Ethics

Note, July 6, 2019: I have laboriously—very laboriously—reconstructed this page from the one I had at parts-unknown.org. The latter site is now off line and will remain so for the foreseeable future. This page unfortunately includes citations to pages, especially research journal entries, on that site. Development of this page will continue here and I will strive to update those links as I can.

If I am an ethical person, I shouldn’t have to say it. Or so I tend to think. And so, it’s with some reluctance that I have produced this page. But one thing Jonathan Haidt emphasizes is the difference between appearing moral and actually being moral.[1] Please note that this page will remain under development; I do not imagine it to be complete or even particularly comprehensive and I doubt that completion is possible.[2]

Consider the trolley problem, as described in Wikipedia:

You see a runaway trolley moving toward five tied-up (or otherwise incapacitated) people lying on the tracks. You are standing next to a lever that controls a switch. If you pull the lever, the trolley will be redirected onto a side track and the five people on the main track will be saved. However, there is a single person lying on the side track. You have two options:

  1. Do nothing and allow the trolley to kill the five people on the main track.
  2. Pull the lever, diverting the trolley onto the side track where it will kill one person.

Which is the more ethical option?[3]

The question pits utilitarian concern, that is, for the most happiness of the most people, against deontological concern, that is, for doing the right thing. The utilitarian thinks, obviously, that s/he should save the greater number of lives. The deontologist replies that the affirmative action of killing the one person is, in itself, wrong. Neither the utilitarian nor the deontological answer is satisfactory; each entails some degree of culpability, either for acting or for failing to act.

If it were me standing by that switch, I think I would probably pull it because, to be completely honest, we live in a society with a strong bias in favor of quantitative assessments.[4] Pulling the switch to save five lives, even at the expense of the one life, accords with that bias. It might get the charge against me reduced to manslaughter or even dismissed entirely. If I’m really lucky, I might be lauded as the hero “who made the tough decision.” As Haidt might predict, I would be appearing to do the right thing. But I am not merely weighing the action to save five lives against its cost of one life. I am weighing an additional factor in an otherwise dubious decision: the potential harm to myself. This is not just about appearance, but about prison time.

The question of culpability is a question of blame: It is a condition that follows from our actions, failures to act, and the sufficiency of each.[5] Haidt argues persuasively that, as individuals within groups, we are not so much concerned with right actions in themselves as we are with appearing to our peers to take right actions, and that we have evolved enormous skill at rationalizing our actions to our peers. He verges on a universal claim,[6] which I think is a step too far. And while I am hardly infallible—I might indeed pull the switch—in my moral judgments or the execution of those judgments, Haidt’s claim might be a step too far for me, even if the very act of saying so would convince him that it in fact does apply to me.

I see ethics largely as an affirmation of personal autonomy, a right I apply to nonhuman as well as human animals. This is a product of my upbringing and continued immersion in an individualistic society. If saving the five lives is correct, it is because the rights of the five people—a group—exceed the rights of the one. My understanding of ethics as they apply to groups is, as yet, undeveloped, but I would note here that human rights would not be needed except to protect minorities, including individuals, from groups, including countries and their powerful elites: The one matters as much as the five, at least in part because the rights of the five are inextricably linked to the rights of the one. That doesn’t make the utilitarian answer wrong, but we need to consider the deontological answer more carefully than it might initially appear.

Anarchism

It is a bit difficult for me to know what to write about anarchism, an approach that seeks to eliminate unnecessary authoritarianism among humans. I see that our authoritarian system of social organization fails to address even existential threats to human survival.[7] I see that its very existence is, to the say the very least, problematic, that the existence of elites promotes nepotism rather than merit; that in allowing elites to decide who has merit, we limit challenges to the status quo,[8] and are thus governed by a certain ‘groupthink’ that inhibits solutions. I see further that these elites, whom I often refer to as functionalist conservatives, are principally interested in preserving their own power and privileges over the rest of us.[9] And so, of course, I see our present system of social organization as unethical.

As Joel Federman, my first advisor at Saybrook University, explained it to me, humans have a wide range of potential to be good, evil, or something in between. As an anarchist, I rely on the goodness of humanity, and diminish the evil. I point out that that we draw most of what we “know” about human nature from the reproduced cruelty of an insanely ridiculous society,[10] and I fear that the system of social organization we adopted in the Neolithic, that is, somewhere in the range if five to fifteen thousand years ago, distorts Federman’s range of possibilities.[11]

I also understand all too well that it will be difficult to displace the elites without violence, which is itself a form of authority, creating the same sort of conundrum that Michael Bakunin saw as Karl Marx’s failing: Marx thought that the authoritarian system could be used to dismantle itself. Bakunin thought that that couldn’t work[12] and the experience of the Soviet Union[13] and other authoritarian socialist countries confirms that Bakunin was correct. When we use violence to overthrow authority, who is it who will replace that authority? It will, I very much fear, be those to whom we gave the guns, when the point was in fact to displace and remove that authority. We will have replaced one set of ‘thugs,’ by which I mean the overwhelmingly wealthy white male elite, with another.

But even if we were to succeed, would such a victory be pyrrhic? Haidt suggests that humans are naturally hierarchical, that when in prehistory they were much more egalitarian, it was because they all had spears with which they could simply dispense with any leader who abused his (or, I will presume, her) position.[14] This recreates the very dilemma I state above as a simile to Bakunin’s critique of Marx. I do not know if any egalitarian system can work at scale—this is a premise of anarcho-syndicalism—or across a broad spectrum of topics that comprise the totality of human life—the available successful examples of large “cooperatives” are economic, not political or even so much social endeavors, operating on a large scale but nonetheless far smaller than that of even our larger cities. I do not know if we would not, simply out of habits accumulated since the Neolithic, recreate the authoritarian structure we sought to depose.

Economic systems

I should not be so happy about being a “hero who made the tough decision” in pulling that lever. Such plaudits are heard too often of wealthy executives making “tough decisions” to close factories and lay workers off. Such decisions are, in fact, much too easy in our quantitative society, where money (a quantity) too often counts for more than humanity,[15] an exchange system inherently privileges the wealthy and handicaps the poor in a feedback cycle that widens social inequality,[16] we then imagine that people get “what they deserve” according to their “merit,”[17] and we behave toward people—human beings—accordingly.[18] Numbers do not equate to righteousness, but our biases often make us think as if they do.

Neoliberalism accordingly particularizes and essentializes human beings as economic units of production, compelling them to compete globally on terms over which they have little or no control, such as their costs of living, environmental regulations, labor regulations, and taxes. Workers do not control the political or economic systems in any country but they absorb the costs of a “race to the bottom” in wages, benefits, and working conditions while capitalists grow ever richer and seek even to replace poorly-paid labor with automation. No concession is offered to human beings who still need to live with these developments: It is “efficiency” alone, defined in terms of profits for the rich, that matters.

Neoliberals seek to justify this state of affairs by pointing to those who have been lifted from more extreme forms of absolute poverty.[19] But events such as a garment factory fire in Bangladesh[20] echo historic tragedies while human beings in developed countries sink further into relative poverty and the neoliberal rationalization valorizes money even over human life.

Justice and so-called “justice”

In general, I do not accept the reduction of justice to law, especially when laws are produced by a class consisting overwhelmingly of wealthy, white males, and enforcement is overwhelmingly directed at the poor and people of color.[21] This system functions to further stigmatize, scapegoat, imprison, and sometimes even put to death those it targets, rationalizing further cruelty and structural violence,[22] and thus functions socially to mitigate the perception of even more egregious crimes committed by the rich.[23] This profoundly flawed system[24] does all this on a pretense to objectivity which cannot survive critical examination.[25] It thus feeds a hierarchically invidious monism[26] that valorizes the very same wealthy white males who passed the laws while burdening a widening number of individuals, families and communities[27] and contributing even further to social inequality. Social inequality is a significant factor in much crime,[28] creating a feedback that produces even more crime,[29] rationalizing more stigmatization, more scapegoating, and more cruelty toward the poor while further valorizing the rich. As such, our system of so-called “justice” falls within the scope of my definition of fascism.[30] Instead I endorse a system of restorative justice that thoroughly examines the context in which what sociologists call “deviant” actions occur, up to and including the social system itself, and to remedy the problems in that context that led to those crimes.[31]

Veganism, vegetarian ecofeminism

On May 5, 2008, I went vegan. This means I abstain, as much as possible, from the exploitation of nonhuman animals. It is an extension of my anarchism, which opposes the illegitimate domination of people by other people, in that I oppose human domination of nonhuman animals. As a vegetarian ecofeminist, I understand that how we treat each other as humans is inseparable from how we treat nonhuman animals and inseparable from how we treat the environment.[32] And I see the environmental calamity that we now face as a product of unethical human behavior.[33]

I do this, because it is right and because it is necessary, even in a society that often derides veganism as extreme; even when it means I cannot, for example, share Thanksgiving feasts with friends and family who remain omnivores; and even as I remain largely socially isolated even from other vegans. Haidt’s claim fails to adequately explain this.

Inquiry (research)

My anarchism flows effortlessly into my view of research ethics. Respecting the personal autonomy of participants and co-researchers is paramount for me. I have found myself unable to be involved with any form of bullying to obtain participation or to inflict poor or unethical methodology on participants and I believe that unethical inquiry damages the information obtained.[34] This last part is especially problematic for me as I take pride in my scholarship, in which I am accredited (a Ph.D.) by academia as a producer of knowledge: I want my contributions to knowledge to be contributions rather than detriments. I embrace an approach to ethics not only as so often repeated in academia but that embraces the values of critical and indigenous scholarship.[35]

Pedagogy

In critical theory, the line between pedagogy and inquiry is, to the say the least, blurred, and quite possibly nonexistent.[36] Indeed, Paolo Freire, charged with educating indigenous villagers, instead of having them enroll in and come to a central institution, went to the villages; instead of bringing a predetermined curriculum, asked them what they wanted to learn; and instead of adopting the role of teacher in teacher-student relationships, pooled his knowledge and experience with theirs as a co-learner.[37] This approach lives on today as participatory action research[38] and as an unaffiliated scholar, I remain available for such work, as well as to advise and mentor students in conventional academic settings.[39] In this, I hope to honor the many professors whose intellectual generosity made it possible for me to attain what I have.

Deception

I am sometimes even brutally honest. Sissela Bok explores the problem of lying at length as an impairment of the deceived’s personal autonomy. Her conclusion avoids a blanket condemnation of lying—we seem unable to avoid some “white” lies—but her argument is that lying denies people the information they need to make informed decisions and thus to fully exercise their personal autonomy.[40] I disagree with her distinction between deception as the withholding of truth and lying as the telling of falsehood; it seems to me that by her reasoning, deception is every bit as problematic as lying.

Accordingly, I see myself as a straight forward person. It is important to me that I am what I claim to be, that people can trust my word and the information—the appearance—I produce, especially because my conclusions often run counter to our social ideologies. And when I find myself in a situation that calls for deception, it is clear to me that I need to exit that situation.

I understand all too well that this is not always possible for all too many people. As a child, I had an abusive father and did my share of sneaking around, seeking to avoid his wrath. But this is the point: I needed to exit that situation even when I had no opportunity to do so.

Selling and marketing

As an anarchist, as a vegan, and as a vegetarian ecofeminist, I do not place my self-interest above the personal autonomy of other human and non-human animals. Which means I will not be involved in persuading people to do things that are not in their own best interest: Even at horribly low points in my life, I have found myself unable to “sell,” that is, as I was informed while flunking an interview for an auto dealership job, to “recognize” (and exploit) other people’s “need” to buy products or services I offer. We may come to an arrangement, but I cannot impose myself on others.

Job hunting

Unfortunately, I have discovered that a presumption in neoliberal society conflates merit with an ability to promote that merit (and entrepreneurship with “merit”). I believe I have merit. But I cannot sell even myself; I might even be deficient in the skill to rationalize my actions, failures to act, and the sufficiency of each, to my peers—hence this page—and it is in part due to these failures that I have suffered the lack of a “real” job since the dot-com crash.[41]

  1. [1]Jonathan Haidt, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion (New York: Pantheon, 2012).
  2. [2]David Benfell, “Dilemmas are Good,” October 6, 2012, https://parts-unknown.org/drupal7/journal/2012/10/06/dilemmas-are-good
  3. [3]Wikipedia, “Trolley problem,” n.d., https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Trolley_problem
  4. [4]Jacques Ellul, The Technological Society, John Wilkinson, trans. (New York: Vintage, 1964).; Neil Postman, Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology (New York: Vintage, 1993).
  5. [5]Jeffrey Reiman, The Rich Get Richer and the Poor Get Prison, 7th ed. (Boston: Allyn and Bacon, 2004).
  6. [6]Jonathan Haidt, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion (New York: Pantheon, 2012).
  7. [7]Lindsey Bever, Sarah Kaplan, and Abby Ohlheiser, “The Doomsday Clock is now just 2 minutes to ‘midnight,’ the symbolic hour of the apocalypse,” Washington Post, January 25, 2018, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/speaking-of-science/wp/2018/01/25/after-a-missile-scare-and-insult-war-withth-korea-its-time-to-check-the-doomsday-clock/
  8. [8]David Benfell, “‘We have found the enemy, and he is us’ — and our system of social organization,”
    March 6, 2013, https://parts-unknown.org/drupal7/journal/2013/03/06/we-have-found-enemy-and-he-us-and-our-system-social-organization; Henry Louis Gates, Jr., “‘Race’ as the Trope of the World,” in Social Theory: The Multicultural and Classic Readings, ed. Charles Lemert, 4th ed. (Boulder, CO: Westview, 2010), 521-526; Christopher Hayes, Twilight of the Elites: America After Meritocracy (New York: Crown, 2012); C. Wright Mills, The Power Elite (1956; repr., New York: Oxford University, 2000).
  9. [9]David Benfell, “Functionalist conservatism,” n.d., https://parts-unknown.org/drupal7/content/functionalist-conservatism
  10. [10]Erich Fromm, The Sane Society (1956; repr., Milton Park, Abingdon, Oxon, UK: Routledge, 2010).
  11. [11]David Benfell, “Why we won’t respond to climate change,” Not Housebroken, October 16, 2018, https://disunitedstates.org/2018/10/16/why-we-wont-respond-to-climate-change/
  12. [12]Brian Morris, Bakunin: The Philosophy of Freedom (Montréal: Black Rose, 1993).
  13. [13]Emma Goldman, “There Is No Communism in Russia,” in Red Emma Speaks: An Emma Goldman Reader, ed. Alix Kates Shulman, 3rd ed. (Amherst, NY: Humanity, 1998), 405-420.
  14. [14]Jonathan Haidt, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion (New York: Pantheon, 2012).
  15. [15]Marc Pilisuk and Jennifer Achord Rountree, The Hidden Structure of Violence (New York: Monthly Review, 2015); Matthew Yglesias, “Elizabeth Warren has a plan to save capitalism,” Vox, August 15, 2018, https://www.vox.com/2018/8/15/17683022/elizabeth-warren-accountable-capitalism-corporations
  16. [16]Max Weber, “Class, Status, Party,” in Social Theory: The Multicultural and Classic Readings, ed. Charles Lemert, 4th ed. (Boulder, CO: Westview, 2010), 119-129.
  17. [17]Thomas M. Shapiro, “Introduction,” in Great Divides: Readings in Social Inequality in the United States, ed. Thomas M. Shapiro, 3rd ed. (New York: McGraw Hill, 2005), 1-7.
  18. [18]Herbert J. Gans, The War Against The Poor: The Underclass And Antipoverty Policy (New York: Basic, 1995).
  19. [19]Jeffrey Sachs, The End of Poverty: Economic Possibilities for our Time (New York: Penguin, 2006).
  20. [20]Jim Yardley, “Last Hope in Ruins: Bangladesh’s Race to Save Shaheena,” New York Times, May 5, 2013, http://www.nytimes.com/2013/05/06/world/asia/struggle-in-bangladesh-to-save-collapse-survivor.html
  21. [21]Jeffrey Reiman, The Rich Get Richer and the Poor Get Prison, 7th ed. (Boston: Allyn and Bacon, 2004).
  22. [22]Herbert J. Gans, The War Against The Poor: The Underclass And Antipoverty Policy (New York: Basic, 1995).
  23. [23]Jeffrey Reiman, The Rich Get Richer and the Poor Get Prison, 7th ed. (Boston: Allyn and Bacon, 2004).
  24. [24]Dan Simon, In Doubt: The Psychology of the Criminal Justice Process (Cambridge, MA: Harvard, 2012).
  25. [25]David Benfell, “Juries and injustice: The fools call me in again,” Not Housebroken, April 28, 2015, https://disunitedstates.org/2015/04/27/juries-and-injustice-the-fools-call-me-in-again/
  26. [26]See David Benfell, “Hierarchically Invidious Monism,” July 28, 2017, https://parts-unknown.org/drupal7/content/hierarchically-invidious-monism
  27. [27]Dan Simon, In Doubt: The Psychology of the Criminal Justice Process (Cambridge, MA: Harvard, 2012).
  28. [28]Steven E. Barkan, Criminology: A Sociological Understanding, 3rd ed. (Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Prentice Hall, 2006).
  29. [29]Ernest Drucker notes all the conditions of a self-reinforcing (positive) feedback loop but does not identify or consider it as such and therefore probably fails to adequately account for feedback effects in suggesting that the system reduces crime by, at most, fifteen percent in A Plague of Prisons: The Epidemiology of Mass Incarceration in America (New York: New, 2011).
  30. [30]David Benfell, “A simple definition of fascism,” February 14, 2017, https://parts-unknown.org/drupal7/journal/2017/02/14/simple-definition-fascism
  31. [31]Wanda D. McCaslin and Denise C. Breton, “Justice as Healing: Going Outside the Colonizers’ Cage,” in Handbook of Critical and Indigenous Methodologies, eds. Norman K. Denzin, Yvonna S. Lincoln, and Linda Tuhiwai Smith (Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 2008), 511-529.
  32. [32]David Benfell, “The Inevitability of Speciesism,” December 7, 2012, https://parts-unknown.org/drupal7/journal/2012/12/07/inevitability-speciesism
  33. [33]David Benfell, “‘We have found the enemy, and he is us’ — and our system of social organization,” March 6, 2013, https://parts-unknown.org/drupal7/journal/2013/03/06/we-have-found-enemy-and-he-us-and-our-system-social-organization
  34. [34]David Benfell, “Dilemmas are Good,” October 6, 2012, https://parts-unknown.org/drupal7/journal/2012/10/06/dilemmas-are-good; David Benfell, “Unethical research,” November 13, 2018, https://parts-unknown.org/drupal7/journal/2018/11/10/unethical-research; David Benfell, “Methodological Problems of the American Community Survey,” November 17, 2018, https://parts-unknown.org/drupal7/journal/2018/11/17/methodological-problems-american-community-survey; David Benfell, “Socially constructed ethics,” November 24, 2018, https://parts-unknown.org/drupal7/journal/2018/11/24/socially-constructed-ethics
  35. [35]David Benfell, “From Authoritarian Boast to Awe and Wonder: A Transformation of the Understanding of Knowledge,” November 21, 2011, https://parts-unknown.org/drupal7/journal/2011/11/21/authoritarian-boast-awe-and-wonder-transformation-understanding-knowledge; Norman K. Denzin, Yvonna S. Lincoln, and Linda Tuhiwai Smith, eds., Handbook of Critical and Indigenous Methodologies (Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 2008).
  36. [36]Raymond A. Morrow with David D. Brown, Critical Theory and Methodology (Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 1994); Norman K. Denzin, Yvonna S. Lincoln, and Linda Tuhiwai Smith, eds., Handbook of Critical and Indigenous Methodologies (Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 2008).
  37. [37]Paulo Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed, 30th Anniversary Edition (New York: Continuum, 2006).
  38. [38]Mary Brydon-Miller et al., “Jazz and the Banyan Tree: Roots and Riffs on Participatory Action Research,” in The SAGE Handbook of Qualitative Research, 4th ed., eds. Norman K. Denzin and Yvonna S. Lincoln (Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 2011), 387-400.
  39. [39]See David Benfell, “Teaching Philosophy,” n.d., https://parts-unknown.org/drupal7/content/teaching-philosophy
  40. [40]Sissela Bok, Lying: Moral Choice in Public and Private Life (New York: Vintage, 1999).
  41. [41]David Benfell, “About my job hunt,” Not Housebroken, n.d., https://disunitedstates.org/about-my-job-hunt/