Tuesday, 25 March 2014

Ethics, the Good Society and Technology

I'm studying Christian Smith's "What is a Person?" at the moment. This is an important book, which brings together critical realist philosophy and focuses it on the "person" - that subject which is so everyday, so fundamentally in-our-face, so obvious to our commonsense negotiations with the world that (like many obvious subjects) it manages to escape the attention of many serious thinkers who prefer to indulge in systematic overarching descriptions of society, mental life, methodology and so on. In their grand theorising, real people are left out - this is what Smith wants to address.

I call this overlooking of the person "idealism", and it is the topic which inflames my intellectual passion more than any other. Idealists really screw things up. They appear to lack the gentleness and humility to admit their fallibility. And as I get increasingly worked up about it, I'm faced with the realisation that I too might be one! Idealism is a tendency of us all - and sometimes it's not all bad - but it is very slippery.

The root of the idealist's problem is ethics. The is-ought gap, where it is maintained that ethical distinctions are of a different order from naturalistic distinctions, sets the scene for overlooking naturalistic inquiry as ethical positions are established. That naturalistic inquiry into persons cannot give rise to ethical distinctions, in truth gives rise to the kind of Kantian deontological ethics where a categorical ethics overlays naturalism, or (a similarly Kantian) ethical consequentialism where ethics is situated against an idealised society (as in Benthamite utilitarianism). The cybernetic ethics of Von Foerster ("always act so as to increase the number of possibilities for acting") is also in this camp. Consequentialism and deontology arise from the same stable.

Smith talks about how Hume's discourse on the is-ought gap is not at all as cut-and-dried as it is sometimes presented. Hume is really saying that writers on moral matters shift gear from descriptive naturalistic statements to normative statements, and are unaware of what they are doing. The problem with the is-ought gap, to Hume, is the sleight of hand of commentators. He does not rule out the possibility of deeper critical inquiry leading to a naturalistically defensible ethics. This reminds me of my own arguments about 'gear slippage' in the way people think about education and technology (see http://dailyimprovisation.blogspot.co.uk/2014/01/wonky-thinking-and-educational.html and my forthcoming book). There's still much that we can learn from Hume!

If we are to follow Hume's actual discussion about is-ought, then ethical inquiry is a naturalistically-based and ontological inquiry. In simple terms, that means we need to understand the nature of social reality in order to make a better society. If I am occasionally rude about the managers in Higher Education, it is to highlight the fact that we have some real problems with people who oughtn't to be running universities actually trying to run them (and lining their pockets in the process). What's the ontology there? How the hell did that happen? We won't be able to do anything about it unless we understand what caused it (it's really a question about managerialism in general).

In a good society this wouldn't happen. I don't think I'm being idealistic in saying that. There are objective criteria for determining what is good in society, and the determination of those criteria stems from a deep understanding of the real in society. Smith says "Good societies foster personal thriving; bad societies do not".  Replace 'society' with 'university' and you can see how far we have to go in education, let alone society. Smith elaborates a bit about social good: "The good for society is to facilitate and foster through its institutions and structures the development and flourishing of human persons as they are by nature". It's those last 5 words which are important: "as they are by nature".

Maybe Smith is being idealistic here. There are bad people in society. Or rather there are damaged people - people who have, maybe in their childhoods, experienced failed relationships with carers which have left deep scars which develop into socially pathological behaviours. Can a good society prevent this? I think there are two things to prevent: the damage caused by poor attachments in the first case (education can be a substitute of sorts); and the damage that damaged people can inflict on a society. The former involves spotting unhappy children. The latter involves spotting adults who were unhappy children (and may be unhappy adults) but who compensate through counter-productive behaviours (which may nevertheless be legal, or even encouraged in a capitalist society).

So what of technology? There is something important to understand about human capacity for producing artefacts. Art and technologies are both examples. Some artefacts help to open peoples' hearts. Others seem to close them. Is there a connection between the closed-heartedness of technologies and the closed-heartedness of individuals whose attachments were damaged in society? Now there's a space for a demanding naturalistic inquiry! I would elaborate on Smith's definition of the good society: "the good society is where heart speaks to heart". The naturalistic question is "how does a heart speak?"

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