Love and Ethics

Love and Ethics. That touches on two of the three prongs of our mission – what we’re here for. We’re here to grow ethically – as well as spiritually – and we’re here to love radically: ethics and love. I want to explore today the overlap: how do ethics and love relate to each other?

I learned at a young age from the Gospel of John – Lennon – that “all you need is love.” Is that true? The Beatles sang it, but, then, they also sang, “I am the walrus,” “nothing is real,” “happiness is a warm gun,” and “we all live in a yellow submarine” – so maybe not everything they sang is true.

Yes, certainly, in addition to love, we need things like air, food, water, shelter – but looking just at the ethical realm: to be a good person, to be a moral, ethical person, is love all we need? Is love all you need as your guide for how to act? I’m going to say, actually, yes. Love – including attentive care to be as effectively compassionate as we can be – IS all we need.

The counter viewpoint, generally accepted, is that to act rightly in the world, it is necessary to have moral principles. However, what I’m suggesting to you today is: never mind principles. Just love. Love is the only law, as sources as disparate as Ziggy Marley and Nisargadatta Maharaj have said. Making the case against principles may be a bit of a heavy lift. Let us jump in and see what can be carried.

We all face ethical decisions: Do I speak up, or remain quiet? When is it time to put Mom in a nursing home – or time to "let go" of a child? Am I prioritizing my time in a way that most benefits myself and others in the long run? Is the comfort I get from bumping up the thermostat a couple degrees, or the enjoyment of eating meat worth the damage to the planet? Does it really matter if my coffee is or isn’t fair trade, or if my shirt was or wasn’t made in a sweat shop, or if some product was or wasn’t tested on animals? Whenever you choose to do, or not do, anything, there’s the question of whether that choice is the right one.

The great ethical traditions have defended ethical principles. Immanuel Kant propounded the principle: so act that the maxim of your action may be willed a universal law for all. In other words, before you do something, ask yourself, what if everybody did that? Kant’s ethics also tell us to treat others never as a means only, but as ends in themselves.

The utilitarians argued that, instead, the only test of the goodness of an action is the goodness of its results. Their ethical principle is: so act to maximize the total happiness, or the total benefit, to all beings.

The third great ethical school is virtue ethics – which is rooted in Aristotle. This school of ethics says that to be a good person you cultivate virtues such as courage (which we’ll be looking at next month since courage is our the theme of the month for May), and justice (i.e., treating people fairly), and temperance and prudence. These are philosophical approaches to ethics, and I will say, as a former philosophy professor, philosophers are, occasionally, worth paying attention to.

Your brain, like mine, is a mish-mash of competing, contradictory ideas, concepts, values, beliefs. Cognitive dissonance sometimes surfaces, but whenever we can keep it out of mind, we do. Becoming conscious of cognitive dissonance feels icky -- to be avoided if possible. But a philosopher is somebody who goes looking for dissonance. Philosophers concoct all manner of bizarre, unrealistic hypothetical examples just for the purpose of inducing dissonance.

Example: Suppose either 5 people had to die or 1 person had to die. Which would be better? Clearly, it would be better for 1 person to die than for 5, right? OK, so suppose you have five people who are dying of different organ failures. One of them needs a heart transplant, another needs a liver transplant, another needs two kidneys, another needs lungs, and another needs pancreas and intestines. Would it be OK to kill one healthy person, harvest his organs and distribute them among the five? No! But wait -- better one person die than five.

See? The philosopher’s job is to induce cognitive dissonance -- which is uncomfortable. As we confront the issue of how we live our lives, we like to think we have moral principles that guide us. We imagine ourselves to be principled people. We would hate to be accused of being unprincipled. To live by principle seems an admirable thing. Moral principles keep you on the righteous straight and narrow irrespective of how you might feel about it.

Principles don’t depend on your emotions. You don’t have to love your neighbor to know you shouldn’t steal from her.

But on the other hand, if you do love your neighbor, maybe you don’t need principles. Philosopher Jonathan Dancy is a champion of an approach to ethics called "moral particularism." Dancy argues that ethics isn’t really about having principles and following them. Here's the opening paragraph of Dancy's article about moral particularism in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.
“Moral Particularism, at its most trenchant, is the claim that there are no defensible moral principles, that moral thought does not consist in the application of moral principles to cases, and that the morally perfect person should not be conceived as the person of principle. There are more cautious versions, however. The strongest defensible version, perhaps, holds that though there may be some moral principles, still the rationality of moral thought and judgment in no way depends on a suitable provision of such things; and the perfectly moral judge would need far more than a grasp on an appropriate range of principles and the ability to apply them. Moral principles are at best crutches that a morally sensitive person would not require, and indeed the use of such crutches might even lead us into moral error.”
Jonathan Dancy and moral particularism were featured on an episode of the NBC comedy, “The Good Place” a few years ago. “The Good Place” is about four people in the afterlife who are trying to become better people by studying ethics. They want to deserve to be the “the good place” – and their strategy is to study ethics. It’s hilarious. They talk about Kant, Sartre, utilitarianism, Kierkegaard, John Rawls. They mention names and ideas of people you’d have to be a total philosophy nerd to have ever heard of: Philippa Foot, Tim Scanlon – as well as this Jonathan Dancy. They talk about the scenario I mentioned of killing one person to save five. The cognitive dissonance that drives philosophy turns out to be more tolerable when it’s also funny.

I do love the concept here, though the evidence, unfortunately, does not support the idea that studying ethics – moral philosophy – has much real connection to being a better person. Studies of actual ethics professors show that they are not more likely to be courteous, more likely to vote, more likely to give to charities, more likely to be vegetarian, or less likely to slip into conferences without paying the conference dues than any other academic. In fact, a survey of which books go missing from academic libraries shows that ethics books go missing more than other philosophy books matched in age and popularity. So studying ethics may not help you be more ethical.

Still, perhaps a life of learning in any field is apt to make us better people. Indeed, most of us feel that learning is, in itself, a component of a good life. The characters in "The Good Place," seeking to become better people, might just as well have taken up the study of economics or chemistry. They happen to have chosen moral philosophy, and I guess that might work as well anything would. Just trying to learn IS becoming better.

The show's protagonists do confront moral dilemmas, and it's nice to see sitcom characters employing the vocabulary of moral philosophy as they wrestle with what to do. As one reviewer wrote, "The Good Place stands out for dramatizing actual ethics classes onscreen, without watering down the concepts being described."

The show ran for four seasons, and by the second season Chidi, who was an ethics professor in life, has settled into the role of serving as the ethics tutor for the other three: Eleanor, Tahani, and Jason. Also, Chidi and Eleanor have an on-again off-again romantic relationship going. In the 11th episode of the 2nd season, Chidi declares himself a Kantian. Chidi has talked about Kant, more or less sympathetically, in many of the episodes, but without committing himself unequivocally. Now our heroes are trying to get to “The Judge” who they hope will rule favorably on their case. To get there, they have to go to The Bad Place and make their way through a room full of demons who are having what is, essentially, a cocktail party. Our heroes must impersonate demons in order to make it through this demon party. They must hide their true identities. They will need to lie. Chidi says:
CHIDI: I hate this. I hate lying. It’s not permissible. I can’t do this.... Kant says that lying is always wrong, and I follow that maxim....Principles aren’t principles when you pick and choose when you’re going to follow them. ("The Good Place," Season 2, episode 11)
Later on, when our heroes have arrived at the cocktail party in Hell and are trying to last it out without being discovered, Chidi manages to pull Eleanor aside for a moment of private conversation.
CHIDI: Those bro demons over there think I’m some kind of great torturer. They want my advice on how to torture some one. Help me.

ELEANOR: You know the answer, dude. Lie your ass off.

CHIDI: No! Lies have consequences. I will have contributed to someone’s eternal torture because I disobeyed a basic Kantian principle. I’m going to be sick, and I don’t want to go back to the bathroom because they put mirrors in the toilet, and that makes you really confront what you’re doing!
ELEANOR: OK, OK. Sit down. [They sit.] Take a breath. Rub your lucky bookmark. Hear me out. What if lying is ethical in this situation? What if certain actions aren’t universally good or bad? Like Jonathan Dancy says.

CHIDI: Jonathan Dancy? Are you talking about moral particularism? We never even covered that. You read on your own?

ELEANOR: You think just because I’m a straight hottie, I can’t read philosophy for fun? Look. Moral particularism says there are no fixed rules that work in every situation. Like, let’s say you promised your friend you’d go to the movies. But then your mom suddenly gets rushed to the ER. Your boy Kant would say never break a promise. Go see “Chronicles of Riddick.” Doesn’t matter if your mom gets lonely and steels a bucket of Vicodin from the nurse’s closet.

CHIDI: Real example?

ELEANOR: Yep! But, a moral particularist like me – I’m one now – I just decided – would say there’s no absolute rule. You have to choose your actions based on the particular situation and right now we are in a pretty bonkers situation.

CHIDI: I don’t think I can change what I believe just like that!

ELEANOR: And I didn’t think I would ever be at a cocktail party in literal Hell, lecturing my teacher-slash-ex-lover about moral particularism, but life throws you curveballs, bro!
And life does throw us curveballs. We get that there’s something noble about the principled stand – that, as Chidi says, “principles aren’t principles when you pick and choose when you’re going to follow them.” But Immanuel Kant was just wrong. Moral principles cannot be absolute. Generally, lying and breaking promises are wrong – the moral ideal is to avoid those as much as possible. But if you’re a gentile homeowner in Holland in the early 1940s, and you have a family of Jews hiding in your attic, when Nazi stormtroopers come around asking questions, it’s time to lie. And, as in Eleanor’s example, when your Mom has just been rushed to the ER, it’s time to break your promise to see a movie with a friend at that time.

Sometimes principles conflict with each other – the principle of protecting life or supporting one’s mother in her time of need might conflict with the principles of not lying and not breaking promises. Conflicting principles can’t both be absolute.

Could the principles be ranked in order of importance so that only one principle, ranked at the top, is truly absolute? If that one is satisfied, then you move to the second, and if that is satisfied, on down to the third, and so on. When principles conflict, you follow the one that is higher ranked.

The problem with this approach is that it supposes that satisfying a principle is all-or-nothing. But principles tend to be variably satisfiable. There’s a difference between being saying something slightly misleading and telling a bald-faced whopper. We might protect life a little bit, or we might protect it a lot. So if a given action would violate the top-ranked principle a little bit, but not doing that action would violate the second-ranked principle a lot, then maybe it’s the second principle that should govern in that case. Once we admit that possibility, then it’s useless to try rank-ordering the principles.

Can we have principles without making them absolute or rank-ordering them? Some philosophers take this approach, seeing moral principles as contributory rather than absolute. For example, in deciding what to say, contributory principles might be “Is it true?” “Is it necessary?” and “Is it kind?” One might take the position that any two of the three is sufficient. If it is necessary and kind, then it need not be true. If it is necessary and true, then it need not be kind. If it is kind and true, then it need not be necessary. Each of the principles contributes, but none is absolute, and they aren’t ranked.

The moral task is to balance the contributions of various principles that apply to the given situation. At this point, are they really principles? Chidi says, “Principles aren’t principles when you pick and choose when you’re going to follow them.” But is "pick and choose" any different from "balance the contributions of various principles"?

“Pick and choose” sounds capricious. And now I think we’re getting to what’s really at stake. We don’t like to think of ourselves as unprincipled because we think of “unprincipled” as capricious or self-serving or both. Love is the answer to both those. Love manifests as care for others, and a steady commitment to care.

Caprice is what happens when we haven’t found our way to, or have lost our way from, our commitments of care. Self-serving is being negligent about appropriate care of others’ concerns and needs – it’s a failure of love. What we mostly do, and that love attunes us to do better, is take in the details of the situation.

Various details provide reasons for doing this or that. When those details are seen in the light of love -- including love for ourselves – then we are guided to respond in compassion and care.

Every situation is full of reasons – that is, details relevant for discerning how to respond. We need to attend to reasons, but Jonathan Dancy’s moral particularism says we don’t need principles.

What we know about human behavior is that by and large, in fact, we don’t follow principles. Nor does talking about principles and declaring allegiance to them, studies find, make people act better. It doesn’t stiffen up waning resolve – just as studying ethics doesn’t make people more ethical. As Dancy, writes:
“There is only one real way to stop oneself distorting things in one’s own favor, and that is to look again, as hard as one can, at the reasons present in the case, and see if really one is so different from others that what would be required of them is not required of oneself. This method is not infallible, I know; but then neither was the appeal to principle.”
Look again, as hard as one can, at the reasons present in the case. Pay attention. Notice. But what is the energy that we need for attending to the details of what is going on? We will be able to attend just so far as we care, so far as we love – love this life, love this world, love each other, our fellow travelers.

Love is the fuel of caring attention, and it is caring attention, not moral principles, that guides us in discerning what to do. As we love more, we pay attention more, notice more, and thus more fuller respond – bringing more of who we are to more of what the world needs.

All you need is love. Our four protagonists in "The Good Place," trying to become better people by studying ethics, do gradually become better people – but, you will notice if you see, or have seen, the show – they become better people through their commitment to each other, through their burgeoning capacity to love.

All you need is love. All you need is love indeed.

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