Updated: Dec 7, 2020
My social life includes various friends who dabble in some version of a 60s hippy world view. This view involves an underlying belief that the healthiest way to live is to trust yourself and be guided by your body, feelings and desires. It contains the idea that we are each responsible for the lives we live and, because we are unique individuals, the best guide towards flourishing is ourselves. No-one can decide for us. So, any reliance on ‘should’ or ‘ought’ is misguided.
These ideas are also expressed in Nonviolent Communication literature. Nonviolent Communication (NVC) is an approach to interpersonal conflict that promotes a compassionate attitude along with various methods of speaking that may help to communicate this attitude.
What I want to argue in this blog post is that the anti-ethical view expressed in these circles relies on an unnecessary dichotomy between acting based on your own feelings and acting ethically. That we can reject this dichotomy can be demonstrated through the work of Harry Frankfurt and Charles Taylor. These philosophers propose a way in which some feelings and desires contribute to our normative attitudes i.e. attitudes related to what we should do.
In contrast to Frankfurt’s and Taylor’s proposal, the attitude that surrounds me understands ethical thinking as punitive and oppressive, as causing harm and hindering our capacity to do what is best for us. Proponents of this anti-ethical stance adopt an anarchistic attitude in response to perceived top-down moralism, which they associate with acting based on obligation and duty. For example, Miki Kashtan, a teacher and thinker in the nonviolence movement writes:
“I have not found a word that captures the exact meaning that I am looking for. Commitment may be a bit too rigid, as it tends to connote “should,” invoking the non-choiceful energy of obligation and duty.”
There are two possible interpretations of the anti-ethical ideas being expressed. One is practical – that using ‘right’, ‘wrong’, and ‘should’ are unhelpful when trying to get people to understand each other’s perspectives and work together on conflicts. The other is more fundamental – that there is no ‘should’ or ‘ought’, there is only what is ‘helpful’, ‘healthy’, ‘desired’, ‘wanted’, ‘intended’ etc. I think these are two quite different claims, and I want to challenge only the second one.
One objection might be that people only ever mean to make the first claim. From talking to people around me, and the quote above, it seems to me that some people slip between these two claims. Kashtan, for example, seems to be indicating that the connotation of 'should' is a problem when trying to express how she wants to structure her life. If she didn't have a fundamental problem with ethical language, it is unclear to me why she would make this comment.
Nature & Nurture
From what I can discern from talking to friends who endorse this anti-ethic and by reading blogs and learning about NVC, this view relies on the assumption that people have an intrinsic drive to do what is healthy for them, and this includes compassionate and caring behaviours towards others. This assumption helps them avoid a criticism – that is, if people act on their feelings, rather than what they believe they ought to do, then they may act in a harmful way to others. We could phrase this as people having an intrinsic goodness – but that returns us to ethical terrain. Here is an example from the Centre of Nonviolent Communication website:
“NVC begins by assuming that we are all compassionate by nature and that violent strategies—whether verbal or physical—are learned behaviors taught and supported by the prevailing culture” https://www.cnvc.org/node/6856
Something here troubles me. It’s not that I disagree that people have the capacity to look after themselves and others, it’s that I’m not sure this is less taught, more intrinsic or more ‘natural’ than our capacity to harm.
I am suspicious of language that uses ideas of naturalness and contrasts it what is taught and cultural, because I think of humans as cultural beings – we become ourselves in and through society. So, any sense that there is a ‘who we are’ prior to culture and society baffles and disturbs me. In the framework I prefer, culture is part of what is natural for humans.
For the sake of brevity, I don’t want to go into more detail here. I do want to flag up this issue, partly because these anti-ethical commitments are used to make a more attractive case: if we are naturally compassionate, then what others want to do will be actions we are also happy with. But if we are unsure about this nature-culture dichotomy, we may also wonder about the general view.
I’ll also return this idea later, because my belief that what is cultural is part of what is natural for humans contributes to why I think ethical language is important.
Philosophical Theories of Ethical Action
Harry Frankfurt and Charles Taylor are two philosophers who are interested in how our desires are important for normative thinking and acting. I want to briefly outline their proposals, to show why feeling and desiring can be seen as central to ethical action, and then suggest that Taylor’s theory can help us understand anti-ethical thinking as ethical.
Harry Frankfurt proposes that we are responsible for our actions because we can act on ‘second-order desires’. What does this mean? Well a first order desire is a want, for example, wanting coffee. A second order desire is about what we want to want. For example, when I have a migraine, I want to want to drink coffee. When I don’t have a migraine, I want coffee – it smells delicious, I enjoy the smell, and I enjoy drinking it. When I have a migraine, I don’t want coffee, it smells disgusting, and if I try to drink it, I feel worse. While I don’t want coffee when I have a migraine, I still want to want it. I want to enjoy the smell and taste like I used to. This is a second-order desire.
Acting on second order desires is, for Frankfurt, an act of will that allows us to be responsible for our actions. We might want all sorts of things, we might want a full fry-up for breakfast every morning, chocolate cake for dinner every night. The idea is, if we act on all our first-order desires, we are acting impulsively, we are dragged around willy-nilly, by potentially harmful wants. What if, in a sudden bout of anger, I want to strangle the lover I have just found out has cheated on me, and feel compelled to act on it? This is not the way a creature we would hold responsible for their action behaves.
So, Frankfurt suggests the special thing about creatures like us, is that they have the capacity to form, and act on, second-order desires. Such creatures can act deliberately, through acting on desires that express their values. That is, we can act on desires we have ownership of. I might have a first order desire to strangle my lover, but I have a second order desire to only act on desires that express compassion, for example.
Charles Taylor appreciates the direction that Frankfurt goes in but doesn’t think Frankfurt gets it quite right. You might have noticed the issue already. While it seems right that a creature that acts on every impulse can’t be held responsible for their actions in the same way as many adult humans, it doesn’t seem a capacity to act on second order desires quite captures why we are held responsible. After all, my desire to desire coffee does not seem a better, more moral, desire to act on than my desire not to drink coffee. Indeed, if I desire to get far away from the smell of coffee and definitely not to drink it, it is often because I have a migraine, and it would be wise of me to listen to that first-order desire.
Taylor therefore suggests that it is not the second-orderness of desires that is important. Instead, he talks about a capacity for ‘strong evaluations’. Strong evaluations are special types of evaluations. They are evaluations about what is of qualitatively higher and lower worth. They shape our fundamental sense of what matters, and so do not change with small changes of circumstance. For example, if I feel like taking care of the environment is of ultimate value, a reduction in the price of plane tickets won’t change my decision not to fly.
Strong evaluations, for Taylor, are formed through a process of attending to, and articulating, our feelings. We pay attention to how we feel and try to express that in words, and the way we talk about how we feel in turn shapes what it is we feel. Through this process, we become familiar with, and shape, our strong evaluations, that is, the values we want to live by. Unlike the Kashtan quote above suggests, these values are not rigid. Quite the opposite: they change with our continual exploration of our feelings.
Like second-order desires, Taylor’s strong evaluations are a way to explain our ethical outlook through our feelings and desires (in combination with deliberation), rather than through an external authority. Yet, neither of these thinkers want to do away with normative thinking and actions, because what they want to explain is how we can be the type of creatures who are responsible for their actions. Any such creatures need to be able to act in ways that reflect their values. Values, in turn, are judgements about how we should act.
The theories of Frankfurt and Taylor illustrate that it isn’t obvious that there is a logical tension between actions that incorporate our feelings and desires, and actions based on our ethical beliefs. Further, for both, ethical action is based on a combination of our own thoughts and feelings – not imposed on us by a moral authority.
But why should we allow this ethical framing into our understanding of the relationship between feeling and action? Why can’t the anti-ethicist merely refer to what is important as what is healthy or helpful, or just as their aims and intentions?
I think they can, but I also think being adamantly against ‘should’ language is confused, and in tension with some of their ideas and ways of living. The anti-ethicist doesn’t really seem to be anti-ethical. In fact, they have a very strong ethic: one of love, compassion, and empathy. They believe in these values. Dare I say it? They act as-if they think that we should all hold and act on these values.
I think acting compassionately or lovingly is a strong evaluation for most ‘anti-ethicists’. Miki Kashtan, for example, writes:
“These commitments provide a framework based on the pillars of nonviolence: courage, truth, and love, and offer a comprehensive approach to life within ourselves, with others, and within the larger systems that still shape our lives even as we aim to change them and their effects.”
For Taylor, the idea of ‘courage, truth, and love’ offering a ‘comprehensive approach to life’, makes these values strong evaluations. For most ethical philosophers, and perhaps most people, this is the language of ethics, where ‘right’ and ‘wrong’, ‘should’ and ‘shouldn’t’, also belong. It might be that those who hold this ethic to do not want to oblige or coerce anyone to act in line with these values, but it’s not clear why that changes whether we think of it as an ethic.
This also brings us back to our contrasting view on the importance of teaching and culture to acting. I think the values of anti-ethicists are no more natural than any other values: I think increasing the ability for people to act on them depends on creating a society that supports, nurtures and educates people in such a way that they also want to, and can, live based on these values. And this, I think, is part of the point of ethical language. What I mean when I say ‘we should be compassionate’ is not only that such a value structures my life, but also that I want my culture to promote that way of living.
I understand that the language of should isn’t always appropriate and can be unnecessary hurtful, that there are times where it is useful to avoid it. However, none of this contradicts the use of ethical language in certain situations – and I think it is perhaps necessary in the social and political realm, when we are thinking about the type of society we want to live in.