Ethics and culture

What constitutes some moral ‘force’ that impels our submission to ethical directives? I don’t mean one’s own sense of conscience or duty, but, rather – is there anything in any moral theory or reasoning that demands we act in certain ways so compellingly that we literally act in any other way? My own inclination is that there is not. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t external forces moving us toward ethical behavior.

I can’t let the question of what constitutes ‘force’ in impelling ethical behaviors in society go without pointing out that in any society the first line of such ‘force’ is social-psychological – like peer pressure, parental guidance and discipline, ridicule and praise, etc. – which occurs in any society or culture. That’s really important, because it creates considerable problems for any rational meta-theory of ethics (e.g that ethics is a matter of social contract, or reducible to evolution-developed emotions), and for any rational-theory injunctions for social change; first because it occurs without a lot of forethought, second because it involves a wide array of different, often conflicting emotions and sensitivities, and also because it is resiliently resistant to rational arguments for change. Assuming we value some changes, in the direction of desired futures, this makes it sound like a bad thing; but to the extent that it is inevitable, it is neither good nor bad, it just is. To the extent that it provides intergenerational stability, it helps keep the given society together.

Drawing on recent readings in Japanese philosophy, I suspect we in the West have concentrated so much on the question of ‘what the individual should do’ and why (and during an historic transformation of Western culture that emphasizes individual choice, and responsibility), that we have blind-sided ourselves to the social pressures that allow us to inherit, maintain, and pass on any culture at all. And in turning to those pressure, we parcel them out atomistically for specialized research in a way that loses the full flavor they can only have in their collective wholeness. For instance, in ‘trolley problem’ used in psychological tests for ethical thinking, the emphasis is on how an individual responds to an atomized event. What if the question were broadened, concerning the community ethics of allowing people to work on the rails when trolleys are running? What if this is asked of a group? What if the subjects were allowed to call their parents, siblings, friends? My guess is that the results would look different from what we’ve seen so far.

Consider the trolley problem thought experiment, often used in clinical psychological tests to gauge participants’ ethical/emotional reponses. There are two cases, one involving merely switching rails, the other – which concerns us here – involving a choice between allowing a trolley to run over a group of rail-workers, or tossing a man large enough to stop the trolley, off from the bridge, onto the tracks, thus killing him. In the second case, tests demonstrate a statistical reluctance to toss the man off the bridge, although this would save other lives, and psychologists theorize that those who would throw the man off may have a tendency toward some socio-pathology (which actually makes no sense when you stop and think about it).

The trolley problem has a resolution that is not presented in the question; in the bridge version, rather than throwing the fat man into the line of trolley to prevent its reaching its targeted workers – throw yourself off the bridge instead. In some cultures this would be considered noble; it would probably prove as effective; and if it weren’t, you would never know. But the suggestion is rarely included in the problem’s presentation (indeed, often explicitly excluded from it), probably partly because of our antipathy toward suicide, to the extent that expression of suicidal thoughts is considered a dangerous pathology, and failure to report it to authorities a crime in some states. But this is a Western perspective; in other cultures the community is considered of greater value than the individual, and the individual is expected to act accordingly.

That raises a further question, concerning the clash of cultures-in-proximity, requiring further consideration. But I will note here that religion is hardly the possible resolution to it, since conflicting religions express themselves in conflicting cultural mores….


2 thoughts on “Ethics and culture

  1. You mention some Japanese philosophy. What was it?

    Europeans have burnt more than their fingers in the 19th and 20th century with some philosophies that put the community above the individual and I am a bit worried about Americans doing the same with their patriotism and stuff like that.

    There was a trend in the early 20th century (maybe starting out of the works of Hegel and Herder and Romanticism – but I have not really followed it up yet – to consider cultures as organism-like things (think of Spengler or Frobenius, to mention just two names here) or think in terms of “Volksgeist”, “Völkerpsychologie” and stuff like that. There were a lot of thoughts and theories like this around and they combined with nationalist and other factors to contribute to the mix of ideas that spawned Fascism and National Socialism. In those days, western or modern culture took on a much less individualistic form. I suspect the view of Western culture as more individualistic, although being rooted in some older enlightenment philosophies, has only developed around the end of the 1960s.

    During and after the Meji restauration, some Japanese studied in Germany, so I suspect this current of thinking has had some influence on Japanese philosophy (I suspect on what is known as the “Kyoto School”, but I am not an expert on this) as well and contributed to Japanese nationalist ideologies.

    However, I have just been scratching the surface of these things myself and I am in a very early stage of looking into it.

    In modern histories of 20th century philosophy, you don’t see much of this whole stuff at all (which I think is a mistake), but from the 1910s into the 1940s or even 1950s (with a generation born around 1880 as the main representatives), this seems to have been a strong current in German philosophy and sociology. I have recently bought several editions of a German philosophy dictionary (from the 1930s to the 1950, including an early and a late extreme nazi edition, and then a “cleaned one” from the 1950s, and it is quite interesting to watch the development of these things from one edition to the next.

    I don’t really know the situation in the USA, but in Europe, the development towards more individualistic philosophies that began in the 1950s and culminated around 1970 (or 68) probably has a lot to do with the experiences of the first half of the 20th century. You are certainly right that this has blinded us in some respects (and the gaps this has left have been filled by commerce, I think).

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  2. “I am a bit worried about Americans doing the same with their patriotism and stuff like that.”
    Set your mind at rest on that; with economic dependence on consumerism (the choices of the individual) and its economic approval of self-centered ambition, and even greed, the ‘rugged individualism’ Americans are famous for will proceed apace, only criticized at the margins.

    The problem you’re discussing is real, but can be dis-empowered by recognizing that no single culture or set of related cultures ever produces ‘the right stuff,’ which is the claim of any Volksgemeinschaft theorizing actually asserts. There is no ‘right stuff’ here, but only a recognition that any ethical stuff at all has to be understood as arising from, and returning to, the community.

    The Japanese philosopher Watsuji Tetsuro, who is my central point of reference, makes it clear that formation of the individual in a necessary moment of community ethics, but felt that Western philosophies had taken this moment as exemplary and detached from the community, which makes no sense if we remember what ethics is all about (relationships with others).


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