Featured Philosop-her: Lisa Rivera


Lisa Rivera is Associate Professor Philosophy at University of Massachusetts, Boston. Her research is primarily in the area of moral and political philosophy. Her work in ethical theory considers whether moral theory must be impartial, the moral philosophy of Bernard Williams, the scope of moral demands, whether beneficence can be harmful to free agency, captivity and coercion and how voluntarily assumed commitments to promote justice can obligate us. In political philosophy she has published on political liberalism, and the responsibility of citizens for unjust war. She is currently working on the moral responsibilities raised by political membership and the relevance of emotions for political theory. She is the current chair of FEAST (Feminist Ethics and Social Theory) and the Director of Philosophy in an Inclusive Key-Boston (PIKSI-Boston).

Ethical Theory and Social Context

Lisa Rivera

Most of my papers in ethics start with the idea that social context is relevant to foundational questions in normative theory. You might say this is a type of stealth project. I’ve only once made a direct claim about social location in an ethical theory paper. So perhaps this blog post is a confession that I think issues about social context are buried within a lot of the questions moral philosophers ask about impartiality, universality, responsibility and obligation. I thank Meena for allowing me the chance to come clean about my terrible secret on this excellent blog of hers.

It’s clear that people’s circumstances and their relations with other people generally have normative import for them. To whom do they answer? What are their personal or political commitments? What structures or communities are they benefitted or burdened by? To whom or what are they expected to be loyal? Who depends on them and whom are they dependent upon? What do they think makes their life worthwhile. Should we reject these as relevant, try to fit them within our theories, or give up looking for a systematic moral theory?

To reminisce a bit–when I was a novice and semi-fanatical convert to philosophy, I would wonder if I should adopt, and then live by, one of these ethical theories. Students sometimes get this idea and then become perplexed about how anyone can make use of the theory in practical situations. My youthful uncertainty that I could apply these theories in real life situations was doubtlessly influenced by the way normative theory is sometimes taught–especially at UC Berkeley in the late 1980s, when Bernard Williams was right down the hall. Back in the hippie days, counterexamples circled normative theories like buzzards. Many of these were of the form “impartial theory T says that A should do y–e.g., benefit a bunch of other people–but y competes with z, e.g., a life goal such as being a great artist. We all know that it’s hard to just ignore z no matter how much T says y is the right thing to do.” So Stocker’s moral schizophrenia, Wolf’s moral saints, Blum’s arguments about friendship, and Williams’ integrity example take this form. The ideal of impartiality was challenged by the observation that there’s an essential aspect of human life that will necessarily compete with impartial moral considerations. Can we be the best person impartiality can make us and still be a good friend/husband/cool/witty/a gourmet cook?

These objections were quickly met with at least three kinds of arguments: Maybe z (thing we’re partial to) isn’t so important compared to the impartial demand raised by T. Or maybe a revised version of T accommodates z in some way hitherto before unnoticed. Or maybe a better understanding of T will show z wasn’t a problem after all. A rarer option at the time was to deny that the normative theory in question was action-guiding, i.e., to make T a purely indirect theory.

If one takes the second route and accommodates z in the theory, it will usually look as if there is a thicket of considerations one must navigate through while still being guided by the light of some impartial moral perspective. For example, if you follow Railton’s solution to the alienation that consequentialism might cause, you have to figure out the diverse list of goods that count as best consequences, then develop the type of character likely to promote those goods indirectly, and then do all this counterfactually without constantly checking your actions to see if they are promoting the goods on your list. The Kantian strategy is different, but Barbara Herman notes that moral agents need to use rules of moral salience to grasp complex features of moral situations.

This level of complexity to successful moral choice can lend itself to the suspicion that there’s a lot more to successful moral action than following moral principles. I used to joke with a friend that I would someday write a pop culture book called ‘Why Are People So Bad?’ to explain why it so common that–even when we intend to do the right thing–we botch it. The usual suspects for our moral failures are motivational or cognitive. But beyond this, it certainly looks as if some moral agents are more competent than others. As Julia Annas puts it, you couldn’t give even a very smart teenager a moral manual and expect them to bat 1,000 morally. Some claim success is due to moral character–the ideal sometimes referred to as practical wisdom in the form of the virtues. However, attention to social context also provides a puzzle piece for those who want to understand the complexity of moral choice.

An example where social context is relevant to choosing well is beneficence. Ordinarily, we imagine we can benefit a person by giving them what they want. There’s nothing paternalistic about helping people get what they themselves choose. And a lot of people think that if you give a person what they absolutely need for their physical survival you almost can’t go wrong, morally speaking. How could you go wrong if you gave a poor person medical care? As it turns out, though, benefactors go wrong all the time in these situations. Sometimes humanitarianism is a disaster for its recipients, even when providing basics like food, water, and medical care. I call this problem “harmful beneficence.” How do we account for what benefactors did wrong? A main explanation is that, while they manage to meet people’s ends–e.g., by keeping them from dying of a sickness they currently have– they used means to that end that collided with other values and ends of beneficiaries, –e.g., they set up a hospital that increases colonialism’s hold over a community trying to resist colonialism. A benefactor can meet a beneficiary’s need while also destroying resources she depended on for her future free agency. The benefactors do not realize the problems they are causing because people’s ends are nested in a complex conception of their good that the benefactors don’t fully understand. This is likely to happen when there are significant imbalances in social power between people, and their social locations are very far apart. We can hope people are benefitted to some degree, but because free agency is undermined, we need to do better.

People’s social context can also give them a deep sense of obligation falls outside or pulls them away from the standard view in ethical theory of what they are obligated to do. I’ve defended Bernard Williams’ point that it is very difficult to systematize moral choice and leave nothing normatively relevant behind. Moral theory is a Procrustean bed. His concerns about integrity can be read as a defense of our investment in the part of us moral theory wants to cut off, e.g., a project or a commitment around which we’ve based the meaning of our life.

One spin on this concern makes it look easy to dismiss. Satisfying a moral demand can involve a loss. Someone might say “what’s the big deal? It’s hard to be good but that’s no reason not to make the moral sacrifice.” One way to salvage Williams’ idea is to point out that competitors to moral requirements can be life goals with undeniable normative pull. One such competitor is a moral sacrifice that falls outside the bounds of what the normative theory requires. So someone might believe an injustice is so terrible that she should risk her life to remedy it, as the Mirabal sisters did in resisting Trujillo’s dictatorship in the Dominican Republic.  Political activity to resist Trujillo was non-optional for them. A second type of normatively compelling consideration is a voluntarily assumed political commitment that arises out of social location. So a person from a racially oppressed group may take up an activist project on behalf of her group or a wealthy American may believe they have to take up global justice activism. Moral theory permits people to pursue such commitments but our current theoretical apparatus can’t show why these commitments aren’t fungible with other commitments. And they fail to explain their normative pull.

Recently, I’ve been trying to turn this approach around and look at how personal and interpersonal normative expectations can push or pull us socially and politically. What is the relevance of the interplay between the people we are supposed to be within a society and political theories about how we should organize society? I’m considering ways that political emotions drive us to make normative claims on ourselves and others, such as the insistence Americans should be proud of our national identity. Emotions of self-assessment such as pride, shame and guilt are particularly relevant to showing how we engage with other members of the polity and they give us powerful incentives to embrace or reject, and benefit or harm those we share a society with.

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