Sunday, January 29, 2012

Higgins, Chapter 1: Work and Flourishing

I should probably start with an admission: so far, Higgins is preaching to the choir in my own case (I’m actually teaching a seminar on Charles Taylor this semester, so I find myself very sympathetic to Higgins’ way of organizing his discussion). Much of what he says resonates with me on a number of levels, particularly theoretically (in terms of ethics in general) and professionally (in terms of teaching). Since it's the first chapter of the book, my aim is not to be critical. Instead, I’ll simply summarize some of the key points of what I see Higgins’ project to be thus far (and it’s a big one) and then at the end of the post I’ll ask a few brief questions to get things started conversationally.
Where should I begin? I don’t have to tell anyone who has read the first chapter that Higgins has bitten off an extremely large bite philosophically. There is so much in this chapter to talk about that it is hard to know where to start. As readers of Williams and Taylor know, these authors have a lot to say, their projects are very large and complicated, and Higgins does a good job of packing their major concerns into 20 pages. That said, it’s hard to then pack those 20 pages into a blog post that can do justice to the larger concerns and at the same time put them in the context of Higgins' own project. I’ll give it a shot – in advance, forgive me my omissions of the more detailed (and interesting) discussions Higgins engages in throughout the chapter. Here I’m trying to just capture the main line of argument so that his project is illuminated.
Clearly, Higgins’ project (so far) is to engage with and understand professional ethics (specifically teaching, later on in the book). However, in the spirit of Bernard Williams and Charles Taylor, Higgins points out that ethics itself as problematic. The reason for this is that modern ethics (or "morality") has slowly and steadily moved away (historically) from ancient eudaimonic ethics. Of course, if this modern movement were seen merely as the latest answer to the old question “what ethical model is best – virtue, deontology or consequentialism?” this would simply reveal Higgins (and Williams and Taylor) as merely preferring the approach of ancient ethics to modern ethics. However, anyone who has read Williams or Taylor knows that Higgins’ claim is far stronger. It’s not just that ancient approaches to value are better ways of solving ethical dilemmas. Rather, the claim is that basic eudaimonic ethics can never really be “moved past” because the questions it asks are necessarily rooted in what is constitutive of human moral life (or agency).
That’s a big claim, so we need to ask: What is constitutive of human moral life? Although the answer to this question is very complicated (in Higgins’ chapter and elsewhere in Williams/Taylor), I think for the sake of this post we can reduce it to some basic claims. Most importantly, eudaimonic approaches to the ethical life root questions about “what to do” inside of a larger background or context – a quest to answer the question “who am I?” This kind of approach sees questions about practical action as only answerable inside of narrative frameworks that aim at assessing the unity of a human life – specifically, a life that is aimed at or oriented towards a substantive good that facilitates human flourishing. So, in a sense, concerns about practical action and questions about one’s own (continual quest for) well-being (flourishing) are necessarily connected.
Modern ethics wants to sever that connection between the personal and the practical. It wants to abstract away questions about practical action so that they are not influenced by concerns about flourishing, as this is seen as not only unacceptably selfish, but also partial. In a sense (and in different ways, depending on the ethical theory) modern ethics sees the project of ethics as one in which the agent learns to reject desire, think impartially (perhaps employ the will), and direct oneself in accordance with purely altruistic obligations (that are motivated in this way as well). Since Higgins (and Williams and Taylor) see this modern turn as out of sync with what we are as agents, the best a competing view (such as deontology or consequentialism) can do is to try to hide those eudaimonic concerns from view and suppress them. In a sense, we have two choices: we can deny and suppress what we are (as quest-driven agents) and follow the modern path, leading to a disfigurement of ourselves as agents, or we can accept and embrace what we are and approach the Socratic questions about life, identity and flourishing as core to how we approach (and root) issues of value in our lives. There’s no third option.
How does this relate to professional ethics, the subject of Higgins’ book? The answer is simple: if professions emerged historically around the same time that the turn between ancient and modern systems of ethics occurred, it will not be surprising if our way of understanding professional ethics is strongly shaped by modern ways of understanding the larger ethical project. So, if Williams-Higgins-Taylor turn out to be right in suggesting that modern morality has wrongly suppressed the more fundamental ancient concerns about flourishing that are lurking beneath the surface, it will also be true that modern professional ethics does the same thing. Essentially, Higgins will use the historical analysis in chapter one – which shows that our modern ethical views are disfigured and myopic – and use it to show that our professional view of ethics (and inevitably, teaching) is similarly disfigured and myopic. Essentially, having a clear view of the “disease” will give us a clearer view of the possibilities for professional ethics – possibilities that are healthier and which are there, lurking beneath the surface, waiting for us to cultivate and develop them.
So what is the myopic way of understanding professional ethics? Combining the modern focus on the importance of “ordinary life” (from Taylor), the belief that desire/ethics and egoism/altruism are in opposition and the fact that ethics is seen in terms of obligations, we get a view of professions that directs us to see that professions are:
(1) Specialized training
(2) Public recognition of practitioners to have autonomy to self-regulate
(3) A commitment to provide services to the public altruistically.
One way of viewing this is to suggest that professional ethics is a way of using and employing the skills in (1) through a system of rules and codes (in (2)) that practitioners themselves create and which are aimed at assuring non self-interested acts of altruism (in (3)). From the modern view, this is seen as not only necessary for professional ethics, but also sufficient, such that following through on (1) – (3) exhausts the conversation about what it means to ethically participate in a discipline.
However, Higgins sees this as overly myopic. Beneath these concerns must be more fundamental concerns that agents have about how engagement with a certain profession contributes to the well-being and flourishing of the practitioner him/herself. If so, proposed answers to “how should I act?” should be understood against that backdrop. If that’s right, engaging with professional ethics in a robust and healthy way requires thinking about how Socrates’ question -- “who am I?” -- can be asked and successfully answered within the context of professional life itself. Essentially, Higgins is arguing that ethics must – in the professional realm and elsewhere – always include a foundational immersion with concerns about human flourishing at the core of agency itself. It is fundamental to our professional life that it be a response to our questions about human flourishing, so ethics must capture and involve that very quest and "agentic orientation." To ignore such questions is to disfigure ethics and our own lives as agents. Only by recapturing this fundamental set of questions (Taylor often calls it a "retrieval" project) can we hope to fully glimpse the whole of professional life. Since modern professional ethics exiles and suppresses those fundamental questions, it can never hope to capture ethical life in a discipline, and in the end will lead us down problematic roads (psychologically and otherwise, as Williams notes).
Personally, I find Higgins’ approach here to be provocative, productive, and necessary. I realize that this post is overly long, so I will limit myself to some concerns about teaching as examples. In my own discussions with my fellow colleagues, I often find that the question “what is the right thing to do, or what are the right practices to employ, or virtues to develop, as a professor?” is almost always answered solely in terms of an abstract and procedural discussion of what counts as maximizing the good of students and their learning. Clearly, those are targets of ethical concern as a teacher, but I am always surprised by the insistence that professional ethics reduces to what hurts or maximizes student outcomes (consequentialism), or in terms of what recognizes or ignores the dignity of a student (deontology).
Quite simply, when I ask “shouldn’t being a good teacher respond on some level to the fundamental reasons why we entered this discipline in the first place?” I am met with faces that show reluctance and lack of comfort. My colleagues are uncomfortable talking about the ethics of teaching in terms of their own ground projects, because to them focusing on such desires as ethically salient is ignoble – it is too self-interested. In a way, many seem to think that our concern with professional flourishing should always be trumped because, quite simply, it’s not a true ethical variable in the situation (or one that is so unimportant that it can be quick defeated by other "obligations"). Personally, I’ve always found this view bizarre and strange. So Higgins is speaking to something that I have long believed, but something that I have had a hard time articulating.
So: are there practices that teachers should embrace that do justice to their own quests for well-being that cannot be simply reduced to the maximization of student learning? If so, what are they? Are there practices that disrupt such well-being? How can we make sense of such an ethical life? What would the virtues be? What are the vices? In Higgins’ sense (and drawing on his reading of Plato) – how do we do formative justice to ourselves, and to our possibilities, as human beings but more specifically as teachers?
These are big questions, and I’m anxious to read what Higgins (and you all) has to say about them.


  1. Thanks for this, very interesting.

    My colleagues are uncomfortable talking about the ethics of teaching in terms of their own ground projects, because to them focusing on such desires as ethically salient is ignoble – it is too self-interested.

    I think that this, interestingly, leads to a certain inarticulacy concerning reasons for studying philosophy in general. People in the humanities are periodically racked with self-doubt concerning their viability as compared with the sciences, and one result of this is the old "don't get a PhD, it's a trap" mantra one hears doled out to young academics these days.

    And what you NEVER hear in response to such advice is: "I love philosophy, I want to teach it, a PhD is necessary for this." It's as though even naming such desires is taboo, not relevant, not part of the instrumentalist discussion. Higgins has put his finger right on the source of this blind spot in the debate.

  2. Great summing up Chris! I'm still not done with the book, so I'm hoping this question gets answered later. But, I did wonder whether one aspect that was missing from his interesting recasting of the question of professional ethics in this first chapter, was the politically driven distinction between the public and the private. In particular, in professions such as teaching that can and often do serve a political function, the public as a whole has an interest in carving out a domain of the profession that they can engage in a debate about without thereby stepping over the boundary of commenting or attempting to regulate the teacher's private life.

  3. Perhaps echoing Nick: It strikes me that in higher education, the question of the "reasons we became teachers" in the first place gets ignored simply because, for many college and university faculty, there aren't (or weren't) any such reasons. People often go to grad school, etc., not in order to teach but in order to study their disciplines, become researchers, etc. The teaching part is the "cost" you pay for being able to do those other things. As I've said here several times before, that's a recipe for burnout and a dissatisfying career, given that most higher educators actually spend most of their careers and time being educators.

  4. @Michael and Nick -

    I'm not much further into Higgins' book that chapter 1, but I don't think that's what he's after - or at least I'd be surprised if that's his (sole) target. I agree, of course, that many people don't go into teaching _to_ teach, but in order to research and participate in other aspects of academic life. But I take it that Higgins' aim here is to point out the fact that people who _do_ go into teaching in order to teach have a hard time talking about the ethics of teaching in ways that are grounded in and informed by the fact that teaching is a "ground level project" (a la Williams) or a way in which to participate in human flourishing (via the discipline).

    I find that even completely teaching-focused instructors have a hard time talking about teaching in this way, because it strikes them as just too self-interested, and ethics doesn't work that way, they think. Teachers don't focus on what is would be required to be formatively just to themselves (and the potential for their own flourishing). Instead, they should simply be altruistically focused on maximizing student learning outcomes and other such things. I think instructors are okay with this subject only if attention to flourishing really just reduces to student focus and learning outcomes and the like. Otherwise it is a taboo.

    I think the subject gets interesting when we ask what it would mean to pay attention to flourishing as an ethical component. Does it merely collapse into focus on students? Is it sometimes in tension with this? How much overlap is there? What does it mean to _do justice_ to the teacher qua agent seeking flourishing via that professional role? I'm not sure, but it strikes me that this is the direction Higgins wants to take us in.

    @Jennifer -

    That's interesting. It may well be that a part of the reason (historically) for the modern split away from the personal component of ethics stems from emerging beliefs about the differences between the public and the private. Once you've drawn the distinction, professional ethics has to do only with the public realm, so it seems odd to incorporate a personal dimension into that discussion. I would think that this allows Higgins (and Taylor and Williams) more reason to deny the split, and to talk about how it makes us psychologically disfigured. The public is personal, since our connection to our professional lives are inherently linked up with a strongly personal (but human) desire for flourishing.

  5. Unlike Chris, I am not in the choir. I am inclined to agree with the spirit of what Higgins has to offer and to think that a discussion of flourishing as teachers is quite worthwhile. But I’m not William’s largest fan, and am generally unpersuaded by recent attacks on moderns. Moderns did not neglect pre-modern philosophy, they knew it well and were hostile to much of it. So I think that to rest a case for flourishing on ancient eudaimonic ethics in opposition to modern moral philosophy risks getting drawn into two debates unnecessarily. First, a debate over metaphysical and metaethical presuppositions, and second a debate over whether ancient concerns (“what is a good life for us as human beings?”) are somehow more fundamental than modern concerns (understanding and explaining reasonable moral limits on our actions).

    None of this is to say that I find the positive discussion misguided. Just the opposite, I think the questions Chris ends with nicely summarize Higgins’ interests and are very worth thinking about. The problem in my view (within the context of teaching) is that both our ancient and modern moral/ethical concerns are too often overwhelmed by conflicting institutional and societal demands.

  6. Jim -

    My own personal singing (in the choir, I mean) is more to the tune of Taylor than Williams, though they are clearly humming a similar song. In Taylor's case I don't think he would say that moderns neglect pre-modern philosophy in the sense of not knowing it, or in the sense of ignoring it, I think he'd say that they have attempting to (unsuccessfully and I think Taylor would say incoherently) remove it from the moral landscape.

    In any event, following Taylor, I would guess that Higgins see the refashioning of professional ethics as requiring this prior foray into metaethics, since the concerns he wants to "retrieve" are those same concerns he thinks have been suppressed by modern ethics (and so don't appear in professional ethical discourse).

    I think you could just argue for the latter, admittedly, but I'm guessing that if he did that, there would be a lot of people wanting to know why it mattered ultimately to add it. I think he's trying to offer that answer, even if it's a controversial response!


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