Wednesday, June 22, 2011

phenomenological ethics

Today I've been reading Ideas II, on the constitution of the world of nature and of the human world. It led to some probably not terribly novel thoughts about ethics, of all things, in relation to what Husserl was doing on the general question of world-constitution.

So, three quotations from Husserl that frame my thoughts.

What is educational in the phenomenological reduction… is also this: it henceforth makes us in general sensitive toward grasping other attitudes, whose rank is equal to that of the natural attitude … and which, therefore, just like that latter, constitute only relative and restricted correlates of being and sense. (§ 49 (d), p. 189)

[For a person who knows nothing of physics, the] sense-content of physics does not belong to his actual surrounding world (p. 195f).

Speaking quite universally, the surrounding world is not a world “in itself” but is rather a world “for me,” precisely the surrounding world of its Ego-subject, a world experienced by the subject in his intentional lived experiences with the sense-content of the moment. (§50, p. 196)

Posit: A fundamental problem in ethics is the incompleteness of our ethical regard and acknowledgment. That is, a basic motivation for acting unethically is our failure to acknowledge someone or something’s ethical claim on us.

The instance I have in mind is the rejection of the legitimacy of same-sex marriage, in particular on the basis of religious dogma. In my opinion, a person who denies that same-sex couples should have the opportunity to marry on the basis of one’s own religious belief is doing something unethical. It’s difficult to think of it as motivated by anything other than blind hatred or fear, and I suppose, in many cases, that is as far as it goes. But perhaps there are people who believe sincerely that it’s perfectly good of them to do this unethical thing – that they have good reasons for it, that it’s the right thing to do, etc. They have as little doubt about their rectitude as I have in their blameworthiness.

The world of such persons is, as Husserl puts it, simply the world for them, the surrounding world of just those Ego-subjects, and is therefore relative to their position, their constitution of the world, etc. The sincere denial of the right of same-sex couples to marry on the basis of religious dogma makes sense in a world in which a certain sense-content of ethics is missing. Dogmatism rules out the limitation of one’s own perspective, it denies that one’s perspective is a perspective. The dogmatist takes his or her own world, the world for his or her own Ego-subject, to be the world in itself.

Now, there’s at least two ways we could go about ethical discourse. One, the most common, is to engage ethical discourse as a contest of arguments. Understood that way, we could deal with our religious zealot by demonstrating the circularity of the argument based on religious dogma, or by pointing to the obvious question-begging. We could also marshal a better argument in favor of the right of same-sex marriage. (At least, that’s how I see things, because in my opinion, if we held this contest, the pro-same-sex-marriage-right argument would be objectively superior, given that we live in a pluralistic, democratic society under a republican form of government and a system of law that holds, as a fundamental principle, the separation of church and state.)

It seems fairly obvious that the religious zealot, even upon losing the argument, will not concede. Very often, the fallback position taken is that permitting same-sex marriage is somehow violating the rights of religious dogmatists to be religious dogmatists – a position that requires, as part of its defense, that it is somehow inherent to the free practice of religious dogmatism that the dogmatic religious faith of this particular individual person become public policy.

This is a slightly exaggerated example by which I intended to show that ethical beliefs, especially false ethical beliefs, are not strictly rational in the sense we take to be at issue in logical arguments. They are more fundamental than logically fixed beliefs – which makes sense to me, given that for the most part our ethical conduct in the world does not follow from logical processes but is, precisely, ethical conduct, habituated ways of addressing the world and others and acting. Ethical conduct arises in our fundamental attitudes, which means, following Husserl somewhat loosely here, that ethics is constituted within the Ego-subject’s own relative world – as though that world had been built to correspond to the Ego-subject’s own ethical perspective. The problem of dogmatism is that, for the dogmatist, the everyday world constantly addresses that dogma, because that dogma is constitutive of that everyday world. The dogmatist on this issue is like the person who has no knowledge of physics, in Husserl’s example. The sense-content of ethical regard and acknowledgement of the full personhood of same-sex couples is just not part of the world of the dogmatist.

My everyday world is no less relative to my own Ego-subject, of course. At that level, everyone is, if not a dogmatist, at least someone who has faith in one’s own world and the attitudes and sense-contents that have constituted that world. No one’s ethical regard and acknowledgement is perfect.

This leads me to a second way to go about ethical discourse, a phenomenological way. Instead of arguments, we would learn how to bracket the general ethical positings we make that are constitutive of our everyday ethical life-worlds. (I know, I’m mixing my Husserl terminology. I don’t care.) I’m not suggesting this will magically convince anyone of anything. But a genuine insight into the constitution of ethical worlds, and a genuine understanding of the relativity of those worlds to each Ego-subject, should convince someone not only that dogmatism can never be right, and that dogmatic intolerance can never be an ethical orientation to take toward others. It should also show that logical arguments about ethics are not the complete story. Perhaps, as Husserl claims, it will teach us to be sensitive to grasping other attitudes, and therefore to understanding ethical perspectives, including our own, as perspectives.

No comments: