imagine that philosophy and pure reason can discover an apriori, timeless system of moral truths. Values and norms are created by human beings living in concrete social circumstances. Rather, moral philosophy should be understood as a dialogue with the moral culture of a time and place, rather than an attempt to discover moral certainties valid beyond human experience. Seen in this way, the “reflective equilibrium” approach to moral epistemology advocated by John Rawls is the most plausible way of understanding the epistemic status of moral principles. This is a coherentist rather than a foundationalist epistemology, involving a back-and-forth adjustment of specific judgments and more general principles until a reasonable level of consistency is achieved. (Here is an earlier discussion of these ideas about moral reasoning; link.) And if human beings’ considered judgments change over time — if tormenting animals for entertainment is accepted in 1600 but largely rejected in 1900 — then the moral theory that corresponds to this system of judgments and principles will be different as well. 

Organized religions have advocated for fairly specific “codes of conduct” for practitioners (followers, or even all human beings). Religious codes of conduct are usually based on authority rather than philosophical argument — authority of the Koran or the Bible, authority of the founders, or authority of specialists who speak for the divine beings. But assuming a naturalistic view of the world, it is clear that the religious codes of a time are somehow an expression of the ambient moral attitudes of the time, perhaps with innovations introduced by charismatic teachers and leaders. Religious moral prescriptions rest upon the practical sets of social and interpersonal norms that exist in the communities in which these groups and bodies of doctrine emerged.

There is also an evolutionary question to be posed. What is it about the evolutionary history of primates and human beings that has led to the evolution of a central nervous system that is capable of normative behavior? Is there an evolutionary dimension to the moral emotions (or the underlying cognitive capacities that permit the embodiment of moral emotions)? Is an inclination to fairness or kindness “in our genes” in some way? This is a question that philosophers and psychologists have undertaken to investigate. Allan Gibbard’s analysis in Wise Choices, Apt Feelings is especially nuanced, and serves well as a rebuttal to crude forms of sociobiology (the idea that human behavioral characteristics are hard-wired as a result of our evolutionary history). (I discuss these issues in a 2010 post on the moral sentiments (link).) Significantly, Gibbard’s view leaves a great deal of room for “plasticity” in the moral emotions and the normative systems that are embodied in concrete social traditions and groups. So biology does not entail a particular moral system.

All of this means that we need to consider the question of “moral thinking and choice” in a historically and empirically specific way. We need to investigate the moral psychology or culture of moral attitudes that exist at a time and place. Plainly human beings do in fact have a capacity to act normatively — to make choices based on their moral emotions, moral perceptions, and moral reasons with regard to a situation. What are the particulars of this embodied set of psychologically real perceptions, motivations, and actions? What are the specifics of the normative “grammar” of a particular time and place? How do individual human beings acquire the moral competence that guides the moral perceptions and choices he or she is inclined to make in particular human circumstances? And how do these embodied complexes of moral competence change over time?

Two questions are evident when we reach this point. First, how is the moral psychology of a particular epoch created? What features of history, circumstance, and culture led to “village mentality” of medieval France? For example, what are the important influences that lead individuals in a time and place to pity animals, favor telling the truth, and want to take care of their children? And how much variation is there within a given cultural community, at a given time, in both the content and intensity of these features of moral psychology?

The second question is even more important. Are there processes through which the moral psychology of a time, the moral consensus, changes and — perhaps — improves? Is there a moment between generations when “sympathy for one’s kin” becomes more generalized and becomes “sympathy for one’s neighbors”, and eventually “sympathy for distant human beings”? Is it possible for a human population to “bootstrap” its way to a more benevolent and just way of living, through gradual change in the moral attitudes of individuals?

As a thought experiment, we might imagine a survey of practical moral questions that could be used to map the moral consciousness of human populations at various times and places — a survey of all of humanity, extending from Homeric peasants to men and women in India, China, Europe, Africa, and the Americas, over a 3,000-year period of time. (Think of it as an episode of The Good Place, but drawn from a long historical stretch of time. Lots of funding will be needed for the time-travel part of the research.) Here is a sample set of questions that might serve as a diagnostic tool for probing a moral worldview in a historical setting:

  1. Is it permissible to torment animals for entertainment?
  2. Is it permissible to enslave prisoners of war?
  3. Is it right to kill prisoners of war?
  4. Is it permissible to beat one’s children?
  5. Is it permissible to beat one’s spouse?
  6. Is it permissible to beat one’s neighbor when one is annoyed by his behavior?
  7. Do I have a reason to pay attention to the wellbeing of my neighbor’s children?
  8. Do I have a reason to pay attention to the wellbeing of distant and unknown children?
  9. Is it permissible to send one’s parents away to deprivation when they become old?
  10. Is it permissible to lie to one’s siblings about their inheritance?
  11. Is it permissible to lie to an unknown customer about the defects in a used car (or old horse)?
  12. Is it permissible to steal one’s neighbors’ sheep?
  13. Is it permissible to steal the sheep of people from a distant village?
  14. Is it permissible to tell lies about the practices of people from other groups?
  15. Do I have a duty to intervene when another person is behaving violently and immorally?
  16. Is it permissible and respectable to behave entirely self-interestedly?
  17. Do the powerful have a right of sexual coercion over less powerful individuals in their domain?
  18. Should one be generous to the poor?
  19. Should one be kind to strangers?
  20. Should one tolerate the non-conformity of one’s fellow villagers?
  21. Is it important to act rightly, even when no one is in a position to observe?
  22. Is it permissible to make fun of the gods in the privacy of one’s home?
  23. Is it permissible for an official to accept remunerations in order to provide a service?
  24. Is it permissible for landlords to collect rents from tenants during a time of severe consumption crisis?
  25. Is it permissible for the priests to live in luxury while ordinary people struggle for existence?

Of course this is just a thought experiment, though historians and anthropologists may be able to make some provisional guesses about how different social groups would have answered these questions. And even in the narrow cross-section of cultures that are alive and well in different places in the world today, it would seem likely that there are important differences across communities in the answers that are given to these questions.

Another way of probing the moral worlds of people in other cultures and times is through literature. Literature almost always revolves around the actions and motives of individuals in social groups — friendships, families, villages, armies, social classes, or nations. And often the drama of a novel or play derives from the author’s efforts at probing the reasoning and motivations of the various protagonists. So we might speculate that it is possible to triangulate to a “Shakespearean” ethical code, a “Tolstoyan” ethical code, or a “Flaubertian” ethical code — working backwards from the bad behavior of some of the actors and the admired behavior of others. Martha Nussbaum often emphasizes the moral insights made possible through literature (e.g., Love’s Knowledge: Essays on Philosophy and Literature). This too would be a very interesting exercise: what is the ordinary, day-to-day code of moral behavior that is presupposed in War and Peace?

All of this suggests a fairly high degree of plasticity in the moral frameworks and mentalities of people in different traditions and cultures.

But now, the crucial question: what kinds of effort and what kinds of lived experience might have the effect of improving the moral culture of a civilization in the making? Is it possible for humanity to become morally better over time? Can human communities learn from their mistakes? 

There seem to be at least two levers that might allow for moral learning. The first is an extension of empathy and compassion beyond its current borders. The moral intuitions of a community may change when individuals are brought to recognize in greater fullness the lived experience and capacities for happiness and suffering in other human beings; individuals may broaden their compassion for more distant strangers. And the second is the moral experience of fairness and cooperation as a crucial element of social life. No one wants to be treated unfairly; everyone wants a level of reciprocity from others. And social relations work best when there is a reasonably high level of confidence in the fairness of the institutions and behavior that prevails. Is slavery morally unacceptable? We might hope that a culture comes to see the misery and pain of the enslaved, and the fundamental unfairness of the master-slave relationship. “If our positions were reversed, I would fundamentally reject being enslaved; this gives me a reason to reject this system even when it advantages me.” This is the perspective of reciprocity (link).

This is the conclusion I wanted to reach in connection with the atrocities of the twentieth century: the possibility that a deepening of our culture’s understanding of the wrongs that occurred, the human suffering that was created, and the steps of social and political change that led to these outcomes, can lead as well to a meaningful change in our moral culture and behavior. By recognizing more fully the horror of the shooting pits, perhaps our political morality will change for the better, and we will have a heightened practical and moral resistance to the politicians and movements that led to murderous totalitarian dictatorships.

(Moral Psychology, The Evolution of Morality: Adaptations and Innateness, Vol. 1, edited by Walter Sinnott-Armstrong, provides extensive and stimulating discussions of naturalism as a setting for understanding human moral reasoning and action. Richmond Campbell’s article on Moral Epistemology in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy is an excellent review of the question of the status of moral beliefs; link.)

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.)