Tuesday, 25 October 2011

The Reality of 'Ethical Experience'

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Good & Evil, Right & Wrong, Morality, Ethics; these make up a huge part of what it means to be human, to be a thinking, rational & emotional being. From the rules of politeness and decency in our small personal interactions with others, in the struggle between good guys and bad guys that fills our entertainment and our view of history, in our personal ethical choices or lack of them as consumers, our political discussions dominated by arguments about fairness and social justice, to our awareness of great moments of good and evil in our world. Considerations of morality make up a huge part of our mental landscape, our daily lives and our culture and we all have a keen sense of right and wrong, even if we only deploy it in reference to the good we do and the wrong other people do to us. And moral judgements and issues range from the almost entirely trivial to the most unbelievably important issues in the world.

We almost all understand morality, and the basic nature of right and wrong, even if we disagree about some details. Ethics is an immensely practical affair; as universal, commonplace, and often feeling as fiercely real as the physical rocks and trees and other things of the world we live in. The way we 'work out' morality is also equally practical. We see 'moral' value and right and wrong in the world around us in the same way we see colours. We don't reason it out from logical first principles like abstract mathematics. Even small children or the makers of children's TV can be better people and teach clearer moral lessons that the most wise of moral philosophers.  There is no connection between how much you have studied Ethics and how ethical you are.

Despite this though too much reasoning about Ethics and Morality seems to approach the subject as though it were abstract mathematics or metaphysics. Starting from first principles and abstract definitions philosophers work out ethical systems and then apply them, fully formed, to real experience; often finding real experience a disappointment when it does not measure up to the neatness of theoretical vision. But this is the totally wrong way to do it. Maths has some very particular features. We all understand very basic mathematical notions like space and number, but once we go into almost any detail quite precise study is needed to go any further to even be able to imagine the possibility and understand the concepts of more advanced ideas. No-one, or almost no-one, just trips over the ideas of group theory or set theory, or differential equations unless they have them painstakingly explained. In complete contrary to this, one meets and experiences the ideas of good and evil everyday without the need for much explanation.  These ideas are given and transparent in a way that experience of our ordinary world is, and experience of morality is, but Mathematics, Metaphysics, and even the abstractions of Science are not.

Like I said, there is no such connection with studying philosophical Ethics and experiencing Morality, or even knowing what is the moral thing to do. All we can say is that people who study ethics have a better grip of the principles and 'laws' behind every-day moral awareness and decision making, but they are certainly not generally any better at doing it.  This is totally unlike Maths, but there is something it is very like.  And that is the relationship between ordinary experience of the world and natural science. In the ordinary living world we act, we live, we see, we hear, we feel, we experience and do a whole host of other things entirely competently without understanding the physical principles behind them, and neither do we need to have their concept explained to us to experience them.

Even if we talk about studying natural Science what this gives you is an understanding of those principles that lie behind such experience, but you don't in any way need it to live and experience the world and even amass knowledge about it.  Understanding physics doesn't make you a good walker, understanding optics doesn't help you see better, understanding Newton's laws on gravity isn't essential for bungee jumping. (Note this is definitely not to say that understanding those scientific laws cannot help with these activities. Considering our analogy that would make studying ethics particularly pointless if true.) But there is the same fundamental relation between Ethics and moral experience as there is between experience of the physical world and Physics, Chemistry, Biology.

At this point the obvious counter-argument to my analogy to the natural sciences is that objective scientific principles can be read out of nature, tested, measured, confirmed, whereas moral principles are less accessible. This is obviously true. I certainly don't claim that moral and physical knowledge are the same, but neither are they as different as they perhaps appear. We are so used to knowing so much about every facet of our world, but not so long ago this was not the case. Going back further than a few centuries the physical world, as much as the moral, was a confusing mass of phenomena, in which for a very long time it proved impossible to latch onto any firm principle, before light began to truly dawn in the 16th Century. Coming from the opposite direction there is a surprisingly widespread and accepted consensus on fundamental ethical truths and values (if often wildly differing applications) both across our society and all human societies. These two facts belie attempts to establish a crude dichotomy between the idea of a physical world from which one can read off, objective confirmable laws and a moral in which we have only subjectivism, relativism and personal opinion.      

What I think this all means is that the reality of 'Ethical Experience' has to be put right at the centre of any investigation into morality. We can deny whether Ethics and Morality has any fundamental and essential reality.  We can argue over the details of our moral intuitions and experiences, like ten people giving their ten different eye witness accounts of the same car crash.  But we cannot deny the reality of that ethical experience, of the experience of value we 'see' in others, of our intuitive reactions to ethical situations and new ethical ideas, and the, again, different feelings and judgements that come through learning of great moral heroes or villians, or of the way people have morally acted in extreme situations.

Ethical Experience, the basic substance of moral intuition and experience is given to us, it is something that forces itself on us as we go about our ordinary lives, whether we want it or not, and as such it bears a totally different relationship to us and our understanding than rationalist abstractions like Mathematics or most philosophy. And it is this basic ethical experience in every part of our lives that must be at the fundamental basis of any attempt to understand morality, good and evil, or our concepts of meaning, Good and value in the world in general, in the same way that our experience of the physical world must always lie at the basis of our scientific theories.

As far as studying Ethics goes this means that we must attempt to clarify our ethical and moral understanding by studying closely the vast quantity of data that reveals itself through this reality of ethical experience, in its many forms from the trivial and everyday to the vast and truly profound. I think that what this means is that it would be wise, instead of adopting the rationalist, abstract and systematic approach of Mathematics, to approach Ethics with more of the empirical, practical and even piecemeal spirit of natural science. By analysing the structure and nature of Ethical experience we will not at first give a conclusive yes or no answer to the massive moral issues that plague our society but, like with natural science, by advancing over the world we experience inch by inch with a fine tooth comb we should be able to build up our knowledge in a more secure manner, as on a sure foundation, rather than racing to build our house only to find it rests on sand.

I believe that a piecemeal, one bit at a time, approach could give a better hope of understanding each individual and differing part of our ethical experience in its own right. We need a descriptive approach to Ethics that looks at our lived ethical experience and from that attempts to describe and understand what morality is like, and only from that builds up to the abstract laws that define and explain that moral reality. Rather than a prescriptive approach that starts with a particular metaphysical bias, whatever that may be, and attempts to force our experience to conform to that, discarding bits where they do not fit. Only the first, bottom up approach, can do justice to the messy, real nature of ethical experience.  The second, top down approach can only ever whitewash over the beauty, detail, richness and colour of that Ethical experience that makes up such a large part of our human life, whatever the particular metaphysical bias it chooses to start with. And hence only the first approach can be a complete basis for any truly thorough attempt to understand the role morality plays in human existence.  And examples of the second, despite their undoubted wisdom in this or that instance, should be generally rejected as insufficient.
       

2 comments:

Anonymous said...

Have you read Maurice Mandelbaum's The Phenomenology of Moral Experience? Or Bernard Williams' Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy? If you're looking for philosophical reasoning about ethics and morality that doesn't "approach the subject as though it were abstract mathematics or metaphysics", opportunities abound and these two works offer worthy starting points.

Stephen Wigmore said...

Thank you for commenting. I haven't read either, I will look them up. This post is now quite old, it was written just as I was starting my PhD. I'm now 2/3 of the way through and I am trying to answer the concerns I raise here through the Phenomenological Ethics of Max Scheler, and other figures like Levinas and Kiekergaard. My progress on these issue can be found on my Academia.edu page where I have posted my thesis chapters:

http://warwick.academia.edu/StephenWigmore

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