Syllogism or narrative? An ethical choice.

I read a thought-provoking (for me) letter to the editor in the September-October 2013 issue of The Humanist, the bi-monthly magazine from the American Humanist Association. The letter was in response to articles on whether it is ethical for humanists to eat meat; I’ll just repost the paragraph that interested me:

We may celebrate the slaughterhouse cow that runs for its life, but we also celebrate the image of a U.S. soldier carrying an infant pulled from the rubble of a city we’ve bombed. We’re sentimental more often than logical. Our ethics are as much about making ourselves feel like “good” people as anything else, and they inevitably involve compromise with the overwhelming reality of human and animal suffering that blankets this plant. But that’s a very difficult thing for us to be consistently honest about.

(The Humanist Sept. – Oct. 2013, p. 47.)

I think this accesses an important insight, but I’m not sure I share the author’s slightly critical edge.

I appreciate the concern that we’re often not really rational in our ethical judgment. We’re not. But I’m not sure that’s actually a problem.

I’ll use Kant’s treatment of lying as a straw man. (And I’m admitting straight up that it’s a straw man for me. But there’s a decent summary and critical look at the issue here.) Kant’s approach to ethics requires that any moral proposition, to be valid, be such that one would will all individuals to act in conformity with that proposition in all circumstances (remember “the categorical imperative?”). Kant asserts that lying is in all circumstances not in conformity with the categorical imperative, so even when a murder is at the door and you are concealing his intended victim, lying to protect the intended victim by making a false statement concerning the victim’s whereabouts is not, for Kant, ethical.

Yet most people cringe at the notion that dishonesty in this situation is not ethical. But that raises the issue: when it is permissible to lie? And when we make distinctions to allow lying in this situation, how do we know when that distinction wouldn’t permit lying in a more problematic situation?

I’m not convinced we can really fully address ethics rationally and systematically the way Kant would have us do–the results may strike us as repugnant, and it may be excessively difficult to draw lines around the exceptions we might want to create.

Where does this take us? I think, for humanist Jews, we need to look toward something like narrative ethics; often, we can reach the “truth” of a situation through story where we might find it difficult to do so through principled reasoning alone. This approach is consonant with both pieces of humanist Judaism. From a humanist perspective, valuing others means valuing and listening to their stories and learning from them. From a Jewish perspective, in a tradition defined in part by text and shared story, a narrative approach is almost a more natural fit than the systematic approach of the Western ethicist.

Importantly, a narrative approach allows us to recognize the values that lead to decisions that we may or may not agree with, but that often have their own reasoning to allow us to explore ethics further.

So, is it difficult for us to be consistently honest about how fractured our view of morality truly is? Of course, and it is especially so if we focus on forcing our ethics to be strictly rational and to conform to a coherent system. But inconsistency is not a vice if we adjust how we talk about ethics and recognize that our understandings of right and wrong and in and out (and morality is often about who is in or out based upon their conduct) may often be better expressed by exploring our shared stories.