4 Philosophy Professors Weigh In on The Good Place

This article was originally published in POPSUGAR on February 28, 2018. LINK

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Kristen Bell as Eleanor, William Jackson Harper as Chidi, and Ted Danson as Michael.

There’s a scene in the second season of The Good Place where, in order to illustrate the classic moral dilemma known as The Trolley Problem, the characters are forced to live it. The famous thought experiment, which asks different variations of whether you would steer an unstoppable trolley into one person to avoid killing five, has long been a go-to for ethics scholars — but watching the show’s hilariously gory take on it brought the lesson to life in a way Agnes Callard, an associate professor of philosophy at the University of Chicago, hadn’t considered before. “There’s something very violent about the thought experiment itself, like, we’re asking them to imagine murdering people,” Callard told POPSUGAR. “And the show just takes that really seriously, like, ‘OK, let’s really imagine it.'”

 

It’s just one of the ways tuning into the NBC sitcom has been a fun first for philosophy and ethics professors like Callard, who aren’t used to seeing their area of expertise at the center of a hit network comedy. Callard and the three other philosophy professors/The Good Place fans we talked to said that while pop culture has always reflected on philosophical themes, they don’t remember a show or movie ever examining specific theories and works this explicitly. The little Easter eggs creator Michael Schur has included in the series so far go beyond sneaky references to the Parks and Recuniverse. There are plenty of nods to the world of academic philosophy, too. Season one introduced the show’s philosophical foundation by way of actual mini lectures on how to be a good person from ethics professor Chidi (William Jackson Harper). But after the just-finished season two’s even deeper dive into questions of what it means to be good, the real-life philosophers said they can’t wait for season three.

 

Back in the fall of 2015, UCLA ethics professor Pamela Hieronymi says she got an email from Schur asking if she would be willing to discuss some ideas he had for a new project. “He wanted to pick my brain about ethics,” Hieronymi told POPSUGAR. “And I think that’s because he saw a paper on my website that sounded like the issues he was interested in about the motives for becoming a better person and whether it’s possible to become a better person.” The two spent about three hours chatting over coffee, Hieronymi said. About a year later, she spotted a billboard for The Good Place. After reaching back out to Schur to congratulate him, Hieronymi has occasionally served as a philosophical sounding board for the show’s writers, even visiting the studio at one point to teach them about The Trolley Problem and other lessons.

 

“The philosophy is working at two levels,” Hieronymi said of the show, which she’s watched from the beginning. “So, there’s the obvious level where Chidi is giving little lessons and namedropping both classic philosophers like Plato and Aristotle and Kierkegaard and contemporary philosophers, which is really kind of wild . . . but then there’s the actual more serious exploration of those issues that are taking place in the story line and with the characters.” Though the show is set in the afterlife — a topic that’s been examined by philosophers for centuries — all four professors said they don’t really see it as being about heaven or hell. Instead it’s about the kinds of questions philosophy aims to answer: What makes someone good or bad? What matters? How should we treat other people?

 

That last question comes up a lot, specifically in references to philosopher T.M. Scanlon’s book What We Owe to Each Other” (it’s even part of the clue to help Eleanor and Chidi reconnect after the season one twist). The idea that the show uses modern-day philosophers like Scanlon, a professor emeritus at Harvard, has been especially exciting for fans in the academic community. Jason Bridges, an associate professor at the University of Chicago who specializes in the philosophy of action and the philosophy of the mind, studied under Scanlon, and said that specificity has been one of the highlights of watching the show. “Certainly I’ve never seen a show where books that are on my shelf, and not just classic works, recent works of philosophical ethics, keep popping up as props,” Bridges said to POPSUGAR.

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Seeing the life of an ethics professor on the small screen is another treat, according to the professors, but they had mixed feelings on whether they identified with the neurotic Chidi. Bridges said he likes the character but doesn’t see a big connection between Chidi’s neuroses and his interest in philosophy (though he did admit “moral philosophers may be more prone to stomachaches than the average person.”). Callard, too, said the portrayal of Chidi as being nerdy and boring doesn’t represent the philosophers she knows. (“I much more identify with Eleanor,” Callard said.) But fellow University of Chicago professor Candace Vogler said the idea of a philosopher “actually taking ordinary choices fairly seriously” is familiar. And Hieronymi said she has seen other philosophy professors post joking warnings on Facebook for colleagues to strive not to be like Chidi. “The indecisiveness is a real phenomena,” Hieronymi said. No one took offense at the show’s running joke that everyone hates moral philosophy professors. Chidi’s portrayal also just gives average viewers a playful peek into the world of a philosophy academic, Hieronymi said. “This show is more of what [The] Big Bang [Theory] was for science graduate students.”

 

For viewers who’ve never taken a philosophy class, the professors agreed that the show is giving the field some potentially valuable exposure, even if Eleanor does complain about her ethics lessons being boring. Vogler said she’s recommended The Good Place to introductory-level students. Hieronymi’s heard about other professors using the show itself as a teaching tool. Though Callard, Hieronymi, Bridges, and Vogler recognize that Chidi’s teachings are extreme simplifications of the complicated, nuanced theories they teach, and some of them had picked up on small issues (Vogler wasn’t a fan of Chidi’s reading of Kant, for example), the bigger-picture questions the characters address show that philosophical thinking can be practical — and compelling — for everyone. “Philosophy seems like a rarified thing to study,” Bridges said. “It seems like perhaps an impractical thing to major in, but what it does, if you study it, is cultivate ways of thinking and writing and communicating that are of general value and of use to a whole range of careers and human endeavors, and so this show helps illustrate that.”

 

Bridges says he thinks the topic of free will would be a no-brainer for season three, which we can maybe expect in the Fall. Hieronymi would be interested in seeing the show dig deeper into the timely issue of people getting defensive and having trouble taking constructive criticism about their actions. Whatever direction the show’s writers take, the professors said they’ve loved seeing the creative team take the public’s growing interest in self-reflection and run with it in such imaginative, accessible ways.

 

“Just the fact that the central problem for the characters is to try to figure out how to be better people and the thought that selfishness and narcissism are huge obstacles that people have to overcome in order to become better people,” Vogler said. “That’s profound.”

Hyde Park Institute Sponsoring Two Spring Courses at the University of Chicago

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Our partner the Hyde Park Institute is sponsoring two courses at the University of Chicago. Registration opens Monday, February 19.

Read more about the Hyde Park Institute here.

Anselm Mueller, Candace Vogler, and John Yoon are the faculty members of the Hyde Park Institute. Read more about them here.

 

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PHIL 21504/31504. The Nature of Practical Reason. Practical reason can be distinguished from theoretical or speculative reason in many ways. Traditionally, some philosophers have distinguished the two by urging that speculative or theoretical reason aims at truth, whereas practical aims at good. More recently, some have urged that the two are best known by their fruits. The theoretical exercise of reason yields beliefs, or knowledge, or understanding whereas the practical exercise of reason yields action, or an intention to do something, or a decision about which action to choose or which policy to adopt. In this course, we will focus on practical reason, looking at dominant accounts of practical reason, discussions of the distinction between practical and theoretical reasons, accounts of rationality in general and with respect to practical reason, and related topics. Prerequisite: At least one course in philosophy. Anselm Mueller; Candace  Vogler. DOWNLOAD PDF OF FULL DESCRIPTION HERE

 

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CCTS 21005 / MED XXXXX . The Challenges of the Good Physician: Virtue Ethics, Clinical Wisdom, and Character Resilience in Medicine. This multi-disciplinary course draws insights from medicine, sociology, moral psychology, philosophy, ethics and theology to explore answers to the unique challenges that medicine faces in the context of late modernity: How does one become a “good physician” in an era of growing moral pluralism and health care complexity? John Yoon, MD and Michael Hawking, MD.  DOWNLOAD PDF OF FULL DESCRIPTION HERE

 

 

Clockwork Corporations: A Character Theory of Corporate Punishment

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The abstract and introduction below are from the paper published in the Iowa Law Review, Forthcoming; U Iowa Legal Studies Research Paper No. 2017-32.  Link

Abstract

Retribution and deterrence currently drive the politics and scholarship of corporate criminal law. Since the potential harms and private gains of corporate crime are so large, corporate punishment under these theories must be exacting…too exacting. In fact, it is difficult under current law to punish many corporations formally without killing them. Ironically, this fact leads to the under-punishment of corporations. Prosecutors — understandably hesitant to shutter some of the country’s largest economic engines — increasingly offer corporations deferred prosecution agreements in lieu of charges and trial.

 

This Article considers corporate punishment for the first time from the framework of a third major theory of punishment — character theory. Character theories of punishment focus first and foremost on instilling good character and civic virtue. Criminal law scholars have largely marginalized character theory because it struggles as a suitable framework for individual punishment. But the practical and moral problems character theory faces in the individual context do not arise with the same force for corporations. In fact, character theory offers the possibility of punishing corporations in a way that preserves and enhances the social value they create while removing the structural defects that lead to criminal conduct. Along the way, the Article defends some heterodox proposals, including abolishing the corporate fine and allowing sentencing judges to balance the need to punish against non-criminal aspects of a corporate defendants’ “character.”

 

“How about this new thing they’re talking about? How about this new like treatment that gets you out of prison in no time at all and makes sure that you never get back in again?” ~ Anthony Burgess, “A Clockwork Orange”

 

Introduction

 

It is actually not so new. Though unpopular for the last few decades, punishing criminals by reforming them was once the predominant approach. Anthony Burgess poignantly described one prominent concern that led to its demise: Coerced reform risks turning people into “clockwork toy[s] to be wound up by . . . the Almighty State.” Forcefully changing character and personality is an affront to the self-defining freedom that is the root of human dignity.

 

While generally marginalized today, punitive reform is undergoing a resurgence for a different kind of “person”—the large, publicly-traded corporate criminal. Prosecutors are at the forefront of the movement. In the deals they cut with corporate suspects, prosecutors often require programs of reform. Implicit in how prosecutors now treat corporate defendants is the recognition that their fundamentally different nature allows for a different approach to punishment. Burgess’ complaint loses all its force in the corporate context. Corporations are not, and cannot be, free, selfdefining loci of dignity.

 

Scholars and lawmakers are still behind the curve. While prosecutors have been experimenting with reform-as-punishment, the dominant academic and political discourses on corporate crime still focus on deterrence and retribution. There is the seed of a third path in what prosecutors are doing. This article seeks to uncover the implicit logic behind corporate prosecutors’ decisions. In its present form, prosecutorial practice is focused on reform and rehabilitation. Were the logic of the practice pushed and perfected as an approach the entire criminal justice system could take toward corporate punishment, an organizing theory that is different from deterrence and retribution emerges—character theory. As argued below, character theory opens new conceptual space for solving some of the most persistent problems in corporate criminal law.

 

One of those persistent problems is the dark and unjust underbelly to the way prosecutors handle corporate criminals—criminal justice is often softer on corporate criminals than on real people. On paper, the Department of Justice officially treats corporations as ordinary people. Somehow, though, corporations are much less likely to see criminal charges. Less than .03% of corporations faced prosecution in the last quarter century. To put this in perspective, 8.6% of the U.S. adult population has a felony conviction. There are many possible explanations for this discrepancy, including over-criminalization of some forms of individual conduct and over-enforcement against certain demographics. Another possibility is that the large, public corporations that are the focus of this article receive some of the lightest treatment.

 

The perception that large, public corporations routinely escape conviction is troublingly paradoxical. These corporations are among those most likely to commit crimes, and their conduct most deeply impacts society. They have an extremely wide base of liability. Under current doctrine, they are automatically liable for almost any crime any individual employee commits on the job. This adds up to a staggering degree of exposure for large corporations—the seventy-five largest corporations in the United States employ over 100,000 potential points of liability.  Though the de jure scope of corporate criminal liability has continued to expand since the early twentieth century, the chance of conviction for large public corporations continues to shrink. This is particularly puzzling in an environment where the outrage of Wall Street Occupiers over corporate unaccountability still reverberates in public sentiment. Failure to hold corporations accountable frustrates society’s effort to condemn corporate criminality and can cast a shadow on the broader legitimacy of criminal law.

 

This discrepancy between the scope of corporate criminal liability and the infrequency of conviction is in part to due to how prosecutors go about trying to reform corporations. For every conviction of a public corporation, and with increasing frequency, there is at least one other where prosecutors decline to take the corporate suspect to trial and instead enter into a specially negotiated deal: a deferred prosecution agreement (DPA) or non-prosecution agreement (NPA). Unlike guilty pleas, these agreements do not result in a guilty verdict; they may not even require an admission of wrongdoing.  Corporate DPAs and NPAs are extremely controversial. They face a bevy of criticism from many perspectives: that they are too onerous, that they are too lenient, that they violate basic tenets of political morality, that they fail basic norms of transparency, and more. It is through these DPAs and NPAs that prosecutors frequently impose the reforms that interest this article. In addition to undermining corporate convictions, this article discusses below how poorly positioned prosecutors to be agents of corporate reform.

 

Many people blame prosecutors for the pitfalls of DPAs and NPAs, but prosecutors are hard to fault. DPAs and NPAs are a reasonable response to the legal and practical constraints prosecutors face, including, most importantly, the effects a successful conviction can have on a large public corporation. In 2004, prosecutors learned a hard lesson—their shortlived courtroom success against Arthur Andersen, one of the largest U.S. accounting firms, turned into a long-lasting catastrophe that put the company and its 75,000 employees out of business.  For many firms, including Arthur Andersen, there are life-ending collateral consequences that automatically follow conviction, such as debarment or revocation of the privilege of doing business with the government. When a successful conviction could entail massive harm to the very social welfare prosecutors are supposed to protect, DPAs and NPAs are a natural choice.

 

There is a way to keep the good without the bad—to hold corporations accountable without destroying them and to reform corporations without relying on prosecutors to do all the work through DPAs and NPAs. This article argues that the stark choice that forces prosecutors to decline corporate prosecutions in favor of DPAs and NPAs is an unnecessary feature of corporate criminal law. It draws attention for the first time to punishment theory as a potential source of problems and solutions. The article argues that low conviction rates and a host of other familiar problems with corporate criminal law are, in large part, a consequence of the focus on deterrence in scholarship and retribution in public political discourse. These drive prosecutors and corporations out of the courtroom.

 

Though prosecutors are increasingly attentive to corporate reform, scholars and lawmakers have overlooked character theory as a framework for corporate punishment. While adopting a broadly consequentialist perspective,38 the Article points out that preventing corporate crime does not necessarily require deterring it. The Article does this by introducing character theory as a systematic approach for structuring corporate punishment. Character theory would refine the sorts of reform and rehabilitation that prosecutors currently pursue and make them the exclusive mode of corporate punishment. Character theory would avoid the need for DPAs and NPAs, and ultimately do more to prevent corporate wrongdoing than deterrent approaches can. It could also bring corporate criminal law into better alignment with the goals of retributive theorists. While various actors already attempt to reform corporations at various stages of the criminal justice system, their efforts are piecemeal and ineffective because they lack any coherent, coordinating theory. Poor execution and the distorting influences of deterrence and retribution continue to hamstring any chance of success. Fixing corporate character as the sole criterion for the extent and method of corporate punishment leads to some surprising, though ultimately beneficial, recommendations, such as abolishing the corporate criminal fine.

 

After detailing the problems retributivism (Part II) and deterrence theory (Parts III) bring to corporate criminal law (Part IV), the article introduces character theory (Part V) as an alternative. With the conceptual foundation set, the article shows the work character theory could do improving a diverse range of problems in corporate criminal law (Part VI). The article closes by addressing concerns that may arise from the perspective of other theories of punishment—the character approach proposed here performs well by their metrics too (Part VII).

 

One goal of this Article is to work so far as possible within the constraints of present legal and political realities. In theory, there may be ways to promote corporate reform and solve the problems discussed in this Article without turning to character theories of punishment. Some scholars think that scrapping corporate criminal law entirely and relying only on civil liability would improve things.41 But such proposals are fanciful in the current political climate. It is also far from clear whether the sorts of corporate reform that this Article advocates could be accomplished by using non-criminal fora. As such, abolishing corporate criminal law and other similarly radical options are outside this Article’s methodological ambit. It takes the basic contours of corporate criminal law as given and shows how they can function best. Character theory can do that work.

The full paper can be downloaded without charge from the Social Science Research Network electronic library here.


Mihailis Diamantis is an associate professor of law at the University of Iowa, in the College of Law and the Department of Philosophy.  He writes about criminal law, corporate responsibility, and the philosophy of action.  He holds a PhD in philosophy from NYU and his JD from Yale.  Prior to joining the faculty at Iowa, Mihailis was an instructor and researcher at Columbia Law School.  He clerked for Judge Alex Kozinski on the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals and worked on white collar investigations as an attorney at Debevoise & Plimpton LLP.He attended the 2016 Summer Session “Virtue & Happiness” of the project Virtue, Happiness, & the Meaning of Life. 

The meaning of life and the crisis of reason

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This is part 5 of a 5-part series, “Don’t Ask about ‘the Meaning of Life’ (An argument in five blog posts)”.

Part 5.  Epilogue:  The meaning of life and the crisis of reason.

Is the question of the meaning of life even a meaningful question?  That challenge was posed by positivist philosophers, who in their eagerness to identify truly scientific questions, capable of verification by empirical observation, dismissed whole classes of inquiry as meaningless.  The positivists were right, in a way – the question of the meaning of life is a meaningless question – but in recognizing that they were not so much announcing a new discovery, as springing a trap positivists themselves had set.  The trap was the dismissal of all moral evaluation as merely the expression of personal feeling.

 

This trap was built with the materials inherited from their predecessors in modern philosophy.  The key figure in this story, as in so much else of modern philosophy, was David Hume.  Hume embraced, and made others face, the inevitable consequence of the rationalist’s view of instrumental reason, that the mind cannot know the purposes or natures of things – or even whether there are purposes and natures of things – and so moral conviction cannot be grounded in knowledge of what things are.  Given the continued power and success of science, it was only a matter of time before someone made the positivist move: to re-characterize science, formerly thought of pursuing the natures of things, as the formulation of empirically verifiable laws, with the concomitant relegation of all evaluative judgment (moral, aesthetic, and theological) to the expressions of feelings, technically irrational and meaningless.

 

Through much of modernity, even through early positivism, the question of the purpose of life was so powerful as to reassert itself even as the conception of reason grew ever more antithetical to it.  Pascal responded to the early modern conception of scientific rationality, showing its limits in light of the “reasons of the heart,” and even coopting instrumental reason (in his “wager”) to reassert the question of how one is to live.  Kant resisted Hume’s skepticism, trying valiantly to relocate ethics, metaphysics and even religion itself within the scope of rational inquiry.  And as we have seen, in response to positivist conception of reason, Kierkegaard embraced the irrationality of religious faith as the very sign of its superior sort of truth.  But in doing so – in accepting the positivist conception of rationality – Kierkegaard so subjectivized the question of purpose as to frame it in new terms, no longer as an intelligibly grasped purpose or goal or chief good of life, but as a personally felt, and extra-rational, meaning of life.

 

I think the reflections here and in the previous posts suffice to show that the emergence of the question of the meaning of life is not just a trivial semantic shift, superficially covering the persistence of a common, underlying question within a stable, coherent conceptual framework.  The shift in the formulation of the question embodies a shift in the actual question being asked, which reflects a dramatic change in the general conceptual framework assumed by those questions – a dramatic change in the assumptions made about the world, about the human condition, about rationality, and about the kinds of questions that can intelligibly be asked.  The question of the meaning of life just is not, and should not be confused with, the question of the end of man or the purpose of life.  The two questions entertain different sorts of answers, give rise to different associated questions, and make different assumptions about the nature of man and reality.

 

In the face of this realization, we seem to face three options about how to proceed in talking about these questions and their relationship:

Option 1: We can ignore the differences, and continue acting as if the new and old questions are really different versions of the same question.  This seems to have been the default approach, but it is, we now see, untenable.

Option 2: We can celebrate the shift, adopt the new question, and bid good riddance to the old question.  Presumably there are some who would embrace that option; I will leave it to them to defend.

Option 3: We can find the new question problematic, and recommend not asking it, and work to recover the old question.  The argument I’ve presented points strongly in this direction.

 

A fourth option is worth entertaining, but won’t be explored here.  The 20th Century development of Catholic social and moral teaching suggests that it is at least possible to believe that the old question (the question of purpose) is more important and fundamental, while judging that the new question (the question of meaning) has a cultural purchase which cannot be ignored.  Certain documents of Vatican II, and then the major writings of John Paul II, suggest an intentional strategy to use the meaning question to reawaken the older question of purpose – a development of the Catholic intellectual tradition that deserves further study by philosophers, theologians, and intellectual historians.


Joshua P. Hochschild is the Monsignor Robert R. Kline Professor of Philosophy at Mt. Saint Mary’s University.

Cultural relativism

Samurai standing on stairway in night forest with the red moon on background,illustration painting

Note: This is a 3-part series of the essay Quid Est Veritas: On Truth and Moral Relativism.

Part III: Cultural Relativism

 

Many people come to affirm moral relativism because there is so much moral disagreement, both within a culture and across cultures. These people think that the fact that there is no agreement is a sign that there is nothing to agree about, no objective truth that cuts across cultures.

 

This disagreement isn’t recent either.  Certainly the Jews and the Romans profoundly disagreed about how to live, about what was OK to do and say and what wasn’t.  The ancient historian Herodotus, who was writing in mid fifth century BC, relates the following anecdote of the King of Persia:

 

He summoned the Greeks who happened to be present at his court, and asked them what they would take to eat the dead bodies of their fathers. They replied that they would not do it for any money in the world. Later, in the presence of the Greeks, and through an interpreter, so that they could understand what was said, he asked some Indians…who do in fact eat their parents’ dead bodies, what they would take to burn them. They uttered a cry of horror and forbade him to mention such a dreadful thing (Herodotus 440BCE; trans. Sélincourt, 1988, pp. 219- 20).

 

Insofar as we take Herodotus to be putting forth a view here, it would be what we now call cultural relativism.  This is a species of moral relativism insofar as it says that morality is relative to cultures, and it is shared cultural beliefs and practices that determine what is morally true for the people who are born into it.  So, what is morally true for an aboriginal tribe in what is now called Australia is true for them but not true for we Americans, and vice versa.

 

Cultural relativism is a species of moral relativism.  A cultural relativist believes that morality is relative to cultures, and that it is shared cultural beliefs and practices that determine what is morally acceptable and mandatory for the people who are brought up under them and for no one else.

 

A version of cultural relativism was put forward in 1947 by the American Anthropological Association, in response to the UN Declaration of the Universal Rights of Man.  The AAA was against such a universal declaration on explicitly relativist grounds.  They argued that moral belief and practice is entirely determined by culture and that there is no way to legitimately demonstrate that the values or customs of one culture are superior to any other.  They further chastised western political institutions for imposing their own culturally situated ideology of “universal rights” upon other nations.  In their statement on human rights, the anthropologists asked:

 

How can the proposed declaration be applicable to all human beings, and not be a statement of rights conceived only in terms of the values prevalent in the countries of Western Europe and America?[i]

 

Their worry was that the declaration of universal human rights was just colonialism masquerading as liberation.  Unmask this, and all we are left with is the ideology of the “white man’s burden” all over again.   So, instead of declaring a regime of universal rights that all cultures had to respect, the anthropologists argued for “respect for differences between cultures” which is “validated by the scientific fact that no technique of qualitatively evaluating cultures has been discovered.” (1947, 542)  The anthropologists also claimed explicitly that:

 

Standards and values are relative to the culture from which they derive so that any attempt to formulate postulates that grow out of the beliefs or moral codes of one culture must to that extent detract from the applicability of any declaration of human rights to mankind as a whole. (Ibid)

 

The first thing to say about this fascinating document is that its appeal to science does no argumentative work.  For just as there is no “scientific” method to “qualitatively evaluate” moral beliefs, there is also no “scientific” method to determine that qualitative measures are the only legitimate standards of knowledge.  To say that science hasn’t yielded an adequate moral theory is just to state the obvious and pretend that something substantive follows from it.  But we cannot infer from the fact that science doesn’t yield moral knowledge the conclusion that there can in principle be no moral knowledge, as moral knowledge may simply not be scientific in character.

 

Setting debates about what moral knowledge is aside, notice that here we have the familiar refrain to “respect diversity” rather than interfere and impose, because moral standards are relative to cultures, and that failure to recognize this belies a crude parochialism.  This position doesn’t have to assume, by the way, that other cultures have to respect diversity as well, so it needn’t be self-defeating in the ways we have previously discussed. [There is a complication here, however, about a so-called “right of men to live in terms of their own traditions” casually asserted in the document, but let’s be charitable and pretend it isn’t there]. The statement just says that within our western culture we should respect diversity and be tolerant of cultures dramatically different from our own.  This may mean, by the way, that women continue to be treated as inferiors to men and denied political rights, education, and any semblance of control over what happens to their bodies, that homosexuals may be executed, that honor killings may continue, or any other number of things that look like moral atrocities from our contemporary western point of view.  The consistent cultural relativist will, on these matters, have to live and let live.

 

We can further complicate this issue.  In her wonderful essay, “Trying Out One’s New Sword,” Mary Midgley describes the following custom of Samurai warriors in Medieval Japan:

 

There is, it seems, a verb in classical Japanese which means ‘to try out one’s new sword on a chance wayfarer.’  (The word is tsujigiri, literally ‘crossroads-cut’).  A Samurai sword had to be tried out because, if it was to work properly, it had to slice through someone at a single blow, from the shoulder to the opposite flank.  Otherwise, the warrior bungled his stroke.  This could injure his honor, offend his ancestors, and even let down his emperor.  So tests were needed, and wayfarers had to be expended.  Any wayfarer would do.”[ii]

What interests me so much about this example is that it brings up yet another iteration of cultural relativism, what Bernard Williams has called “the relativism of distance.”[iii] Williams is deeply skeptical that one can judge any culture when there is significant historical distance between the judger and the time period judged. Williams thinks that moral beliefs are radically contingent, such that it would be a mistake to assume the authority to judge those who came before us. According to Williams, judging the past is basically an empty, self-congratulatory exercise; it is patting oneself on the back for having the good fortune to be born in more enlightened times.  More specifically, Williams argues that appraisal of the past does not satisfy two conditions for genuine moral judgment: (1) shared interests and projects in common, and (2) a practical question of what to do.

 

What can we say to Williams or to our benighted anthropologists?  Is it true that we should refrain from judging cultures?  This is a difficult question, to be sure, because we should be wary of the dangers inherent to judging others—they are real.   But one thing seems certain to me, and that is that adopting cultural relativism doesn’t solve the problem of our relationship to the past and to other cultures, but arguably just makes that relationship more strained and insincere.

 

For one thing, as Mary Midgley herself pointed out, if we adopt relativism in either sense, it makes learning from other cultures and time periods very difficult (if not impossible).  For if we cannot censure another culture we also cannot praise it (for that too, would be to make a moral judgment about it, which I have blocked myself from doing). In order to enter into genuine dialogue and exchange with another culture or time period, we have to be able to identify what we find good and what we find bad in it—otherwise we are entirely closed off to it.  If we cannot enter into this conversation, which depends on moral judgment, then we have no hope of converging on a shared worldview and we have no hope of genuine cultural exchange.  A dialogue can only take place from where we are, a place of real commitments to specific values. Insofar as relativism asks us to give up our commitments, it asks us to be isolated and closed off from other cultures and time periods.  It encourages us to see the other culture as radically other, thus blocking any genuine attempts to seek common ground and a common identity.  This tends to drain the value out of historical and cross-cultural engagement, which can have dangerous political implications.

 

I want now finally to return to our opening remarks about the dictatorship of relativism.  I want to suggest that there is something totalitarian about relativism after all.

 

When all truth is relative, which really means when there is no intelligible notion of truth at all, the rational discourse that is a necessary condition for a viable democracy becomes impossible. As rational animals, we cannot escape the fact that we have to form beliefs and make choices that are informed by them, and we cannot escape the fact that some of these beliefs are going to inform our most basic social institutions.  Some values of necessity must prevail over others. If we refuse to acknowledge any objective measures of truth that are publicly accessible and in principle available to anyone, then all we have left to determine which beliefs and values determine social life is individual or collective will to power (whether this be the will of the oppressor class to maintain its status, or the will of the oppressed classes to gain power, is of no matter).  In such social conditions, the clever and ruthless will prevail, and in absence of the power to persuade people to follow them, they will have to resort to violence to ensure that their private vision prevails over its competitors.

 

So freedom and equality really do depend on truth, they really do depend on some publicly accessible measure to which those in power can be held to account. And so we were wrong to think that relativism is a friend to democracy and equality. Quite the contrary, it is its enemy. For truth helps us to transcend ourselves; without truth, we inevitably collapse into ourselves, into our own private needs and desires.  In that condition, we will either dominate or be dominated; either way, we will not be truly free.

 

[i] “Statement on Human Rights” American Anthropologist, Vol. 49, No. 4, part 1 (Oct-Dec, 1947), pp. 539-543.

[ii] Mary Midgley, “Trying Out One’s New Sword,” Heart and Mind, St. Martin’s Press, 1981.

[iii] Bernard Williams, Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy, Routledge, 2011.

VIDEO: “A Consistent Ethic of Solidarity: Transcending Self, Transforming the World” – Cardinal Blase J. Cupich

Cardinal Blase J. Cupich delivered the Saturday Keynote “A Consistent Ethic of Solidarity: Transcending Self, Transforming the World” for the Capstone Conference for the project Virtue, Happiness, & the Meaning of Life. He was introduced by Bernard McGinn, Naomi Shenstone Donnelley Professor Emeritus of Historical Theology and of the History of Christianity in the Divinity School and the Committees on Medieval Studies and on General Studies.

 

We’ll publish the text of this talk in Part 1 and Part 2 blog posts on Wednesday and Thursday this week.

 


Cardinal Blase Joseph Cupich obtained his B.A. in Philosophy from the College of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minnesota, in 1971. He attended seminary at the North American College and Gregorian University in Rome, where he received his Baccalaureate in Sacred Theology in 1974, and his M.A. in Theology in 1975. Cardinal Cupich is a graduate of the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., where, in 1979, he received his Licentiate of Sacred Theology degree in Sacramental Theology. He also holds a Doctor of Sacred Theology degree, also in Sacramental Theology, from the Catholic University of America, awarded in 1987, with his dissertation entitled: “Advent in the Roman Tradition: An Examination and Comparison of the Lectionary Readings as Hermeneutical Units in Three Periods.” Additionally, Cardinal Cupich was the Secretary at the Apostolic Nunciature in Washington, D.C. He also served as Chair for the USCCB Committee for the Protection of Children and Young People from 2008-2011 and for the National Catholic Educational Association Board from 2006-2008. In 2016, Pope Francis appointed Cardinal Cupich to the Congregation for Bishops.

Our newest partner: The Institute for Ethics and Society at the University of Notre Dame Australia

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We’re delighted to announce a new partner for our project, the Institute for Ethics and Society at the University of Notre Dame Australia. Based in Sydney, the Institute for Ethics and Society is one of Notre Dame’s three national research institutes. The IES aims to foster ethical awareness in professional and social life. It does this through pursuing excellence in research and by providing leadership in Ethics Education across the University.

IES is hosting our principal investigator Candace Vogler as Distinguished Visiting Fulbright Professor from 19 August – 7 September 2017. During her visit, Candace Vogler will take part in the following suite of events:

The Mission of the Institute for Ethics and Society

Established in late 2009, the Institute’s Terms of Reference state that its purpose is “to promote the study of Catholic intellectual and moral tradition, with a particular focus on faith and ethics and their application and integration into the broader life of society”. In carrying out this purpose, the Institute is guided by four principal objectives: (i) to inform and support the teaching of ethics through all Schools and disciplines of the University and the integration of ethics into the teaching of all units; (ii) to inform and support the understanding and adoption of the Catholic Church’s recognition of the complementarity of faith and reason through all the University’s endeavours; (iii) to promote and undertake research into professional and social ethics, including political, legal and medical ethics and the relation between ethics and faith; and (iv) to identify and provide advice and commentary in the fields of ethics and faith and their practical application and integration into relevant current day social issues. Underlying all objectives is the desire to promote interdisciplinary teaching, discussion, scholarship and research. The Institute will draw on staff from all campuses and from all disciplines in undertaking its activities.