Introduction to Social Ethics

The dominant ideas in moral philosophy emerged from the Enlightenment, which was an intellectual movement during the mid-17th to late 18th century that followed the Renaissance and preceded the Industrial Revolution in Western Europe.  The scientists and mathematicians of the Renaissance period were heavily influenced by the careful observations of nature perfected by the artists of the time.  In the case of da Vinci (1452–1519), there seems to be little distinction between art, science, and engineering, all of which could eventually be wrapped up in the single term technology — meaning the study of technique.

It may be that the realism evident in the cultural movement of the Renaissance inspired an empiricism in science, as best exemplified by Bacon (1561–1626).  However, the scientists and mathematicians of the early Enlightenment, such as Descartes (1596–1650) , Newton (1642-1727), and Leibniz (1646–1716), shifted their attention away from art and towards philosophy.  They saw science as a structured approach to discovery of the immutable and generalizable laws that govern Nature, as observed in the interactions between energy and physical objects, including the orbit of planets around the sun and the behavior of light.  It is this tradition of natural philosophy that gives the modern “Doctor of Philosophy” its title, despite the fact that graduates from modern Ph.D. programs in the physical and natural sciences typically never study the modern discipline of Philosophy at all.

Following the intellectual trajectory established by Copernicus (1473-1543) and Galileo (1564-1642), Newton used the natural laboratory of the solar system as the empirical basis for his Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica, in which he described the laws of motion that governed the orbit of the planets around the sun and (by extension) the interactions between all other ideal bodies.  In the near perfect vacuum of outer space, where objects act upon one another at a distance, Newton could study without the distraction of non-idealities (like friction, or drag) that likely led Aristotle (384-322 B.C.) to believe that heavier objects fall faster than light objects.

Thus, Newton established the model of modern scientific investigation adopted during the Industrial Revolution — investigation of idealized particles by a detached scientific observer, testing mathematical descriptions of observable phenomenon — and established  physical science (i.e., physics) as increasingly independent from metaphysics.  But the Enlightment was also a celebration of the political and intellectual freedom of the individual (“Knowledge is power” – Bacon) as the emphasis shifted from knowledge of God to knowledge of self.  Philosophers like Locke (1632-1704, England), Voltaire (1694-1798, France), Smith (1723-1790, Scotland), and Kant (1724-1804, Prussia)  departed from the empirical Newtonian topics of study and established philosophy as a separate discipline, even though they were deeply influenced by Newtonian successes.  In fact, the Enlightenment was an especially productive period in the establishment of new domains of study.  The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy notes:

The commitment to careful observation and description of phenomena as the starting point of science, and then the success at explaining and accounting for observed phenomena through the method of induction, naturally leads to the development of new sciences for new domains in the Enlightenment. Many of the human and social sciences have their origins in the eighteenth century, in the context of the Enlightenment (e.g., history, anthropology, aesthetics, psychology, economics, even sociology), though most are only formally established as autonomous disciplines in universities later.

Thus, all the sciences of the Enlightenment were either unconsciously or consciously imitative of physics in the sense that they adopted reductionist approaches to seek generalizable principles.  In moral philosophy and the social sciences (including economics), the natural locus of study was the individual as an analogue to the Newtonian particle.

One  of the major philosophical crises of the Enlightenment was the nature of free will.  From the Stanford Encyclopedia again:

Newton’s success early in the Enlightenment of subsuming the phenomena of nature under universal laws of motion, expressed in simple mathematical formulae, encourages the conception of nature as a very complicated machine, whose parts are material and whose motions and properties are fully accounted for by deterministic causal laws.

Philosophers such as Hume (1711-1776) who  sought to “establish the basic laws that govern the elements of the human mind in its operations” (ibid) explicitly adopted Newtonian mechanics as a metaphor for explaining human behavior — a view that proved remarkably persistent.

When real, observable human behavior failed to correspond to the idealized models developed by the philosophers, psychologists, and economists of the resulting Industrial Revolution, more often than not the failure was ascribed to the humans — not the theories.  These behavioral failures could be medical, psychological, cognitive, or moral, but the deviation between normative ideas of what behavior should be and descriptive accounts of real behavior were nevertheless consistently attributed  to some deviance in the individual exhibiting the behavior.

In this view, a moral individual ascribes to a consistent set of ideal principles, regardless of the behavior others.  According to Kant, to do less would be irrational.  While there may still be room to argue about which are the correct moral principles, the Enlightenment approach to moral philosophy holds that there must be laws of moral reason that are generalizable, universally applicable, and discoverable from some foundational principles.

Nevertheless, evidence that people do not behave as rationalistic and individualistic atoms — even in an ideal sense — keeps accumulating.  This series of videos either discusses or re-creates a series of experiments that are now several decades old.

The first is the Asch Conformity Experiment, which shows that individual reason is subject to distortions resulting from interaction with others in a group setting.

The next video illustrates the Bystander Effect, in which the moral actions of an individual seemingly depend on the expectations of a group, rather than a personal sense of right and wrong.

These three videos document the Milgram Experiment, in which subjects conform to the expectations of authority, despite the misgivings of their own conscience.

Lastly, the most infamous of these experiments may be the Stanford Prison Experiment, in which college students randomly assigned to the role of “guard” or “prisoner” adopted extreme persona that aligned with their assigned characters.

Both the Prison Experiment and more recent abuses at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq call into question the usual explanation — what we might call the “Bad Apple Theory“.   According to this explanation, just one or a few deviant individuals can spoil the behavior of the entire group.

While there certainly may be immoral behaviors that are stronger in some individuals than in others, Phil Zimbardo (the psychologist who ran the Prison Experiment) offers a different explanation.  In his view, it is the system (or the apple “barrel”) that causes the behavior.   That is, the exceptional moral character necessary under such extremely difficult conditions is tantamount to heroism.

The problem with traditional ethics education is that it is predicated on the imperfect premise that individuals can, thru reason, somehow be made immune to failures of moral character.  In Zimbardo’s view, behavior in social settings results from a negotiation between individuals and the institutions in which they are embedded.  As such, it may be that context — the very thing reductionist science seeks to strip away — is the most important determining factor in human behavior after all.

The Moral Saint Fallacy

The Comedy of Conation

Louis CK often discusses moral issues in his comedy.  In his recent special “Live at the Beacon Theater” he claims to have lots of moral beliefs, but admits that he “lives by none of them.”  In fact, he says he derives a selfish pleasure from simply holding these beliefs, without ever feeling obligated to act on them.

In this example, Louis illustrates moral sensitivity by identifying a recurring  moral problem.  When traveling on a plane, Louis flies first class.  But he often sees military personnel in uniform flying in coach.  He knows the soldiers are more deserving of a first class seat than he is.  So, he thinks to himself, “I should really give up my seat, and trade with this soldier.”  In his case, he makes the moral judgement that one seating arrangement is more fair than another.

Louis’ example demonstrates the difference between moral cognition (thinking) and moral conation (acting). In the Figure below, sensitivity and judgment are both cognitive activities, but the conative activities also require moral motivation (how much you value resolution of a particular moral problem compared to the personal cost of the solution) and lastly moral action.  While Louis CK has mastered the cognitive aspects of morality, he admits to lacking both the motivation and the moral courage necessary to act.

Figure from Hannah ST, Avolio BJ, May DR. 2011. Moral maturation and moral conation: A capacity approach to explaining moral thought and action. Academy of Management Review. 36(4):663-685

What makes Louis exceptional is that he is willing to admit this failing.  As he states in his comedy special, he is “not a good person,” although he likes the idea of being one.

Most people overestimate their own capacity to act on what they know to be the right thing.  When asked, they may profess certainty about how they would behave in a certain hypothetical situation, but when actually given the opportunity, they fail the same conative tests that Louis does.  We call this phenomenon the “Moral Saint Fallacy.” It describes the tendency for most people to overestimate their own moral motivation and moral courage. (The “moral saint” concept originates with the philosopher Susan Wolf.)

Recent controversies in banking, business, sports, politics, and higher education call into question the moral fabric of modern America.  And yet, it is all too easy for writers and readers to morally condemn the failings of people caught in high profile scandals. Unlike the judged, those who cast metaphorical stones are unlikely to find themselves facing analogous moral scrutiny.  Although the ubiquitous presence of video cameras and social networking can amplify any moral failing, only in rare instances are individuals able to glean their own moral lessons from the vicarious experiences gained through the media.

For example, the show What Would You Do asks the question, “Can you live up to the moral ideals by which you judge others?”  This clip dramatizes real-life instances that illustrate The Bystander Effect.  As the show producers  increase the moral distance between the actor pretending to be injured and the passersby, the bystanders become less and less likely to offer assistance — until finally the memory of watching news coverage of a real incident, combined with the pleadings of another woman that may identify with the injured more strongly, finally inspires one woman to act.

Ideals, Action and Education

It is curious… that physical courage should be so common in the world, and moral courage so rare.   — Mark Twain

Lost in the public cross-examination of moral failings is a critique of ethics education.  Much of ethics revolves around discussion of fictionalized case studies like those dramatized on the What Would You Do? show.  They typically feature contrasts in moral character by creating exaggerated caricatures of “bad apples” and “good whisteblowers.”  With the wisdom of hindsight and the authority of professional codes and meta-ethical theories, most students can easily write self-righteous essays critiquing the actions of others, while pledging allegiance to ideals they believe they will never be tested on in real life.  But in the rare cases where learning exercises actually ask students to act on their ideals, they often fail.  This gap between ideals and action suggests that the typical mode of ethics education exaggerates the importance of moral cognition at the expense of understanding the obstacles to moral conation.  In fact, moral action is mitigated by several circumstances that may be beyond the control of the individual.

Surveys taken in our classrooms indicate that our students largely conceive of themselves as having unquestionably moral character.  However, when we place them in game situations where each is incentivized to increase his or her own grade at the expense of other students, we typically find students exhibit behavior that repudiates their self-professed moral beliefs.  While it is true that we’ve recently noticed a shift away from the selfish, egocentric trends that researchers say characterize the Millennial Generation, there nevertheless is an evident gap between moral ideals and a willingness to take moral action.

The story of a recent student exemplifies our point.  To keep this person anonymous, we’ll use the mythological pseudonym Ariadne.  For the sake of convenience, we’ll refer to Ariadne as ‘she,’ but this isn’t necessarily any indication of the student’s actual gender.

In class, Ariadne made strong arguments for her moral positions and jeered those who acted immorally.  But in actual game play, when the temptation was strong, she abandoned her ideals and took more points for herself.  In one instance, Ariadne accepted a high grade at the expense of classmates who were treated unfairly in a game when the rules were obviously rigged.  Even when Ariadne had the opportunity to correct the injustice by sharing her grade points with others who had been treated unfairly, she declined.

To Ariadne’s credit, she realized that she had behaved poorly and she experienced remorse.  After class, she approached the Instructor and  privately proposed giving the aggrieved students some of her ill-gotten points confidentially.  But later in a different game, she behaved exactly the same way.

This time, the Instructor subjected her reparations proposal to a class vote.  In this case, even the students who admired and liked her refused to let her off the hook.  They felt it would be too easy to let her continue to do irresponsible things in one moment, and work to absolve herself of guilt later on.  They insisted she live with the knowledge of what she did and the internalized emotions appropriate to that failing.  This wasn’t spite or Schadenfreude. They wanted to encourage moral growth—the growth that comes from learning how easily one can slip away from moral ideals.

The moral saint fallacy thus obviously impedes ethics education.  Instructors who don’t challenge it fail to give students adequate tools for closing the gap between moral cognition and moral conation.  Students who graduate with this background are primed to enter professions with skewed perceptions of themselves and others.  And, they can be expected to have a difficult time appreciating the complexities at stake.

The Case of Lt. Pike: Action and Expectation

The next clip recalls a infamous example of digital pillory (or cyberstoning).  At its zenith, the Occupy Wall Street movement spawned sympathetic sit-ins or “occupy” protests at cities and college campuses throughout the United States.   A confrontation between protesters and campus police at the University of California – Davis was especially well documented.  In this video, UC-Davis Police Lieutenant John Pike is shown wielding a can of pepper spray.  He first makes a show of displaying the can to onlookers, and then dispassionately discharges the pepper spray directly into the faces of the sitting students.

Moral condemnation of Pike was instantaneous, as the crowd chants “Shame on you! Shame on you!”  But Pike could not possibly have imagined how the subsequent digital backlash would become its own meme via social networking.

Even UC-Davis Chancellor Linda Katehi, no stranger to campus protest, publicly denounced Pike.  But the UC-Davis Chief of Police, herself relieved of her duties and subsequently forced into early retirement, offers a more complicated account of the officer’s culpability, suggesting that the officers at the scene were doing the “best they can.”

While we can agree that Pike should have refused to pepper spray non-violent students, condemnation of him and other officers on the scene as morally deficient ignores the situational forces that exerted influence on their behavior.  If we are willing to judge the moral character of Pike, then fair play requires we must also be willing to judge ourselves.  Doing this requires us to acknowledge that be are not moral super heroes who are immune to external pressures.

Normal people lack the moral motivation or the moral courage of religious martyrs.  However, most people are biased to see themselves in the best light possible–an idealization unfortunately reinforced, for the reasons mentioned above, by traditional ethics education.

But how much motivation and courage should we actually expect from people?  While hypocrisy can be the sign of bad character, lots of complications can serve as mitigating circumstances.  Moreover, there is a difference between doing what morality requires of us and going above and beyond.  Philosophers refer to the latter as supererogation. “Roughly speaking, supererogatory acts are morally good although not (strictly) required.

In an article for The Atlantic, called “Why I Feel Bad for the Pepper-Spraying Policeman, Lt. Pike“, Alexis Madrigal expresses sympathy for Pike, given the influence of the structures that shaped his choices, including a shift in how the police are trained to respond to protesters. According to Madrigal, expectations have evolved through three different paradigms: “escalated force” (pre 1970s), “negotiated management” (1970s to 1990s), and “strategic incapacitation” (current), whichs calls for an “unprecedented show of (police) force” when responding to non-violent protest.  He argues that Pike is merely another casualty in a  system that trained him to respond as he did.

This appeal to mitigating circumstances didn’t sit well with everyone. In a notable instance, Mark Bosquet wrote a reply in The Chronicle of Higher Education titled “Sympathy for Eichmann?” comparing Madrigal’s analysis of Pike to an unduly sympathetic portrayal of the infamous Nazi officer Adolph Eichmann, who orchestrated the exportation of millions of Jews to ghettos and concentration camps, and inspired Hannah Arendt to coin the phrase “the banality of evil“.  Arendt described the typical Nazi not as an incredible moral monster, but an ordinary bureaucrat who rationalized acts by following orders. While this might be descriptively true, Bosquet contends that Madrigal misses Arendt’s normative point — that sympathizing with people like Pike only makes us feel better about our own complicities, and reinforces in us our own Moral Saint Fallacy. As Bosquet sees it, reading Madrigal allows us to say to ourselves:

I serve the system in some ways too, but I’d never do what that guy does!

Bosquet accuses Pike (and the hundreds of other officers who have behaved as he did in response to similar protests) of choosing “obedience and the warm praise of their masters, and the material rewards of their complicity.”

Moral Conation and Obstacles to Action

It is easy to see where Bosquet is coming from. If people are let off the hook for doing things they should be held accountable for, justice is violated. But is that really the case here?  Let’s assume for the moment that Lt. Pike could recognize the moral problem with spraying non-violent protesters (thus exhibiting moral sensitivity).   He nevertheless was required to make moral judgments about the relative merits of his obligation to duty (in Bosquet’s language, “obedience”) versus the moral principle of non-violence.

Consider that Katehi had ordered the police to remove the protesters, who were encamped illegally.  While Katehi never specifically authorized the use of pepper spray, Pike likely believed his job was to devise the best way to carry out those orders, and that using pepper spray was safer than simply attempting to wrestle the protesters off the site.  Thus, Pike was bound by duty to consider all available options to uphold the law.

Moreover, if it had occurred to Pike to question Katehi’s orders (given the level of resistance exhibited by the protesters, and the necessity of violence to achieve Katehi’s objective), then he faced a conative dilemma.  With regard to moral motivation, Pike must know to what extent he should value the students’ rights to self-expression and freedom from violence, over the risks to himself and fellow officers should he fail to fulfill his duty.  A refusal to remove the protesters would have required extraordinary moral courage, given the expectation he likely felt from his fellow officers (with whom he is undoubtedly more closely bonded) that he should act in accordance with his orders to remove the students while protecting the safety of those officers that report directly to him.

That is, even if Pike believed that pepper-spraying the students was wrong, he may have been unable to actually act on those beliefs, given the circumstances in which he was embedded.

Understanding Pike’s dilemma changes the rhetorical question of What Would You Do? to something like, “What could we reasonably have expected Pike to do?”  Could we really have expected Pike to take a different moral stand at the scene?  Defying his Chancellor?  Breaking ranks with his colleagues, as he no doubt thought refusal would have required him to do?

To expect Pike to act differently would be to require of him a moral fortitude that none but the most courageous among us could have possibly exhibited.

The internal affairs investigation eventually concluded that Lt. Pike did act reasonably, and recommended a suspension or a demotion at worst.

He was fired anyway.