The Spectrum of Ethical Theories

The Spectrum of Ethical Theories

The Spectrum of Ethical Theories

The title of this paper, “The Spectrum of Ethical Theories,” may not immediately convey what I want to do in it. So let me explain. When ethicaltheories, ancient and modern, are classified and compared, it is usually done in a fairly piecemeal way. These days, for example, people think that consequentialism, virtue ethics, and deontology/Kantian ethics are the three main approaches to normative ethics. (I will be talking here about normative ethics rather than applied ethics or metaethics.) People think these are the three most plausible or influential contemporary approaches. When they do taxonomy, they really don’t do (overall or systematic) taxonomy, but, rather, limit themselves to make pairwise comparisons: for example, they say that utilitarianism is like Kantianism in certain respects, but is different in certain other important aspects;that virtue ethics is a little bit like Kantianism in this respect, but like utilitarianism in that. You get these pairwise comparisons, but you don’t get a single taxonomy that includes all views. But it is possible to do the systematic taxonomy or metaphilosophy of the different ethical theories and how they relate to each other—I call this metaphilosophy because I can’t call it metaethics, which is reserved for another issue. This is not doing normative ethics so much as understanding what others were doing in normative ethics. So we can call it metaphilosophy as applied to normative ethics.

Now if you want to, you can do a taxonomyor metaphilosophy of a bi-modal or bi-partite kind: for example, you can classify everything in relation to thebasic difference between rationalism and sentimentalism within normative ethics. This gives you a bimodal scheme, and it allows us to distinguish two normative categories and perhaps more because there may be some normative theories that lie in between. An example of sentimentalist views is Hume, of course, or Hutchinson; an example of rationalism would be Kant or Rawls. And you can somewhat expand the taxonomy by saying that some theories fall in between. For example, if you look into the work of Anthony Ashley Cooper, the 3rd Earl of Shaftesbury, who is supposed to have founded moral sentimentalism, you see that in his view there is actually an amalgam or mixture or blending of rationalist and sentimentalist elements. But still he is considered the founder of sentimentalism because so many sentimentalist ideasmade their initial appearance (in British moral philosophy) in his thinking. And you can say that something that has both rationalist and sentimentalist elements, or combines them, lies in between rationalism and sentimentalism. So you have three different places to taxonomize with.

One problem with this, though, is that it isn’t actually all-inclusive. There are views which don’t anchor normative thought or normative ethics in either reason or in sentiment or some combination of these. I am thinking here in particular of what you might call “aesthetic” approaches to morality. Those see morality as based in judgments about beauty. There is a long tradition in that. It goes all the way back to Plotinus, who thought that claims about virtue are claims about what is beautiful or ugly, on the premise that the body is ugly and that virtue consists in rejecting certain bodily appetites. You can see how someone might say: virtue involves choosing beauty and rejecting the ugliness of the body. This is pretty extravagant stuff, but that’s the nature of Plotinus’s theory. There are more recent versions up to the present day. Even nowadays people do sometimes anchor morality or ethical thought within the aesthetic. Now such an approach to ethics or morality is not considered as much of a goer in contemporary terms, but not only that: once you introduce this sort of possibility, you can’t simply divide everything in the just-mentioned bimodal way, because there are some things left outside. So the bimodal scheme is not as comprehensive in the light of this possibility as one might hope.

In the present paper, I am going to offer, explain, and defend a more comprehensive kind of taxonomy or classification of normative theories. Not every aspect of everything, but every major theory fits within or in relation to this taxonomy as far as I can tell. It works in the following way: it identifies a single dimension of variation between normative ethical theories and argues that there is an axis or spectrum along which you can put all the normative approaches, ancient and modern.(There is a diagram of the spectrum at the end of this article that you can refer to while reading it.)When I mentioned this idea of a spectrum at an NEH summer seminar a few years ago in Middletown, Connecticut—a seminar devoted to Western virtue theory and Confucianism—the issue arose: could this idea be applied to Confucian or, more generally, to Chinese ethical doctrines? I think it could be, but even though I have in recent years been studying quite a lot of Chinese philosophy, I will not tryto deal with anything outside Western philosophy in this paper. But I do think that if the scheme I am going to propose is promising for the Western, it could also apply to Eastern thought.

So what is this scheme? I basically got it from Carol Gilligan: she wrote a book, InaDifferentVoice, which was published by Harvard University Press in 1982 and in which she argues that there are two ways of thinking about normative issues that correlate, she thought initially, with gender. (She later became less sure about that correlation, and I won’t make any further reference to it here.) What are these two ways of thinking? One is a mode that emphasizes our autonomy and issues of justice and rights against others. Some people have called it “justice ethics.” The other approach, which she has called “the ethics of care,” would be an approach that puts more emphasis on our connections to others, our caring for or about others, our responsibility to others, and that puts less emphasis on individual autonomy and the voluntary choices of individuals. This way of thinking allows you, for example, to place recent Kantianism withinjustice ethics and to place not only the new ethics of care but also perhaps Humean sentimentalism, with its emphasis on benevolence toward others, in the sphere of the ethics of care. Originally, Gilligan discussed justice versus caring, but eventually, matters clarified a bit for her and in the preface for readers inthe 1993 edition of her book, she wrote about the basic choice between separateness and connection. And that choice will in extrapolated terms be the basis for the taxonomy I shall be proposing here.

In Kant’s ethics, autonomy is absolutely important. Autonomy is the basic notion, perhaps alongside rationality, but it is rationality based on autonomy. And this emphasis means not focusing in any foundational way on our connection to others, whereas this is exactly what you get in the ethics of caring. So it is pretty clear that if we are going to do some kind of classification, we know where to put at least these two normative theories: Kantian/Rawlsian liberalism or rationalism and the Humean/care-ethical sentimentalist approach. Gilligan only hinted at what care ethics can be, but in consequent developments the ethics of care has emerged and it’s getting to be more and more influential and well known. There are certainly a lot of people that don’t think well of it, but a lot of people want to work in or on it.

I am one of those. Gilligan said: the emphasis on connection in care ethics is opposed to the emphasis on autonomy/separateness in Kantianism. But that doesn’t immediately suggest a nomenclature or a taxonomy or classificatory scheme for other theories. Here is how that came about. Gilligan at one point—I was in contact with her by email—said to me: wait a second, where does utilitarianism/consequentialism fit with respect to the separateness-and-connection distinction? The answer I gave was: consequentialism is somewhere in between because utilitarianism resembles Kantianism in one way, namely care ethicsfocuses a great deal on personal relationships as central to the moral realm, but Utilitarianism doesn’t and Kantianism doesn’t. In that respect, utilitarianism or consequentialism resembles Kantianism more than it does care ethics. But of course utilitarianism resembles care ethics more than Kantianism in other respects, for example the utilitarian focus on human welfare or the welfare of sentient beings. This is not the underlying focus of Kantian ethics. Kantian ethics has duties of concern for and promotion of the welfare of others, but this is not fundamental. This is supposed to be derived from autonomy. But the concern for welfare is basic to utilitarianism and this is also basic to care ethics. Of course, care ethics is not impartialistic in the way utilitarianism is. This is another respect in which utilitarianism resembles Kantianism; they are both in some measure impartialistic. Though I think this is not an entirely fair characterization of Kantian ethics, I think it is an entirely fair characterization of utilitarianism. So I concluded and told Carol Gilligan that utilitarianism is in between care ethics and Kantian justice ethics. But this, I think, turns out to be wrong. And when I discovered how and why it is wrong, I was off to the races with the taxonomical ideas of the present paper.

How did I discover that this was wrong? Well, at one point—and forgetting consequentialism—I started thinking about communitarianism and wondering where it fits with regard to the issue of separateness vs. connection. And it occurred to me that communitarianism is either on par with care ethics or beyond it in terms of the emphasis on connection. Communitarianism is a very complex doctrine; there are many famous proponents of it: for example,Michael Sandel, Michael Walzer, Alasdair MacIntyre, and CharlesTaylor. And you never find an entirely pure version, an ideal type of communitarianism.

Consider, for example, Sandel’s bookLiberalism and the Limits of Justice(Cambridge University Press, 1982), which is perhaps the most representative version of communitarianism we have. Sandel places a lot of emphasis on the historical traditions of a society as the basis of any justification of present-day institutions and practices. But in response to certain critics Sandel adds that good consequences are also important to any such justification, so consequentialist considerations come into his eventual or final account of social justice.However, I think that if you look closely at Sandel, he is more purely communitarian than he said he was once the critics got a hold of him. And I want to focus on pure communitarianism here.

Why do I say that it emphasizes connection more than care ethics? Following Gilligan, I have a particular take on care ethics that emphasizes the way that under patriarchy, girls and woman aren’t really listened to and their aspirations are downgraded: e.g., “You don’t really want to become a doctor, dear; you’d be much happier being a nurse.” What I learned from that is that you could generalize from what Gilligan was saying: there is a certain ideal of empathic respect for others which involves not imposing your idea of what is good for them but rather listening to what they really want to say and taking that into your own concerns about their well-being. This listening to the other is an aspect of caring, and it would be an antidote—and in my book The Ethics of Care and Empathy (Routledge, 2007) I argue for this—to patriarchy and its injustices against women because if you had listened to what women wanted and not drowned their voices out, you might have had a much more gender-egalitarian society.

Now I think there is very little of that kind of empathic respect for the other in communitarianism. In communitarianism—and one form of communitarianism-run society would be a patriarchical one, since communitarianism allows for patriarchical forms—the justification for everything is that this is the way we have always done it, that this goes deep, etc. That was the kind of argument that was often given for patriarchal prejudices in the 19th and 20th centuries; and if that is the justificatory coinage in moral philosophy, then women just have to accept certain things because they are part of the historical tradition. There is no moral imperative that you listen and change. So under a communitarian regime of a purist kind, if, for example, some child questions whether God or Allah is really nice because of all the suffering, what is going to happen? Are they going to say: “Oh, that is a very interesting point, but we hope to be able to convince you that Allah is much nicer than you are thinking.” No, they are not going to talk in this way to the child. They are going to say: “It is ungrateful of you to go against your parents’ beliefs and you don’treally want to say this kind of ungrateful thing about Allah given everything Allah has done foryou.’ They are not going to take him (or her) seriously. That is that kind of shunting of things into certain predestined ethical and social grooves that is characteristic of communitarianism. So, communitarians have less respect for individual autonomy as the source of independent ideas and thoughts that have to be taken seriously. There is much more emphasis on the fact that we are socio-historically connected and less on any assumption that the individual has rights against all that.Given that care ethics emphasizes connection to a certain extent but still offers a lot of room for the idea that we should respect the point of view of the others, that’s a certain amount of respect for autonomy. So care-ethics is closer to the separateness end of the normative ethical spectrum than communitarianism is.

That having been said, one might ask how or why care ethics puts less emphasis on autonomy than Kantian liberalism. Care ethics has its own version of autonomy, as we have just seen, but it is a less extensive and thoroughgoing notion of autonomy than liberalism assumes and defends. It is more qualified by welfaristic considerations than in Kantian liberalism. Many care ethicists and feminists have thought that Kantian liberalism and care ethics can be reconciled, and that justice ethics and care ethics can be reconciled, although justice ethics puts more emphasis on separateness and care ethics places a stronger emphasis on connection. But you should be suspicious of that. Given the different and seemingly opposed emphases, there ought to be cases where they disagree. And here is a possible case where they would disagree, namely, in regard to issues concerning free speech and hate speech.

There has been a lot of talk and writing about the Skokie case from the 1970’s. A group of neo-Nazis wanted to march and make public speeches inSkokie, Illinois, because it was a place where there were many Holocaust survivors. Many liberals, including people like Ronald Dworkin, T. M. Scanlon and Thomas Nagel,argued as first amendment-defenders that the right of self-expression—even if it involves hate-speech—is primary and therefore that the march and speechifying should be allowed. In the end, it didn’t happen, but, they thought, it should have been allowed. Other people aren’t so sure. Catharine MacKinnon has her own reasons having to do with the 14th amendment, but care ethicists could argue: there is one thing you never find in the liberal and Kantian discussions, namely what the march and speechifying at the center of town would have probably done to re-traumatize Holocaust-survivors. This is not even mentioned. I think that care ethics would take that into account. It would say: yes, we understand the point of view of the neo-Nazis. But we also understand the point of view of the Holocaust-survivors and the psychological damage that might well occur to them is much weightier than the frustration of the neo-Nazis at not being able to do their march. Consequently, the march should not be allowed. Care ethics would like to point out here that Kantian ethics stresses autonomy and free speech, but not enough the welfare of those who going to be damaged (and not merely offended or frustrated). The rights against others not to interfere with you have to be weighed against (re-)traumatizing people.

Let me show you one other way in which there is a greater emphasis on separateness as opposed to connection in liberal thinking. The greater emphasis on separateness in Kantianism and liberalism you also find in the distinctive liberal doctrine that says: no thought or emotion or relationship should be allowed without being subjected to serious rational scrutiny. (This is an intensified version of the Socratic idea that the unexamined life is not worth living.) That doctrine means that if you have children, you should seriously consider whether to give the children away or whether to keep them. I mention this—my strongest case—because I think that this liberal doctrine is an extreme one. I don’t agree with it, but what I as care ethicist am expressing is the view that not every relationship or emotion has to be questioned. In fact, it’s better not to question some relationships. If you do start questioning them, this is a sign that you are not deeply involved in the relationship and maybe a sign that you are not getting very much out of the relationship that you arequestioning.