Tuesday, October 31, 2006

The failure of ethics

We are supposed to rely now on "ethics" to judge human action. But we cannot - modernist ethics simply doesn't work well enough.

Consider the following example. In last Saturday's Age [Certain Women Good Weekend 28/10/06] 35-year-old Mia Freedman was interviewed about her attitudes to life. Mia has been an editor of Cosmopolitan and Cleo and is now a director at Channel 9. She's married with two children.

She was asked the following question: "Is raunch culture empowering to women?"

Her feelings on the matter are clear enough. She answers:

Raunch culture alarms me horribly, especially as I get older and now that I'm the parent of a daughter. Women embrace it because of the shock value, but that will wear off ...

The waters get much murkier, though, when Mia reports an exchange with her mother on this very issue:

Ironically, I've found myself having to explain to my mother why raunch culture is not a good thing. She's like, "But hang on, isn't this what we fought for as feminists? For women to be able to express themselves in whatever way they choose and reclaim their sexuality?

I said, this is different. It's not about women having a threesome because they want to have one. It's about a girl pashing another girl in a nightclub to impress a boy. If it was an organic expression of how they feel, I'd say go for it.

Most people, understandably, won't get this. It's difficult to comprehend a logic by which wanting to have a threesome is ethically good, but wanting to pash another girl is ethically bad. The basis for the distinction isn't immediately apparent.

But I think I can explain it. The traditional idea of morality was that there was a really existing "good" to guide the behaviour of individuals and communities. In modernist ethics there is held to be no such good existing externally to the individual.

Therefore, the "good" is often thought to be something created by individuals themselves. In particular, the human capacity to choose freely, without impediment, is often identified as the good in life.

So choosing and getting what I want takes on the force of what is ethically good. That's why Mia Freedman accepts her mother's view that if a woman wants to have a threesome that it is an ethical behaviour.

But how then can women choosing to pash each other in a nightclub be thought ethically wrong? One logical path for a modernist to take is to claim that it's wrong because it isn't really an expression of individual want.

This explains why Mia Freedman justifies her rejection of raunch culture on the basis that it is not "an organic expression" of how women feel; in other words, it is not an authentic want but somehow represents a distortion of the normal process of choice.

So there is a logic to Mia Freedman's comments, but not one which makes useful or persuasive distinctions between ethical and unethical behaviour.

Notice the difference between Mia Freedman's real feelings on the issue of raunch culture ("alarms me horribly") and what position she is left defending once the logic of modernist ethics is introduced ("If it was an organic expression of how they feel, I'd say go for it.")

Notice too how easy it is to collapse the distinction made by Mia Freedman. Why, after all, should threesomes be thought of in terms of authentic wants, and acting raunchily in a nightclub be categorised as inauthentic? Is it really any more likely that women engaging in the first activity will do so as an "organic expression" of how they feel?

(I remember at this point the case of actress Jane Fonda who set up threesomes with her husband Roger Vadim because it was the 1960s thing to do - the "raunch culture" of the time - whilst later expressing regret.)

Mia Freedman's moral feeling is healthy enough. She thinks of raunch culture as degrading to women and doesn't want her daughter to participate in it.

The framework of ethics, though, doesn't let her argue this view persuasively. Modernist ethics doesn't function well as a tool to either define or defend what we really believe to be morally good.


  1. Really good post. Makes you think!

    It kind of makes my head spin but trying to think this through there seems to be a problem with ethics depending on absolute judgement values like "it's a good thing" or "it's a bad thing". I understand this is necessary so you can approach a problem with empirical logic but if we could approach problems with more flexible judgement values like "good in small quantities" and "bad if you do it obsessively" perhaps we would be more successful at decision making.

    I don't know if this more flexible application of judgement values could be called "ethics" though?

  2. Lisa said:

    I don't know if this more flexible application of judgement values could be called "ethics" though?

    It depends how you're applying the "good in small quantities" and "bad if you do it obsessively" thing.

    If you say "smoking marijuana is good in small quantities, but bad if you use it too much because you may develop schizophrenia", you're talking about self preservation, not ethics. In other words, it applies to someone whether they believe in an ethical system or not.

    If you say "smoking too much marijuana reduces one's sense of self worth", you're talking ethics. In this case because it applies to "invented" humanist values. This may be lost on someone who doesn't believe in the notion of "self worth" to begin with.

  3. I should point out that "ethics" can be used in a more neutral sense to refer to the branch of philosophy which considers moral issues.

    However, in common usage the term "ethics" has become associated with "ethical relativism" - referring to a variety of modernist ideas about behaviour, all of which deny that there is an inherent goodness or evil in certain behaviours.

    It's not even common now for "ethics" to focus on utilitarianism - the idea that an act is good if it brings happiness to the greatest number.

    Instead, a behaviour is thought good if it's an expression of a "harmless to others" authentic want.

    It's modernist ethics in this sense which I'm criticising as a failure as it doesn't provide a framework in which we can raise our real moral concerns.

  4. Mark, I knew what you meant by modernist ethics, though I wasn’t aware that it has taken over the term “ethics” altogether in modern usage. Whenever I hear “ethics”, I think Peter Singer.

  5. 6 years later....
    “It's about a girl pashing another girl in a nightclub to impress a boy. If it was an organic expression of how they feel, I'd say go for it.”

    How can we know if it is or is not an organic expression? Why can't we trust women and simply have faith in a women's agency?