Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Now or Later: Distance as an Ethical concept.

In my last blog post I tried to defend the legitimacy of saying that a behaviour “is mean”. I was arguing that saying something is mean (or unkind) is more than just the equivalent of blowing a fart on your hand and kissing it at someone. Saying that something is mean is saying something. In particular I argued that saying something  is mean is as legitimate if not more so than saying we shouldn’t do that thing for X or Y reasons.

In making this claim I assumed a range of the thoughts that have been a part of previous posts I’ve written. To make them explicitly:
1. Morality as a purely logical system of premises doesn’t work. There simply is no logical argument against “I don’t care”  which can be leveled against any primary premise. Concern is the root of all Morality and its a “leap of concern” as to why we should possess it.
2. Empathy is the particular type of concern I consider most relevant to any conversation about morality between people. Empathy-led ethics is my term for ethics which is specific and messy and values proximity to the subject. It doesn’t preclude looking at consequences or holding to ideals but it identifies these things up close with others. It doesn’t believe in working out consequences and ideals away from others.
3. Proximity and Distance. These are very important concepts in Empathy led ethics. Distance can be distance from the person and the situation but it can also represent the distance between a metaphor we are using and the actual act we mean it to refer to. An example of this is “you wouldn’t steal an old ladies purse” as an argument against illegally downloading a movie. The distance between the two acts tells us this is not an empathy led ethical argument. General ethical principles and rules allow us to maintain distance and the more general the rules, (a rule against all stealing rather than all downloading or even all illegality rather than all stealing) the more distance is enabled.
4. Distance can also be in regard to time and this type of distance was the key concern that motivated me to write the last post. The more consequential our moral reasoning the more distance we have from what is happening now and potentially the less empathy. We can justify behaviour we can barely look at because our gaze is on a distant future which makes it all right. This needs to be resisted.

This last point might be the most contentious. After all a person who doesn’t consider any future implications of their actions wouldn’t be able to make a coffee because what on earth would getting the cup out be for (and wouldn’t that be a tragedy my morning brain thinks). Even without going to such a logical extreme what drives anxiety sufferers to panic is living too “in the moment”. This is why the phrase “this will pass” can be a powerful cognitive tool to cope with stress.  We tend to place on a hierarchy from wise to foolish those who can think about the future to those who cant. Certainly the Ant, although a little dull, is considered more adapted to life than the Grasshopper.

But this type of morality has failed us over and over again in a way that I find particularly disturbing. We are all embroiled in perpetuating injustices which cannot be broken because of “what if” scenarios. The homeless are homeless because “what if” we just built homes for them. Countless millions are spent on submarines because “what if” we didn’t. Debts can’t be forgiven or, in the case of what Australia owes its first inhabitants, can’t be recognized, because “what if” we did. We are so constantly frightened of loosing anarchy upon the world that we are bound into obeying structures that we hate. In post after post I have tried to indentify this entrapment and seek its philosophical remedy.

My greatest loathing is reserved for when we make terrible compromises in the vain hope of future bliss. I make this statement despite knowing of studies that have shown that the capacity to delay gratification is a marker for both material success and happiness. The marshmallow test (see the above clip) is well worth a look, if only because kids yielding to sweet temptation are just too darn cute. Such cuteness is tempered however by the ominous predictions for those who can’t wait for pleasure: addiction, crime, divorce and early death. Better to work now and play later. Eat your veggies before your desert. Be the kid who saves.

I feel these mottos make their point by looking at the problem at too small a scale. When we pan back we see that delayed gratification is also internalized oppression. To accept justice delayed is to accept justice denied. The terrible promise of scientific and economic progress is a world of harmony and equality. What makes the promise terrible is that just one more period of unemployment, one more cut to health or education, just one more wall built around our diminishing prosperity, one more power to the surveillance state or one more war, is required to get us there. And then one more again. And then one more. Obviously one day we will have a world in which refugees wont live in cages but only if we build the current electric fences higher. Young people must be willing to work for free if we are ever going to solve their poverty. It’s insane.

Certainly it is possible to phrase many of our problems as not being future minded enough. We divide the planet now as if we won’t need to live on it in a decade. Even our detention of refugees doesn’t think ahead to what might happen if we became refugees. I could take this tack and trump those who claim to speak for the future with a bigger picture of the future than them. This is an interesting aspect of moral speech. We can find different routes to the same destination. If I sometimes take these different routes though, I find them unsatisfying, like a cyclist on the bus due to a flat tyre. I prefer to struggle to express all ethical considerations as a part of the immediate – that the possibility of us being future refugees can be experienced instead as the moral sense that we are the refugees now through a shared humanity.

Part of my reason for not wanting to rely on the future in ethical arguments is that hypothetically at least the future might not happen. If we imagine ourselves at the very end of the universe I think we should still be able to say putting a cigarette out on a childs arm is wrong. The wrongness doesn’t depend on the child being traumatized as an adult or any other future consequence. It certainly doesn’t depend on the idea that we might one day be vulnerable and defenceless as we age. If all those possibilities were certainly not going to happen this shouldn’t change the moral weight of our action.

Perhaps if I was a better philosopher I could distinguish between the sorts of consequences I think should inform our present moral choices and those I want to avoid. I think planting a tree next to your house needs to take into account whether the shade is in the right place and whether the roots will damage your pipes. That’s thinking of the future. But there is something deeply inauthentic to me about many applications of future thinking to our human ethics. Take the safe schools program. I can deal with arguments about whether the program will diminish or even increase bullying. I just can’t deal with the idea that we need to be concerned that bullying leads to anxiety and stress in adults. I’m sure it does but even if it didn’t bullying would be wrong. Otherwise where do we end things? Do we need to indicate some consequence of anxiety in adults before we care about that too or can we stop there? And would it be okay to bully if bullying actually “built character” in some positive way?

Still these logical challenges are besides my main point. Why I fear distance and praise proximity in ethics is pragmatic. Ethics in history has been a lurching from one authority to another. From heart to head we toss with the violent excesses of one Romantic revolution replaced by the death worship of Economic Rationalism. Neither guides us true. Fundamentalists rush in here and say they have the answer beyond our heart or head but history has emptied their claim of difference. They also have blood on their boots. Everywhere that peace has broken out it seems to me that getting to know ones enemy has been crucial. We may hurt each other when we know each other but I think it is harder to do so and much easier to live rightly by each other.

How does this value of proximity relate to whether its defensible to say that something is mean? Poorly perhaps. The example of spanking used in the last post was an example given to my eight year old to explain a conversation I was having with my partner about same-sex marriage. Is it meaningful to say that denying marriage to same-sex couples is mean? Should we accept that such language is unfair to opponents of same-sex marriage? I think we should resist any direction that consequential reasons, and general principles are the only types of legitimate moral speech. I think we need to try and stay within the immediate situation and consider what would happen if the opponents of gay marriage and a gay couple who wanted to get married knew each other. I suspect nobody would stop the marriage because it would too obviously be mean.


  1. Interesting post Tony. Just want to question the very last statement.

    You say: "what would happen if the opponents of gay marriage and a gay couple who wanted to get married knew each other. I suspect nobody would stop the marriage because it would too obviously be mean."

    That has lots of presumptions. It presumes that opponents of gay marriage don't know any gay couples that want to get married. That is not true in my case and it's not true in many. It seems such an odd presumption to make which seems to be based on your very last statement that opposition to gay marriage would "too obviously be mean" if they just got to know each other. I seems you think the only two options for those that oppose gay marriage is they are either mean or don't have gay friends. Fix one of those two factors and "obviously" they would change their view.

    That is a fairly shallow view of the argument.

    1. I end on a generalisation to which I suspect there would be many exceptions. For one thing not all same-sex couples who want to get married are the same. Some would be terrible to each other. Certainly there would be other exceptions.

      For your part you may have missed an important difference between saying opponents of same sex marriage are mean (as in they are mean people) and saying that they would realise in proximity to same sex couples that their opposition to same-sex marriage is mean.
      In fact the latter absolutely relies on those opponents to same-sex marriage not being mean people - otherwise the realisation would be meaningless to them.
      Hope that clears that up.

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    3. I fully concede that "many wouldn't" would be better than "nobody" in the sentence "I suspect nobody would stop the marriage because it would too obviously be mean." I'd change it but then this discussion would make no sense.

    4. But your generalization seems to be vital to your argument.
      You've suggested that empathy will lead people to think rightly about a topic and that being close to people will help us to treat each other with kindness rather than meanness. I agree with that.

      But as you think that supporting of gay marriage is an obvious truth, then you seem compelled to include your last generalisation.

      Empathy helps us care for each other better and helps us not act meanly, but it doesn't inform us about whether something like gay marriage is right or wrong.

      In fact, proximity makes morality harder sometimes. For example, if you take the view - as I do - that abortion is a form of violence and abuse against an innocent fellow human being and that is wrong, to know people who have sadly had abortions - as I also do - doesn't change my view, or if it did, I fear empathy would compel me to water down the wrongness of their decision. Often we can't bear to think that a friend has done something as horrible as kill another human being and so we move to justify the action or make exceptions.

      Our ability to deny, water down, compare, ignore or justify sin is pervasive. I'm not saying empathy is not important. It is a vital element of love. I just think it is a poor way of judging truth.

    5. I don't think my approach to ethics relies on the example I finish with. My conclusion in that example could be wrong and still I would consider the approach of proximity to be the best way to realise that.
      It might be that for you closeness to others isn't clarifying - but then you sound like you are also are aware of why that is so and one presumes might be able to get on top of those weaknesses if you applied yourself. I still recommend against distance in the meanings I give it in this post.