Saturday, 15 December 2018

Why is Max Scheler's 'Value Ethics' better than all the others?

When you say you've done a PhD there are only two responses. Some people change the subject, and the rest ask what your PhD was about. Once you're past that, they usually ask why? Sometimes what you're doing is obviously sexy, like curing Cancer, or inventing solar panels, but usually it's a trickier question. Well, my PhD was in Philosophy, more specifically in Ethics, and most specifically the remarkable Ethical theory of Max Scheler (1874-1928). That answers the first question, but what about the second. Why did I do it? And was it worth doing?

Ethics is all around us all the time. Questions of what is valuable and important are a constant issue in our personal lives, our professional lives, and our politics. It never stops and it's part of all the arguments that plague our society. Despite this few people consider what basic ethical principles and theories should guide these constant decisions. We would consider it crazy if people constructed buildings without reference to physics, or grew food without thinking about biology, or manufactured materials without chemistry. But there is no comparable reliance on ethical theory: it isn't taught rigorously in schools, and is barely discussed even by those professionally engaged in areas like Politics.

Now one of the reasons for this is the confused, disjointed state of theoretical ethics itself. Every physicist agrees on Newton's laws but in Ethics there are multiple fundamental theories about what defines the 'Good' and 'Evil', each of which contradicts the other. Deontology, Utilitarianism, and Virtue Ethics, are roughly the main schools of thought: focused on fixed moral principles, outcomes of actions, and personal virtues, respectively; Or in other words: means, ends, and virtues. Each of these has many subdivisions and adjusted theories, and the details and issues with them fill libraries, but the basic problem with each is that they are infuriatingly partial.

None are just rubbish, but each grabs hold of an important ethical principle and clings to it like it's the only valuable thing in the world. They then judge our complex experience of things as meaningful and valuable by that singular principle, not the other way round, discarding bits of experience that don't fit like someone chopping off their toes to fit into their shoes. This inevitably results in absurd consequences eventually. Classic Kantian deontology famously opposes telling a lie to save someone's life from a murderer, classic Utilitarianism suggests torturing a totally innocent person forever would be morally correct if enough people enjoyed it enough. These are just simple examples, but the problems with these theories in many areas run deep.

That's why there are multiple such theories, because each leaves a big part of the ethical territory un-colonised, leaving a space then inevitably filled by another theory that intuitively focuses on that vacant ground. What is needed is a theory that tries to accurately describes the whole range of our experience of meaning and value and builds itself around that, rather than insisting experience should fit the straitjacket of a simplistic theory.

This is what Scheler's Ethics does so well. Its depth lies in its attention to the broadest possible range of our ethical experience: of events, of intentions, of objects, of actions, of people; and distinguishing, describing, and analysing as many of the different Values involved as possible. Phenomenology, the method Scheler's uses, prioritises analysis, in the sense of breaking experience down to identify the nuances of values that defines our ethical life, and trying to describe them as accurately as possible, before then asking how they fit together. Where other theories are rationalistic: taking one principle of what can be morally good and then trying to force experience to fit that; Scheler's approach is empirical: It approaches ethical experiences and asks, what do we experience, and how do we experience it? We can then apply this understanding in practical cases where these values arise and must be weighed against each other.  

The idea of 'Values' is the primary building block of Scheler's ethics, described in his greatest work--Formalism in Ethics and Material Ethics of Values. This covers all our concepts that primarily describe a type of positive or negative worth. Scheler's analysis includes an incredible, complex, multi-dimensional range of Values we experience: contingent values of the useful, values of comfort and agreeable sensory experiences; values of life, health and vitality; values of the mind, of truth, personal moral goodness and artistic beauty; of intellectual discovery, justice; and religion, holiness and the meaning and purpose of life. By sticking as closely to experience as possible we minimise the risk of ethical theory wandering off into the absurd. Ethics can never be a science, its material is not physical after all, but this approach is far closer to the scientific (and a science like Botany at that) than the overly rationalistic alternatives that risk being carried away with their own ideas. Scheler's theory is defined both by the breadth of values it considers and its detail. An ethical situation may involve many values, and the more we distinguish and understand, the more rigorously we understand that situation.  

Scheler approaches the question of how we experience and discover ethical values with a commendable neutrality as well. His theory is true to the reality that we are all capable of ethical awareness, understanding and discovery outside any rational argumentation. New ethical insights are not discovered by abstract reason, or philosophical research, but by flashes of insight profoundly felt by people as they discover some new value of persons, objects or acts. 

He argues that philosophy has displayed a rationalistic bias and so misses the fact that the experience of value, which is the basis of ethics, occurs through both reason and feeling. It is through value feeling that we discover ethical worth of all different types: whether the beauty of objects, or the importance of health and joy, or the wonder of a scientific discovery, or the life-changing impact of a child's birth. We do not discover values just through emotion, but different diverse forms of feeling structured by reason, in the same way that our knowledge of objects is based on experiences of the senses shaped and categorised by reason. Scheler correctly recognises that acts of feeling and will are the eyes of the heart, and this opens up new answers to questions about how we can have ethical knowledge, and how ethical insight can also motivate and affect us.

One of the most attractive features of Scheleran ethics is how it does justice to both the objectivity and pluralism of ethics. Within the full, ordered universe of values and nuances of values, different individuals and societies have discovered different portions of the whole, and hence have different, consistent moral rules that reflect the values they have experienced and prioritised. These moral laws can vary considerably but all reflect the underlying insight into values achieved by those people. And then historical moments of ethical advance happen when a minority of individuals, or just one prophet, achieve a new glimpse into values that go beyond those already understood by their society. But this is not a proof of relativism but a testimony to the sheer scale of the universe of values, which always offers more to discover.

This pluralism is not just a matter of moral shortcoming either. It is an essential, positive feature of the diversity of gifts in individuals and whole cultures, which give them unique, profound access to different forms of beauty, or art, music, courage, compassion, and other values. We each peer into the wider universe of values from a different vantage point, with subtly different eyes, and we need each other to reveal the fullness of values. No individual can entirely replace the insight of another, no culture is fully replaceable with another, as shown by the unique pieces of beauty they create. It is only together, with the contribution of all peoples and cultures, that we can build a true symphony of values and gain the greatest and most complete view into the Good we have the potential to achieve. The objective demand of ethics is fundamental to our striving for a better world. The diversity of value and cultures is an equally fundamental fact of experience. Scheler shows there is no need to abandon either of these for relativism or a mono-cultural absolutism that condemns without understanding any ethical vision different to our own.

Scheler's theory explains how there can be such divergence between the goodness of a person and their seeming knowledge of ethics. Of course it is possible to teach people to be better, and to encourage goodness, but fundamentally it is people's native inclination towards love, kindness and other positive values, the clarity of moral vision that their capacity for feeling gives them, that predominately defines their goodness. All the study of Ethics in the world cannot give goodness if they don't experience and feel values for themselves. Indeed it is more likely to lead one astray, like a scientist theorising without all the evidence before them. The relation between goodness and ethics is like that between seeing and optics, or running and the science of sport.

This investigation into the breadth of ethical experience also gives insight into the relation between morality, and ethics, and other, wider, important elements of value experience. By morality we commonly means something like how we act towards other persons. But this is intensely related to other experiences of value of a qualitatively different type: questions of aesthetics, art and beauty; of religion, holiness and the meaning and purpose of life; and the more mundane issues of human comfort, enjoyment, and prosperity. By putting these into the context of each other Scheler gives a clearer view of their defining features, their differences and similarities, both in the values themselves and how we access them; and so offers a framework to coherently consider how all these areas relate to each other. 

Values are multi-dimensional, rationally ordered and complex, and so people are as well, hence, they can be good in many ways and bad in many ways, something that so often confuses us in politics and personal life. Individuals, cultures, states, political movements, and religions can all be analysed and contrasted in terms of the values they acknowledge and prioritise. This perspective is increasingly relevant in recent years as we become more and more aware of how many of the deep political divides we face reflect not just technical disputes about effective means, but fundamental differences in values. 

I could go on and on. In philosophical terms, Scheler's phenomenological theory covers meta-ethics and epistemology, as well as frameworks for normative and applied ethics. In layperson's terms it offers fresh perspectives on everything from integrating the values of natural and artistic beauty and religion into an ethical whole, to doing justice to how animals, babies, things, and adults all have and experience different types of values. For example, the sense you get that your dog inspires you, and your dog appreciates you is correct, because your dog can emotionally and rationally experience agreeable sensory values of comfort, etc, and vital values of health, energy, loyalty to pack and joy at running in the air. Your dog experiences The Good, and at that level your dog is good.

But to return to my starting point, the richness and neutrality of description Scheler uses gives the potential to construct an over-arching theory of values covering the territory of multiple current ethical theories, while understanding and including the insight of each of them in a greater whole. This offers new answers to previously insoluble paradoxes, both issues that neither deontology, utilitarianism, nor virtue theory can answer, and questions which they answer in equally plausible but opposite ways. There is no need to mutilate our ethical experience to fit it into some prearranged theory. Rather it is by paying analytical, descriptive attention to the breadth and range of human experience that we can answer these questions. Then we may have an ethical theory that includes all our experienced values on consistent principles, and so can weigh them, and usefully apply them to the practical problems we face: in business, in politics, our personal lives, and so many other areas.

This is only a brief introduction to the remarkable fruit of Scheler's theory. If you're interested in reading more take a look at my page, which includes a more detailed chapter length introduction to Scheler's Metaethics and Epistemology, or my PhD Thesis which relates Scheler's Ethics do developments in philosophy since, including its relation to Emmanuel Levinas' phenomenological ethics. It also has Guides to some of Scheler's major works.


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