K. Anthony Appiah

A philosopher, cultural theorist, and novelist

Tim Furlan: In your work Experiments in Ethics, you advocate what might be called a naturalized moral philosophy, one that's deeply engaged with the natural and the social sciences, evolutionary theory, neuroscience, empirical social psychology. Would contemporary bioethics perhaps be a good example of such an approach to moral philosophy?

Anthony Appiah

Professor K. Anthony Appiah

Anthony Appiah: Yes. I mean, of course the term bioethics covers a very wide range of activities, but at the heart of a lot of bioethics are questions where it doesn't look like there's much point in having normative discussions unless you know a good deal about the relevant natural or social science. So yes, I mean, I would have thought bioethicists all along have been convinced of this. And I would say that, historically, most moral philosophers have been interested in drawing on the best available science of their day, even going back to Aristotle. Take Hume. Hume is a psychologist as well as a moral philosopher. Adam Smith is a psychologist as well as a moral philosopher. Mill is deeply engaged with questions of economics and so on. 

So I think there was this brief period in English speaking philosophy sort of after the Second World War and in the '60s when there was a kind of notion of what philosophy was that made interaction with science seem irrelevant because philosophy was a priori and conceptual. And I think there's a kind of philosophy of mind and language mistake in there, which is the fact that something is a conceptual question doesn't mean it's a priori. But it also is the case that the kind of inquiry that's necessary in order to think about ethics in the broad sense of what it is to live well requires attention to what we're like and what we're like socially as well as biologically. So I don't really think there's exactly an alternative view that makes a lot of sense, even though if you read, say, someone like R.M Hare in the '60s, he does make moral philosophy look like you don't have to know very much about the world.

Tim Furlan: Right, right, wonderful. Related question here; in your work, in this regard, in Experiments in Ethics, you engage extensively with advocates of a scientific approach to morality, people like Joshua Greene, Jonathan Haidt, the Churchlands, E.O. Wilson; what might be the promise of such an approach, scientific approach [inaudible 00:03:22]? But what also might be the inherent limitations to such an approach?

Well, it matters what we're like. So you can't think about what it is for humans to live well unless you take account of the fact that the question is a question about humans. What I don't like is the thought that these questions are just settled by looking at what we're like. There are distinctively normative considerations and while there's not much point, I think, in thinking about them in the absence of the relevant, the best understanding in the sciences, that isn't all there is to it. 

So Sam Harris has a book in which he sort of treats all these questions as if they could be settled by just looking, as it were, at the facts. And I think that's not right. So, on the one hand, if you had some reason to think that, say, hedonism was correct, then you couldn't bring that idea to bear unless you had some understanding of pleasure and pleasure is an empirical phenomenon, it's not a purely conceptual question, what pleasure is like or especially not what brings pleasure or how good we are at anticipating our own pleasures and that kind of thing. Those are all empirical questions. But whether hedonism is correct isn't settled by knowing what pleasure is; you need also to be thinking about whether a life organized around the thought that pleasure is the only thing that matters is going to be a good human life. And while the nature of pleasure is relevant to that question, it doesn't settle it. Nothing was settled by knowing everything about pleasure. 

So there's this other kind of thinking that the psychologists of pleasure don't need to engage in which has to do with what is the proper place of pleasure in our lives. And that is not a question that's settled simply by knowing what pleasure is like. Now maybe Sam Harris would agree with what I just said, it's not entirely clear to me. But, if he would, then he shouldn't say what he says about treating these questions as scientific questions. 

And, more broadly, I would say the lectures that produced Experiments in Ethics were part of a project which I didn't finish by the time I gave the lectures, so I did the part that I'd done, which was to think about the relationship in ethics and lots of things. And another thing that I think ethics has profound and important connections with is literature and the arts and so on. And I've tried in some other writing to show why I think that. 

So ... and the point is really, I suppose the simplest way of putting it is, and I hadn't thought of putting it this way before, is that, if ethics is about how best to live a human life or to live human lives in society, then everything important that we think about is going, in the end, to be relevant. And so all the arts and sciences are going to be relevant. Now you can't do everything at once and so I'm not at all saying that we should abandon disciplines and invent a kind of ethics that just claims to know everything. The only way we can do this, I think, is to build conversations with the disciplines, build conversations with people who have the kinds of specialized knowledge that allow people to say the sorts of things that John Haidt says about the psychological sources of moral attitudes. We need people like him but suppose he's correct, suppose his form of view about the sources of our moral sentiments is correct; again, nothing immediately follows from that about whether we ought to endorse the attitudes that we have found ourselves having, whether we shouldn't perhaps seek to rein some in or strengthen others. And all of those are things that you need to know psychology in order to do, but you need another kind of reflection in order to decide whether it's worth doing. And that's the distinctive contribution, I think, of philosophy. 

Tim Furlan: Thank you. Also in Experiments in Ethics you offer a powerful critique of quandary ethics, the idea that the central problem with the moral life is to be the resolution of quandaries about what to do. It seems that this approach is alive and well in bioethics and in medical education to these, the case study; why might this be a fundamentally misguided approach to the moral life?

Anthony Appiah: So the problem with quandaries and trolley problems and so on isn't that they aren't interesting or that they don't tell us something about the structure of our moral thought and responses, it's that they encourage a mistaken thought, which is that the great challenge is to solve these kinds of puzzles. But the great challenge, that you miss if you present people with trolley problems, is that just recognizing the situation that you're in as one in which might be reducible in it's morally relevant elements to a trolley problem, that's usually exactly the thing that's hardest. 

If it were clear in most cases that you only had two options and that one of them would lead to the death of exactly one person, and this particular person, and that the other would lead to exactly the death of five others and you were absolutely clear about where your causal intervention was, it would still be hard, perhaps, to decide what to do, but, as it were, God would have given you almost everything you needed. Life doesn't come at you like that and this is especially important, I think, for doctors and lawyers and professionals; just being able to recognize that you face a moral problem and that you need to characterize the situation correctly in order to proceed, that you have to recognize that it's relevant, not just that the person is in pain, but they've expressed a view about what they want to happen and that if you think that all that matters is that they're in pain and that you can do something about it then you won't take any notice of the fact that they are telling you that they're a Christian scientist and they don't want to take any medicine. 

So ... no properly educated contemporary doctor would make that mistake, but still, that's because they've been trained to recognize that a patient's autonomy is one of the things that you need to think about. And that a patient is not just a biological system that you're trying to improve the workings of, but a human being with whom you have, however focused and specialized, a relationship and that out of the fact of you're having a relationship with a human being decisions you face because of that fact, you're faced with just things you have to think about, choices you have to make. 

So I write this column for The New York Times magazine, Sunday magazine, called The Ethicist and one of the striking things to me that I've learned in doing that for a few years is that often one part of a person's problem is that they don't see that there's a feature of the situation that matters that they haven't taken into account. So I think that the thinking that it's all about quandaries misses the fact that a lot of moral life and a lot of ethics—that is a lot of thinking about how to live, not just in terms of how you treat other people, but just in terms of what you're going to do with your own life—depends upon the capacity to recognize the salient features of the situation. And that, it turns out ... I've come to the view that reading literature is one of the ways in which you can learn ... or hearing stories, you don't have to read them, so in oral cultures, listening to the tales of the Bards and in our culture watching television and movies and so on, is one of the ways in which you come to see what features of a situation you ought to be attending to. 

There's a great interview I once read with a young South African, a Zulu ... or maybe he was Xhosa, I can't remember. Anyway, it doesn't really matter … and he was talking about his response to a television series that was sent around the welfare states called Dynasty and one of the things that was salient to him but probably just would have not been noticed by many of the people who watched it here, was the character of the relationships between adult people and their parents. " He said, "Sons talk to fathers in a way that I would like to be able to talk to my father but in our culture we don't do that, I wish we could do that." It's that kind of perception that you can have through exposure to fiction, though, of course, in principle he could have got it by reading a nonfiction account of something, that I think shows why it's important that people have access to literary and other fictional experience.

So I think it's one of the ways we are sort of trained to ... I think all societies have practices of storytelling; one reason is that it's one of the ways we get practice at doing this thing of recognizing what the salient features are of the situation for the purposes of deciding how to behave and  whom to be. 

Tim Furlan: Thank you. In response to quandary ethics you offer your own very different understanding of not only ethical theory but human life itself on namely this project of making a life. This is fascinating. Of seeking what Aristotle calls [inaudible 00:16:02], right? So you make this claim that the central task in which all of us are engaged is this project of making a life and that this shared recognition of this project may serve as a plausible basis for morality itself, for reciprocity, for compassion, for empathy, that we recognize all of us are engaged in this project of making a life. Because making a life is primarily an activity, you claim that we should expect to learn more from experiments of living rather than experiments of philosophizing. Could you perhaps say a bit more about what constitutes such experiments of living and how they might serve as a basis for morality itself?

Anthony Appiah: Right. So just on the first point about ... if you see the question that way then you see that not only does it affect how you think about what you're up to, of course, but it means you see other people as engaged in making a life, which is something you can do better or worse. And it makes you think about not getting in the way of other people's life-making but also, perhaps especially in the community in which you live, trying to enhance other people's capacities for life-making while recognizing that, centrally, it’s a task that each of us has to perform for ourselves. 

Mill talks about experiments of living. What he has in mind is the fact that different societies organize themselves in ways that make different kinds of lives possible. That different groups within societies ... I read John Stuart Mill for the first time in the 1960s, people were doing all kinds of experiments of living. They were developing hippie communes and doing all sorts of things. And I mean people in Israel were doing experiments of living of a sort that they've somewhat backed off from since. Now, so when people have to some extent backed off from certain kinds of kibbutz, shared practices, it's because they decided after trying it out that it had downsides and that while it was good to be sociable in that way it was also good for children to have closer relations with something like parents and not just to have relations with all adults and so on. 

I grew up between two experiments of living because my father's tradition was matrilineal and my mother's tradition was patrilineal so that the distribution of family responsibilities is different in those kinds of societies. In a matrilineal society I'm mostly responsible for my sister's children and in a patrilineal society I'm mostly responsible for my wife's children, if I'm a man. Well these have interesting ... I kind of like the role that my nephews play in my life, my sister's children and I wouldn't have access to that if I had been raised purely patrilineally. So I think I can commend aspects of that way of doing things to people. But the main thing is that it's a worked out attempt to organize family life in a particular way where people are doing experiments of living now with gay families, which, there isn't a huge body of information about that because it hasn't mostly been allowed in many societies, and so on. And we need to pay attention to what happens when people try these things out and to learn from each other.

I think one of the reasons he calls them experiments is because he thinks that experiments have the property that, while they're done by somebody, anybody can learn from them. So he thought we should pay attention to other people's experiments of living as we should pay attention in the sciences to other people's experiments in the various fields. So I think that that means that if you thought that ethics or normative thinking was kind of pure a priori, that it can be done in the way Kant did it, then there would be nothing to be learned by saying to people, "Hey, if you want to go out and try living that way, taking respect for human rights as a basic sort of moral framework, try it, let's see." And the point is that Kant ... I mean it would be a travesty of Kant to say that he didn't think empirical things mattered from our lives, of course he did, but I think the way in which one learns from these kinds of experiments is it's hard to parse out whether what you're learning is, as it were, just social science or, on the other hand, just normative stuff. You're learning something complicated about what works for human beings.

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