Ethics in the Classroom: A Situationalist Reproach From a Meadian Perspective

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This paper argues that a pragmatic ethics must reject the classical constructs we find in most ethics classroom.  Given the experiential, situational, and evolutionary understanding of ethics as laid out by G.H. Mead in The Philosophical Basis for Ethics the practice of attempting to engage in ethical inquiry by answering fixed questions within the framework of fixed ethical schemata must be a fruitless project.  An ethical problem is one which arises in experience both as a reproach against the inadequacy of our relation to an environment and as a demand to act.  As such, an appeal to a fixed ethical schema can only serve to frustrate genuine inquiry because  ethical problems pragmatically considered arise from the inadequacy of such a schema.  This paper attempts to return ethics to the lived situation out of which it arises and deliver it from constructs which are foreign to experience. 

The majority of our ethical systems are well suited for solving all problems but ethical ones.  Instead, extreme, hypothetical situations are invented as a sort of stand-in. In this paper I will show that these extreme ethical situations can not play a meaningful role in helping us reach solutions.  By extreme, hypothetical situations I mean faux problems like 'You are the last person on Earth and you have a button that can destroy the Earth after you die.  Do you press it?'

I will argue that these problems are not problematic at all because they represent situations in which we can situate no experience.  They strip the richness out of the situation so that it can not generate a real problem. These questions force us to think in ethical terms such as those used by utilitarianism, deontology, and virtue ethics: systems in which one can think an ethical problem in isolation of other persons.  This isolationism is totally foreign to a pragmatic approach to ethics. In The Philosophical Basis For Ethics Mead offers an account of ethics from a pragmatic perspective.  He gives us an ethics which is thoroughly evolutionary, situational, and experiential.   Focusing on these three themes, I will show  that the working out of the problems described above can neither bear fruit from nor give nourishment to the life of ethical discourse. The process of inquiry always begins with an artifact. Once we have examined something, poked it, turned it off and on, shown it to the light and the dark, we know a little something more about it.  However, once we have seen what something does, we know a great deal about it. We know what it is good for.  Proceeding in this vein I will examine these types of problems to see what they are good for.

One  variation on a classic of institutional philosophy of this type goes as follows:  You, a philosopher,  are on a life boat with a doctor, a priest, and Coco the Guerilla.  There is food enough for three of you but, alas, you are four. One of you must go. Who dies?  So goes the question often posed to philosophy students.  Let this be our artifact.

In examining the question the first thing that becomes clear is that the role of the situation is negligible.  The three people and the monkey need not be on a boat; they could just as easily be in a space craft or a locked room.  Further, the particular problem makes no difference.  There could only be air enough for three.  There could be a sadist who has instructed you that you must choose who lives and who dies, so long as one of you dies.

Moreover, the you in the question is an odd one.  The question works just as well if you are asked to choose between the death of "a philosopher, a doctor," etc.  That you happen to be present in the original story does nothing but help the narrative along.  It does nothing to the question as it is asked.  Further, the you in the question is a you at no particular time.  Despite the circumstances, it is a you that seems remarkably disinterested in the situation.

To say, "In a desperate rage I strangle the doctor because he was nearest to me" is no answer to the question, though this seems much closer to experience, for example, than the patient measuring of the utils and delores that the question elicits. You are also in the peculiar situation of having all the pertinent facts and of knowing that these are all the pertinent facts.  This implicit reductionism assumes an entirely inhuman ability to regard each character in an ethical problem in terms of one aspect of their lives, such as, as a "doctor," or "an innocent." If you were to talk to the doctor, examine the food supplies, experiment with how much food you can get by on, or better ways to propel the raft, it is assumed that you will always come to the conclusion you began with.  You are four and one of you must die. Moreover, a good philosopher would certainly scoff if one of his students asked, "but what if I fall in love with the doctor during the trip?"  The philosopher might scoff, but no psychologist or novelist would.

Finally, the situation is a-temporal.  While there may only be food for a week you can deliberate on the problem for a month.  The question also assumes that time should have no effect on the problem. The question would not be a different one if all the inhabitants were going to die in a minute or a month.  Likewise, the acceptability of the solution would be the same if the four of you had been arguing furiously for days or if you counted the rations, divided by the number of people and then declared a death sentence in the first hour. 

Thus described, one sees what this type of question is good for.  Because the question, as asked, eschews any reference to particular time, place, person, or interest, it is reasonable to conclude that the question is good for answering questions with regard to universal time, place, person, and interest.  Further, because the question is fixed and disinterested it seems that the answer must also be.  That is, an appropriate answer to the question must take the form, "given ethical theory A, for reasons x,y, and z, I conclude that person p must die."  But in order for this kind of answer to work, the ethical system must already be in play before the question is asked. So perhaps the question answers "what does ethical system A, B, or C do in this situation?"  If this is the case, then an answer can in no way show that a given ethical system is right.  So this type of question can not answer a question about a particular situation and it can not test the validity of an ethical construct. On this point Mead comments: "If morality connotes merely conformity to a given order, our intellectual reaction is confined to the recognition of agreement or disagreement, beyond that the moral reaction can be only emotional and instinctive."[i]

Having seen what these questions are good for, one is in a position to deal with them.  In order to do this I will give an account of three themes -- situation, evolution, and experience -- which run through Mead's ethics.  I will show that given these themes, problems like the one described can have no bearing on ethical action.  I will  start with evolution and show how the three, organically related, are key elements of Mead's account of ethics.

Mead closes his opening paragraph in The Philosophical Basis of Ethics with the following claim; "The very time process as well as the space of the universe lies in the experience which is itself presented as the result of an evolutionthat arises in and throughspatial conditions, which is first and foremost a temporal process."[ii]Ed. Reck, Andrew (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1964)  P.82   In other words, for Mead, nothing falls outside of the evolutionary framework, experience as well as the time process in which all experience must be situated is evolutionary.  Mead is very clear about the way this evolutionary process occurs and gives rise to experience.  He says later in the same essay,

"It has become evident that an environment can exist for a form only insofar as the environment answers to the susceptibilities of the organism; that the organism determines thus its own environment; that the effect of adaptation is a new environment which must change with that which responds to it.  The full recognition, however,  that form and environment must be phases that answer to each other, character for character, appears in ethical theory."[iii]

The evolutionary process is, for Mead, than  not a one-sided adaption of form to environment. It is rather the process by which form and environment co-determine one another.  The organism in an environment always responds to its environment in an interested manner.  Mead is not making a teleological claim here.  This interestedness is nothing more than pertinence or involvement in the problem that has arisen.  Evolution takes place in the process of adaptation, and adaptation need not take place unless a problematic situation has arisen.  For example, if a particular flower is better suited to the purposes of a honey bee, that flower will flourish unless flowers around it adapt. In this case the bee determines the environment, pollinating some flowers and not others, just as the environment determines the bee, providing such and such nutrients.  Here, as in all such cases, the environment is defined by the problem and only a change in the situation can bring something from outside the circuit into the problem.  This process can go on for a thousand years without the average height of nearby oak trees being effected; the oak tree is simply not involved. In a word, it is always the micro and not the macro environment that situates the evolutionary process.

Mead later describes the way this understanding of evolution informs ethics.  According to Mead,

"The fundamental necessity of moral action is simply the necessity of action at all; or stated in other terms, that the motive does not arise from the relations of antecedently given ends of activities, but rather that the motive is the recognition of the end as it arises in consciousness.  The other implication is that the moral interpretation of the experience must be found within the experience itself."[iv]

Here Mead is taking the evolutionary process he has already described and framing it in ethical language.  In doing so he naturalizes ethics and places it within the realm of an experienced environment.  In the same way the honey bee and the flowers he pollinates codetermine a particular evolutionary situation, the individual and the environment codetermine a situation which is ethical in that it demands that the individual act so as to adapt himself and his environment to a new situation.  The situation is ethical in so far as it emerges in the consciousness of the individual as he is forced to adapt to the environment. In Mead's words,

"It is the possibility of reaction to a field of stimulus that holds the reaction in the field of investigation and it is the continued investigation of the field of stimulus which keeps the reaction continuous and pertinent.  The control is then that which was then earlier referred to as the process of evolution in which individual and environment mutually determine each other."[v]

Mead states, "The growth of moral consciousness must be coterminous with the moral situation."[vi]  This is precisely because, as described above, growth is the evolutionary process which is brought about by the need to react within a given "field of investigation."[vii]  The question now is, what does this "field of investigation" look like,  why does it demand our reaction, and why is this evolutionary and not mere problem-solving.   Mead hints at the solution to these problems as follows,

"The moral life lies in the interaction of these two; the situation rises up in accusation of the moral personality which is unequal to it, and the personality rises to the situation only by a process which reconstructs the situation as profoundly as it reconstructs the self."[viii] 

This passage can shed considerable light Mead's view of ethics.  First, the moral for Mead cannot occur in isolation. It must always emerge out of the interaction between a thing and its environment.  Second, the moral is always found in experience.  That is, the "field of investigation which keeps the accusation continuous and pertinent" is always found in the experience of accusation.  If it is the environment which makes the accusation it must be in the experience of the environment that the charge arises.  In Democracy and Education Dewey describes this experience in the following way,

"Obviously, however, this surging up of personal factors into conscious recognition is part of the whole activity in it temporal development. ... The activity at first consists mainly in of certain tensions and adjustments within the organism; as these are coordinated into a unified attitude, the organism as a whole acts– some definite act is undertaken."[ix](Carbondale, Southern Illinois University Press 1985) P. 357 

At this point we have enough to bring our first theme into play.  If the necessity for moral action, as Mead says,  is nothing but the need to act, and action is thoroughly experiential, then moral action must also be throughly experiential.  In a word, the moral situation arises out of an interestedness which the environment forces onto consciousness.  This interestedness is the beginning of any phase of moral action and evolution.

We have already seen that the evolutionary  moral process arises in a codetermination of the individual and the environment. This is precisely because the environment and the actors within it are not fixed.  An example of Mead's point can be found in his description of a bridge building problem.[x]  Mead recognizes that in a practical problem one can not simply refer to some perfect model of a bridge.  The problem arose in the first place because the model was not adequate, so reference to it can only frustrate efforts to solve the problem.  Rather, the specific novelty of the situation is exactly what needs to be addressed.  Indeed, Mead later says "... it is the possible readjustment of the habit that directs his [the bridge builder's]  attention in investigating the situation, and, on the other hand, what is discovered serves to mediate the formation of a new habit."[xi] 

In other words, analogous to the case of the bridge builder, a situation is moral because one must act; a moral situation is problematic because we experience doubt as our habits fail to satisfy the situation, and moral evolution is always situational because it must always be our inadequacy in the face of the particular character of a particular situation which forces the experience of doubt on us. On this point Mead says,"Again and again we are surprised to find that the moral advance has not been along the straight line of the moral struggles in which sin seemed to be faced by righteous effort, but by the appearance of a novel interest which has changed the whole nature of the problem."[xii]Now that I have glossed Mead's ethics and described the type of ethical inquiry that is being called into question I will turn my attention to solving the original problem.  Previously, I described what it is that posing questions in terms of extreme situations does.  What I will now show is that if we juxtapose the results of this stilted form of inquiry with the aims and processes of Mead's evolutionary ethics, we will find two modes of inquiry that are totally foreign to one anotherIn short, we will see that the type questioning I have described  has, in Mead's view, nothing to do with ethics.

The first thing we saw when we examined the structure of the problem was that the situation, for these extreme hypothetical problems, is negligible.  Implicit in the universality of this mode of questioning is the assumption that what makes the  problem an ethical one is that it represents some sort of problem which is of the ethical type.

From a Meadian perspective, taking the particulars of who is present out of the problem loses the very thing that makes it a problem in the first place.  If the question works just as well whether or not I am present, then it hardly counts as a situation where action is necessary.  The question changes from an ethical question to a counting question.  It is no more an ethical question than a situation where a beginning chess player who has his bishop and his rook forked by an opposing knight looks to the rule book to decide which piece to sacrifice.  If the beginning player reads the book properly he will see that rook is worth more points than the bishop and sacrifice it[1].  Similarly if the beginning philosophy student reads the book properly she will know the correct way to work this game and write down the right answer.  The need to answer a question and the necessity to act are very different.  The necessity to act, as Mead has said, rises out of a situation where the rules we have do not fit the problem the environment has offered.  On the other hand, the need to answer given some extreme question is the need to fix the environment and the self so wholly that the rules may apply. This  runs contrary to Mead's situationalism in that it takes the environment and not the individual as the concern of ethics.  But, as we have already seen the environment and the individual are co-constitutive for Mead.  In essence the question simply falls flat because it is meaningless to talk about an environment "as it is" or "on its own."  Imagine, for example, if we took the bumble bee out of our earlier example.  If we did this, would it then make any sense to talk about which flowers are better or worse adapted, or to talk about a microsystem of interest at all?  If we take the individual out of the situation, then with him must go the interestedness or inhibition which drives and defines the limits of the question as an evolutionary process. In a word, the ethical aspects of the question fall away.

What makes this kind of question work is that one already knows that it is an ethical one. The answer is already hidden implicitly in the question. From a  Meadian view this is a severe limiting of ethics.  Ethical development, as Mead has said, is often found in the rising up of a novel interest. In framing a question around an ethical system there is no room for a novel interest to come into play.  The question is designed to be answered by focusing our interests back on the system that the question presupposes instead of forward onto an interest which the question has no tools to deal with.  If we take this type of inquiry as our model for ethical discourse we are simply stuck with whatever interests formed the question in the first place.  This reductionism assumes a special kind of information. The environment was simply this, and the people in it were simply that.  For Mead, however, the very problem arises because we do not know what the information needed is.  Further, in extreme hypothetical problems there is always a piece of information that is not taken into account.  That is, the reason, habit, and inhibition  which makes the problem a problem for somebody. 

We saw that hypothetical problems call upon us to do ethics in an a-temporal fashion. If we take an a-temporal perspective, what we are asserting, without explicitly saying so, is that the solution was the same in the past as it is now and as it will be in the future.  But Mead says that the problem arises in the interaction between the individual and the environment and is solved in an adaptation to one another by both.  If ethics is evolutionary, not only must the solutions change, which is of course impossible to do without the time to do so, but the problems must also change.  To talk about the self-same problem in two different situations is nonsense.  The problem is the situation.

Finally, we have seen that asking problems of the type described robs ethics of any relationship to experience, any involvement in a livable situation, and the possibility of evolution through the process of ethical inquiry.  Given that these three themes make up the heart and soul of Mead's ethics it is safe to conclude that, for Mead, ethical inquiry must exclude these kinds of questions becuae they divert the real work of ethical discourse.  In Mead's own words, "Abstract valuations take the place of concrete valuations, and as the abstract external valuations are always the precipitations of earlier conduct, they are pretty uniformly inadequate."[xiii] (Carbondale, Southern Illinois University Press 1985)

[i]1.Mead, 90

[ii] Mead, George Herbert. The Philosophical Basis of Ethics.  In Selected Writings.

[iii]Mead, 83

[iv]Mead, 85-86

[v]Mead, 91

[vi]Mead, 83

[vii]Mead, 91

[viii]Mead, 83

[ix] Dewey, John.  Democracy and Education.

[x]Mead, 91

[xi]Mead, 91

[xii]Mead, 89-90

[xiii]Mead, 93

Works Cited

1. Mead, G.H.. Selected Writings. Ed. Reck, Andrew. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1964

2. Dewey, John.  Democracy and Education.

[1] Here I have used a utilitarian model but we can equally well see that a deontological or eudaemonistic wording will fall prey to the same criticism.