Monday, May 21, 2007

Ethics and the End of Reason

(Prompted by Monica's worry that cultivates I-It relationships)

It seems to me that Reason aims at something else, even as the reasoner does not know his trajectory. Among the first of the eternal questions is, "What am I to do?," and we generally call this branch of inquiry ethics...

These giant questions (Should I kill one random person for ten million dollars? Should I bomb some few civilians to save thousands more? Should I drop "The Bomb" or not?) help us think about ethics at every level; we use them as examples precisely for their starkness. I developed this question once to explore with my students the problems of responsibility:
Imagine you are driving down the road on a big college campus. You are driving at the speed limit, but it is a nice day out, and you are occasionally glancing at the sidewalk to see the attractive people in their attractive outfits. There are vehicles parallel parked at the side of the road, and as you look to your left to check out some nice legs (or whatever), someone runs out in between the cars parked on your right in front of your vehicle. You hit them. They appear dead. When the ambulance comes, do you confess your negligence, or do you figure that the damage is already done and do your best to appear blameless?

I don't even know if it's a good philosophical question or not, but it usually gets my students talking -- what we all intuit, of course, is that this scenario is meant to sound deeper and more disparate depths than we can plumb. It is not a question about "driving ethics," but about ethics in general. In other words, we believe these kinds of scenarios to be transferable.

I believe these kinds of literary approaches to philosophy are necessary because Reason is strained by limits of time and data. We say things like "Do no violence," but we do not take the time to catalogue all of the exceptions. But what if we did? How many exceptions are there? Where is "the line" between justifiable violence and unjustified violence?

Most people would think it unethical to walk up to someone's pet horse and shoot it in the head for no reason. On the other hand, most people would not worry about stepping on an insect on the sidewalk. Then let us explore the middle territory:

Is it acceptable to kill a turtle? How about if you are driving a car? How about if you are driving a car and there is a child on the side of the road and an oncoming car in the other lane -- should you sacrifice yourself to save the turtle? Certainly you shouldn't sacrifice the child to save the turtle. But what if there was not a child at the side of the road, but a goose. Should you hit the goose or the turtle? What if you were overdue for a brake inspection? This line of inquiry tries to account for every bit of data.

It is not acceptable to kill a man. Is it acceptable to kill a horse? Certainly not. A dog? We say no. A rabbit?--just for fun? Of course not for fun. With a car, though? "By accident?" Or should you ride a bicycle instead, to avoid participating in the time honored traditions of road-killing? But if not a rabbit, how about a mouse? Ever set out a spring-loaded mouse trap? If not a mouse, how about a cockroach or a spider? I have known people to pick up bugs and gently place them outside without killing them. How about that ant on the sidewalk? What about the dust mites in our pillows? This line of inquiry considers degree or magnitude as criteria.

Both of the previous two paragraphs demonstrate a tendency that I believe inheres in Reason, a tendency to divide and reconsider -- and this tendency, which increases in extent and intensity with learning and experience, leads in the direction of infinity. There are too many circumstances and too many divisions in magnitude, too much hierarchical order to keep track of.

In my experience, there is a "magic point" where Reason explodes -- it feels itself accelerating to an unsustainable pace, and then...

If I cannot rationally account for each of my actions, practically and ethically, I am forced to admit that my existence is either inherently meaningless or inherently violent (Levinas says as much). And if, following that realization, I accept this circumstance and accept the metaphysical structure of the universe I have declared the Everlasting Yea. It may be that the notion of grace never occurs to the being who has not sounded these depths...

Forthcoming: an essay exploring the resistance to self-accusation.


Wishydig said...

Okay instead of complicating the obvious dilemmas with the usual gradations of harm or malevolence let's switch the assumption of pain/loss. Is the following ethical?

from a 2005 Golf Digest by Tom Callahan

"About an hour later, as we again pulled our trollies past the fifth green...a ball came flying over the hill and all but went in the hole. Impulsively, I raced onto the green, stuck the ball in the cup, and, shooing my partners along ('Let's get out of here!'), ran away.

"We were long gone by the time a shout of ecstasy went up in the distance.

"'Ya-hoo! Ya-hoo! Ya-hoo!' I have no idea who it was....We finished our round and departed.

"The way I look at it what was the harm? Though my friends are almost equally dividing on this..."

Casey said...

Wow! -- that's the greatest ethical question I've ever heard. I think it's important that the original shot "all but went in the hole" (otherwise the duped golfer might come to suspect foul play!) and the implication is that it was a "blind approach."

There is "no harm," I suppose. But I'm not sure "harm" is the criteria by which we judge ethics. The way I see it, moving someone else's golf ball puts him in a position of unknowing, and even if his ignorance is blissful, it seems a breech of golf-ethics.

It seems to me that sports ethics are a kind of subspecies of ethics, at any rate -- like training grounds, in my view. So if I say "moving that ball is unethical," I don't put it in the same Venn Diagram circle as murder.

I played high school golf, and everyone cheated. Looking back, it seems "unethical," but in a metaphorical way... everyone who shot in the low 80s cheated their way into the high 70s. Moving my ball to improve the lie, moving someone else's -- what's the diff?