Wednesday, July 12, 2006

When Are White Lies Ethical?

A former student emailed me today to run an idea by me that she is considering writing her Master's Thesis on. In a nutshell, she wants to refute Kant's argument that any lie is a violation of the Categorical Imperative. Now, Kant makes this argument for epistemological reasons. A lie, for Kant, is an affront to the law of non-contradiction and if we willed any maxim that said "white lies are good in cases where we want to protect the feelings of our loved ones" to be a universal law, then, Kant argues, we would unravel the very conditions of intelligibilty that we rely upon to make any sense.

To challenge Kant's argument against laws, however, need not involve an epistemological argument, does it? Is it really the case that a little fib here and there corrupts all possibility of intelligibility? Certainly not. When I visit my great aunt, and she serves a freezer burned pie and a slightly charred roast, am I threatening the ground of sense-making if I say: "Yes, Auntie, I absolutely loved the roast and pumpkin pie."

These are the sort of white lies that appear to be quite ethical acts. However, one cannot rely upon Kantian ethics to justify why these are ethical lies. (I like that--"ethical lies"--would be a good title). Anyway, one is far more likely to find justification for white lies in the body of work now called Care Ethics. Nel Noddings refuted Kant's duty based approach to ethics, not by claiming that we should do things out of love rather than duty--this would be just a mindless critique. Rather, she argued for "ethical caring." Some of the caring we do for others is "natural," in that it is instinctual or unconscious; we do it perhaps because we are biological beings who instinctually care for our offspring. One cannot use such acts as the model of ethical (virtuous behavior), argues Noddings, for much the same reasons that Kant argues we cannot consider acts done out of inclination to be dutiful. An act is ethical if and only if we do it because it is right, not because we want to or it is easy to do. Kant famously uses the example of the suicidal, miserable young man who, despite his deep inclination to off himself, chooses to live. This is duty. (Oy Vey--if only they had Prozac in the 18th Century!)

Ethical Caring--Noddings rethinking of duty--involves responding to concrete situations, wherein another needs our care, even when we do not feel disposed to care for the other. Why should we care for others?, asks Noddings. Because we value as a people the relatedness of care. If we do not habituate a caring character--that is, we must continually engage in actions that concretely express care for others, particularly when they are vulnerable. By repeatedly doing caring things, we become a caring person, and we demonstrate to others that caring is a valuable and necessary act.

Of course, one must still work out all the details about what is means to care for someone. For example, my graduate professor loved the example from Fried Green Tomatoes wherein Idgie gives the drunk, Smokey Lonesome, a stiff drink to stave off the D.T.s What is it to care for Smokey in that moment? Should she withhold alcohol such that he continues to suffer from withdrawals, perhaps even dies, or should she give him a drink? Now, before answering this question, let me clarify, that you have to tell me what you would do right there in the moment. This is not an abstract question. And, you cannot tell me what should happen ideally. Tell me what you would actually do.

Noddings emphasizes concrete situations precisely to demonstrate what she thinks is problematic with Kantian ethics--it is far too abstract and thereby meaningless. She calls Kantian ethics "masculine ethics," and not in an admiring sense. She writes:

"If I am obligated to do X under certain conditions, then under sufficiently similar conditions you are also obligated to do X. But the principle of universifiability seems to depend, as Nietzsche pointed out, on a concept of 'sameness.' In order to accept the principle, we should have to establish that human predicaments exhibit sufficient sameness, and this we cannot do without abstracting away from concrete situations those qualities that seem to reveal the sameness. In doing this, we often lose the very qualities or factors that gave rise to the moral question in the situation. That condition which makes the situation different and thereby induces genuine moral puzzlement cannot be satifisfied by the application of principles developed in situations of sameness."

Noddings also writes:

"Our ethic of caring--which we might have called a 'feminine ethic'--begins to look a bit mean in contrast to the masculine ethics of universal love or universal justice. But universal love is illusion. Under the illusion, some young people retreat to the church to worship what they cannot actualize; some write lovely poetry extolling universal love; and some, in terrible disillusion, kill to establish the very principles which should have entreated them not to kill. Thus are lost both people and principles."

Hence, Nodding's critique of the abstract, rule-bound Kantian approach to ethics essentially argues that duty is meaningless if can be stretched to encompass such acts as pre-emptive strikes or torture. When we strip away all the important details, urgencies, and relationships between 'the one who cares' and 'the one who needs care,' you end up with a rather vapid moral theory that gives you very little real guidance about what I am supposed to do here and now.

Returning to the original question, can one tell ethical lies? Isn't it right to tell my dear Aunt, whose eyesight and tastebuds are failing, that I enjoyed her meal?

Btw, I would be grateful if some of you who read this and know something about the literature in this area would leave some recommendations of good articles/books on the issues of white lies for my student.