We live at a time when there is not, despite how it may occasionally seem, a common moral paradigm we can draw against. Rather, as I discuss at length in Chaos Ethics, there are many different ethical methods colliding with each other. Some, facing the cacophony, feel a powerful need to justify one moral system as necessarily superior to others – but this, I’m afraid, is largely a waste of effort. What is needed is not ‘one ethic to rule them all’, but a sensitivity to the moral tensions that emerge from the unavoidable conflicts between different approaches.
I’d like to give an example from my life that illustrates this point. Every year since I began teaching, the timetabling has been horrific. In previous years, it has been horrific because resolving my restrictions (on account of being a parent) with the available teaching spaces and the logistics of the student intake has required tremendous time and effort – and considerable loss of hair! The person responsible for timetabling for the last two years quit his job rather than face it again. This year, someone new took over timetabling, and opted to ‘black box’ the process, meeting only with the line manager involved and not with the staff. I suspect this was a successful strategy for most staff, who are used to receiving the timetable as a circumstance delivered to them. For me, it was hell.
The problem stems from a mismatch of expectations. In my lived practice as a teacher, participating in timetabling was what I had learned, and what I expected. Doing so also allowed me some influence over how my teaching would proceed, which at an emotional level I need for my own sanity. (This is something I have in common with those marvelous folks on the autistic spectrum). Quite understandably, I proceeded with timetabling on the basis that I always had, without really taking on board the consequences of the change of circumstances, since pragmatically that change was invisible to me until it was too late.
The two people who were handling timetabling established new prudential values for the timetable process that were (when I eventually discovered them) perfectly sensible. Their decision to pursue these values was in itself a moral decision: it was the ethical choice to value outcomes over alternative moral approaches, such as virtues. But their pursuit of these values unleashed terrible stresses into my life, because I simply could not understand why my requests (motivated in part by my personal teaching values) were being ignored, when I could see that it was perfectly possible to implement the arrangements I was requesting.
Inevitably, it all came to a dramatic head and, with a little fury, and quite a bit of crying, I eventually came to understand the power relations that had been established and the reasons for their coming into existence. I could completely appreciate the prudential values that had been chosen, once they were made clear to me, and although I did not really agree that the outcome we were getting was better than my circumstances in previous years, I could at least make sense of the upsetting events of the previous few weeks once this perspective was revealed to me. It comes with considerable costs… I had to abandon my conceptual image for one of my classes – a very successful class – and I will have to develop a new image for it that, at the moment, is hard to see as better. But I have no doubt that I will do this.
In my particular case, I was lucky because the line manager involved was sufficiently sensitive to the situation to resolve it through ‘soft power’ rather than through playing the King. But we can see in this example a classic case of how contemporary bureaucracy becomes the enemy of the good through petty evil. Everyone involved in the timetabling process that affected me had laudable ethical values that motivated their actions – yet the tensions that were unleashed could not easily have been avoided, because there was no reason for anyone to suspect that the chosen approach could cause such unintended emotional damage. Furthermore, while some degree of consultation might have resolved my issue, it would have made the practical progression of this particular bureaucratic task untenable.
This is an example of the kind of problems we are all facing in our bureaucratically-arranged organisations at this time in history. At root is the conflict between our outcome-focussed ethics, all of which revolve around prudential values, and agent-focussed ethics, such as virtues, that are embedded in individuals and communities. We have somehow learned that we should let prudential considerations trump all others (an ethical approach that is usually termed Consequentialism), and many hold moral values that inform them this is what they should do, not just what happens. Personally, however, I cannot accept this situation as anything other than a colossal moral error.
The problem with using solely outcome-focussed ethics to judge situations is that we do not ever know all the outcomes when we make decisions, an objection originally raised by Nietzsche. We imagine what the outcomes will be, and these imagined consequences come to be what govern our decision process. If we choose imagined futures over the lived moral practices of the people around us, we will act in ways that are guaranteed to generate moral and emotional tensions. It will cause what I have called petty evil, the damage wrought by large organisations in their inability to understand the deleterious effects they cause through disempowering those affected by their centralised decision making.
Saying that solving this problem in the worlds we live in will not be easy is an understatement. The ideals that got us through the Enlightenment – of freedom, and what we have chosen to call democracy – are no longer capable of bearing the load placed upon them, in part because the prudential values of the marketplace (primarily that of efficiently generating money) supplant deeper moral practices, such as virtue, in ways that are impossible to oppose as long as ‘choice’ is seen as paradigmatic of freedom, rather than a shallow substitution for authentic autonomy. We need to see these problems with better eyes, but it is unclear that we have the will to do so.
The opening image is Galaxies Collide by Robert McNiel, which I found here on his Instagram page. As ever, no copyright infringement is intended and I will take the image down if asked.