Monday I wrote my second post for my new blog Empowerment Ethics. This is a weekly blog where I am rebooting my philosophy of value and ethics. Right out of the gate someone had written me a comment demanding that I prove I can live up to my own ethics before recommending it to others. So in my piece on Monday I decided to make clear that I do not claim to create what is morally good by my dictates or to speak from any special authority beyond what my reasons demonstrate and that my arguments should stand or fall on their merits, and not with my own personal character.
I also emphasized two things that might not be familiar to those primarily used to encountering religious moral philosophies.
First is that my particular view of ethics is pluralistic. That means that while I don’t think just any conclusions are ethically justifiable, nonetheless there can be a range of ethically acceptable and, even, recommendable life paths. My argument is that there are objectively good destinations that the paths are justified by reaching and that there are, objectively, dead ends but not that everyone has to take the same paths to the exact same destinations. In this, Sam Harris and I are likeminded. His favored metaphor is that there can be various peaks on the moral landscape without every possibility being a peak one.
My second point is that both formally and substantively my philosophy is about empowering others, not dictating to them. So I don’t want someone to blindly accept my philosophy without reasoning through it for themselves because they treated me as an authority figure. I want them to think for themselves and make sure what I say is indeed both true and empowering. And if anything that I recommend by way of behavior is demonstrably disempowering to them or others in the long run then they shouldn’t do it.
So, since I am not recommending that everyone live life as I do in terms of particulars or share all my same value priorities where there are genuine competing goods to choose from, etc. I don’t think I need to prove that I have lived a morally exemplary life in order to make my recommendations. I am not saying to do anything disempowering to oneself and so I don’t need to lead by showing I have been similarly ascetic and self-sacrificing or any such thing.
Finally, I don’t want to be seen as a moral role model in my role as a moral philosopher because I don’t want to be confused for being anything analogous to a “holy man”. I think it’s intellectually and morally fraught for people to put each other on pedestals like that. My credibility should come from the strength of my ideas, not an unrealistic idealization of me as a person. If I can earn admiration through my example as a person separately and if emulating me helps people be empowered, then that’s fantastic. But I would be very uncomfortable with anyone banking on me to never let them down (because I will let you down). And I think it would be fallacious for people to dismiss the truth and worth of my best ideas simply because of my imperfect personal character or life history.
It’s good (even vital) to have role models, but it’s also important to have a healthy sense of reality about everyone’s limitations and this is especially so with people who are moral leaders. Presuming them to be especially good just because they’re especially insightful or persuasive or charismatic when talking about ethical matters is a way to give them more control and more benefit of the doubt than they may deserve. They of all people should be assiduously kept on the level of equals with everyone else, lest the fallacious leap from the perception of someone’s intelligence to unjustified belief in their moral character lead to irrational, unearned trust (i.e., faith). On a personal ethical level, we should trust and mistrust everyone according to specific evidence.
So when I say I am not a moral role model just because I have pretensions of being a kind of moral philosopher and teacher, this is not me trying to evade moral responsibility. It’s a reminder to readers never to wrongly infer that being smart, even about abstract ethical matters, is evidence in itself of good character. And, on the flip side, my philosophy is not invalidated purely by failures in my own character. You should assess my moral character by the full story of my life’s behavior, which assuredly you only know some of. And you should assess the worth of my ethical thinking’s truth by its coherence, consistency, and descriptive power. Its practical value should be assessed by how well, if generally adopted, it would contribute to empowering people, if generally adopted. These are different metrics.
That all said, I do have a moral responsibility, as we all do, to do what I think is right. And if I argue to you that something is right, that’s because I really believe it’s right. So I know I have a moral obligation to do it and am fairly conscientious about that and I promise to you that I try very hard to live up to my own ideals.
The place where hypocrisy is a serious violation is where someone gives moral commands that are arduous and costly to those who follow them, without himself following them. If someone is making severe personal sacrifices in order to uphold an ethical ideal while the person who gave them that ideal is flourishing precisely by evading that ideal themselves, then this can be evidence that the ideal is a bad one and the person sacrificing is being unfairly burdened. If few can live by an ideal (or, at least, if few can thrive by it), it needs to be reconsidered. If someone is meting out excessive, merciless penalties for behavior they themselves are engaging in, then their unfairness deserves punishment if it itself is demonstration that their own demands were impractical and their treatment of others is harsher than what is reasonable.
Or, even if the ideal is still good, how we blame and punish people has to be realistic. If most of us fail in some specific ways, it is unfair and hypocritical to excessively punish the ones who get caught. Every ideal we uphold has to be one realistic for us as the kinds of creatures we are. And even where we might see that we rationally need to be demanding of one another and rightly push everyone to become better than is normally easy, we must have compassionate mechanisms for dealing with one another’s inevitable failures constructively and in ways that lead to their better attainment of the ideal. It is also important when someone is failing at an arduous ideal but still upholding it in principle that they be frank that they struggle with it too (which is a big part of why I have repeatedly been upfront about my own struggles with my personal temper when talking about my ideals for civility, for example).
So if I ever ask onerous sacrifices of you or others that genuinely impede people’s flourishing, maybe even including your own, then you shouldn’t go along with me. If they only impede you in your will in short term, microlevel ways that are ultimately conducive to everyone’s long term flourishing then they are reasonable things to ask of you, whether I live up to them or not. If I tell you something is right and we should all do it, but am on the level about admitting I can’t bring myself to follow through yet, then if my arguments stand then it’s not my fault the rationally compelling standard is high. At least in that case I’m not making any false pretensions to having achieved it better than you or trying to gain any unearned social advantage or appearance of superiority through lies that I’ve attained the ideal.
Finally, there is at least one respect where being an ethical person is important to having good ideas about ethics. As virtue theorists insightfully emphasize, much good moral judgment is situationally sensitive and requires a skill at discerning the right thing to do case by case. It requires experience and a developed character and practice. The is like the way that the best doctor is one who has both abstract knowledge and countless tangible experiences to reference so that she can spot patterns or anomalies that less practiced people simply couldn’t. Or the way a good general or coach can draw on a wealth of strategic theory and experience to quickly devise the best tactic in a suddenly emerging novel situation with its new and unique confluence of particulars. Wisdom is very much about having experiences, judiciously assimilating them, and perceptively finding their lessons for unprecedented new situations. Thinking ethically, to some extent, requires having a mind that is well-practiced in figuring out what is best. Being able to make such perceptions in one’s personal life in this way is important to one’s overall credibility as a moral philosopher.
But I also know that it is not only my moral successes that inform my moral philosophy but also my moral failures and general weaknesses. So, even where I have not been morally perfect myself with respect to something I passionately argue for morally, that does not necessarily mean I don’t know what I am talking about or am any less sincere. Sometimes it’s quite the contrary, precisely on account of my own failures.
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