Guest Post: Impractical ethics

Written by Constantin Vica

Postdoctoral Fellow, Romanian Academy Iasi Branch

Research Center in Applied Ethics, University of Bucharest

This post is not, as one might expect, about that part of ethics which is not concerned about practical issues, e.g. meta-ethics. Neither is it about moral philosophical endeavors which are incomprehensible, highly conceptual and without any adherence to real people’s lives. And, more than that, it is not about how impractical a philosophy/ethics diploma is for finding a job.

One month ago Peter Singer, the leading ethicist and philosopher, was ‘disinvited’ from a philosophy festival in Cologne. It wasn’t the first time such a thing happened and perhaps Peter Singer wasn’t too impressed by the incident. Despite all of these things, the fact has a not-so-nice implication: “you, the practical ethicist, are not welcome to our city!” Of course, Peter Singer is not the first philosopher ‘disinvited’ (horribile dictu) by an ‘honorable’ audience; the history of philosophy and free thinking has an extensive collection of undesirable individuals expelled, exiled, and even killed by furious or ignorant citizens and stubborn elites. But, one might wonder, what is different this time?

The core idea of practical ethics is to provide sound arguments and tools for moral assessments in practical matters ranging from abortion, euthanasia and gene editing to future care-robots. Practical ethics is a real companion, not like the skeptical, ironical, or cynical art of philosophical mesmerization (which has, nevertheless, its virtues, although it antagonizes people without philosophical training). It is a companion which asks that reasonable and sensible argumentation be developed in time, alongside a sense of equilibrium, an attempt for disenchantment and de-tabooization (but not an odd effort for cultural de-identification), etc. It is not here to replace people’s beliefs or their commitments. A companion is not forcing hands, it does not patronize or act in a paternalistic way, and it also could not prevent you from doing foolish things. Its sole role is to persuade or convince you to put different ‘ethical glasses’ on your nose. Like any optical instrument, it could help change or clarify perspectives, it could change exposure to light or offer ‘night-vision’.

A plea for practical ethics as a companion is sometimes doomed to fail. And I believe this is exactly what happened during the last two years. Religious and ideological fundamentalisms are on the rise due to economic and political crises, moral panics became in this day and age a powerful manipulation tool, propaganda and media are often undiscernible, political corruption is spreading even in democratic states and societies. How could practical ethics counter-react in front of these ‘moral diseases’? An invitation to reflection based on the inclusivity of opinions and principles could be made only for reasonable people who can adopt, at least for the sake of their arguments, a neutral and impartial position. Also, a standard of coherent dialogue should be achieved. These pre-requisites (or conditions of possibility) for practical ethics make impractical any appeal to it in times of fear and disdain. This view doesn’t entail refraining from practicing practical ethics, it rather tries to show we have to change the strategy.

As a second problem, the public philosopher could be entrapped by marketing. The struggle to be visible in media, to be marketable, to be a voice to be heard – the altruistic motivation for doing such things doesn’t count – could be a bad strategy in the long run. Media, new and old, are structured by economic forces targeting the same point: the expansion of capital. Philosophy, even the public one, aims at ‘seeking’ the truth; but truth and financial capital are not compatible categories of gaining. The laws of visibility are forcing public ethicists to lower their intellectual discourse in order to reach a bigger audience. From Facebook to publishing houses, in our economy of attention, to be public means to struggle for publicity and coverage. “The scandal sells”, any media editor or publisher can guarantee you. And the hotter the topic, the bigger the sales. Practical ethics and practical philosophy have to be done in a cold, not affectionate way, in order to seek the truth. In the heat of the media, this necessary coldness is often lost. And without its chilliness, practical ethics is impractical to follow.

My pessimistic account could be overcome if we look at the incredible increase of academic research centers in practical ethics, applied ethics, practical philosophy and so on in most countries. Also, columns in respectable newspapers, blogs, and books conjure an image of a rapidly developing field. Moreover, never in the history of ideas has ethics been so praised and valued on the market (how many students did Aristotle have and how many are interested today in practical ethics, if we estimate them proportionally with the educated public belonging to the two periods? I believe we are far ahead.) This momentum could be lost in the coming years. Proliferation could lead to inflation. The ‘laws’ of media marketing could transform the cold logic and containment of our companion into a beast eager to beat any opponent. And it could, finally, destroy the game.

The strategy I mentioned before starts from knowing and framing the game. Religious ethics, which falls sometimes in a branch of religious propaganda, is still our main opponent. One of its most dangerous allies comes from the corrupted and populist politician interested only in gaining power. Together they can, and often do, change public policies and impose mind frames, especially where a system of justice is not in place or it is, at its turn, corrupted. Nonetheless, practical ethics, being cold and unaffectionate, doesn’t offer compassion (even if it argues in its favor) but rational criticism which can be painful for regular persons. Therefore the persons concerned will search for ‘love’, ‘forgiveness’ and ‘promises’, the main currency of religious clerks and populist politicians.

A network of cooperation and solidarity between people in the field of practical and applied ethics is one answer to the issue. Alternative media can be developed for coordinated responses specific to every situation. And a typical case for necessary reaction is blatant propaganda and misinformation (organized as informational cascades) driven by fundamentalist groups.

The fact that Peter Singer was ‘disinvited’ should have been a strong motivation to react and to manifest a solidarity not (only) with the person, but for the conditions of possibility of any debate in our field. Sometimes, lost in our bibliographies and ideas, we tend to forget how fragile our game is.



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One Response to Guest Post: Impractical ethics

  • Anthony Drinkwater says:

    I agree, Constantin.
    Although I would dispute many of Peter Singer’s views, “disinviting” him is an attack on the concept of free speech which every serious current or past philosopher has held dear.
    It’s not a matter of solidarity with him or his ideas that is at stake, but the very essence of what constitutes debate.
    Although denying platforms to speakers with unpopular views seems to be a trend in many fields, one could have hoped that philosophy would know different.
    But I’m not sure that it’s the fault of religious or fundamentalist groups : conference oragnisers don’t have to give in to them, after all.


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