Ethics, Media

Yesterday and Ethics

Wednesday, 3rd July 2019

This post responds to the article here.

So, I haven’t seen the movie Yesterday, and not sure if I will. But here’s a post in which philosophers debate the central premise of the movie, which is that one day everyone wakes up with no knowledge or record that the Beatles ever existed, except for one person, who then reconstructs songs from memory and presents them to the world as if they are his own (at least initially, before he comes clean on what was going on).

A few things strike me about this post. First, why is it, when discussing ethics, the only things that get any play at all are the “big three” of Western ethics, consequentialism (in this case, utilitarianism), deontology (Kantian duty-based ethics), and virtue ethics (stemming from Aristotle)?

I used to hate ethics as an academic area with a passion, until I realized that approaching it like this drained out anything of interest or relevance. It assumed that we as individuals were faced with easily described and delimited problems, and we had a small set of tools to solve them with. Do we look at the consequences, do we consider what our duties are, or do we think about what constitutes being good and act from that?

I teach a grad course called Knowledge, Responsibility, and Society, which I interpret as a course on epistemology, ethics, and social organization or social institutions. In other words, it does not look at ethics in the abstract, but in the context of these other things. How does our knowledge affect our ethics, and do we have ethical obligations towards knowledge? What do institutions do to make possible or limit both knowledge and ethical action? Is there a kind of social organization that can lead to the best of all possible worlds, ethically or otherwise?

This article (or rather, the philosophers consulted) take the more limited approach. Sigh. So, let’s think about more interesting questions starting from this premise, that have ethical implications.

1. How do we know that this doesn’t happen all the time, but about things that don’t have a public profile like Beatles music? I know that a premise is just an imaginary device to get things started, but we also need to inquire about the premise, in order to know what to make of it. Presuming that our protagonist isn’t in a coma and dreaming all of this, it is at least possible that every day people remember things that just don’t matter to anyone else, or at least aren’t noticed by anyone else. Granted, it’s one thing to be the only one that remembers that a particular tree stood in a forest, and another to be the only one to remember over 200 songs, but in principle these are the same thing.

2. If this premise is true, is it also the case that no one remembers the post-Beatles work of all of the Beatles? Because that’s quite extensive. Or does that still exist for each of them, but it was just never the case that they were in a band called “The Beatles”? If so, they would be alive, obviously, and not just figments of imagination.

3. Following on this premise, which is that events have ripple effects, what other ripples would not exist in culture without the Beatles? Quite a few, I would think – they were highly influential, and many subsequent artists count them as an influence or inspiration. Would they not have gone into music? Would there have been no British Invasion?

4. Counterfactual history is always hard. Obviously, it is speculation. But here we can get into ethical questions. Does introducing the Beatles now mean the same thing as it meant in the 60’s? Would it have been positively received? Obviously in the movie it was (and I will say again, I’m working from reports, reviews, and summaries of the movie – like the rest of the philosophers in this piece, I haven’t seen it). So, here’s the ethical question: if your decision is based in consequentialism, which relies on the idea that the future will be like the past (so that you can reliably predict how much utility is generated), and you’re engaged in an action which, by the premise of the movie, literally has no past analogues that we know of, are you left with anything but guesses? Can you be held ethically responsible for acting where there is no precedent at all, not even analogies to rely on, because this is so sui generis? Or, do we think it is not sui generis, there are analogies, in which case we blunt what is unique about this case, ignore the clearly mind-blowing epistemological and metaphysical implications here, just so we can “do the best that we can”? And, does this thought experiment show forth one of the Achilles’ Heels of consequentialism, which is that we have to turn away from the uniqueness of the world in order to behave ethically? Levinas is starting to look like he might have been right.

5. Ok, so consequentialism/utilitarianism doesn’t work too well. But maybe that’s just evidence of its inadequacy as an ethical theory, and evidence that we should all be deontologists or virtue theorists instead. Not sure those get us any further. For deontology, at least of the Kantian version, there are rules whose general form can be established by pure reason. The categorical imperative (easily Googled, for those who have forgotten their intro philosophy course). But does that help us here? It looks like it should – something like “do not lie” seems relevant, at least. But here’s where epistemological questions arise, that muddy the waters in this sui generis situation. Is it a lie? More to the point, this person claims to have knowledge of the Beatles that no one else has. But there’s no confirmation of this, at all. There’s just his memory. Does he know that at one point, there existed a band called the Beatles, but now there isn’t and never was? Isn’t it possible that he’s dreamed up these songs and organized them around a band (to be fair, the article does bring this up). What exactly does he have a duty to, in not lying? Presumably, he is obligated to tell the truth. But that assumes something about the ability to tell the difference between that truth and a lie, or to be able to set up a process of verification for the truth. So, the most obvious duty, to not lie, seems very questionable at best, unless we psychologize duty and say that he has a duty to what he believes, irrespective of any effort to establish truth. In that case, I think we’re faced with a whole other set of problems, some of which we see in the “post-truth” era we find ourselves in.

6. Right, on to the third of the ethical approaches that Westerners seem to think exhaust all ethical discussion: virtue ethics. The ethics of the good, not the ethics of the right, or in other words, the ethics of what it means to be a good person rather than the ethics of choosing the right action. And this one gets even muddier, mostly because the components of what constitute virtue ethics seem inadequate. For Aristotle, we search for a mean between extremes. What are the extremes in a sui generis situation? We don’t know. And of course, it’s not about the specifics of the situation but about who he is as a person, but still, in order to know what it means to be a good person in this circumstance, we seem to have too little information. It’s hard to see how we could achieve eudaimonia, or human flourishing (unless we want to say that we all flourish more with Beatles music in our lives – but do we know that in advance?) How about ataraxia, or sereneness/peacefulness, which living at the median between extremes should provide – seems like any choice would make it difficult to live there.

So, what this says to me is not that we can’t think ethically about this thought experiment, but that the packages we use for thinking about ethics are inadequate. And, to tell the truth, I always hated ethics when I was a grad student, for this reason. It always felt like pointless mind games, that yielded little real insight in the world. This was not a reason to rely on more authority-driven accounts of action, such as religion, by the way – most of the discourse in those communities had even less to tell us about action in the world (and, in my mind, that’s been borne out in recent years by the flagrant self-interest shown by conservative religious communities, which has justified the most heinous abuses of people in the name of their false god – but that’s another story).

Are there better ways to think ethically, around this premise? I go back to the idea that ethics needs to be embedded in other discourses and ways of understanding the world (e.g., the Knowledge, Responsibility, and Society idea – ethics makes little sense unless we are also asking about epistemology and social organization/theory). In other words, we’re not going to get a nice clean answer to this or any other question – should I or shouldn’t I? Yes or no?

And yet, we have to make decisions. We have to act. The problem is that we think that getting our minds straight comes before acting. Figuring out our ethics comes before putting a decision into play. Sure, sometimes it does, in a limited context, but that’s always limited, and it is always easy to see that taking a step back (e.g., looking at a longer time frame, looking at a larger set of social connections or natural features or historical precedents) takes that one-time decision away from the limited ethical yes/no, and puts it at a different level.

Example: Should I save this person from this assailant or not? Yes/no question, until we ask, what happened before? What should I have done a minute earlier, 15 minutes earlier, a day earlier? What were the larger social structures in place, official and otherwise, that could have made things different, or at least raised the likelihood of different outcomes? Ethical discussions usually focus on the very last second decision (e.g., the Trolley Problem), conveniently ignoring all the hundreds of other decisions up to that point.

Another example (or rather, claim with ethical implications): “You’re either with us or against us!” Really? Now we don’t have last-minute thinking, but a lack of imagination which is disguised as moral clarity or certainty. We should co-opt the concept of moral imagination from its early conservative roots (see: Russell Kirk), to recognize that often is it not clarity we have but a lack of imagination of alternatives which can make more nuanced approaches possible. This depends on questioning what we think we know (which might be limiting us) and what our social institutions look like (which might also be limiting us). It depends on our assumptions about who and what people are and what they should be. Are we willing to allow others to be fundamentally different than we are (which would lead to a moral richness), or do we think that people should ultimately be like me (which leads to the opposite)?

Ethics, at least in the West, usually assumes that human individuals are the ethical actors, and everything else is the recipient of action, the subjects. We are active, and everything else is passive. But we might even want to question this assumption. Not that we don’t have responsibility, because we surely do. But we have had a hard time thinking about ethical action in the case of things that are not human individuals – groups, for instance, or corporations, or governments. We have had a hard time getting out of the idea that we are active and everything else is passive. We have a hard time imagining that we are not in control of our own actions (or, if we aren’t we should be).

But the fact is, we are embedded in a world that we navigate moment by moment, based on changing information and uncertain futures. The idea that there is a future that we can know well enough to predict and control is a comforting fiction that we tell ourselves. Does that mean that there is no ethics at all? Of course not. It means that ethics isn’t located in general principles that are always, in principle and in fact, inadequate to the circumstances they are meant to govern.

This sounds like virtue ethics, but I’d rather that it be seen in various forms of Taoism and Buddhism and other Chinese and Japanese traditions, and in some versions of African ethics, and in some aboriginal ideas on how we live with the land, and so forth. Some versions of feminist ethics recognizes what I’m looking for too. Ethics is, it seems to me, more interesting and closer to the truth when we give up the idea that the paradigmatic ethical scenario is the one in which we choose between a limited set of options, and we do so based on an abstract rule of some sort.

So, back to the scenario that started all this off – the movie Yesterday. What can we say about that? Just that it is less an ethical issue, and more the creation of a space of thought and experience which raises a new set of ethical issues. It is a transversal incursion on history, a change in the direction of history which has ripple effects. What if there never was a John Lennon who declared that his band was bigger than Jesus (an obvious joke, but not to those who think that Jesus is in a competition and someone had the temerity to suggest that he’s losing the race)? What if, now, in this world, we hear for the first time that Love is All You Need? What if, in the age of screens and streaming we hear Paperback Writer? The Beatles wrote to their time, to the events of their day – what sense would it all make today, without the history, without the thousands of cover versions of all sorts, without the cultural conversation around them? Would the introduction of those songs just seem retro, a throwback to other bands that presumably did still exist, copycats at this point of someone else which, in our world, they actually influenced and not the other way around? Or would the truly Beatles move be to release new songs of the sort that the Beatles would have released, had they performed today and not in the 60s? Would co-opting this originality actually be considered more morally acceptable than co-opting the songs themselves, and if so why?

Ethics is hard, y’all. To do it well, you have to do a lot more than most people are willing to do.

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