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Ethics Made Easy: ‘Feel Good, Do The Right Thing’

Roy Turner thinks about being good.

Kwame Anthony Appiah opens his Experiments In Ethics with the engaging claim that “this little book is an attempt to relate the business of philosophical ethics to… the concerns of the ordinary, thoughtful person, trying to live a decent life.” Surprisingly, he immediately goes on to tell us that in developing this thought he has turned to the social sciences, whose relevance to our ordinary lives is “fairly straightforward.” Yet it is far from obvious that philosophy requires the assistance of social science for its traditional project of developing a decent life, and Appiah is silent as to the nature of the relevance he claims. Philosophy, it seems, will, without argument, share the widespread deference paid to the expertise of science, including to social science. With what success remains to be seen.

It transpires that one reason leading Appiah to social science is that he believes there to be a serious problem with the ordinary citizen’s moral intuitions, which he says are often “unreliable and incoherent” and which seem to stem from “common sense” – commonly thought to be an obstacle to be removed by philosophy or science. Yet, although common sense is easy to dismiss when understood as a frequently-erroneous body of beliefs ( ‘the earth is flat’), in the words of Stanley Rosen of Boston University, common sense also refers to “a faculty [which] has as its sphere questions of practice and everyday life” (The Elusiveness of the Ordinary, p.169). It is also a mistake to dismiss common sense because it cannot be clearly expressed as a doctrine. This is made clear by Charles Taylor’s eloquent characterization of “that largely unstructured and inarticulate understanding of our whole situation, within which particular features of our world show up for us in the sense that they have” (A Secular Age, p.173). This everyday common sense discourse in which we are embedded is of little interest to Appiah, who fails to see that the very evocation of the idea of the “ordinary, thoughtful person, trying to live a decent life” is formulated in its terms. It is precisely our common, everyday discourse – not philosophy, not social science – which gives currency to the idea of decency and provides ways of understanding how and when it is achieved, permitting us to take some charge of the way we conduct ourselves as life unfolds.

Appiah’s Princeton colleague Gilbert Harman in an online article ‘Moral Philosophy Meets Social Psychology’, also makes an aggressive and artfully-formulated ethical move on behalf of social science. He begins innocently enough, by reminding us that there is a clear and obvious distinction between ‘folk physics’ and the corresponding scientific discipline. He goes on to say that “it is natural to wonder whether ordinary moral intuitions might be similarly as inadequate,” and speaks dismissively of ‘folk psychology’. But this ignores the fact that it was only after the arrival of a scientific physics that the term ‘folk physics’ made sense. Harman fails to ask if there is a body of scientific knowledge with respect to the moral issues of everyday life which constitutes a parallels to physics. For the analogy to have substance, such a body of knowledge would need to be as irrefutable with respect to moral life as physics is with respect to the material world. Harman stops short of claiming that this exists.

The particular social science chosen by Appiah and Harman to illuminate the situation of the would-be decent citizen is experimental social psychology. What both Appiah and Harman seem to find attractive in its literature, is that it seems to undermine the ordinary thoughtful person’s faith in the notion of character. They both abhor this notion, although it has long been implicated in ethical theory. Appiah values his favoured experiments precisely for their explosive revelation that conduct, far from stemming from character or reflecting something deep and stable in the psyche, is determined by the situations in which we find ourselves. Conduct is a creature of context. Harman’s position is even more extreme and explicit: the character traits which feature prominently in our everyday discourse, and which include “virtues and vices like courage, cowardice, honesty, dishonesty, benevolence, malevolence, friendliness” are, he declares, “nonexistent.” There is an obvious implication: “If we know that there is no such thing as a character trait and we know that virtue would require having character traits, how can we aim at becoming a virtuous agent?” he asks in ‘The Nonexistence of Character Traits’ (in Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society, #100). One unstated implication, is that if someone supposes that developing a robust character would sustain a morally decent life in the face of changing circumstances, he is plainly mistaken.

Buddy, Can You Spare A Dime?

Appiah and Harman are particularly fond of experiments by Isen and Levin, which they read as designed specifically, and successfully, to undermine the notion of stable character.

Isen and Levin arranged for some people using pay phones at a railway station to discover a dime planted in the coin return. As they emerged from the booth, a confederate of the experimenters would walk past and drop an armful of papers. It appeared that those who had been enriched by a dime were more likely to assist the plant than those who had not. For Appiah and Harman, this experiment demonstrates conclusively that what is at work here is not a helpful character, but a situational factor which the experimenters called ‘feeling good’, and that it was this feeling which made them do the right thing. Appiah also praises other experiments which suggest the same conclusion – a stranger will be more likely to give change for a dollar if approached outside a “fragrant bakery” than outside a “neutral-smelling dry-goods store.” (It takes very little to make some people feel good.)

These ‘findings’ are said by Appiah to be entirely convincing in their implications: “Many of these effects are extremely powerful,” Appiah tells us: “huge differences in behaviour flow from differences in circumstances that seem of little normative [ethical] consequence.” Common sense might nudge philosophy at this point, reminding it that ethics’ reliance on the ‘science of psychology’ was intended to dispel ‘folk psychology’. Yet if describing someone as feeling good because they’ve just found a dime in a telephone booth isn’t folk psychology, what is? A minute’s reflection will convince us that Isen’s and Levin’s interpretation of their experiment is permeated with assumptions. We have no way of knowing if the dime finders were feeling good any more than we have of knowing that the other subjects were not. All we can say with any confidence is that some subjects helped the confederate, and some didn’t.

Appiah and Harman are untroubled by the flawed reasoning. Neither philosopher would subscribe to the notion of an effortless ethics, yet having aligned themselves with the view that ethical conduct is ‘situational’, and having taken the position that striving to become virtuous in character is a waste of time, it is difficult not to conclude that one fortunate enough to find himself recurrently in situations which make him feel good will recurrently do the right thing, effortlessly. Traditional deliberations on what would constitute appropriate action are clearly out of place in the world of experimental social psychology.

Where We Live

Character is part of being human. We learn nothing of how we live with it from Appiah and Harman, or the experimentalists, who have nothing to say about the qualities or conditions of a decent life, let alone any advice for its attainment.

In their haste to abolish character, Appiah and Harman pay no attention to the place that character occupies in everyday life. Would Appiah suggest that his ordinary, thoughtful person not seek to be trustworthy and reliable, and not look for these same characteristics in his associates? Surely the person who does not take character into account in choosing friends, lovers and spouses is not enlightened, but foolish. And our understanding of character is far from simple-minded: we know perfectly well that character traits can be feigned, just as we know that some struggle unsuccessfully to achieve desireable aspects of character. This is clearly a realm where we need, in Sparshott’s trenchant phrase from The Theory of the Arts, to bring to bear “the full measure and weight of [our] own experience.”

Character traits enter into the narratives of everyday life in rich and complex ways. They serve as bulwarks of orderliness and stability in our dealings with our fellows. They’re anchors and guide ropes, albeit ones that may collapse or break. Can we imagine an ‘ordinary, thoughtful person’ who is not firmly embedded in such a discourse? Is all of this understanding of character to be dismissed?

The Appiah/Harman position is that there can always be an alternative to any established aspect of life. In a logical sense this is true, but it’s of little help when one proposes to discard a massively stable feature of that life. As Bernard Williams shrewdly put it when speaking of the hierarchical organization of earlier European societies, their citizens “certainly knew of alternatives, inasmuch as they knew that human beings had organized society in other ways, and did so at that time elsewhere. What they did not know, we shall have to say, is that there was an alternative for them.” (Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy, 2006). It is of course possible that we adopt radical alternatives to established common sense, but as Rosen cogently puts it, “the evidence will have to be overwhelming, more overwhelming than the testimony of my daily experience” (The Elusiveness of the Ordinary, p.299).

The Missionary Position

It’s hard to believe that many of us, when confronted with the results of the Isen and Levin experiment, would feel inclined to give up the resource of moral character. In fact, Gilbert Harman is proposing an astonishingly radical shift in our thinking, with no evidence whatsoever in his favour: “I myself think it is better to abandon all thought and talk of character and virtue”, he tells us in ‘The Nonexistence of Character Traits’: “I believe that ordinary thinking in terms of character traits has had disastrous effects on people’s understanding of each other, on their understandings of what social programmes are reasonable to support, and their understanding of international affairs. I think we need to get people to stop doing this… We need to abandon all talk of virtue and character, not find a way to save it by reinterpreting it.” It is surely more plausible to reject Harman's claim, rather than reject such a deeply embedded feature of our common discourse

Thus, while Harman treats the findings of the Isen and Levin experiment as demonstrating the truth that situation and not character determines behavioral response, at the same time he is forced to acknowledge that we actually do live according to our belief in character. It is as though a physicist claimed to have demonstrated that we are ruled by gravity, yet admitted that we can ignore its effects as we go about our daily lives. Yet since the ‘truth’ of Isen and Levin’s findings has no impact on our worldview, Harman finds himself in the position of needing to persuade us, in a way that physics does not have to persuade us to submit to gravity, that we would be better off if only we would abandon the whole framework of character and character traits. We must be convinced to abandon a narrative within which our everyday plans and prospects reliably unfold, and adopt a highly dubious alternative. Proponents of Harman’s view are like missionaries or ideologues who say “if you become a Calvinist” or “if you support the free market” etc, “your lives will be better.” Such people are possessed by that common utopian thought, “If only we could change people, things would be different.” They would indeed.

It should not surprise us that Appiah and Harman do not display the slightest idea of how their fellow citizens are to be brought to accept such a massive transformation of the common discourse. Science does not help them here. Nor do Appiah and Harman indicate that they have any sense of what life would look like under the results of such an upheaval in thought. The collective world which they largely ignore might remind them that philosophers are also citizens, and suggest that such neglect of thoughtfulness is a failure of responsibility.

Autonomy Isn’t Easy

We have come a long way from the concerns of the ordinary – and autonomous – thoughtful person trying to live a decent life. That autonomy is virtually negated when we’re in effect told that acting well is dependent less on thoughtfulness than on the impact of the situation. Appiah’s belief that the relevance of the social sciences to our ordinary lives is “fairly straightforward”, and his unexamined deference to experimental social psychology, have not fulfilled their promises. To me these ideas seem to be much less reasonable a place to begin understanding ethics than Bernard Williams’ dictum that moral thought and experience “must primarily involve grasping the world in such a way that one can, as a particular human being, live in it” (Moral Luck p.52). In contrast to Appiah and Harman, Williams gives powerful support for the idea that if the ordinary, thoughtful person is to be assisted by philosophers in leading a decent life, the philosophers would do well to pay attention to the world of everyday life which serves as the arena in which a flourishing life is to be achieved.

© Roy Turner 2010

Roy Turner is Professor of Sociology Emeritus, University of British Columbia. He has published numerous articles in professional journals and edited Ethnomethodology, published by Penguin.

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