Can we think our way to ethical behavior?

Dr. X asks a fascinating question (which emerges from The Splintered Mind): does thinking about ethical behaviour lead to less ethical thinking?

It can, he says. Thinking can just make it easier to rationalise unethical behaviour: “Not returning this library book on ethics isn’t stealing, nobody else reads these things anyway…”

Dr. X concludes:

Fruitful self-examination that recognizes the implicit themes, the contradictions, the gaps and the subtleties (or lack of subtlety) in our conscious experience is a capacity that is cultivated over time by consistently applying oneself to a process that can be painful, anxiety-provoking and depressing as we give up the lies we tell ourselves to make our lives more bearable. Rational examination has a role to play in this self-exploration, but deeper familiarity with the much larger role played by irrational, unconscious mental activity is critical to getting the most out of self-reflection.

A couple of points occur to me:
a. Conscious thought can help.
It is possible to end up going, “Aargh, though I don’t feel like doing it, pulling my car over to help that person change a tire is the right thing to do (it’s what I’d want someone to do for me and I’ll like the feeling of ‘being a good person’…). I.e. it can lead to good behaviour, if not to selfless motives.

b. Conscious thought may not help, of course.
We all know about the bystander effect. Presumably all those dozens of people who saw Kitty Genevese being murdered and did nothing rationalised it to themselves: “It’ll be embarrassing if I make a big fuss and I’ve misread the situation; if it is bad someone else will call the cops.”

c. Reflective reflection.
Dr. X’s notion of ‘unreflective reflection’ brings some light to the matter. Ethical reflection that is worth a damn (what matters is ethical behaviour, after all) can certainly benefit from rigourous, honest introspection – asking oneself whether one is pulling the wool over one’s own eyes, rationalising, being defensive…. In this respect perspectival distance can help: “What would I say if someone else was thinking/acting like this?”

d. The problem of male fides – bad faith.
But there is one element that must be added, one proviso made. Yes, it’s my current bugbear – psychopathy. Unless there is good faith, reflection (deep or otherwise) is only going to folded into the determination to get one’s way.


9 thoughts on “Can we think our way to ethical behavior?

  1. the problem of whether an “expert” in x is expected to be a good practitioner of x in his or her life seems to me to put too much burden on the notion of “expertise.” we do not expect, after all, (or maybe i do not!) a psychotherapist or a doctor to be meaningfully healthier, psychologically and physically, than the norm, or an art critic to be better at making art that the average joe, etc.

    there seems to me, in other words, to be a fundamental qualitative difference between working out the theory of something and being good and being that something.

    i had more to say but i left this for late at night and i am too sleepy to think clearly on this. i’ll leave you with these thoughts and pick them up again tomorrow!

  2. I think Dr X smuggles in his conclusion. He speaks of ‘fruitful self-examination’, which I dare say is fruitful.

    He offers no guidance to this process.

    I hasten to add that I agree with him and that familiarity with ‘unconscious’ activity is more important. (But when I am conscious of it does this more it is not unconscious anymore. How on earth could I possible consciously examine an unconscious?)

    I think part of the problem is the lack of precision in words like reflection, rationality and so on.

    There is a linear reason whose main value is instrumental. There is an ethical reflectiveness which can question the value of instrumental reason. There is an analytical process which can be applied to both of these.

    It is important to understand in my view that all these are different aspects of the whole and the whole story.

    I think we do need spaces and places where we have the time to reflect and analyse. If we can help others and ourselves to see ourselves and each other clearly I believe this will be ethically beneficial. This requires a commitment to listening and responding authentically (as well as safeguarding the right to secrets).

    I think that reason can be useful to pursue ethical behaviour but I don’t think that we can think our way to ethics.

  3. ama – I believe we’re on the same wavelength about this. Actually you’ve shown me a connection running through my own posts that I didn’t notice. A short time ago I made a big song and dance about ‘The artist is not the same as the art” but didn’t continue the idea with regards professors of ethics.

  4. this is the more i wanted to say — it’s back now that i’m more awake! “spontaneous” virtuous behavior is the result of a lifetime of training. often, granted, such training happens unthinkingly — virtuous behaviors are imbibed through community life, starting with one’s family, church, etc. typically, though, if you ask a virtuous person why he or she acts virtuously in a specific context, you will find deeply held beliefs. people know when what they do is right and tend to know why. acting right is typically not easy, so one has to keep talking to oneself about it: “oh, man, i’m tired, i don’t want to stop to help this person change their car tire, but i’ll do it anyway” sort of thing.

    so it seems to me that reflection, this kind of moral reflection that is rooted in deeply held values, is a good moral prop. the other kind of reflection, that which rationalizes away bad behaviors, is there too, of course, and god knows we all employ it, but in a way it’s good too… it’s a good sign. i prefer to think of myself as agonizing about whether to return a library book i really like and then finding some sophistic way to keep it, than pocket the book without a second thought. so ethical thinking may go either way, the good way or the bad way, but in either case it is part of the ethical mind at work, and that, in itself, seems very good to me.

    long long reply.

    why are you so interested in psychopaths? i remember taking a class on psychopaths in grad school (english, not psychology). it was fun, at the time. then it seemed to me there wasn’t a whole lot more to the subject than could be covered in a semester, so i moved on.

    my favorite filmic portrayal of a psychopath is hannibal lecter in silence of the lamb. his sub-erotic play with jodie foster’s character is beautiful. in books, gosh, i can’t think now… patricia highsmith’s ripley of course (fabulous character), but also, maybe, osmond (isabel archer’s husband) in portrait of a lady?

    do you find yourself tempted to see psychopaths in extremely immoral people?

  5. evan – Thanks for the clarification on the concepts – something like ‘reflection’ raises more questions than it answers.
    ama – 1. You raise a fascinating idea: it is better to act unethically after grappling than to behave unethically without a second thought.
    2. Why am I so interested in psychopathy? I didn’t realise I was until I started writing about it.
    3. I believe psychopaths are highly moral, even puritanical people – it’s just that their moral code has nothing to do with your moral code.

  6. 3. I believe psychopaths are highly moral, even puritanical people – it’s just that their moral code has nothing to do with your moral code.

    i hope one day you’ll feel like writing more about this… i think i have a glimpse of what you are talking about, but it’s only a foggy glimpse. have you read the ripley novels? or at least watched the ripley films?

  7. Wow! I didn’t expect so much interest in this. Let me try to address some of what has been said.

    “there seems to me, in other words, to be a fundamental qualitative difference between working out the theory of something and being good and being that something.”

    This is so, but the original post I wrote about wasn’t asking why ethicists are no better ethically than the rest of us. That post raised the possibility that ethicists might actually be less ethical than the rest of us. If true, the question would be: why might people who spend so much time thinking about ethics turn out to be LESS ethical than the rest of us? Splintered mind offered the caterpillar explanation. I elaborated with a missing element: unconscious motives for all that thinking about ethics.

    We see these dynamics every day in our practices: conflict generates defensive activity. One who is troubled by guilt over impulses or wishes might expend a great time and effort trying to work out ways to manage that conflict. (I would exclude psychopaths and certain other character pathologies here).

    Unconscious conflict is often dealt with through symptomatic compromise. For example, acting directly on the wish to steal something that doesn’t belong to me might cause me a great deal of guilt so I might defensively dress up my motivation with an intellectual rationalization for my action. In this way I can gratify the wish to steal with much of the guilt attenuated by the rationalization.

    Regarding not returning a library book, I might attribute my failure to return the book to carelessness which might be less morally troubling than a straightforward acknowledgement that I’m keeping a book that doesn’t belong to me simply because I want to keep it.” The compromise is not perfect, but it makes things more tolerable.

    “How on earth could I possible consciously examine an unconscious?”

    The intent in my post was merely to introduce the notion of unconscious motivation and defense to the question raised by Splintered Mind in his original post. This was entirely missing from his caterpillar explanation.

    Decent treatment of the question of how to investigate unconscious activity is well beyond the scope of what can be accomplished in a blog post. That’s why it requires years of study and one’s own experience on the couch to accompany others in this kind of examination. Though entirely inadequate, I did say a bit about it in my post:

    “by applying ourselves to a process that leads us to recognize the implicit themes, the unarticulated feelings, the contradictions, the gaps and the subtleties (or lack of subtlety) in our conscious experience.”

    Note my reference to reflection on gaps and implicit themes, for example. We can also look at fantasies, dreams and what the symptoms themselves seem to express. There is much more to it than this, but this is part of the psychoanalytic process. It entails a very different kind of reflection from the rational analysis of an ethicist.


    Your comment about good faith is central and not discussed nearly enough.

  8. ama – I’ll be tacking that issue soon.
    I have seen the Ripley movies and must give the novels a go.
    DrX – Glad to have you on board. The surplus interest in your post must the famous ‘viral effect’ we keep hearing about!
    I enjoy your introduction of the UCs into the philosophical debate. Indeed, the more I think about it the less convincing the original caterpillar effect idea is. If I don’t return a library book and say that it was because I was thinking so much aboiut it that…the library police would be justified in thinking I was making an excuse. The caterpillar effect fits better with ‘choking’ – e.g. overthinking one’s tennis serve. has a nice piece on this.

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