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Is Ethics a Skill? Towards a Developmental Account of Ethical Know-how Jen Wright University of Wyoming Departments of Philosophy and Psychology.

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Presentation on theme: "Is Ethics a Skill? Towards a Developmental Account of Ethical Know-how Jen Wright University of Wyoming Departments of Philosophy and Psychology."— Presentation transcript:

1 Is Ethics a Skill? Towards a Developmental Account of Ethical Know-how Jen Wright University of Wyoming Departments of Philosophy and Psychology

2 “…he might have said, if any man could have got him to talk about it, that like the morning dove, the bittern, the Indian, he had a sixth sense. What he thought of as his sixth sense was in fact only what his five senses agreed on and communicated to his mind, acting together, like an intelligence agency, to sort out, accept or reject, and evaluate the impressions that came to them.” - Mountain Man by Vardis Fisher (1965/2000), University of Idaho Press: Moscow, Idaho, p. 6-7

3 Sam’s ‘sixth sense” It involves a robust and fine-grained appreciation of (and connection with) his environment It involves the development of a way of perceiving and responding to his environment that He didn’t possess as a “green horn” Leads to appropriate/successful understanding and action A similar story might be told for moral maturity (or “moral excellence”)

4 Principle-based approach Conceives of moral maturity in terms of conformity with moral principles. Such conformity is typically cashed out in one (or both) of two ways:  Moral guidance (MPs guide MMJAs) Normative authority (MPs justify MJAs as mature )  Contra this conception, I want to argue that moral maturity is a movement away from, rather than towards, conformity with MPs.

5 Model of expertise Dreyfus and Dreyfus (hereafter ‘Dreyfus’) Proposed a general (five stage) account of the development of expertise Suggested that we liken the development of moral maturity to the development of expertise.  Moral maturity should follow the same general developmental trajectory as other forms of expertise.

6 Development of expertise When we examine a wide range of skills, we find: Skills develop through training, instruction, imitation, practice. Gradual mastery is achieved through the development of a body of ‘know-how’. Results in reliable, appropriate (“successful”) action under a wide range of circumstances.

7 Stages of Development Novice: the performance task is decomposed into basic context-free features that can be recognized without the benefit of experience. Rigid rules for determining actions on the basis of these features are given. Advanced beginner: Early experience brings encounters with situation-specific elements. Situational maxims are acquired, enabling deliberation about what actions to take on the basis of features plus (minimal) context.

8 Competence: Performers must identify a general guideline/principle to organize incoming information and assess those elements that are salient with respect to the chosen perspective. At this stage, deliberation is accompanied by an emotionally involved experience of the outcome, allowing competent performers to experience their decisions less as rule-guided decisions and more as natural “choices of action”.

9 Proficiency: Performers begin to identify meaningful action-guiding patterns without decomposing them for deliberation. They can quickly comprehend the domain environment -- they see what is going on. Since such observations typically underdetermine appropriate action, they must often still engage in rule/maxim-guided deliberation to determine action.

10 Expertise: Experts are typically able to spontaneously comprehend not only what is going on, but also what to do. Experience provides the skills necessary for a flexible, adaptive responsiveness to the environment that is both more spontaneous and more accurate than non-experts. Accordingly, experts commonly do not need to detach to analyze, problem-solve, or deliberate: they simply respond.

11 “There is no choosing. It happens unconsciously, automatically, naturally. There can be no thought, because if there is thought, there is a time of thought and that means a flaw…If you take the time to think ‘I must use this or that technique’ you will be struck while you are thinking.”

12 Expertise is not the mere internalization of rules.  That is, the expert is not just someone who uses the same rules/principles as the novice, only faster and better. Expertise involves (at least) two crucial capacities:  Trained perception: the ability to perceive and comprehend complex (rich) patterns of situation- specific information as meaningful features.  Automatic responsiveness: the linking of perception and action that allows for non-deliberative, flexible responsiveness.

13 Moral expertise? Even if we accept Dreyfus’ account of expertise, it remains to be established that it applies to ethics. Dreyfus’ account relies on distinct, isolated skills. It is unclear whether ethics can be conceptualized as a skill (or set of skills). Skills involve concentrated practice and overt instruction, but this doesn’t seem true of ethics.

14 Developing “know-how” For Dreyfus, the mastering of a distinct, isolated skill is accomplished through the cultivation of know-how. Know-how is embodied, often implicit, and probably non-propositional knowledge.  It is cultivated through experience, giving rise to spontaneous, flexible, and decisive action that is appropriately responsive to one’s environments.

15 Consider expertise in chess and driving. What is notable about each of these cases is that:  Experts are able to perceive complex meaningful patterns.  For experts, perceiving and responding appropriately have become interconnected. There are few deliberative pauses between what one perceives and what one does : rather, it is as if they have become two aspects of the same activity.

16 Know-how as “Effective Living” Varela: “Knowing is effective action ; that is, operating effectively in the domain of existence of living beings”. Dewey: “We may…be said to know how by means of our habits…We walk and read aloud, we get off and on street cars, we dress and undress, and do a thousand useful acts without thinking of them. We know something, namely, how to do them”.

17 Whether it is walking across rugged terrain, reading a newspaper, putting on a pair of pants, or engaging in a conversation, most of our daily activities are accomplished without effortful planning, deliberation, or reflection. In this way, know-how plays a central role in our lives, enabling the seamless, “mindless” (yet often appropriate) engagement that makes up much of our daily experience.

18 Know-how is not just that which is achieved through the mastery of particular distinct and isolated skills.  Rather, it forms the very backbone of our daily experience. Activities need not qualify as distinct, isolated skills to be “skillful”.  Instead, they might be “life practices”.

19 Life Practices Involve the highly developed, intricate coordination of different skills woven together into a complex pattern of meaningful activity. Are distinct from (and irreducible to) any particular set(s) of skills. One’s engagement in a life practice can involve any number of skills that can differ (at least to some degree) both between persons and between instances.

20 Sam, the Mountain Man Imagine Sam and a guy from Manhattan (call him Fred) walking through the mountains of Montana… Sam literally sees things that Fred cannot Sam is able to respond in ways Fred is not Sam and Fred is that Sam has developed a life practice that Fred has not. That is, Sam mastered the coordination of a diverse set of skills (e.g. trained perception, learned movement patterns, etc.) into a way of living that is inseparable from his daily existence.

21 The Principle-Based Conception Relies heavily on propositional knowledge.  Our greatest moral achievement is our ability to conform to moral principles that identify reasons for action. The importance of know-how to appropriate moral judgments/actions suggests that this view of moral maturity gets things backwards.

22 Ethical coping “Consider a normal day in the street. You are walking down the sidewalk thinking about what you need to say in an upcoming meeting and you hear the noise of an accident. You immediately see if you can help. You are in your office. The conversation is lively and a topic comes up that embarrasses your secretary. You immediately perceive that embarrassment and turn the conversation away from the topic with a humorous remark. Actions such as these do not spring from judgment or reasoning, but from an immediate coping with what is confronting us.” (Varela)

23 Points that emerge: When faced with situations that call for moral judgments/actions, we are often able (like Sam) to perceive and respond appropriately.  Such responsiveness is indicative of moral excellence. Moral engagement is the fabric of our social existence.  Moral excellence requires the mastery of a life practice

24 Stage 1 ~ Concrete Principles Stage 2 ~ Qualified Principles Stage 3 ~ Abstract Principles

25 Moral principles fail to provide moral agents with the tools they need to become mature moral agents. We ought to look for the process by which moral maturity develops in the realm of skillful activity  i.e., in the development of know-how. The development of moral maturity is the development of a rich capacity for moral engagement that surpasses what any principle based system can articulate. At best, moral principles are de scriptive of mature moral agency: they cannot be pre scriptive.

26 A quote… “…the [principles] are not moral commandments…Rather they reveal how a deeply enlightened, fully perfected person…behaves. Such an individual doesn’t imitate the [principles]; they imitate him. ” - ( Roshi) Philip Kapleau (1980) The Three Pillars of Zen. New York: Doubleday, p (emphasis added).

27 Another quote… “Moral imperatives and ought-statements have no place in the lives of saints or complete sinners. For saints are not still learning how to behave and complete sinners have not yet begun to learn.” -Gilbert Ryle (1971), “Knowing How and Knowing That”, Collected Papers, Vol. 2, p. 222.


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