Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Collste – 'Applied and Professional Ethics – an Introduction'

Göran Collste contributes to the MAE handbook with a bit of an overview off the field of applied ethics. There is a point about reflective equillibrium I am a little uncertain about, which I'll discuss here.

In discussing RE, Collste remarks that it can be used either as a structure for debate, or a form of justification, but not both. As I understand it, this is because if it is used as an organisational schema, anything contributed by RE to the argument can't be informative, but can only be a different way to portray the content of the various positions. I don't think that Collste's severely compressed discussion distinguishes the two positions sufficiently, so for my purposes I'll try to do so. From what little I know of him, RE in applied ethics seems to be a particular interest of Collste's, but I have only this short article of his to work from, so that is all I'll try to engage.

Collste's example is of introducing an expert opinion (a doctor's considered judgement) and a general principle (the principle of utility) into a discussion of how to respond to a particular problem (suitable treatment for neonates). He chose an intuitionist and principlist disagreeing with eachother to bring out RE's features, he tells us. I'm a little worried about his characterisation of the intuitionist approach and what that entails, which is the point I'll work from towards my characterisation of the two different uses of RE.

Collste first introduces the doctor's judgement as an intuition, and then as a considered judgement, but there is a lot of ground to cover between the two. A considered judgement is a mere intuition (a snap judgement) that has been supplemented with careful attention to the specifics of the case and what the various options entail, and so on. A considered judgement is the type of thing you can have in hindsight, whereas a mere intuition is the product of a moment's sensation. Collste is welcome to pick out considered judgements, the least flighty type of intuition, as what he means to contrast with a deduction from a general principle, but he then proceeds to give them short shrift in what follows. He states that if the doctor were asked to back up his conclusion, there would be nothing to point back to other than their own “intuition and practice, but not much more” (p. 80). But more than intuition and practice goes into a considered judgement. 'Intuition' in the sense of 'sensation' can pick out salient dimensions of the case (the quality which intuitionists claim makes expert intuition indispensable), but what makes an intuitive judgement considered is exactly the careful attention that is given to the possibilities along those dimensions. The precedents an expert can draw upon have content, after all: in a similar case this happened when such-and-such was attempted; thus, in our case, this or something relevantly similar will happen again; and so on. If nothing else, it includes the weighing up of consequences that experience has taught one to expect. When deciding between uncertain consequences, it's hard to deny the power of an appeal to a precedent, especially one where the implications are drawn out with an expert's sensitivity. Knowing what will happen in such-and-such cases is after all exactly what we have doctors for.

On my view there is still a clear difference between an intuitionist line and a principlist one. An intuitionist one is a product of the specifics of the case, whereas a principlist one abstracts over specifics and makes proclamations of general scope. For the utilitarian of Collste's example, no other dimension other than expected happiness is relevant, whereas the doctor's intuition can draw on every aspect of every suitable precedent. When both views are given a place at the table, then, they pull in different directions: the principlist insistence that everything can be decided on some general considerations, while the intuitionist brings the intricacies of the case to bear. One can see the different sides being argued as a gauntlet that some candidate response to the problem has to run through. As I see it, if the response can satisfy every side, then RE functions as an organisational schema, and if it doesn't, it serves as a decision making procedure. In the former, the response is cast as the product of an equillibrium between the demands of ones principles and the realities of the case, and in the latter, the promise of an equillibrium motivates revisions to the candidates and the various sides to the debate until an equillibrium is reached.

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