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.

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

  1. Leave a Comment

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: