Sunday, December 09, 2007

Ethics and Psychology

Giving Ethics an Empirical Dimension

I owe my title once again to an author I’m reading. It comes from one of the stated aims of Jonathan Glover in writing his magisterial Humanity: A Moral History of the Twentieth Century. He expresses this aim on page xii of his introduction et passim. In my last post I referred to the theoretical and academic, which at least is pretty dry and somewhat meaningless to the rest of us when uncoupled from practical experience. On a practical level, theoretical physics needs to be complemented by applied physics to give it clothes as it were. (Needless to say the latter needs the former even to do its calculations) Likewise, discussing ethical issues from the comfort of our armchairs, hotels, salons or lecture halls is a singularly dry and somewhat meaningless pursuit when unhinged from practical and pragmatic experiences.

In the first chapter Glover pointedly adverts to this fact by underscoring the importance of real experience and how this gives edge to our thoughts and reflections. A classroom teacher can bring much practical experience to the educational debate, while the theorist can bring the findings of academic research. Both are needed. One without the other is a “lame duck.” I also referred in my last post to how classroom experience keeps the teacher “real.” Likewise, from Glover’s point of view in discussing the ethics of war, practical experience, or at least dialogue with those who were involved in real live combat and even atrocities and reflection on those experiences all have an influencing effect on developing the study of ethics.

I also liked very much another of Glover’s stated aims in this wonderful book mentioned above, namely the idea of bringing “psychology and ethics closer together.” (op.cit., p. 6)

I will close this post with a fuller quotation from Glover, which we could all do well to contemplate from time to time:

“Some intellectual disciplines are highly abstract, and perhaps understanding people is unimportant in those fields, but ethics is not one of them. I hope this book will help bring closer to the centre of ethics some questions about people and what they are like. The prospect of bringing ethics and psychology closer involves thinking about some of the things we now know civilized people are capable of doing to each other.” (ibid., p. 6)

This quotation brings me back to my Leaving Certificate English class of 1976 when, under the tutelage of one very erudite and gentlemanly scholar called Michael McLoughlain, we were discussing Hamlet. I will always remember Michael, with whom I had the pleasure of teaching many years later as a fellow staff member, saying to us that anyone of us was capable of murder given the right circumstances, that we, too, were each Hamlets or could be Hamlets or even worse. I remember being quite enthralled and somewhat taken aback by Michael’s contention. Now, I just accept it as a self-evident truth.

Was an ethical stance perceived as being possible during Nazi times? Would we have been brave enough to stand against the tide?