Monthly Archives: May 2013

How Empathy Leads to Anarchy

Let me clarify: I’m not saying non-anarchists lack empathy, nor am I saying anarchists have a special capacity for empathy. But it’s interesting to note that many of the values I’ve set out for proper ethical thought (avoidance of theory, mistrust of ethical systems, refusal to generalise) are also basic principles of anarchist thought. Okay, you might wonder at the ‘avoidance of theory’ part in the face of the impenetrable mountains of anarchist political theory, but forget about that for a moment. Perhaps the central anarchist criticism of the State, law and democracy is that it necessarily lumps all people together into one homogenous political, well, lump. In short, the “justice” (as an anarchist I am contractually obliged to use inverted commas) system of the State is inherently unethical.

What I am saying here is that any judgement handed down by the State, any policy decision or directive will always be alienating. Whether government is inherently good or bad – it’s amoral, by the way – it can by its nature never treat people as people. The huge system of categories necessary to run, say, a welfare state or a taxation system will only ever approximate reality; there will always be places where it fails, and when it fails people will suffer. You cannot create laws on the basis of virtue ethics – laws are all utilitarian or deontological in nature.

This by itself is obviously not a reason to smash the State. The obvious response here is also the most hackneyed: that unbearable cliche “well, it’s the best system we have!” It might be, for all I know. But the important thing here is not to begin with an attitude of trust. We should at base be suspicious of all vast totalizing systems, whether political or medical or scientific. At best, the data-gathering and categorizing involved is a necessary evil; it is never something to be celebrated.

This mistrust of categorization is one pillar of anarchy. Without the other two – power accumulates power and power breeds amorality – nobody’s going to be raising any black flags. But it’s a good start.


Why Theorize About Morals?

Let’s assume we all agree that nobody ever decides how to act on the basis of a moral theory. This view is called moral particularism, and in my opinion it’s woefully underrated in current ethical philosophy.

At first glance you might object that, when asked why we perform certain actions, we generally respond with an argument from a moral theory. But how we talk about our decision-making process is mostly bullshit. A 1977 article by Nisbett and Wilson, Telling More Than We Can Know: Verbal Reports on Mental Processes, concluded that our introspective access is “not sufficient to produce generally correct or reliable reports”, and that we usually make up theories to explain our haphazard thought processes. In real life we base our ethics off emotion and empathy instead of ethical theories.

You might also object on educational grounds. When a child asks us if it’s right to take his friend’s lunch, nobody responds: “Well, ethics is complicated and I can’t give you an ethical theory that holds in all instances. Rely on your conscience and it will guide you.” Instead we tell them it’s wrong to steal. But what are we really doing here? I contend that we’re not teaching a child a moral rule; instead we’re doing a number of things. We’re providing a moral example in our not-stealing selves. We’re suggesting certain considerations that might be morally pertinent in this instance. And so on.

Why am I fielding objections to moral particularism in a post titled Why Theorize About Morals? Because these two objections point the way towards a discussion of moral theory that’s compatible with the idea that theory doesn’t guide our actions. If we want to hit a baseball a long way, we don’t study aerodynamics or physics, we practice baseball. But if we want to explain why a certain baseball swing is more effective, we need to go into biomechanics and physics! The batter doesn’t care why a swing works, only that it does, and the moral actor qua actor doesn’t care why an act is right, only that it is. But scientists and philosophers are going to be interested in those ‘why’ questions.

In short: just because talking about morals isn’t helpful to people who want to act morally doesn’t mean it’s not an interesting field of study.

(It’s also worth noting that what I’m doing now is “talking about morals” – so moral philosophy might indeed be useful as a path out of moral theorizing, in the same way that anarchism is useful as a path out of politics.)

Anarchism is a Fatalism

There is, I think, one fundamental difference between anarchists – those who believe human association should be voluntary and reject the idea that the State has or can have benevolent motives – and people of most other political persuasions.  If you have barely any politics at all, if you are what Ortega y Gasset calls the mass-man, you might identify with the State because you feel it is a part of you and, like you, anonymous. All actions taken by the State, then, are in some sense your actions because the state is on your side. If you are a committed right-winger or left-winger in the mainstream sense, then you will believe one of two major parties to be fighting for your interests. Even if you are in some small sense a ‘radical’, there are still Communist Parties and Libertarian Movements to hold up your flag, to win small victories and make progress for your interests. Not so for the anarchist.

If you are an anarchist and even moderately honest, you must believe that there is nobody in the halls of power with a shred of concern for you. You must also believe that nobody there is much concerned about the mass-man or the left-winger either, but that is less important. The point is that while others might maintain hope in political change – in their side advancing in the endless battle for power – you must hold to the position that there is no hope, that if anybody champions your interests it will only be briefly and as a pretext for some less palatable goal. In short, to the extent an anarchist has an active political life (campaigning and voting, concerning herself with laws and bills) it must be a politics of despair.

Does this mean anarchists must despair themselves? I don’t think so. I think anarchism, rather than a route to political change or revolution, is a true understanding of the nature and manifestations of power. If it is a route anywhere it is a route out of politics, towards art or gardening or chess or whatever you like. The successful atheist doesn’t spend her time railing against the God she doesn’t believe in; rather she sleeps in on Sundays and drinks coffee with her friends.  Likewise, the successful anarchist doesn’t attempt somehow to change the face of politics. She stays home on voting day and plays with her dog. Here, I’ll stop trying to paraphrase Jacob Bacharach and just quote him:

It is futile to get worked up about these things. Your friends are all posting Proud to Be messages in their Facebook feeds, but you are bigger than that. Your soul is bigger. You walk into the kitchen. You put the music on loud and you get the nice fish out of the refrigerator. You give the dog some crackers, and you kiss your boyfriend, and you open a nice IPA, because you feel like a beer tonight. Martin Luther King, Jr. isn’t rolling in his grave, guys. He’s dead. And the dead have one up on us, for they are constitutionally incapable of giving a fuck. You kiss your boyfriend again on the lips, and you pay all those assholes exactly the attention they deserve, which is none at all.

Moral Particularism: Against Theory

If you, like me, are a moral particularist, you don’t think people generally make moral decisions on the basis of principles and conclusions. It might be that, if a person was sufficiently dedicated to, say, utilitarianism, she could twist the way she made decisions into a tolerable imitation of utilitarian deductive reasoning – but this would be unnatural. Of course, being unnatural doesn’t make something automatically wrong. The problem is that a this person’s natural sense of ethics  would be artificial and awkward. She would take too long to make some decisions and make others too quickly. She would find herself afflicted by unconscious biases. In short, utilitarian deductive reasoning is not a good fit for the way humans make moral decisions – much in the same way that a child’s bicycle is not a good fit for a NBA player.

Well, how do we make moral decisions? From our sentiments and emotions, in particular our empathy for other human beings. If I believe that eating animals is morally okay, ethical argument is only going to change my mind insofar as it touches my empathy and makes me imagine what it is like to be a cow in a factory farm. A poem or novel  may do exactly the same thing, and better. Nobody in the history of the human race has felt that other people’s pain should be a concern to them on the basis of Kant’s reasoning; they have felt it because they are biologically conditioned to. What people decide should be a concern to them, of course, is another matter. If we want to improve ethically we should dedicate ourselves to two things:

1) Gathering knowledge of the people around us, their situations, their needs and preferences
2) Fostering within ourselves the ability to empathize: to feel the pain of others

The first is incredibly difficult because of the complexity of the world and human relations. The second is difficult because it is draining and unpleasant to feel the pain of others; and because our society – hello capitalism, hello anarchist critique – depends upon and encourages the stifling of empathy.

Is there room in this view for talking about moral principles? We’ll look at that soon.

Toward an Ethics of Empathy

So we don’t want to be a utilitarian or a deontologist. We don’t even want to be a virtue ethicist. How can we move towards a kind of ethics that’s valuable? How, in other words, should we handle the responsibility of deciding how to live? Let’s try and outline what our ideal ethical theory would look like.

Firstly it would be atheoretical. It wouldn’t look like a big structure of ethical rules or a complicated flowchart of what-to-do-ifs. It wouldn’t try to be a ‘scientific approach’ to ethics, although of course we might want to pay attention to science in our ethical life (for instance, you probably want to take your sick kid to the hospital instead of trying your hand at faith healing). If we start our new ethics by forming a system or talking about categories of acts, we’ve gone off the rails already.

Secondly, it would avoid risky generalisation. Talking about ‘virtues’, for instance, is useful to an extent but can obscure the cases where words like ‘pity’ and ‘courage’ are not accurate descriptors of our ethical motivations. Happiness, well-being and duty are words that we have to be careful of – we might be forced to use them, but we should always do it critically.

Thirdly, it’s got to be authentic. Our ethics isn’t worth anything if it doesn’t accurately reflect the way we act, moment-to-moment. If we try to explain our ethics to a non-philosopher and the non-philosopher doesn’t see the relevance to themselves, we’re in trouble.

What kind of ethics could fulfil these criteria? Only an ethics that takes as its starting point an attempt to understand the distinct and unique character of each ‘situation’, without trying to generalize (or, indeed, chop experience up into a series of discrete situations). We want an ethics of attentive empathy, an ethics that is hyper-aware of context and history. In short, we’ve got to try to understand the stories of the people around us as a primary and constant ethical requirement.

George Eliot Against Ethics

On its theoretic and perceptive side, morality touches science; on its emotional side, Art. Now, the products of Art are great in proportion as they result from that immediate prompting of innate power which we call Genius, and not from labored obedience to a theory or rule; and the presence of genius or innate prompting is directly opposed to the perpetual consciousness of a rule. The action of faculty is imperious, and excludes the reflection why it should act. In the same way, in proportion as morality is emotional, i.e., has affinity with Art, it will exhibit itself in direct sympathetic feeling and action, and not as the recognition of a rule. Love does not say, “I ought to love”-it loves. Pity does not say, “It is right to be pitiful”-it pities. Justice does not say, “I am bound to be just”-it feels justly. It is only where moral emotion is comparatively weak that the contemplation of a rule or theory habitually mingles with its action; and in accordance with this, we think experience, both in literature and life, has shown that the minds which are pre-eminently didactic-which insist on a “lesson,” and despise everything that will not convey a moral, are deficient in sympathetic emotion.

George Eliot, from Worldliness and Other-Worldliness

Here’s some corroboration for my critique of Ethics, from the novelist and philosopher George Eliot. Eliot thinks that contemplation of “rule or theory” cannot coexist with authentic moral emotion; and that people driven to rule and theory-driven modes of ethics show thereby a deficiency in proper moral feeling. Moral impulses like love do not present as reasons. Instead they remain impulses. What is this “sympathetic emotion” and “moral feeling” Eliot talks about? We’ll get into that later.

Virtue Ethics

By now we all agree that modern ethics – at least utilitarianism and deontology – has gone badly wrong somewhere. A natural response is to go back before the problem and see what we had then, so let’s take a look at the main branch of pre-Enlightenment ethics: virtue ethics.

Instead of trying to figure out what the moral rules are, a virtue ethicist tries to imagine the most moral person. In particular, the virtue ethicist tries to achieve a balance of virtues in life. Balance is the key word here, because the central insight of virtue ethics is that there can be too much of an ethically good thing. Caution exaggerated becomes cowardice; boldness exaggerated becomes brashness; mildness exaggerated becomes milquetoast, and so on. The virtue ethicist keeps a careful watch on the motives that characterize her action to make sure that she strikes what Aristotle called the Golden Mean between extremes.

This sounds pretty good! Already we’ve avoided thinking of life as a series of acts, the primary pitfall of post-Enlightenment ethics. But are there any dodgy psychological assumptions in virtue ethics that might make it a poor model for day-to-day life?

Maybe. It’s certainly plausible that trying to model ourselves on some ideal person is a practical way of living ethically. In fact – and I say this as observation, not justification – it’s likely that we evolved to learn ethical behaviour by copying those around us, especially during childhood. On the other hand, a skeptic like Nietzsche might be saying “hold on, what’s a virtue, really?”

Are virtues like pity and compassion really descriptive of the way we think? Aren’t there good and bad instances of pity that can’t be accounted for by calling the good ones moderate and the bad ones too extreme? And aren’t some ‘virtues’ actively harmful to our flourishing as individuals? This is a somewhat-cartoonish summary of Nietzsche’s critique. It’s worth noting, however, that Nietzsche critiqued utilitarian and deontological modes of thought much more harshly. Virtue ethics must have something going for it after all.