Authenticity and Moral Recovery (Pt. 1)

Individuals, insofar as they are capable of moral emotions, thoughts, beliefs, and imaginings, may find themselves vexed by the dilemma one faces in any imperfect actual life: how can I square my good-faith, genuinely held moral beliefs with the fact that I must survive in a world that conflicts — perhaps dramatically so — with those beliefs? For example, liberals need not be poor, but they mustn’t regard whatever economic rents they acquire as the result of some optimally just process — that would be inconsistent with their liberalism. Yet, how are liberals supposed to live with themselves under these circumstances? It is fairly clear how the liberal could avoid the charge of epistemic inconsistency; but is it not too hasty to declare victory after showing that the liberal is consistent in what she believes while there remains an obvious inconsistency in how she behaves? What then would be the moral point of the exercise? Would it provide any recompense, satisfaction, or consolation to exploited Taiwanese industrial workers that, despite your tacit support for it in your everyday economic decisions, you in fact believe their situation is morally contemptuous?

It is worth reflecting a bit more on the notion of inconsistency I’m trying to isolate. For example, it is fairly clear how liberals actually find a way to live with themselves, for all practical purposes (myself included): they ignore these “inconsistencies of praxis”. Perhaps, this is a tactic used to just get by, without the Morality Monster constantly castigating their choices, including their decision to actually enjoy the high quality of life with which they’ve been blessed. The problem posed here is different: I am wondering how liberals should live with themselves, given the dilemma posed above. The way we actually go about doing it is one possible answer to the dilemma, though (perhaps unsurprisingly) I do not believe we should be satisfied with it, as I hope to show later.

Second, it is not enough to resolve the dilemma in the sense in which I mean it to suggest that there are conflicting moral requirements that dissolve the problem. For example, our strawman liberal still needs to eat to survive — to do this, she must either rent herself or find some way to extract an economic rent from others. She could become a stock arbitrageur or a mortgage broker or start a sportswear brand with completely outsourced production at dirt-cheap prices, or she could rent herself to a merger arbitrage hedge fund, a mortgage company or real estate broker, or Nike. Either way, she is forced to participate in these seemingly exploitative practices by virtue of the institutions in which her society functions; it would supererogatory to an absurd degree to suggest she not consume anything until these institutions are replaced by something more consistent with her liberalism. I grant all of this. However, the dilemma posed above persists, I believe, and in fact, becomes only more stark, after this reasoning is embraced. This is because the inconsistency I have in mind is much more about our inner life — our sense that we are living a life worth living, that we are what we think we are in our most uncritical and optimistic moments, or that we are a blessing and not a burden to the world, that we are adding and not subtracting from it. To grant that it would absurd for morality to demand heroism for the sake of one’s central moral commitments only makes the kind of inner life I have in mind more conflicted: “as it turns out, Zach, you are not heroic either! The morality you cherish allows you to make excuses for your behavior; how convenient for you!” From this perspective, it is petty — or worse, morally ignorant in some way — to submit as a response to the dilemma above that the problem of exploited developing country labor is simply out of our hands: that only shows one misunderstands the point of the dilemma, for by making this response, one only worsens the sense of isolation from one’s authentic self that the dilemma is meant to highlight.

That this response — the supererogation argument — fails to address the dilemma I have in mind can also be shown by considering the case of addiction. On the one hand, it is demanding too much of the addict that she find some way to rid herself of the addiction by sheer force of will. One does not demand of the diabetic that she find a way, by sheer force of will, to rid herself of diabetes! But unlike diabetes, I would argue that addiction has a lived experience — a morally relevant, phenomenal character — that at the same time makes this response unhelpful for the addict. Due to the nature of how addiction feels — the kind of inner life it forces its victim to live — being told that one is a mere victim, lacks all responsibility for one’s actions, or is diseased, or lacks the capability by biological fiat to control her urges (however true this all may be), is likely to serve the addiction and not the addict. This is because the addict can justifiably feel excused by this claim: it is not my fault that I have harmed people, or harmed myself, with my addiction. The result is likely to be continued indulgence in the addiction. Instead, 12 Step programs and other therapies seek to engender both self-awareness of the problem— by emphasizing the true victimhood of addiction — and the fact that only the addict can and must take responsibility for solving it— by emphasizing the need to seek forgiveness from others and continue to take a “moral inventory” of oneself. Indeed, the claim that one must submit to God involves a clever mix of these two, equally important themes: on the one hand, you must accept that only in God can you rid yourself of the addiction (it is not anyone else’s problem, and no special chemical can force you to do this), but on the other hand, God is a necessary intervention, because you are in fact powerless and you must accept that. So, while the addict is truly a victim and should truly not be blamed for their addiction, it still serves great therapeutic (though perhaps only limited epistemic) value to ensure the addict feels the weight of a responsibility to change: in this case, a responsibility to accept their powerlessness.

Similarly, I want to argue that there is at least some therapeutic value to taking moral responsibility for our everyday “inconsistencies of praxis”. This is consistent with a strong, anti-Peter-Singer-like stance from a purely intellectual perspective. My suggestion is that belief in (on the one hand) Peter Singer’s utilitarianism or (as one of many possible foils) Anthony Kwame Appiah’s cosmopolitanism is irrelevant to the question at play here. (As a matter of fact, I have a strong distaste for Peter Singer’s views, though this isn’t the place to get into it.)

Much more ambitiously, I want to use this a model for how ethics more broadly should be conducted: not as a search for truth (i.e., not modeled on the natural sciences) but as a search for ways to live and processes (therapies, if you like) that help one remain committed. Ethics, in this sense, is more about recovery from obvious moral failing, or helping to achieve a good moral practice, than it is about praise and blame of others, or oneself, as if from the same detached perspective of the scientist observing the proton beam in the vacuum sealed chamber (cf. Harman 1988). The more “representationalist” metaethics I want to insist against is not useless; in fact, I hope that it will one day become a fully fleshed out branch of the natural sciences, the with same epistemic standards and the same apparent epistemic success as physics. Understanding our moral equipment is unlikely to proceed much differently than how we have come to understand our visual equipment, or language processing equipment, and the like: viz. in a first step as a function from certain inputs to certain outputs whose logic can be determined by experiment or introspection. Philosophers in metaethics have a number of theories that attempt to go about this, but I think as good naturalists many of them would agree that if the field were to achieve the epistemic status or level of consensus as is enjoyed by physics it would be a great achievement. Unfortunately, I don’t think this field of study does most people any good: it is really for other philosophers (and maybe some intrepid, interested scientists) and not for activists, petitioners, union leaders, business leaders, or ordinary moral actors.