Like Old Times

I woke up this morning to discover that David Weinberger has been blogging about ethics and technology. It was almost as though I’d been projected backward in time nineteen years!

David sketches two main approaches to ethical deliberation, consequentialism and deontology, and invokes the contemporary ‘ethics of care’ in passing. He doesn’t say anything about virtue ethics, the sort that Margaret and I ingested at one of the sources of virtue ethics’ resurgence in the 1980s and ’90s, when we studied at Duke. We’re still strongly inclined in the virtue-ethics direction; at least, I am (I didn’t ask Margaret before I wrote this).

He then observes that neither deontology nor consequentialism seems to clarify the ethical status of the recent shutdown of Parler, the online hate-speech haven. Now, I would disagreee with David on a number of points in the preceding parts of his exposition — but here I think he takes a very wrong step indeed, treating the value of ‘moral frameworks’ as though they were defined by their capacity to provide a satisfying answer to the question ‘Should a society that places paramount value on free speech permit corporate interests to encourage or stifle particular sorts of expression (i. e. hate speech)?’

I don’t think it’s a moral framework’s job to decide ethical questions for you; there’s always, inescapably, going to be moral discernment going on at some stage of the deliberation. Deontological ethics tend to treat actions as if they belonged to natural kinds, easily sorted into ‘murder’, ‘armed robbery’, ‘littering’, and so on. (I know there are more sophisticated analyses of this, but I’m writing a blog post, not an ethical treatise.) Consequentialism begins from the premise that ‘happiness’ or ‘well-being’ can be identified and agreed upon easily enough that its founding premise (‘maximising happiness/well-being’) can occupy a pivotal role in the discourse (but ask a comfortably bourgeois person and an impoverished person how to define general well-being and the problems with that premise emerge fairly rapidly). These frameworks function poorly at articulating ‘what everybody should think’, but do better at providing a system for locating various ethical concerns relative to one another, for somebody who adheres to this or that schema.

So rather than asking ‘which moral framework can define the right thing to do about a medium overflowing with bilious conspiracists?’, I would pose the question ‘granted what you believe about the world and the Good, how does Parler fit in to the moral cosmos that defines your actions?’ In answering that question as a Christian theologian, I reply that although it is indeed a very good thing to permit people to speak as their conscience dictates, that good cannot outweigh the harm caused when people whose leading characteristic is self-interested deceitfulness have means to propagate disinformation and to plan violence against the public. Not everyone is a Christian theologian (and not all Christian theologians see the world as I do)(more’s the pity), so other people will reach other conclusions, but that was always going to be the case anyway.

If we want to argue the matter out in public debate, I wouldn’t lead with ‘Be a Christian and it’ll solve all your moral conundrums’, a claim that is as false as it is unconvincing to… people who are’t already Christians. I’d talk about the ways that making room for Parler advances the cause of people who are in the aggregate already more privileged, and endangers people who are (in the aggregate) already imperilled in the course of daily life. Black Lives Matter. But I would have arrived at my convictions about the importance of standing up for people at the short end of the oppression stick from theology, not from Kant or Mill.

That doesn’t solve David’s frustration, I don’t think, but it may give him something to push back against productively.

6 comments / Add your comment below

  1. First, the easy part. I, too, am drawn to virtue ethics because it asks a question that deserves reflection — what does it mean to be a good person? — and can then help one imagine oneself inhabiting various virtues when faced with moral issues. Virtue ethics also gets us out of the business of trying to solve moral problems by starting with abstract generalizations such as those provided by the prior most important Western moral frameworks. But I personally find myself asking a related question when considering many moral situations, especially more policy-based ones : What sort of world do I want to live in?

    As I say in my post, I am very drawn to the ethics of care (which some claim is a species of virtue ethics) for similar reasons. I find it better grounded in its claims about the founding moral virtue it promotes: relationships of care. But I consider both virtue ethics and the ethics of care to be big, important steps out of millennia of male philosophical ethics.

    Now for the harder part, i.e., the part where we disagree and you’re probably right.

    The two main Western philosophical moral frameworks, other than theological ones (a big “other than”!) both try to identify what makes an action good and try to present that in an actionable fashion; both Kant and Mill think they are providing a way for us to decide on moral actions. So, I think I’m within bounds arguing that their failure to do so (or thus I claim) is legitimate criticism of them.

    You take me to task for dismissing them because they fail to answer one particular complex question which you phrase as “Should a society that places paramount value on free speech permit corporate interests to encourage or stifle particular sorts of expression (i. e. hate speech)?” Yes, but my larger point beyond that one example is that as soon as the moral question gets hard, the traditional moral frameworks punk out. If that’s right (and it’d take more than a short blog post to think that through — which is why I wrote a short blog post), then the moral frameworks are failing at a big part of their self-assigned job: to help us decide on right action. And as I baselessly assert at the end, moral problems seem to me to be getting more and more complicated everyday … all part of the [product placement] Everyday Chaos increasingly manifest in our world.

    We could apply the traditional philosophical frameworks to your personal decision about Parler (with which I am in sympathy, of course) and perhaps tease out consequentialist, deontological, and theological elements of it. (If we don’t find virtue ethics and the ethics of care in the mix, I would be shocked.) That might be useful in explaining your decision, or justifying it to those who disagree. But I don’t think that those frameworks turn out to be all that useful when trying to come up with those decisions in the first place. I thus am suspicious of how helpful they are when analyzing those decisions, although I suspect I am wrong about that.

    1. David, I wouldn’t dream of ‘taking you to task’! I hoped merely to set out what I thought our differences looked like.

      So first — I take your point about the Western philosophical traditions; I think it’s a misstep for them to try to ‘provid[e] a way for us to decide on moral actions’, is all. So I agree with your critique, and that if that’s ‘their self-assigned job’, then they’ve misconceived what ethical frameworks are good for (as, I take it, do you) (think they’re on the wrong boat, that is).

      Much as I admire Everyday Chaos (available from a megacorporation or from your neighbourhood bookseller), I’m not convinced that it’s the moral problems that are getting more complex. Rather, I suspect we’re learning more and more about the situations we regard as morally problematic, and that information is Too Big To Know (available from a megacorporation or from your neighbourhood bookseller) what to do with, morally speaking.

      My point was that moral frameworks aren’t good for decision-making, as if one could enter X problem into a moral algorithm and produce a Right Answer, so much as for rationalising the moral decisions we make when we discern intuitively, aesthetically, theologically, utilitarian-ly, or some other way how well a particular pathway coheres with mores, conventions, axioms, commandments, that we already adhere to. It sounds to me as though we’re talking about similar projects in different terms — is that possible?

  2. Darn you! There’s no one I’d rather be taken to task by — which for me is a less harsh term than it sounds — than by you. But, alas, I agree with everything you say in your response to my response.

    Well, if forced, I might want to expand on your comment that the moral situations are not getting more complex, and instead we’re just learning more about them. Definitely so, and not just because the Net makes more information available to us, but because it then presents it in our faces, rather than squirreling it away in closed books on distant shelves. And it often comes from people who are directly affected by the moral questions at issue.

    To that I’d add that the new public of the Net places moral demands on us that can be at best difficult to meet to everyone’s satisfaction. That increases the complexity of the demands, and puts our moral failures and weaknesses in a public light. On the other other hand, many of those new demands come from voices we would not have heard before, exposing the complacency of our assumptions. So, that aspect of morality has also gotten more complex. Appropriately.

    I very strongly suspect you agree with all this, but would be delighted to find that you do not.

    One last point that I think you’ll also agree with is about an assumption implied (perhaps) when you say:

    “…how well a particular pathway coheres with mores, conventions, axioms, commandments, that we already adhere to. ”

    There’s no doubt that all those things — mores, conventions, etc. — play an important role. But I’m drawn to the ethics of care because it places connections/relationships prior to all of those. That seems to me to be more phenomenologically accurate. We then explain and justify our decisions by using mores, conventions, etc., and we of course also sometimes overturn our relationship-based decisions because of mores, conventions, etc. But I personally think connection comes first.

    1. We’re getting dangerously close to complete agreement, David. If it weren’t so flattering to me that we’re relatively like-minded, I’d try to pick a fight.

      Your point about the complexity getting in our face sounds right to me. Ironically (since we remember so much hand-wringing about echo chambers), once upon a time you could live your whole life without meeting someone whose politics differed radically from your own. Now it’s hard to find the serenity of not having to think about those stupid maniacs on [either] other side. ‘Those people’ are now right there in front of you on the Internet.

      And you very wisely draw me closer to ethics of relationality, both in connection with ‘new public of the Net’ and as a primary locus for ethical evaluation. I’d only demur about your claim that ‘connection comes first’, because I doubt that we get entangled in relationships apart from mores, conventions, customs, and so on. So I’d plump for simultaneity or concomitance rather than priority. But that’s a pretty small demurrer.

      Thank you, David — it’s great talking these things through with you again!

  3. I’ve done a bit of work in this area over the past couple of years, looking at how different theological/ethical frameworks might work in online spaces. I think the virtue approach – what sort of character should we ’embody’ online as individuals and communities – is helpful for many to think about making better decisions online etc. In the last year or two though I’ve been learning from some of my Maori and Pacific Island colleagues and students and their own reflection on their own ways of life to this area (e.g. maintaining the relational space, ‘va’ (Samoan/Tonga) or whanaungatanga (Maori)) as they negotiate social media etc. from different contexts or ones that have overlapping cultural contexts. It’s making me look again at how I might think about this.

  4. Obviously it would take more than a brief comment for me to learn enough about va/ whanaungatanga before I could comment sensibly, Stephen (I could ask Bishop Helen to give me a lesson, if she had time!). If I take the risk of generalising from the particular point you make, though, we certainly ought to attend carefully to the specific cultural contexts relative to which we form ethical judgements about online conduct. Since the Net is a placeless sort of place, we all encounter one another with a certain indigeneity that doesn’t map directly onto terrestrial locality, and thus challenges any presumed universality (on one hand) or ‘cultural relativism’ (on the other). Thank you for the provocation!

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