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Sunday, July 03, 2011

Does Existentialism Entail Ethical Relativism?

One of the questions we discussed in my summer existentialism class was that of whether existentialism, as laid out by Simone De Beauvoir, entails ethical relativism. My argument for the conclusion that it does went it as follows:

According to De Beauvoir, you should choose to be free. This means that what you should do depends on what has meaning for you. You should not do what tradition, authorities, caregivers, peers or culture dictate but rather what can add to the meaning of your life. Of course, this does not mean that because your parents told you to go to college, you should not go to college, but only that if you decide to go to college, it should be because it adds to the personal meaning of your life.

Now, "should", familiarly, comes in many different flavors. In "You should stop for red light", the "should" is a legal (and perhaps a prudential) "should". In "You should aim at maximizing true beliefs and minimizing false ones", the "should" is an epistemic "should". And in "You should wear a condom during sex" the "should" is a prudential "should", and so on.

"Should" in these senses can be overridden. For example, if you are taking a dying friend to the hospital, it needn’t be the case that you should stop for red light. If maximizing true beliefs and minimizing false ones implies sitting in your backyard counting leaves rather than going to class, you should go to class, not maximize true beliefs and minimize false ones. And if you are trying to conceive a child, you shouldn't wear a condom during sex.

These sorts of considerations count against there being a special ethical "should" alongside the legal, prudential and epistemic "should"s. For suppose otherwise. Then it could be that, ethically, you should speak the truth. But we all know that the "should" in this case can be overridden. If the Nazis are banging on your door, asking you whether you know the whereabouts of your friend, you should not tell them, even if you know. In this case, then, it cannot be that, ethically, you should tell the truth. We can conjure up similar scenarios for other things you might think you should do, ethically speaking.

The lesson: Practical reason, and hence ethics, concerns what you should do all things considered. So, you should tell the truth in some situations but not in others. If there is an ethical "should", it’s the all-things-considered "should", and the all-things-considered "should" cannot be overridden.

Return now to the existentialist "should". De Beauvoir intends this modality to be an all-things-considered "should". In other words, she does not take it that you should do what adds to the meaning of your life only in some circumstances. She holds that you should always do what adds to the meaning of your life.

But we cannot have two all-things-considered "should"s. So, if existentialism is true, then the existentialist "should" is the only all-things-considered “should” around.

This then straightforwardly leads us to ethical relativism of a rather extreme kind. If it adds to the meaning of your life to kill the kind 90-year old lady next door who brings you delicious baked goods every Sunday morning, then you should kill her all things considered. You get the idea.

What can the existentialist say in response to this?

She could bite the bullet. But that just feels wrong (to me anyway).

Alternatively, she could argue that these kinds of issues don’t arise. This seems to be what De Beauvoir is getting at on p. 23 of The Ethics of Ambiguity. Here she says that we will eventually reason toward certain universal principles. As rational individuals, we won’t kill to add meaning to our lives, for instance.

The problem, though, is this: What are we to say about people who are too rational, such as serial killers, and people who are too emotional or who are plainly stupid?

Perhaps the existentialist could say that you have to possess a certain level of rationality and emotional sophistication to be able to define your own meaning. But the question then remains why people who are not sufficiently rational or who do not have the right level of emotional sophistication are left to lead a meaningless life.

16 comments:

Aaron Boyden said...

A couple of points:

1) Under what circumstances would killing the 90-year old lady next door who brings you delicious baked goods add meaning to your life? Meaning has a coherence requirement; without going so far as Kant and thinking that virtually everything traditional morality condemns involves contradictory intentions, it may still be possible to rule out some things on the basis of irrationality. I see that you consider this, but I find it dubious that you classify serial killers as "too rational."

2) If it adds to the meaning of my life to take steps to prevent such senseless old lady slaughter, I should do that as well; Beauvoir's theory doesn't necessarily say that just because someone should do something, I should let them. And if my shoulds and other people's shoulds are required to coordinate in that way, Kant's contradictions become much easier to find; if it adds meaning to my life for little old ladies to be safe, that becomes a reason for your murderer not to kill them.

I think your last paragraph is on the right track, and that the answer to why those people are left to lead a meaningless life is because rationality and emotional sophistication are the tools you use to define your own meaning. Perhaps it sucks if someone doesn't have the tools, but it would be a misplaced attempt at fairness to pretend that they do when they don't.

Brit Brogaard said...

Thanks for your comments, Aaron!

1) Yes, I already considered that: In the envisaged scenario, there are no good reasons for killing the old lady, in my opinion. But according to Simone De Beauvoir, the meaning you define or create for yourself must come from within.

Killing an old innocent lady would not create meaning for me. But, given what De Beauvoir actually says in The Ethics of Ambiguity, it remains an open question why the killing would be meaningless for someone who doesn't think or feel the way I do.

I mentioned serial killers as an example of people who are too rational and who lack emotion. Ted Bundy is a good example of this.

But whether serial killers are too rational or not is besides the point.

An equally good case would be Damasio's patient David. He was super-rational but lacked the normal range of emotions and would make odd choices (and sometimes no choices when a choice was called for).

2) You are exactly right. You should not let them. You should take the necessary measures to avoid old lady slaughter. According to Simone De Beauvoir, that would be a way of creating meaning for you.

But this does not solve the problem. Given what she actually says, there isn't any good reason for thinking that a person who creates meaning by killing should not do so.

That's exactly why I think De Beauvoir's existentialism, as laid out in the book, implies ethical relativism.

You say that our reasons become a reason for others not to create meaning by killing old ladies. But that's just saying that De Beauvoir's existentialism, as laid out in the book, is wrong.

According to her view, external reasons can only become reasons for other people IF they internalize those reasons, and my point was that some people don't have the capacities for choosing to internalize other people's reasons.

3) Yes, as far as I can see, De Beauvoir can avoid ethical relativism as a consequence of her view only if she holds that only neuro-typical people can lead meaningful lives.

This is an interesting consequence of her view, because it entails that meaning isn't entirely a function of personal creation!

Alan said...

I've taught SK for more years than I care to count, and always stressed the tension between the teleological suspension of the ethical and the (subjective) absolute duty to God, which of course leaves seeming huge conceptual space for a posited non-relativism (in the sense of divine-command-obedience of God's commands) that nonetheless falls within the "fear and trembling" of non-rational compliance. SK seems to want to use the existential situation of our lives to mitigate emotions of horror and revulsion that might rationally-constrained lead us away from Abrahamic-style faith. Clearly (to me at least) SK would not endorse the entailment of relativism by subjectivism because he questions the entailment-relevance of logic itself in these situations. Now I don't know squat about the subject of your lectures--but what would Simone De Beauvoir say as an existentialist about that failure of logic here as SK seems to intone? (I used "intone" instead of "imply" to avoid contradiction!)

Alan said...

And to be clearer, Brit, I mean that I take SK in existentialism to make a case for (I can't say logically argue can I?) a meta-view about the irrelevance of logical entailment here. Existentialism can't entail relativism because the situation of our existence disposes logic to triviality in relation to what really matters. Language almost fails me here as constrained by logical structure--which is what motivated SK in the first place (I take it).

Aaron Boyden said...

I still think you're too quick to attribute rationality, or even super-rationality, in some highly questionable cases. More importantly, I also reject the notion that this could be phrased in terms of saying that only neuro-typical people can lead meaningful lives. Or at least I probably do; I don't know what exactly you mean by neuro-typical, but under most of the obvious interpretations it seems like the wrong standard; certainly if you mean it in some statistical sense, and also if you mean it in some mildly more sophisicated teleo-functional sense.

Only we can decide what's meaningful. That doesn't mean that just anything can be meaningful; some things just don't make sense, just don't count as choices at all. But that isn't determined by whether those making the choices are "typical," that's determined by what we choose to accept. And if we conclude that some others aren't really making meaninful choices, we have to take responsibility for drawing that conclusion, and it is we who decide that, but that certainly isn't saying that we can't decide that, or that we have to punt to biology or psychology to brand the others "atypical" in order to do it (indeed, that would be cheating, ducking our responsibility for our decision). And it's not saying we can't get it wrong (if our decision turns out not to be meaningful to us after all; again something for us to decide, but not the same as saying that there's no possibility at all).

I may be reading too much Sartre into this, but I've always heard he got most of his good ideas from Beauvoir. I suppose it's possible I'm also reading too much Nietzsche into this, for which I probably have less excuse. But the central idea, which seems correct to me, is that there can't be a final objective truth about what's valuable and meaningful, because not only are all the candidates laughable, but the whole idea is incoherent; progress and change are a requirement for life to be meaningful, so any final stopping point would describe a meaningless way to live. So we must be able to make judgments of "better" and "meaningful" and "valuable" that are based on something less than this final standard, and they'd better be good enough for now as they're the best we can do for now (though we hope we'll be making them better tomorrow). And it does seem, at least to me, that we can.

Brit Brogaard said...

Hi Alan, to answer your question, you would need to tell me how Kierkegaard avoids the implication. He doesn't question logic as such. So, which premise does he reject?

Brit Brogaard said...

Hi Aaron, The question isn't whether there can be objective meaning. The question is whether De Beauvoir's existentialism entails ethical relativism.

Suppose it adds meaning to John's life to kill his kind neighbor, from his perspective. What makes that choice incoherent?

If it isn't incoherent, then to avoid ethical relativism, we'll have to restrict De Beauvoir's proposal in some way. That is, it cannot be true that we must always choose our own meaning without an eye to the consequences our choices might have for others.

A natural way to do that would be to say that only neuro-typical people can make those free choices.

I don't know who counts as neuro-typical. I made up the term some time ago, because I was sick and tired of the phrase "normal person".

Presumably, a neuro-typical person is someone who is average relative to some relevant reference class.

bjartok said...

Interesting. I haven't read de Beauvoir. Nevertheless, some thoughts and questions:

a) What do you mean by saying that serial killers are "too rational"? Either morality has to do with rationality (e.g. Kant), in which case a serial killer cannot be too rational (unless we have very revisionary views on moral matters), or it has not (e.g. Hume), in which case the serial killer's rational abilities would be irrelevant.

b) I don't see how the suggestion (that only people with rational and emotional sophistication - alternatively: neuretypicals (are those concepts supposed to be trivially co-extensional?) - can live free and meaningful lives) can do the trick. Either "rational and emotional sophistication" is itself ethically laden (circle) or "neurotypical" is merely a statistical notion, which doesn't tell against relativism (majority doesn't mean right).

c) It seems more promising to work with the second suggestion you make (it might even be in keeping with the text): Taking responsibility for one's ends, and then pursuing them, could be compatible with a moral realism in the same way taking responsibility for one's beliefs is compatible with realism in general. We don't look to tradition, authorities, caregivers, etc. to determine what we should believe either. We look for what makes sense. Here "what makes sense" cannot mean mere consistency. It would mean something like what it is rational to believe, given our knowledge. Could we not read "give meaning to one's life" more in line with the way we "give meaning to our beliefs"? We cannot regard believing as a merely passive matter. I cannot regard my beliefs as something that merely befalls me, as illnesses do. People can be critisized for epistemic irreponsibility. On the other hand, believing is not decision (pace voluntarism). It is not up to us to determine what makes sense or not, even adding the subjective "what makes sense to me".

This would avoid the decisionism that the existentialist idiom sometimes encourages. To me it seems sensible. I realize though that it might not be sufficient for the existentialist's understanding of free choice and the creation of meaning in a supposedly meaningless universe. However it seems more satisfying than the alternatives.

Brit Brogaard said...

@ bjartok: a) I mentioned serial killers only as an example of hyper-rational agents. Any hyper-rational agent would do for my purposes (real or fictive).

That said, many serial killers in history have been hyper-rational agents. Ted Bundy is good example of this.

Rationality and ethical behavior are two different things. To be able to behave ethically, you will need empathy and emotion.

b) True. Majority doesn't mean right. But it does, in fact, solve the problem I raised. The concrete problem I raised was this: What are we to say about someone who freely chooses to kill the old lady next door. As a matter of fact, only a minority of people would freely choose to do this.

But you are right. "Neurotypical" cannot simply be taken to refer to what's average. The terms is problematic for the exact same reasons that "normal" is problematic.

In any event, reference to some such notion is needed in order for the existentialist to avoid ethical relativism.

c) Yes, what you suggest here is close to what De Beauvoir is suggesting. But it doesn't address the problem. Some individuals are not going to be able to make the "right" choices. So, the question remains, what should we say about these "atypical" agents?

Anonymous said...

Hi Brit--

Again, I simply am ignorant of the existentialist tradition except for SK and some Sartre and Camus. (Personal revelation: I was many years ago a ministerial student until I read SK's F&T and immediately and permanently lost my faith. Part of the reason is that, well, SK's faith involves losing one's total commitment to reason at the very least. And rational views of faith seem sterile at best. Can't do that either way. Which, of course, expresses my commitment to reason.) So certainly take my concerns with a grain of salty ignorance.

But it does seem to me that SK uses the dialectic of logical paradox to undermine the relevance of logic itself for determining existential truth. So in effect he uses logic to undermine logic because it only produces paradox at the level of chosen and subjectively embraced truth. The end-point of that is that, at a higher level of existential dialectic (if I may still call it that), he places logically unsecured subjective truth beyond the reach of logical deduction. So (e.g.) the logical disjunction of relativism or non-relativism as some conclusion about how morality works is put beyond our reach by recognizing the conflicts that logic alone produces--subjectivism simply cannot embrace such exclusive categories because they cannot be the basis for real existential choice and action, or for evaluating such. (This I take it is the difference between the knights of infinite resignation and faith: the former cannot abandon moral logic; the latter must.) Again, I would insist that SK would resist the relevance of logic to life in terms of reliable existential truths. In his own way SK says "Trust the Force, Luke!"

I can't say what Simone means. Or that someone like me--or maybe you too Brit--can't analyze existential claims from an "outside existentialism" rational stance. But I think SK ultimately uses logic to show it can't be trusted for exhibiting existential truth, and that relativism or non-relativism are inappropriate kinds of logical categories to classify particular moral truths.

Alan said...

Brit--the last post was mine--Alan--I simply mindlessly posted an an anon.

Aaron Boyden said...

OK, let me try to approach this from a different angle. Is Kant a relativist? If so, then I'd agree that certainly Beauvoir is as well. If not, well, Kant says that the moral law is something that comes from me; I am the legislator in the kingdom of ends. And you legislate the moral law too. What makes that not relativism? And whatever your answer is, why is it unavailable to Beauvoir?

Brit Brogaard said...

@Alan. Interesting! However, there is a difference between setting up a paradox in some area and dismissing logic.

A paradox can be resolved by showing either that the inference wasn't valid after all or that one of the seemingly true premises is false.

This is what De Beauvoir is up to in the Ethics of Ambiguity. She argues that the premise that the meaning of life can be derived only from its ultimate instrumental value is false.

If Kierkegaard dismisses (classical) logic, what sort of logic does he adhere to? I don't think he is an opponent of (classical) logic.

Brit Brogaard said...

@Aaron. Probably few people would say that Kant is a relativist.

The difference is that Kant thinks that ethical law is objective. This is his starting point. De Beauvoir's starting point is existential deontology.

One correction: De Beauvoir is not an ethical relativist. She argues against it. This post was an attempt to settle her with ethical relativism.

Aaron Boyden said...

I certainly wouldn't call the objectivity of ethics Kant's starting point, and he does insist that ethical law does not depend on anything external to the legislator (remember that he claims to be the first to have produced an ethics of autonomy, in contrast to the heteronomous ethics that came before). I think you are too quick to see Kant's approach and Beauvoir's as entirely different; the emphasis is perhaps very different, but the substance may not be.

Ryan B. said...

Hi, Berit.

I would like to address your question regarding ethical relativism and the problem concerning the nice old lady next door. From what I can tell, it has not been address in such a way within this blog and only partially by Krista on the discussion board.

You wrote: “This then straightforwardly leads us to ethical relativism of a rather extreme kind. If it adds to the meaning of your life to kill the kind 90-year old lady next door who brings you delicious baked goods every Sunday morning, then you should kill her all things considered. You get the idea.”

To me De Beauvoir's answer, in this case, is obvious: You should not kill the lady next door. The reason is this: we add meaning to our life (i.e., justify our existence) by pursuing freedom, a pursuit which is individualistic in its origin but which finds commonality within and consideration for the hoards of individuals that make up the world of today and the world of tomorrow--it finds fulfillment in opening up freedom to others.

In other words, I should not kill another simply because it is something I may find meaningful. Such a consideration would be too individualistic, not considering the interdependence (p. 82) of existence, nor would it acknowledge the universal nature of freedom (p. 86) to which your next door neighbor is entitled.

However, the story is different if the old lady wasn't so nice but, rather, poisoned little children with her cookies. Then, she would be denying the freedom of others and so one would be justified, to the extent that the murder of her is a necessary action, in taking as extreme a measure as killing her.

This is why I agree with Aaron's comment, “Beauvoir's theory doesn't necessarily say that just because someone should do something, I should let them.” To take it further, De Beauvoir says explicitly the opposite. At times there are reasons for squandering someone's freedom explicitly because they are squandering that of others (p. 150).

Citations refer to the 1976 translation by Bernard Frechtman, released by Citadel Press.