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Where do morals come from?


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At Public Books, Philip Gorski, a professor of sociology at Yale, reviews the book Ethical Life: Its Natural and Social Histories by Webb Keane. Gorski begins by asserting that the social sciences lack an intellectually and morally satisfying theory of ethical life; he dismisses both rationalist and relativist accounts of ethics as inadequate. This glaring lack, Gorski writes, is precisely what Webb Keane is trying to fill with his book. Here’s an excerpt from the review:

Still, for all their faults, the rationalist and relativist accounts are not so easily dismissed either. A good social scientific theory of ethical life would need to be compatible with both our current understanding of human evolution and the brute fact of cultural diversity. It would need to show how natural selection could give rise to human ethics. And it would need to show how human history could lead to variation and change in ethical life. It would somehow have to square universalism and historicism. That is a tall order, but that is the aim of Webb Keane’s Ethical Life

As a linguistic anthropologist, Keane is especially interested in the ethical affordances created by human language. He puts particular stress on abstraction and generalization. Like joint attention, language probably first evolved as a means of coordinating action, rather than labeling things. But the one afforded the other. And once humans began labeling, they were already on the road to generalizing. Labeling requires categorizing, after all. But, again, what does this have to do with ethics? A lot, Keane argues. The capacity for generalizing via language can also be applied to ethics. It can be used to formulate rules, maxims, and codes of behavior. This is important, because ethics is often implicit. Much of our “moral reasoning” doesn’t involve conscious reasoning at all. It is driven by moral emotions such as anger and disgust, or sympathy and benevolence. And it is expressed through habitual responses such as headshaking or handshaking. We can also be called to account for our responses. Often, we can even give a rational explanation of these responses after the fact. Once we have done so, however, that explanation may be subject to dispute. For example, we may be told that we were wrong to feel disgusted or angry when we saw two men holding hands on the street. We can imagine various responses depending on the context. “There’s nothing wrong with being gay!” “In the Middle East, holding hands is just an expression of male friendship.” And so on. The point is that once an ethical response has been made explicit, it is subject to discussion and debate. And discussion and debate might lead us to monitor our habitual responses. Eventually, it might even bring about a change in our emotional responses. Seeing two men holding hands might bring a smile to our faces, instead of a grimace. Indeed, that has been one of the greatest ethical transformations in contemporary Western societies in recent decades.

This is how ethical transformation often happens, namely, through conceptual redescription. Keane gives the example of “consciousness raising” in the feminist movement of the 1960s and 1970s. Women learned to redescribe their life experiences with new concepts such as “patriarchy” and “sexual harassment.” And this changed their emotional responses to these experiences—from melancholy to anger. Consciousness raising led to policy demands such as equal pay for equal work, but it also led to interactional demands, e.g., for nonsexist language. And inevitably so, says Keane, because ethics is not just a matter of impersonal rules; it is also entwined with personal interactions. Ethics is second-personal as well as third-personal.

Image of prisoner’s dilemma sequence via Public Books.