Using Technology to Deepen Democracy, Using Democracy to Ensure Technology Benefits Us All

Thursday, November 23, 2006

Technoethical Pluralism

In What Pragmatism Means, William James proposed that “truth is one species of good, and not, as is usually supposed, a category distinct from good, and coordinate with it. Truth is the name of whatever proves itself to be good in the way of belief, and good, too, for definite, assignable reasons.” For pragmatic philosophy since Peirce, beliefs are construed as habits of thought that provide guides for conduct. Taken together, these theses imply that we properly describe as “true” those warranted propositions that guide us to conduct ourselves in ways that yield more satisfaction than not in our efforts to cope with our various personal and shared concerns.

But it is obvious that people take up any number of different -- even what might appear to be irreconcilably different -- concerns. And this human heterogeneity is manifest not only in our social and cultural and political plurality, but even within our own hearts. And if our concerns are not always reducible to the same essential form, then -- from all the above -- this implies that our good beliefs, proper truths, warranted assertions will likewise take a number of proper forms.

And so, people arrive at rational convictions in their diverse coping with efficacious, moral, ethical, aesthetic, and political concerns (no doubt among others). Each of these concerns can be expected to be quite differently warranted and surely none of them is, a priori, reducible to or stably hierarchizable in respect to any of the others, except in a case to case sort of way.

To be rather schematic about it, I distinguish five basic modes of reasonable belief-ascription (and since it seems to me that this sort of schema is likely to edify philosophically-inclined folks like me most of all, I have correlated these modes to the various branches of Philosophy in a roughly traditional sketch):

[1] Efficacious beliefs (for which practices of consensus science will tend, usually sensibly enough, to be taken as paradigmatic), (a) implemented or incarnated through collective practices of experimentation, substantiation, and publication, (b) these are warranted by criteria of defeasibility and demonstration, and contingent commitment to them provides (c) relative powers of prediction and control;

[2] Moral beliefs, from mores, or "we-intentions," (a) implemented or incarnated through collective practices of identification and dis-identification, (b) these are warranted by coherence with observed collective practice or in respect to authoritative utterances (by established authorities or through authoritative interpretations of canonical texts), and contingent commitment to them provides (c) a relative sense of belonging and assurance of social support;

[3] Aesthetic beliefs (beliefs that things that are idiosyncratically valued by oneself are therefore valuable as such, that is to say, susceptible to legibility as valued by others even if they are not in fact valued widely at present or even at all valued otherwise), (a) implemented or incarnated through exhibitions and performances of ongoing creation and self-creation offered up to general reception, (b) these are warranted in particular by the absolutely unpredictable transaction of inter-personal affirmation and facilitated in general by the scene of informed, nonduressed consent as such (even if not necessarily legible as optimal, normalizable, generalizable, rationalizable, moralistically acceptable, and so on), and contingent commitment to them provides (c) a relative sense of autonomy and personal perfection;

[4] Ethical beliefs, (a) implemented or incarnated through practices of public deliberation available -- typically only "in principle" -- to all, (b) these are warranted by general assent and formal universalizablity (this is tricky to delineate theoretically, since universals will always retroactively be exposed as expressions of parochial perspectives: the real force of formal universality is that it is a normativity that aspires to a universality defined, in actual practice, always against the grain of contemporary practices of moral normativity that themselves are always circumscribed by practices of dis-identification with constitutive outsiders who are then in principle included (includ-able) in a formal universality that fails therefore to yield the effects of positive identification), and contingent commitment to which provides (c) a relative incarnation of a "personal status" accorded the standing of rights-bearer, property-bearer, consent-bearer, cosmopolitan citizen-subject, peer among peers;

[5] Political beliefs, (a) implemented or incarnated through the dynamic of strategic, opportunistic, usually citational, never equal interpersonal power relationships (in the sense best and complementarily delineated by Michel Foucault and Hannah Arendt as non-sovereign "power," and then recently reformulated by Judith Butler as "performativity"), (b) these are warranted by their general legibility and their specific legitimacy -- in democratic variations, usually according to constitutional establishments of a rule of law ordained by the consent of the governed, in anti-democratic variations, to authoritative pronouncements by a ruling or incumbent elite often claiming a privileged relation to a divine or naturally (this includes "market") ordained order of things -- a process which provides (c) a contingent reconciliation of the aspirations of the diversity of the stakeholders or peers who share a finite world (not all of whom we will concede are our "equals," not all of whom solicit our personal identification). In democratic variations of the political, the reconciliation of these diverse ends must be as consensual and nonviolent as possible, while in anti-democratic variations (which will typically mime democratic forms at the level of rhetoric), politics is simply a matter of reconciling majorities to elite or incumbent interests.

Now, it seems to me that enormous amounts of confusion and mischief arise from the fact that philosophers, of both the professional and armchair varieties, too often seem mistakenly to want to characterize the protocols of warranted assertibility arising from just one of these modes of belief ascription -- which they happen to privilege for whatever reason, only their therapists know for sure -- as uniquely characteristic or definitive of rationality as such. From this, they go on then to misread the attributes, protocols, and ends defining other necessary normative modes in ways that distort or denigrate them.

I would say that this is what happens when people seek to understand the political from the perspective of scientific instrumentality (as reductionism does), or of aesthetics (as some fascists did), or morality (as many religious fundamentalists seem to do), or to understand ethics from the perspective of the political (as nihilists do) or of instrumentality (as determinists do), and so on.

For me, rationality, properly speaking, is nothing like a reductionist project at all, but consists of being able, first, to determine which mode of belief best comports with a particular end or mode of shared concern (prediction and control? membership in a particular moral community? narrative coherence in a risky project of self-creation? normative claims that solicit universal assent? reconciliation of ends among peers? or what have you) and then, second, to satisfy the criteria for warranted assertibility proper to that mode.

I happen to think these considerations can be especially illuminating to what is described as "bioethical" discourse and technoethical discourses more generally at the moment.

To me, for example, what goes on under the heading of "bioethics" sometimes looks far more like a kind of biomoralism. By this I mean to say such "bioethical" discourse really amounts to a set of prescriptions arising out of some particular community of moral identification and, crucially, disidentification. I would suggest that many "bioconservative" arguments take this form.

Some "bioethics" looks to me far more like a kind of bio-aestheticism: that is to say, they consist of testaments to a desired or ongoing pursuit of private perfection in the form of projects of prosthetic self-creation making claims to general legibility but not necessarily to general affirmation. Sometimes "bioethical" discourses take the form of what I would describe instead as bioscientisms, parochial prescriptions stealthed as medical or "neutral" instrumental descriptions. And, of course, quite a lot of "bioethical" discourse is really simply a matter of skirmishes across a biopolitical policy terrain, consisting of efforts to arrive at contingent compromise formations in the context of diverse stakeholders in relatively, or at any rate notionally, democratic societies.

These differing concerns (instrumental, moral, esthetic, ethical, political, and so on) clearly generate importantly different "shoulds," they are arrived at through importantly different protocols, they are sensitive to importantly different phenomena, and they are warranted as rational by importantly different criteria.

I worry that bioethical discourse sometimes tends to be insensitive to (and perhaps even a bit antagonistic to) the actual irreducible diversity of perfectly rational, intelligible normative practices. It seems especially susceptible to a reductionism that would denigrate democratic stakeholder plurality as "bias," or consensual lifeway diversity as "suboptimality," "illness" or "irrationality" -- either out of a misplaced faith in a triumphalist scientism that looks for all the world like the evangelism it likes (properly enough) to decry in others, or as an uncritical expression of sociocultural privilege in an era of technodevelopmental social struggle defined essentially by conflicts between reductive corporate-military rationality on the one hand and pluralist democratic movements on the other.

A second worry I have is that I would assume key contemporary technoethical discourses to be defined in their historical specificity, and that these specificities would also yield a diversity of actual forms. It isn't simply a matter of irrationality that some people who take a civil libertarian stance on questions of neuroceutical interventions into mood and memory nevertheless express hostility to what seem conceptually analogious civil libertarian positions on questions of access to reproductive technologies to end unwanted pregnancies or facilitate wanted ones, but the fact that these arguments are lodged for some people in the historically separable discourses and commitments of the concrete politics of the so-called "War on Drugs," on the one hand, and the anti-abortion politics of "Life," so-called, on the other.

What I mean to say is simply that, whatever interesting structural, conceptual, and historical relations obtain between them, the fact is that bioethics really isn't exactly the same thing as neuroethics. Neither is it roboethics, or media criticism, or environmental criticism, or existential risk assessment, and so on. I would like to see more interesting work which surveys the field of these technoethical discourses with an eye to their topical and tropological connections but also in a way that does justice to the concrete historical and political specificities of each.

Both of these worries, that influential bioethical and technoethical discourses tend to be insufficently responsive to the actual modal diversity of rational human normativity as well as insufficiently attentive to the actual historical diversity of concrete normative practices, are nudging me into a contrary and compensatory perspective: an affirmation of the plurality of modes of reasonable belief-ascription corresponding to an affirmation of the possibility of a technoscientifically literate and technodevelopmentally democratizing planetary multiculture, alive to the values of equity, diversity, openness, and consent that I might as well describe as technoethical pluralism.


AnneC said...

Both of these worries, that influential bioethical and technoethical discourses tend to be insufficently responsive to the actual modal diversity of rational human normativity as well as insuffiently attentive to the actual historical diversity of concrete normative practices, are nudging me into a contrary and compensatory perspective I might as well describe as technoethical pluralism.

If I'm reading this correctly, I agree with it and share similar worries (or at least, I've noticed similar trends and have been attempting to determine how best to contribute to addressing them appropriately). I think that "influential" might be the key word in the text quoted above -- the good news is that there seem to be people with sufficiently complex understanding of important issues and concepts, but the bad news is that most of what makes it into more visible publication tends to be a bit heavier on the hand-waving than the material behind the scenes -- on e-mail lists, in private communications, in long, long papers that easily earn every word they use but that few have the patience to read.

Jonathan Pfeiffer said...

I really like this post.

How does psychology fit into this scheme?

A lot of American psychology of the last century probably goes into the "instrumental" category. But a lot of earlier (and really interesting) works by people like William James, Wilhelm Wundt, and Granville Stanley Hall seem much more philosophical, and less scientific, in character. (And I would say the same of Jaan Valsiner's present-day cultural developmental psychology.)

I guess you have phrased your definition of instrumental beliefs sufficiently broadly enough to embrace these varieties of psychology (especially with that crucial word, "relative"). I suppose what really bothers me is the grammar of domination implied in the word "instrumental". The metaphor of the "instrument" conflicts, in my view, with the ambitions of the meaning-of-life inquiries (occurring, for instance, in Ganzheitspsychologie) that have little to do with "instrumentation", but which nonetheless have no other place to call home among your five categories. For example, saying that cultural psychology -- and perhaps cultural anthropology, for that matter -- is an esthetic or ethical endeavor just doesn't seem quite right.

Perhaps it would be appropriate to simply rename that first category, to make its relationship to psychology seem less abrasive.

On the other hand, perhaps I've misunderstood your ideas. If so, I'm open to an alternate explanation.

Dale Carrico said...

First off, remember that for me prosthesis comes quite close to being a synonym for culture.

You say it doesn't feel quite right to you, but I think it is fruitful to entertain the possibility that perhaps not all therapy is best understood as a mode of science (even if some is) so much as a mode of aesthetics or morals...

Think of the therapeutic construal of Nietzschean and Wittgenstinian philosophy... meaning-of-life inquiries or instrumental projects? You decide.

I actually am not entirely cheerful about the metaphor of instrumentality either, tell the truth -- because the performative dimension of all five modes of belief ascription opens them to a broadly instrumental rationality that risks evacuating the connection of publication/ prediction-control that seems to me most key to instrumental belief.

Jonathan Pfeiffer said...

To what extent are you equating psychology with therapy, or assuming that the former implies the latter? If I understood all of psychology to be mainly a therapeutic activity, I would have little trouble in agreeing that it is therefore a moral or aesthetic activity. I'm just not sure about that.

You caution against using the criteria of any one category to make judgments in another category. That is one specific way in which you say that the categories should not overlap. But I do not recall your having addressed other ways in which the categories might relate to, or overlap with, one another. One could assume that you suggest keeping these five categories absolutely distinct from each other in ways beyond that single consideration of criteria for belief -- but in making such a broad assumption, one might interpret your argument beyond what you have actually written (or what I remember your having written).

I take your categories as i) being comprehensive, ie, able to account for all kinds of beliefs, and ii) being completely separate from one another (at least with respect to criteria for belief). Those two assumptions lead me to conclude, further, that any kind of research enterprise should be assignable to one and only one category. So let's try a test case.

Consider the long-standing debate among emotion researchers about causality between mind and body in emotional experiences. (William James and Carl Lange had one idea.) Your essay demands the reader (or at least me) to categorize all conversations, debates, and genres of thought. So where does emotion research fit in? I see a scientific aspect to it, in addition to a potentially therapeutic one, and therefore a moral or aesthetic one, depending on what uses, interpretations, or appropriations one may find for emotion research. So if I am correct that emotion research is not only a therapeutic endeavor, and therefore not only a moral exercise or only an aesthetic experience, then emotion research obviously involves more than one category of belief. In this case, we have a contradiction with my assumptions stated above.

I am aware of all kinds of mistakes I may have made here, but hopefully it's good enough to elicit a clarifying response from you, if you care to offer one.

Dale Carrico said...

You caution against using the criteria of any one category to make judgments in another category. That is one specific way in which you say that the categories should not overlap.

My caution is intended to increase awareness of fruitful difficulties rather than necessarily to correct errors visible from some systematic account. The truth is I am often most interested in the places where the categories do indeed threaten to overlap (I think the bioethics, biomoralism example in this discussion illustrates this itnerest). The old instincts of my training in analytic philosophy recommend that I propose distinctions to relieve certain discursive tensions and collapse obsolete distinctions when they stand in the way of inquiry. What I like about this account is that it provides so many ways of slicing up problems -- more than the dualisms, occasional triads, semiotic rectangles usually available to analytic thought. It seems a supple and capacious engine for making connections and marking inter-implicated differences.

One could assume that you suggest keeping these five categories absolutely distinct from each other

This only seems to be the case because I have been using this account to push against the grain of certain reductionisms that seem to me to impoverish our sense of the resources available to reasonable belief and value. But this surely isn't the only kind of analysis available to somebody sympathetic to this particular account.

I take your categories as i) being comprehensive,

I would be very surprised if this were true. I claim only that they reflect my own assumptions very well (that they align broadly with the traditional philosophical branches isn't exactly a coincidence given my training and temperament), and that I think these categories are more capacious and useful than dualisms and so on that seem to me to encourage pointless reductionism for no good reason and often at great cost.

any kind of research enterprise should be assignable to one and only one category.

Especially if we look at research programmes taking an historical view I think it will be unliekly that this kind of singular designation will be possible -- but I do think it will probably provide lots of interesting insights to chart the developments of a discourse with an eye to these categories and the historical contexts that opportunistically nudged them from one mode of warrant to another, with what consequences, and so on.

where does emotion research fit in?

I daresay this will depend on the uses to which it is being put in each case.

I am aware of all kinds of mistakes I may have made here,

Let's call them useful and provocative points of departure rather than mistakes -- that's ever so much more in the spirit of things as I intend them!