The prefix “post” remains in vogue, so here’s a new term for you. I’ve written about “post-truth,” “post-common sense,” and “post-news” already. Here’s something even hotter off the press: post-ethics. It seems wrong somehow to copyright such a fine term, so feel free to use it and to tell all your Facebook “friends.” But first, what is it?
We hear a lot today about ethics. Various organizations, professions, governments, corporations, religious institutions, universities, schools—everyone, it seems, wants to make ethics a priority and to reassure the general public that whoever they are and whatever they’re doing, we needn’t worry about them, they have their ethical house in order. Philosophy departments regularly offer courses in what’s called “applied ethics”: business ethics, bio-medical ethics, even engineering ethics and ethics for journalists. You name it—whoever you are, we’ll teach you ethics. It’s clever marketing; these courses are money-makers and always popular. They also have a way of overpromising. Philosophers themselves generally know that such courses don’t actually teach anyone ethics, if we mean by this that they’re going to show you how to be virtuous or how to solve moral problems. They’ll do nothing of the kind, although I wouldn’t deny their value altogether. Their value lies elsewhere, in inviting students into a field of knowledge, where things tend to become very theoretical very quickly.
Ethical questions, of course, have been central to philosophy from the beginning. There’s no more ultimate question of philosophy than how we are living and ought to live, and the question is infinite in complexity. But when the word ethics is used in contemporary discourse, especially outside the discipline of philosophy, what’s meant by this word? It’s not only philosophers who speak about ethics. The word itself is commonplace. Everyone is supposed to know something about this, actually a great deal about it.
What in popular discourse is being called ethics today is not ethics but post-ethics. By this I mean some formalized code of conduct or system of rules that’s designed on the model of law. Typically, it begins with good intentions—for what they’re worth—and rather quickly thereafter we enter into a regime of rules, policies and procedures, best practices, evidence-based this and that, a whole system of regulations which is designed to relieve you of any need to make evaluative judgments. Judgments, or so we’re given to believe, are what you must not make. Let the system do it. An ethical judgment should be something that, in principle anyway, a computer could do. It is essentially a kind of computation or more or less formal derivation. More specifically, it’s a form of rule following. The idea, seldom questioned in the modern workplace, is that if you know the rules and follow them scrupulously and with an intention to do so as well then you’ll have your ethical house in order. And if you use in generous quantity words like inclusion and transparency, you won’t go far wrong.
Consider the ethics of the workplace. Nearly everyone in nearly every workplace today is supposed to conduct themselves in a way that is advertised as ethical. Who could object to this? No one, of course, especially if we have only a vague idea of what this means. What it means in a nutshell is that should anyone ask what you’re doing—anyone such as a customer, the police, a lawyer, or a reporter—you have a ready and convenient answer: I’m following procedures. I didn’t invent these procedures, and I usually have no idea who did or what their reasoning was. But whoever they are, they surely know what they’re doing; maybe they hired a consultant. My job isn’t to think about all of that; it’s to follow a regime of rules, with minimal and ideally no input from my own subjectivity. The model is legal and bureaucratic. The legal or juridical model supposes that ethics consists essentially of a system of law-like imperatives, both dos and don’ts, and the essential matter of decision-making involves ascertaining which rule comes to bear on the situation before you. Once you know the rule, you just need to follow it, like filing a thing in the correct pigeon hole and then moving on to what’s next. It’s something anyone can do, and in most cases it’s not all that difficult. When it becomes more difficult, you just need to send it to a committee that has the word “ethics” in it, and they’ll do the hard work. Once they sign off on it, all is well.
This situation is due in part to a deep reluctance many people have today, especially in the workplace, to make judgments, and not only the ethical ones. Ethics, we often hear, is controversial and uncertain; for ages it has been associated with religion, and once we subtract that from the equation, we’re at a loss and would much rather defer the matter to somebody else—an ethics committee, an ethics consultant, or some personage who is imagined to have a system and to be in a higher pay grade. Those consultants are out there—lots of them—and while I’m not completely skeptical of the services they provide, what they bring to the table more often than not is little more than common sense and maybe some confidence in their ability to make judgments. What I am more than a little skeptical of is whether their judgments are any more reasonable than what most non-experts might be able to make. Their judgments will usually be made with reference to an ethics code of one kind or another, but these codes themselves are most often a dubious attempt to formalize ordinary common-sense morality.
Ethics is not formalizable. It’s a field of knowledge in which we question values, hopefully in an intellectually honest way, and no rules tell us how to do that. Ethics as I think of it includes an important place for abstract principles and the issue of their philosophical underpinnings, but principles aren’t algorithms so much guidelines or rules of thumb that often help us identify what kind of situation we’re dealing with, but even when our thinking involves applying a principle to a case, principles don’t apply themselves. We need to use our judgment here as well in deciding which, if any, principle is relevant to the situation before us and what, if any, specific judgment that general principle suggests. In any case, we need to use our judgment, and as Aristotle taught us to see, it’s precisely this notion of practical judgment—what he called phronesis—that belongs in the center of any conception of ethics that is more than a quasi-legalism or rule fetishism.
Be skeptical of ethics codes, ethics committees, and ethics consultants. There’s not much scope for genuine expertise here at all, or not if we mean by expertise the kind of knowledge that’s to be had in empirical or technical fields of knowledge. If I were so inclined, I could easily hang out a shingle that reads “ethics consultant” and probably make a pretty good living doing it. No one would question my credentials, but what knowledge I’d bring to the table would be limited to my own phronesis. Good judgment isn’t formalizable in a code or any set of rules, and experts are likely no better at it than you are.