Should you sacrifice everything for love; betray a friend to protect another friend; lie on a job application; leave a relationship because vaguely something doesn’t feel right; blow the whistle on a corrupt but dangerous boss; stir the pot just to see what happens; act with cruelty in order to wake someone up; succumb to the familiarity of home and the past when adventure beckons; tell a client what they want to hear rather than the truth; break up a family in order to secure the love of your life; or choose a lucrative career over what you love to do?
When such issues arise, how should we decide what to do? This is the question of practical reason and philosophy has long sought to provide a theory that would explain how we ought to think about such questions.
One traditional approach is to formulate general principles to guide our actions, principles that aspire to be universal because they are based on universally shared human characteristics. Kant’s categorical and hypothetical imperatives or the principle of utility are the standard examples. The alternative approach to practical reason, which comes from Aristotle and his followers, is to acquire qualities of good moral character guided by an understanding of human flourishing to guide our decisions. Like the principle-based approach, qualities of good character and conceptions of happiness are intended to specify distinctly human aspirations so tend to be universally applicable as well, although perhaps with more leeway for cultural variation than the principle-based approach.
The problem is that the questions above almost always arise in a situation where some new factor makes its presence felt. Surprising new developments—a new love, a friend’s transgression, your desperation to find a job, unfamiliar evidence of wrongdoing—are forcing the issue and thus we are uncertain about how to proceed because we haven’t been in precisely this situation before. After all, if the situation presented no new factors, if it were routine or familiar, we could just rely on past successful decisions and habits to decide what to do.
How do we classify this new development? How do we evaluate its importance in light of other contextual features? Philosophical accounts of practical reason are designed to help us answer these questions. But neither pre-formulated principles nor traditional qualities of good character do a good job of handling novelty. Principles and/or qualities of character are at best summaries of how we have handled similar clear cases in the past. They provide us with conventional act descriptions and socially accepted ways of weighing the relative importance of particular desires or interests. But no principle or conventional social practice can tell us whether the novel features in this situation—the one I confront right now– are sufficiently distinct from earlier cases to warrant a different conclusion about what to do. Circumstances are seldom exact copies of what has gone before and so we’re always confronted with the question of whether the present case is sufficiently like earlier cases so that the earlier cases can provide guidance.
In other words, when we’re faced with a difficult decision, we are usually unsure about whether the past is a good guide, and we can’t use the past to answer that question since that would beg the question against the present–it would assume what is precisely at issue.
Thus, theories of practical reason that rely on pre-formulated principles or conventional social practices are useless as practical guides. Justification is not based on a principle but rather on a highly developed skill at understanding what is significant in particular cases.
The issues I listed above are personal matters but social ethics is similarly confronted with novelty that inhibits the value of pre-formulated principles.
The ethics of privacy is made fraught and more salient by new technologies of surveillance. The ethics of investment decisions and financial transactions are made more complex by the emergence of Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies. Covid-19 requires that we rethink the inequalities associated with healthcare delivery. The increasing prominence of women in the workforce adds layers of complexity to the Supreme Court’s recent abortion ruling. The degree to which people are entitled to support from society changes significantly when unstable, dynamic market forces make jobs more or less available. The problem of homelessness is more difficult to solve with skyrocketing home prices. End-of-life decisions were far less problematic before the invention of life-saving technology. Climate change has dramatically increased the stakes of environmental regulations. Issues surrounding the ethics of immigration have higher stakes when mass migrations are enabled by the availability of information and ease of transportation across borders.
Accounts of practical reason that cannot accommodate novelty are bound to fail.
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