Ethics and Evil

One of my hats at Penn State is as a Rock Ethics Fellow, which means I’ve had a short training course in ethics (with a focus on applications to an academic context) and serve as a visible resource for people with ethical quandries.  This was instituted before the late unpleasantness, but has gotten higher visibility since then.

I try to work ethical academic and research behavior into my classes.

In my First Year Seminar class the focus is on academic dishonesty and the virtues of time management.  We discuss how cheating is antithetical to the students’ avowed reason for being in college (it’s about learning not the grades) and also simply unfair. We discuss hypotheticals like “If the dean offered to give you your BA right now, no questions asked, would you take it” (this is their first semester on campus).  I argue that time management is a virtue because it prevents you from encountering ethical dilemmas in the first place.  If you are never late or behind on things and have a sense for how much free time you have, then you don’t encounter as many dilemmas with no good solution (do I cram for this test or help a friend in need tonight?)

images.jpegIn my introductory astronomy class for nonmajors the focus is on how being skeptical of yourself and your motives, and recognizing our minds’ inherent illogical habits.  Knowing that we all suffer from confirmation bias and motivated reasoning helps us recognize it in others and ourselves, and helps us prevent ourselves from wrongly justifying unethical behavior.  I argue that a skeptical, scientific approach to things will help us better recognize when what we want is actually unethical and make better choices.

Anyway, in a recent review of a novel adaptation of Macbeth, (a review disguised as a meditation on the meaning of evil in the wake of the Boston Marathon bombings), Ron Rosenblum writes:

Perhaps the best response to laying off the blame for evil to ideology or theology comes from Murray Kempton… [who] tossed off one of the single wisest things I’ve ever heard said about ideology and evil: “It took me a while to discover this,” he said, “but the biggest mistake you can make is to follow your ideas [i.e. act on them according] to their logical conclusions. You can make a lot of other [mistakes], and every now and then you can be right. But when you follow your ideas to their logical conclusions you are always wrong.” (Bold edit mine).

This also strikes me as wise, and here is why.

A major problem in ethics is to what degree one must respect opinions we disagree with, when they lead others to commit acts we consider unethical.  I feel that being a pluralist society means that we sacrifice our impulse to require others to live by our moral standards, and in exchange we acquire the right to live by our own unmolested (though not, of course, unchallenged).  This must have its limits, of course, but in general those limits roughly correspond to the boundary between personal and social behavior:  your right to swing your fist ends at the tip of my nose (or your child’s… that’s one place things start getting complicated).

A major reason that Kempton’s words are wise (and scientific thinking supports ethical thinking) is that it comes from an understanding that all knowledge is (and should be) provisional.  Having the courage of one’s convictions is only absolutely justified if one’s convictions are fully informed.  As scientists we know that that is rarely the case, and, even worse, we are easily mistaken about the amount of certainty our beliefs warrant.

In the influential essay The Opening of the American Mind Arthur Schlesinger Jr. discusses the American impulse for pluralism and how it deals with its variety of absolute moralities in an anecdote that has haunted and guided me since I read it in high school:

‘Deep-seated preferences,” as Justice Holmes put it, ”cannot be argued about . . . and therefore, when differences are sufficiently far-reaching, we try to kill the other man rather than let him have his way. But that is perfectly consistent with admitting that, so far as it appears, his grounds are just as good as ours.”

Once Justice Holmes and Judge Learned Hand discussed these questions on a long train ride. Learned Hand gave as his view that ”opinions are at best provisional hypotheses, incompletely tested. The more they are tested . . . the more assurance we may assume, but they are never absolutes. So we must be tolerant of opposite opinions.” Holmes wondered whether Hand might not be carrying his tolerance to dangerous lengths. ”You say,” Hand wrote Holmes later, ”that I strike at the sacred right to kill the other fellow when he disagrees. The horrible possibility silenced me when you said it. Now, I say, ‘Not at all, kill him for the love of Christ and in the name of God, but always remember that he may be the saint and you the devil.’ ”

Act boldly, but skeptically.  Words to live by.

[Update: Dr. J points out an ambiguity in the phrase “follow your ideas to their logical conclusions”.  In the sense of the article I’m quoting, it means “act according to those ideas’ logical conclusions” not “think through the logical consequences of your beliefs”.  The latter is crucial to critical thinking, the former lead can lead to great evil. For instance, “abortion is murder of innocents” and “murderers should receive the death penalty” are reasonable beliefs many people hold.  Executing every woman who has willingly obtained an abortion would be evil.]