The Rationalist Prejudice

Professional ethicists seem to love controversy. I myself have been too boring in this regard, but many of my colleagues have provoked heated debate. This often spills out of the safety of academia unto society at large, as many of the past entries in the Practical Ethics blog testify to. And professional ethicists rarely regret sparking off controversy, for this in many of their view amounts to inviting more people to think and that cannot be a bad thing. Behind this is an implicit, and rationalist assumption that subjecting generally accepted – and thus hitherto uncontroversial – norms and practices under critical scrutiny is always a good thing to do. They believe that public debate over an ethical problem is likely to generate a wide range of ideas which may eventually lead to a solution; and that to make people think harder and talk openly about ethical issues has intrinsic value. It is part of the ethicist’s job, then, to be controversial. Indeed, it is what practical ethics is really about in some people’s opinion.

Is the rationalist assumption sound, though?

Certainly, there is something to be said for it. After all, many of what may reasonably be described as the achievements of human moral progress could not have happened unless somebody took the task, and often the burden, of challenging and critically scrutinising traditionally held beliefs. Slavery and gender inequality used to be taken for granted; interracial marriage used to be considered morally repulsive and was illegal in some parts of the world. Those and other past prejudices are fortunately gone. Of course, rational scrutiny by itself has never been and will never be enough to bring about significant moral and political change. It must be complemented by campaigning, pamphleteering, bargaining, compromise, agitation, mobilisation and sometimes even violence. But rational scrutiny is vitally important because good reason must be shown to promote a cause. Otherwise, indoctrination will replace persuasion, might will make right.

However, pace my over-rationalist colleagues, this does not mean that rational scrutiny is always a good thing to do. For one thing, there are many questions that do not deserve serious consideration. For example, ethicists do not need to ponder – at least for now – whether literally going back in time by time machine is a solution to historical injustice. In addition, there are some ethical issues that have been settled and settled for good. We do not need to seriously consider whether slavery should be restored, or whether a certain category of people may be massacred because they are of a ‘wrong’ kind. A society where a public debate occurs over those issues is worse than a society where it does not. If so, provoking controversy on settled issues can amount to doing damage to the society we live in. Of course, what issues have been settled and what have not is highly contestable; one should indeed raise a voice of dissent if one has good reason to do so, even if the voice is likely to upset the fabric of society. Yet one should not forget that trying to put what seems like a long-settled ethical issue back on the agenda often comes with a significant price to pay as well as potential benefits to gain.

That said, the most important objection to the rationalist assumption seems to me to lie elsewhere; it is about opportunity cost. Neither professional ethicists nor the public can afford to discuss everything with equal seriousness. Rational scrutiny costs. While we consider X, we cannot consider Y. This week’s op-ed has to focus on this issue, not others. If so, we must judge which issues matter more, which less. In our world where resources are limited, we cannot afford to critically examine everything. This is especially true in academia, where zero-sum competition for resources inevitably occurs between different branches of an institution. If a grant is given to ethics, it was not given to other potentially useful subjects such as pharmacology and social policy. Utility is not everything, but it requires due consideration.

If what I’ve said is right, then the rationalist assumption turns out to be a prejudice – and a potentially harmful one. By endorsing the rationalist prejudice, one may be taking our attention away from what really matters and doing damage to our society.

Unfortunately, professional ethicists in this age of growing academic competition and ‘impact factor’ measurement are in a way structurally incentivised to badly judge what matters. We are pressured to show that we are doing something – that our papers are cited, our ideas discussed, our output ‘making a difference’. This is a legitimate and even admirable goal to pursue, but it can work perversely today because one lazy way of numerically increasing the ‘impact’ of research is to scandalise. Defend a ridiculous ethical position you do not even believe in, and you may be a ‘high impact’ ethicist! In the long run, then, we need a better way of assessing the significance of research in ethics to reduce the incentives to scandalise and to vulgarise the discipline. A word of caution is in order in the meantime: we should resist the rationalist prejudice or we will do disservice to what we care about.

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