German Joys Review: Sociology in Ethics

Breuer_coverThose who are interested in how modern thinkers address contemporary moral dilemmas will be interested in Marcos Breuer’s Soziologie in der Ethik: Handlungtheoretische Fundamente der Moralphilosophie (Sociology in Ethics: Behavioral-theory Fundaments of Moral Philosophy). In this dissertation, Breuer analyzes the work of John Mackie, Peter Singer, and John Rawls.

Breuer’s theme is the Menschenbild (roughly, image of human nature) in each philosophers’ thought. To make meaningful generalizations about human conduct, you must have an idea of how humans think and act. What motivates human conduct? How much altruism can we expect people to display? How far will they go to realize their interests? Philosophers — especially moral philosophers — obviously have to assume answers to these questions. However, they rarely make these assumptions explicit, even though they form the building blocks of later analysis.

Breuer "reverse-engineers" each philosopher’s basic assumptions about human nature by analyzing their philosophical systems. To structure his inquiry, Breuer develops a five-point analytical framework:

  1. Motivation structure: What sort of preferences do people have; and how do they decide when the preferences conflict?
  2. Altruism: What kind of altruism motivates humans?
  3. Moral Dispositions: What kind of basic moral dispositions control behavior?
  4. Interaction: What is their model of interaction between people?
  5. Rationality: What sort of rationality do they posit?

Breuer analyzes Mackie’s subjectivism, Singer’s utiliarianism, and Rawlsian contractual ethics according to this framework. The point is to distill testable hypotheses about human behavior from the work of all three philosophers. These hypotheses could then be tested sociologically, using what we know about the actual thought and behavior of people in the real world (this Breuer reserves for later work).

Breuer’s book not only delivers a readable overview of these three major thinkers (a service in itself), but also highlights informative contrasts among them. I was already reasonably familiar with Singer and Rawls, but I confess to never even having heard of John Mackie before. Drawing mostly on Ethics: Inventing Right and Wrong, Breuer shows that Mackie stayed closest to the actual ‘facts on the ground’ of human nature when developing his moral theories. Individuals have differing subjective interests and, even more important, different levels of power with which to enforce those interests. They will concern themselves with their own welfare and that of those near to them, and the level of altruism towards strangers that can be expected of them is very limited. Humans do have rights the specific form these rights take will always "result from compromises between their initially conflicting rights."

Singer and Rawls, by contrast, emerge as the idealists. Singer, especially, is willing to posit an extraordinary amount of altruism. As Singer once put it, "Once we start reasoning, we may be compelled to follow a chain of argumen to a conclusion that we did not anticipate. Reason provides us with the capacity to recognize that each of us is simply one being among others, all of whom have wants and needs that matter to them, as our needs and wants matter to us." Singer assumes that humans can and should use reason to determine their moral obligations, and that this process may well lead into areas that involve painful individual sacrifices — especially for citizens of wealthy industrialized countries. Singer has also argued that animals are rights-carriers, and that the distinctions we make between humans and animals, and between kinds of animals, carry little logical force.

Rawls seems to strike a medium, when viewed within Breuer’s model. He believes, says Breuer, that a well-ordered society can actually be constructed in the here and now. He assumes more altruism than Mackie, but at the same time concentrates on a contractual model of ethics that permits him to sketch a fairly realizable vision of a just society. People will sacrifice their individual prerogatives to the extent necessary to achieve a reasonable distribution of chances, but cannot be expected to go as far as Singer would go in abolishing any real distinction between members of one’s own group and outsiders or animals.

The purpose of Breuer’s book is not to argue for or against any of these theoretical constructs, but to crystallize each philosopher’s assumptions about human nature. The reader can them contemplate which picture of human motivation strikes him as the most convincing or practicable. Being a bit of a moral skeptic myself, I found myself drawn to Mackie’s cautious and skeptical claims. But Singer’s arguments do have an irresistible, almost maddening logic.

This is not the place for a thorough scholarly assessment of Breuer’s work, and I’m certainly not the one to conduct it. However, I can recommend Breuer’s book (to people who can read German) as a lucid and thought-provoking analysis of three leading ethical thinkers.

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