Ethics: “hardwired in character or molded by environment”?

Jeremy Waldron, in reviewing Kwame Appiahs’ book on “Experiments in Ethics” (NYRB Oct. 2009) poses an interesting dilemma. The observation that people are capable of making quick ‘intuitive’ — i. e. not carefully and elaborately deliberated — judgments and decisions about ethical choices seems to suggest that the basis of such decisions must be ‘hardwired’. That is, they must be based on some characteristics in the makeup of the person. But experiments and observations show that such decisions are not consistent — that such snap judgment are very much influenced by elements or features that happen to be present in the environment.

My study of arguments we use in design and planning (and political) decision-making has led me to realize that whereas efforts of ‘justification’ (or attempts to persuade others of the value of proposed designs or plans) are to a large extent reflective, aiming at being reproduced and accepted by other parties in the discussion, and containing both ‘basic principle’ as well as context information in their deontic (ought) premises, there are frequent quick judgments that occur especially during the ‘creative’ work of working out a design solution. They tend to be aesthetic or ethical /moral in content, and we tend to call them ‘intuitive’ when there is no further explanation or reflection on their justification in turn.

But sometimes they take a form, or are expressed in ways that may shed some light on the above dilemma. The are often expressed (mostly in the internal dialogue of the designer that they can only be coaxed to speak out loud with some awkwardness and difficulty: designers often make such quick decisions on the basis of whether they ‘fit’. Fit — within what? The overall design vision? Which is not yet worked out but clearly must have some mood, some character that allows the designer to feel whether and how a new detail would ‘fit’. Could it be that the vision is a more general one — an image (as I call it in my thinking about the role of occasion and image in architecture) of how we want to live, who we want to be, and how our built environment therefore ought to look.

Such images are not, usually, detailed nor coherently constructed in any detailed and systematic way. They are holistic, an general ‘sense’ of how things should be. An example from a different context is the way we monitor the performance of a car we are driving: we do not — cannot possibly — pay any kind of systematic monitoring attention to all of the car’s systems and components. Rather, what we perceive, in the background, is the way the vehicle is ‘humming’, overall, in various driving conditions, when everything is running right. Any significant changes in that humming will make us sit up and pay attention to specific components and their individual monitoring devices, if any. It is how a new noise ‘fits’ within that general humming that makes us take a sometimes quick, apparently intuitive decision.

The vision or image of who we want or should be, what life should be, can be extremely self-centered on the one hand — driven by our individual needs, preferences, desires, — or one determined more by what we might want to be seen as by others, or at the other extreme, by what we might wish our entire social environment could be like. And anything in-between. It can be described in some cases by general rules or principles that are assumed to cover all or most life situations and behavior, or by detailed descriptions of individual scenarios and environments. In this, we re-encounter what philosophers of ethics have done: Aristotle, in his Nicomachean Ethics, tries to formulate general principles of ethical behavior, — but then proceeds in the rest of the book to describe in considerable detail his vision of what a ‘good’ society in his day and culture would be like — and how individual ethical judgments and behaviors then would fit into that overall image.

From this point of view, it is not as surprising as writers on experimental ethics seem to think, that individuals’ and especially children’s reactions to ethical challenge situations are not as consistent as either theory (that ethical principles are embedded in character, on the one hand, or that they are entirely molded by environment) would lead us to expect. Neither the imagery or visions we carry around in our kinds, nor the stories we convey to each other or to children are consistent, and they change over time. There are as many ‘hero’ stories about how to escape the dependency on others, on imposed authority, on how to outwit, outsmart others in games and life, as there are wholesome stories about how to be good citizens, helpful, generous, compassionate, polite even to those who may be rude to us, etc. In personal life, in business, in politics, in wars. And now in each new situation we encounter, there will be context elements that will trigger a different blend of predominant vision or image (on any of the scales individual-social, or compliant – competitive etc.) into which the person will ‘fit’ the decision at hand.

These ideas were hinted at in several places in the article; I needed to pull them into a clearer focus for myself, and think the perspective from design is a helpful one in this; helpful in resolving the dilemma raised. A perspective that strengthens, I feel, the scattered items of valuable advice offered, such as “always insist on more than one description of a difficult situation before deciding what to do”. Which in turn, since it does not help much in situations where snap judgments have to be taken, further suggests the importance of education and public discourse in developing both the understanding and tolerance for different visions, and at the same time the overall principle that we must all develop visions and images for which we can take responsibility, into which we can then ‘fit’ our snap judgments about ethical choices when needed.

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Reforming the banking system?

Hey Bog-Hubert — what’s the matter — you seem more than usually incensed by your morning paper. Perhaps you should quit that habit entirely? It does not seem to be good for your digestion…?

Yeah, and mercifully hasten the inevitable demise of the print news media? Has anybody thought about what will happen if the internet conks out or there is a prolonged power failure that will put a wholesale gag on TV and radio, including all the wingnuts?

By all the space junk in ol’ Gaia’s orbit, you really can scare an old man even before his morning coffee. But what is it that is getting your goat today?

It’s the hubbub about the financial institutions.

What about it?

Well, here they go, blatantly returning to their evil ways, the same that caused the financial meltdown a year ago, after having received all those billions in taxpayer money — as if nothing happened. And people — even supportters of the administration — beginning to wonder how badly it really is beholden to Wall Street, because it doesn’t seem willing to impose the regulations people expect. Hey, look, even Paul Krugman is starting to complain about it, here’s a column in the New York Times (9/21/09) where he is berating the president for not doing anything about it — and he was one who supported the bailouts. if I remember correctly…

Well, you could argue that regulations wouldn’t really be much use in all this.

Look, the financial institutions are so vehemently against them, — why wouldn’t they? — that no matter how much of the suspicions about the administration being ‘beholden’ to them, they surely would be powerful enough to spike them with so many loopholes and amendments and compromises that they’d be impossible to monitor effectively much less to enforce. And they already have all those loud voices — we don’t have to mention names, right? — screaming socialist takeover of the banking system and big bad government interfering in private enterprise.

But what should they do? You can’t let them just go back to the way things were, that everybody says led to the trouble we’re in and that will surely just get us into the same kind of trouble again?

I guess you are right. But perhaps there’s another way. How about encouraging, instead, the founding of banks or credit unions — perhaps with tax incentives or some such device — that voluntaily will adopt practices conforming to the desired patterns? Some meaningful rules about executive pay and bonuses, for example. How about getting them to agree to some kind of ‘ante’ or escrow system — and account that specifies not only what bonuse they will get for successful performance, but also what they will forfeit if they screw up?

Sounds good. And perhaps they should do something about the interest and profit rates as well.

What do you mean?

Well, the widening income gap between the rich and the poor — isn’t that caused at least in part by such practices as the interest rates people earn for large deposits as opposed to the measly rates you get for a little savings passbook where small-income earners are encouraged to park the remainder of their weekly paycheck (if they even have a job)? What more deserving ‘hard work’ or inventiveness or intelligence is involved in earning a much higher intererest rate for the big sum somebody inherited from his rich real-estate bubble uncle? I say there should be some automatic regulating device put in place as a diminishing marginal profit and interest rate — the higher the amounts involved, the lower the rate. Or some mechanism by which even small saving account holders get cut in on the overall earnings of the bank, like a dividend, really, if the bank does well in the market.

You think that will encourage people to save and invest more? Perhaps it might help.

Yes, I think so. But what it really would do — if ‘we the people’ really do want some such reforms, they should be willing to switch their investments and loan activities to such institutions, voluntarily. And wouldn’t you think that could in the long run might nudge the entire industry into more wholesome habits — rather than draconian regulations from above?

You might have a point there — especially since people these days don’t seem to trust any regulators any more than the folks they are supposed to regulate. So when are you going to run for office?

Me? A dam furriner? Abbé Boulah!…