Troppo Armadillo is clearly in tune with the zeitgeist. I posted a long article about values and civility several weeks ago. Now I see Don Arthur has also posted a shorter piece on the subject, musing that “deep civility” might be regarded as a core value of classical liberalism:
We don’t know how to resolve disagreements about whether a good life is one devoted to serving God or one devoted to enlightened self interest. We don’t know how to reach a consensus about which moral values are most important or what words like freedom or fairness mean in practice. It’s impossible to say that these are not important issues but it’s also impossible to reach agreement. People don’t disagree with us about these things because they are mad, ignorant, or stupid.
The liberal response to differences like these is to agree to disagree. We don’t give up our own beliefs, our own ambitions for society, or our own feelings about what others say and do. What we do is agree to respect other people for who they are and in return we ask them to respect us for who we are.
When politicians start talking about values, it’s time to strap on the bullshit detector and fire up the hypocrisy quotient indicator, because there’s hardly a politician alive who’s going to live up to their rhetoric. …
While it’s certainly admirable that the people within Government have values that they hold dear, the last thing I want is for the Government itself to start going large on values and let those values affect policy. We can already see quite clearly what happens when Christian values infect Government policy. …
The problem is that values only get in the way of a Government’s primary duty: to protect and care for the citizens it represents. Until recently, Governments used to use social science and specialist expertise to determine what would protect and care for its citizens. Now we have Bush and Kerry, Howard and Latham, Blair and whoever the hell opposes Blair (anyone? anyone at all?) pushing “values” in Government, as opposed to rational, researched decision making. It is a terrible, incongruous debate that has nothing to do with appropriately Governing a country; but also one no politician can ignore. The first politician that blinks and says he’ll use rational decision making over value judgements is going to get his arse kicked in the political arena. Which is why, post November, you can lay a safe bet that the US President will be a guy who has one set of values for America, and another for his administration.
There’s an assumption involved in Neale’s reaction that’s worth exploring; namely that deciding issues ‘rationally’, and deciding them in accordance with some pre-agreed set of values, are mutually exclusive and antithetical methodologies. But is that true? Certainly the classical utilitarian critique of deontological (duty-based e.g. Kant) theories of moral philosophy would say so. Consequentialists deny the utility of deriving values/morality independently of a prior assessment of likely consequences and their capacity to maximise some generally-accepted good (most commonly happiness):
Advocates of personal liberty question the traditional duties to ourselves. For example, the right to suicide is now widely defended, and the right to self-rule implies that I can let my faculties and abilities deteriorate if I so choose. Finally, many of the traditional duties to others have also been under fire. Defenders of personal liberty question our duties of benevolence, such as charity, and political duties, such as public spirit. For some, the traditional list of self-evident duties needs to be reduced to one: the duty to not harm others. Another problem with traditional duty theory is that there is no clear procedure for resolving conflicts between duties. Suppose I am placed in a situation where I must choose between feeding myself to avoid starvation, or feeding my neighbor to keep her from starving. Consequentialist theories provide a clear formula for resolving this conflict: the morally correct choice is the one which produces the greatest benefit (either to myself, or to society at large). Traditional duty theory, by contrast, does not offer a procedure for determining which obligation is primary. Without such a procedure, it is inadequate in its present form.
But consequentialist approaches themselves aren’t immune to criticism (see Andrew Halpin, Rights & Law – Analysis and Theory):
- It’s impossible to ascertain all consequences, and any purported attempt to do so is inherently arbitrary and biased, and may neglect other consequences that are significant;
- The most significant impact each individual can have on the general good is by ensuring that his own behaviour is moral rather than by focusing on the remoter consequences of his behaviour in the actions of others. (This wouldn’t negate the value of governments (as opposed to individuals) engaging in a consequential analysis as a precursor to policy decisions, apart from anything else because governments have greater resources to do so and their decisions typically have much wider and longer-lasting consequences than those of individuals);
- A contemplated lapse from moral duty may have wider consequences than the immediate breach, in establishing a pattern of conduct or attitudes that will in general do more harm than the perceived good used to justify this particular breach;
- Shared values or morality contribute in themselves to social utility, in that they facilitate social cohesion, peace and stability, which are in turn outcomes conducive to happiness (although that may be negated to the extent that shared values are maintained by coercion, and especially if the shared values don’t include the sort of tolerance, respect and deep civility that Don Arthur discusses).
In my previous post about manners, values and civility, I attempted to provoke a discussion about what shared values Australians might be able to agree upon. I failed dismally, possibly because most readers didn’t bother to wade through to the end of a very long post. So I’ll try again, because this post is a bit shorter. J.M Ross, who was the last of the notable deontological theorists, proposed the following list of shared values/duties:
- Fidelity: the duty to keep promises
- Reparation: the duty to compensate others when we harm them
- Gratitude: the duty to thank those who help us
- Justice: the duty to recognize merit
- Beneficence: the duty to improve the conditions of others
- Self-improvement: the duty to improve our virtue and intelligence
- Nonmaleficence: the duty to not injure others.
I would add the following:
- Deep civility: the duty of tolerance and respect of others’ behaviour, opinions and being;
- Democratic participation: the duty of democratic citizenship, which minimally involves exercising one’s vote in a reasonably informed manner, and preferably involves rather more than that (participation in opinion-forming civic dialogue – like the blogosphere).
Perhaps some of the above list might appropriately be regarded as legal duties (i.e. enforceable), but most are better regarded as purely moral duties i.e. there are no immediate consequences for breach other than social disapproval. Moreover, the extent of disapproval will vary from duty to duty and between particular situations. For example, the extent of my disapproval of a broken promise might depend on the consequences of the breach for the promisee, and disapproval of failure to thank someone might depend on how much effort or sacrifice they put into helping you and how much benefit you received. Similarly, I’m unlikely to disapprove strongly of a person who habitually engages in ad hominem abuse declining to participate in civic dialogue. In fact I’d prefer they didn’t. Assessment of consequences isn’t absent from the operation of a practical deontological approach, it just post-dates determination of the content of duty.
Moreover, even up-front assessment of likely consequences is necessarily part of a deontological approach. Kant’s Categorical Imperative inherently involves assessment of consequences in answering the question of whether my conduct is fit to be “a universal law of nature”. Consequentialist and deontological approaches aren’t diametrically opposed, they just emphasise different aspects of the process of deciding what’s right and wrong and acting upon those rules. In fact both consequentialist and deontological approaches necessarily derive norms intuitively: – a proposed rule/duty can’t be derived independently of history, culture and experience. However, consequentialist approaches aspire to test likely consequences of a proposed rule in a more extensive and systematic way than (say) Kant’s Categorical Imperative. The other difference is that deontological theories maintain that there may be some rules which will apply irrespective of the balance of actual or likely consequences e.g. deliberately killing a child is always wrong, even if thousands may benefit).
Feel free to dispute any of the above list in the comment box, or add your own. The main criterion is that they must be values/duties that we should regard as common core values of all Australians, and therefore proposed shared values need to be ones that take account of the fact that Australia is a multicultural, wealthy, secular western liberal-democratic nation where citizens hold a variety of religious beliefs (at least so I would argue). Of course, as Don Arthur notes, it’s unlikely to be possible to reach complete agreement on a set of values like the above, unless they’re so minimalist and vague as to be totally meaningless. But I reckon we might be able to reach a pretty significant level of consensus, and in any event I think the attempt to do so is valuable in itself.