Friday, November 30, 2018

Being Decent: An Appropriately Vague Moral Theory

The first time I read Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics over 20 years ago and every time I have read it since, I’ve been struck by what may appear to be one of Aristotle’s more casual comments, but which I have since come to see as a deep point about moral thinking in general.

For it is characteristic of a well-educated person to look for the degree of exactness in each kind of investigation that the nature of the subject itself allows. For it is evident that accepting persuasive arguments from a mathematician is like demanding demonstrations from a rhetorician. (Nicomachean Ethics, Book I, 1049b24-26, translated by C. D. C. Reeve)

Aristotle doesn’t spell out exactly what he means, perhaps on purpose or perhaps because what we have from him are more lecture notes than polished texts. My thought is that according to the account of virtue he sets forth later in the text, Aristotle is well aware that his general account of virtue will not always tell you exactly what to do in any given situation. It’s not a decision algorithm (as modern Western theories like utilitarianism or deontology are sometimes thought to be). The vagaries of human life and specific situations will not allow any such thing.

Instead, Aristotle’s account of virtue is a general guideline for how to become the kind of person who generally knows what to do in specific situations. Virtue is a skill. He can’t tell you how to solve the trolley problem or how to be the most effective altruist, but he might help you become the sort of person who can solve such moral conundrums when or if they appear in specific contexts.

I think this is also a key to a defense against some kinds of moral relativism, because sometimes you’ll hear an oddly scientistic argument that because moral thinking is messy, imprecise, and unscientific, it must be relative – a conclusion that in no way follows if you accept that moral thinking could be both imprecise and non-relative.

Being Decent

But Aristotle’s insight about the inexactness of moral reasoning also helps me think through a moral theory I’ve been thinking about for a while: what matters most in ethics is being a decent human being.

Aristotle himself comes close to this, but remains far too stodgy and elitist for my tastes (not to mention sexist, classist, and bigoted toward non-Greeks). The great Confucian philosopher Mencius comes a lot closer to my theory. I always feel a little more decent just having read Mencius (I’m excited to read him again in my Intro to Asian Philosophy course next spring). The Confucian emphasis on ritual can be re-tooled for modern life as physical frameworks to express respect and humaneness, but I do wonder if it can accommodate the concept of a person who is socially-awkward or oblivious but fundamentally decent (perhaps a person like Mencius’s Daoist contemporary, Zhuangzi).

Philosophers tend not to wear their childhood influences on their sleeves, but I’ll drop that pretention for a moment and admit that one of my earliest influences was something my mom used to say when I was a kid: It doesn’t matter what you believe as long as you’re a good person. I dedicated my recent book to my mom by noting that her comment even influenced me to explore how you could be decent as a skeptic who believes almost nothing at all!

My mom was usually talking about religion, but it could apply to other realms: politics, philosophy, aesthetic tastes, and so on. I took the core of her comment to be that being a good person has less to do with your beliefs than many people seem to believe. There may be exceptions for people with abhorrent beliefs like Nazism, but then again, I doubt that Nazism is the kind of thing a good person would believe.

Lately I’ve come to think of the concept of being a good person as being a decent human being.

There’s nothing all that mysterious about being decent. A decent person considers the needs of others in addition to their own. A decent person doesn’t delight in hurting people unnecessarily. A decent person tries to help others, or at least not to hurt them. A decent person tries to make the world, or at least a small corner of it, a better place. Above all, a decent person cares about being a decent person and maybe even strives to become a better person.

Putting Decency to the Test

But, philosophers might ask, what does it mean to be decent? Can you give the necessary and sufficient conditions for the concept of decency? Can you articulate an ahistorical, trans-cultural concept of decency that admits of no counter-examples or problematic genealogies?

I can’t. And I seriously doubt that anyone can. But I would note that philosophers and college students are some of the only people particularly troubled by this. The vast majority of people (even philosophers and college students outside the classroom) have a basic concept of decency that works reasonably well, at least if they care enough to put it into practice (and of course there are many indecent people who do not care).

Going back to Aristotle’s comment about the appropriate precision of ethical inquiry, I suspect that expecting the concept of decency to be expressible in necessary and sufficient conditions or as something that can survive a Foucauldian or Nietzschean genealogical barrage is a huge mistake.

Decency and Skepticism

In my book (the one I dedicated to my mom), I spend much of the conclusion arguing for a mitigated skepticism about philosophy. In my opinion, the entire history of philosophy gives us some reason to think that humans are strange creatures with the ability to ask philosophical questions we cannot satisfactorily answer, whether due to our own cognitive limitations or the nature of the topics themselves.

A complete account of ethics of the kind sought by philosophers will probably remain elusive. But neither should this turn us toward relativism, as proponents of the hermeneutics of suspicion often seem to council. Being decent cannot be transcendentally verified, but neither should it be theorized away.

But this doesn’t mean philosophy is useless (hence the mitigation of my skepticism about philosophy). Reading Aristotle and Mencius, for example, can help you think about how to be a decent human being. It might even help you become more decent.

But not even great philosophers like Aristotle and Mencius can answer every question. And that’s okay. We humans are neither the cognitive gods many philosophers seem to suppose we are, nor are we the moral demons many proponents of the hermeneutics of suspicion gleefully declare us to be (I’ve always found this sort of negative dogmatism to be odd in itself, as if reading a philosophy book can or should overturn one’s basic inclination toward decency).

An Appropriately Vague Moral Theory

This theory about decency is an appropriately vague moral theory. It admits of vagueness and imprecision. It’s not always obvious what a decent human being should do, what actions count as decent, or even what it means to be decent (although really deep moral disagreements are rarer than many philosophers and college students seem to think). There may be shades of meaning such that decency is often a matter of degree: “more-or-less” rather than “either/or.” Decent people are likely to continue to disagree about the details of decency as long as there are humans who care about being decent.

Yet Aristotle was right: all of this is entirely appropriate to the nature of ethical inquiry and the messiness of imperfect humans making their way in a complicated world. To hold ethical inquiry to the standards of mathematics or physics or even economics or sociology is a fundamental error.

Another objection might be that “decency” is merely something like politeness. While basic decency and basic politeness often coincide (like saying “please” and “thank you” or holding the door open for strangers), they don’t always go together.

Old timey mobsters are often very polite (at least in the movies), but they aren’t very decent, what with all that whacking of enemies and shady dealings and whatnot. Civil Rights leaders like Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King, Jr. were thought to be impolite by racists like Bull Connor, but the Civil Rights movement was a fundamental shift toward a more decent society (besides, the racists were themselves often extremely impolite up to and including murder). One might say much the same about athletes who kneel during the national anthem to protest police violence toward black Americans: maybe it’s impolite or disrespectful by some standards, but for all that it may be the decent thing to do (I personally don’t care much either about sports or conventional displays of patriotism, so this whole controversy is a bit puzzling to me; but for what it’s worth, I’m totally on the side of the kneeling athletes).

On that note, if most of us already have a basic understanding of decency (as I said), how can we have moral progress? Are we stuck with whatever decency we already have? I see moral progress as a matter of becoming more decent, often by widening the circle of who we’re decent towards. White slave owners in early 19th century America sometimes thought they were being decent to their slaves. But they were wrong. Slavery is in itself an indecent way to treat human beings (as Abolitionists and the slaves themselves already understood). To give a contemporary example, many anti-immigrant conservatives today think they are being decent toward immigrants (“I just want them to come here legally!”), but I find this to be a narrow way of looking at the issue that casts a shadow on our ability to express basic decency toward our fellow human beings.

Philosophy can help us to think about how we can continue to be decent or maybe how we can become better people. Even the hermeneutics of suspicion can keep us from being too sure of ourselves. This is why we should read Nietzschean and Foucauldian debunkery: not because they’re right, but because they keep us from being too sure that we’re right.

Are We Becoming Less Decent?

Have we been experiencing a troubling decline in decency lately? From the way people treat each other on the internet to the election of Donald Trump and the general resurgence of explicit bigotry around the world, it often seems that way.

I never said that everybody is decent. Even Mencius, who is famous for his view that human beings have a tendency toward goodness, didn’t think that everybody actually is good. If your inherent goodness isn’t properly cultivated, Mencius agrees that you won’t actually become good (he uses a lot of metaphors of agricultural cultivation here: a seed alone isn’t enough to make a plant without proper water, soil, and sunlight).

I think the last few years have shown that a lot of people have forgotten what it is to be a decent human being (which seems especially easy on the internet, where we lack the physical reminder of human presence). Or maybe they never knew. Maybe some people are just naturally indecent. I don’t know.

But I do hope that decency is still worth cultivating and fighting for. Philosophy maybe can’t make you decent or tell you precisely what decency requires, but it provides useful tools and reminders that might help us in the perpetual human drama of being decent in an often indecent world.

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