At times of global crisis, it’s very tempting for moral philosophers to get an over-inflated sense of self-importance. Those who have dedicated their life to reasoning through matters of complexity – justice, rights, liberty and the rest – suddenly feel uniquely placed to make sense of what’s happening.

When philosophers intervene effectively in public debate, it’s often lauded as a breath of fresh air. If I had a dollar for every time someone had suggested I teach ethics to politicians, I wouldn’t need to teach anyone ever again.

Last week, Jared Field, a University of Melbourne mathematician and Gomeroi man argued in The Guardian that the recent destruction of the Juukan Gorge cave by Rio Tinto revealed the need for students of STEM to be trained in ethical reasoning.

Having myself argued for the need to include ethics within STEM, I desperately want to agree with Field. But in order for ethicists to provide the kind of education he hopes for, one in which scientists ask “am I being a good ancestor?”, the field of ethics first needs to reckon with its own history. Moral philosophers, as it turns out, don’t have the best ancestors.

Ethics, a branch of philosophy, is an intellectual tradition and an academic discipline that, like any other, has a history of sexism, racism and complicity with oppressive systems and regimes.

In the wake of the protests and riots following the killing of George Floyd, the solidarity that has been sparked across the globe, and the more targeted protests regarding Aboriginal deaths in custody here in Australia, I’ve started wondering about the legacy of the discipline. To follow Field’s line of questioning – what do ethicists have to do to ensure they’re being good ancestors?

I’m beginning to worry that some of the most basic ways we think and ‘reason’ (more on that word soon) about ethics, has a role in legitimising the very violence that ethicists and moral philosophers then seek to condemn.

This isn’t true of all philosophy – but it is typical of an approach that holds a lot of traction today because of its association with some of the most widely-known (and more importantly, widely taught) philosophers in history. It’s a notion of philosophy that sees it as an entirely rational exercise of developing and applying theories, ideas and frameworks in a vacuum.

This vacuum is meant to be liberating. It’s designed to be transcendental – elevating our ideas above what things appear to be so that we can articulate things as they really are, or as they should be. It’s from this vacuum that we get thought experiments and concepts like the trolley dilemma, the state of nature and the veil of ignorance. It’s also where we get a whole lot of applied ethical frameworks, like just war theory in military ethics, quality-adjusted life yields (QALY’s) in medical ethics and ‘use of force’ doctrines in policing ethics.

These theoretical frameworks provide us with a universal sense of what, for example, the ‘just’ use of police force looks like. To be considered ‘just’ (in Australia, at least) the use of force needs to be necessary, proportionate, reasonable, in pursuit of a legitimate goal and must aim to de-escalate or minimise harm.

When you run through these criteria as a list, it gives the sense of something comprehensive – that we could apply this framework to all cases and make some kind of reasonable judgement about whether the use of force is ethical or not. These approaches provide consistency, impartiality and at their best, capture something essential about the moral considerations at the heart of what’s at stake.

However, they also risk pulling the wool over our eyes, because they ask us to assume that when two people walk into this neat thought experiment, they too are transcendent. Their historical baggage, political status, social standing and whatever else defines their lived experience isn’t something to be wrestled with. Instead, the particularities of their lives and histories are something to be transcended.

What this means in the context of policing is that the very question of whether the police – as they have come to operate and function in a society – are legitimate or not is outside the scope of questioning. It means it falls to us to determine whether someone’s previous criminal status – itself likely intertwined with systemic injustices, social disadvantage and oppression – justifies a greater level of force, you know, because it’s proportional to the ‘greater threat’. The question ends, by accident or design, before we ask what role the colour of a person’s skin might have played in determining that use of force.

Philosopher and health researcher Bryan Mukandi describes this as a tendency to treat ethical decisions as an “atemporal phenomenon,” removing ethical decisions from the history that must inform them. It’s a phenomenon we have seen play out in the COVID-19 pandemic. Two patients arrive in need of a ventilator – one has promising health outcomes, the other doesn’t. The ventilator goes, according to many medical ethicists, to the one who promises better outcomes.

However, Mukandi points out that this, by design, overlooks the potential that the reason one person faces worse outcomes is because of a series of injustices they have experienced over the course of their life. Injustices that are not merely ignored at the moment of crisis, but which are relitigated against the person by denying them the same healthcare they have been denied again and again.

The false belief that ethics is an atemporal phenomenon has also been at work in the backlash against the Black Lives Matter protests around the globe. Conditioned to compare instances of violence only in the present, critics look at two instances of violence and treat them as equivalent. They have, by design, removed the most relevant factor – a history of deliberate, systemic violence and racism inflicted by one party on the other.

In so doing, they simultaneously rewrite the reality of the situation and claim some intellectual high ground, because they are the ones playing by the rules of rational thinking and reason. They are all too quick to spot an apparent contradiction in the logic of the other side after they’ve framed the terms of the debate and defined what matters and what doesn’t in their own way.

This is not a new tactic. It’s perhaps the earliest strategy in the colonial tool kit. Perhaps the best-known thought experiment in political philosophy concerns the ‘state of nature’, where we consider what life would be like if human society existed with no laws, no government, no organised systems of co-operation whatsoever.

The state of nature is meant to reveal how and why humans might wish to enter into society at all. Conveniently, most accounts of the state of nature – written by white men from European and British backgrounds – revealed the natural society to emerge from a state of nature to be a distinctly Eurocentric one.

The British philosopher John Locke developed his influential account of property ownership, based on European agricultural practices and the idea that land had to be tilled and settled to be owned. This way of thinking played a role in allowing colonists to see lands like Australia as unowned – as terra nullius. Philosopher Olly Thorn describes this as the practice of interpreting difference as absence. Different approaches to property, government and society were interpreted as lesser, or non-existent.

Far from discovering some universal truths by transcending the world, the philosophers I idolised as an undergrad (and to an extent, still do) simply gave their own world view the veneer of universality and in doing so, became available to launder white supremacy, colonialism and genocide.

They weren’t alone in this. Colonialism wasn’t invented by the British Empire. Nor was racism discovered during the Enlightenment. Other cultures and times have been guilty of similar crimes. However, what is distinct is the tendency to look for answers in the European thinkers who gave intellectual cover and license to the very evils we are now trying to address.

Jamaican political philosopher Charles Mills, wrote famously that at the end of the day, “a lot of philosophy is just white guys jerking off”. Often it fails to address real issues, and when it does, “the emphases are in the wrong place; or crucial facts are omitted, making the whole discussion pointless.”

If philosophers are to be good ancestors, we need to be honest about the legacy we’ve inherited from our own. We need to reckon with our unspoken tendency to accept an approach that is comfortable with erasing history. That requires a conscious choice to reconsider methods that focus on what’s happening now and what might happen in the future at the expense of the past. It means ensuring that we no longer overlook, or forgive, the racism, sexism and other moral failings of almost all the giants of our field.

Protestors and rioters have been criticised for destroying private property, invoking the very same intellectual concepts that were used to justify stealing Indigenous lands in the first place. They have been told to prosecute their arguments in a ‘marketplace of ideas’, invoking notions of liberty from John Stuart Mill, a man who believed only white people were truly capable of liberty. Failing to address the history of these ideas has seen us relitigating them in the same old ways, denying opportunities to refine, repurpose or replace these ideas with better ones.

Philosopher Kate Manne recently tweeted that “It is really striking at this moment how little talk there’s been of reforming philosophy departments. Our whiteness is overwhelming and deeply problematic.” I think Jared Field is right to think that a better curriculum might give us some hope looking forward.

But if we are going to start addressing social change in the curriculum, we first need to address the people writing it, and the thinkers in it.

Image credit: WikiCommons

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