Person vs. Lying Robot: A Lesson In Ethics

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I’ve learned a lot this semester while teaching my first class in Medical and Healthcare Ethics. We’ve covered a range of topics that I hope to eventually make videos and write posts about, but one insight in particular has repeatedly been made apparent to me in my personal life: It’s inappropriate to respond to everything in the same way. Doing so not only increases your likelihood of responding to someone or some situation in the wrong way. It may also mean that there are some deeper things going on that are worth thinking about. For your own sake as well as everyone else’s.

Here’s one example of how the inappropriateness of responding to everything in the same way relates to philosophy. This important insight is often a main feature of feminist ethics of care, which contrasts against other conventional approaches to ethics. In traditional ethical theories like Kantianism and Utilitarianism, the proper way to arrive at an answer to an ethical question is to deliberate through purely rational means. To illustrate the relevant differences in these competing theories, consider the question of whether it is moral to lie to a terminally ill patient about their chance of survival in order to give them a (false) hope of recovery.

According to Kantianism, one must test the moral rightness of the action by running the Categorical Imperative, a test of reason (“categorical” here refers to the moral necessity of the action – it’s not a conditional, hypothetical case where one should do “x” if they want to achieve “y”, and “imperative” captures the moral “oughtness” of the action – one should do it). If the maxim “one should lie to a terminally ill patient about their chance of survival in order to give them a (false) hope of recovery” can be universalized to apply to all situations such that any rational agent would will it for herself without encountering logical inconsistencies, and/or if the maxim respects the dignity and autonomy of moral agents as “ends in themselves and never as mere means,” then the action passes the categorical imperative and is morally permissible. According to Kant, the morality of any action can always be tested against the rule of the Categorical Imperative. No matter what. For this case, lying, even if it is a benevolent lie, does not pass the Categorical Imperative.

Utilitarianism, a form of Consequentialism, frequently resonates with people’s intuitions because it evaluates the rightness or wrongness of an action strictly based on the consequences that it brings about. Following the principle of utility, an action is right in proportion to how much it increases happiness or utility, wrong insofar as it promotes the opposite. Accordingly, if lying to a patient about their inevitable death by suggesting that they may recover alleviates the fear or discomfort that they may have around dying, this could be the morally right thing to do (assuming that this “good” outweighs the “bad” and would not exacerbate future harms that might follow if they or their families are left inadequately prepared for their death). One simply runs a type of “cost-benefit analysis” to determine which action promotes the greatest amount of good. In other words, in any situation, the ends justify the means, even if those means might otherwise be “immoral” according to other frameworks or sensibilities.

Both traditional approaches to ethical deliberation stress the importance of following universal, absolute rules and principles in any given situation. Even if such rules and principles lead to personally unfavorable or culturally dissatisfying conclusions (and this quickly becomes apparent when one attempts to navigate a variety of ethical situations), the morality of the actions in question is definitive. In other words, following these rules and principles should always lead to an answer in terms of what is the right or wrong thing to do. We may not like the conclusion at which these theories arrive, but there is no debating what one should do. The question, instead, becomes a matter of whether our moral wills are strong enough to actually do the prescribed, right thing. 

Given that moral situations in our lives are not simple but rather quite complicated, feminist ethicists have challenged the usefulness of abstract, universal principles and rules of reason that are expected to apply to all people in all situations. In fact, the appropriateness of following strict rules or principles has been called into question (such as refusing to tell a benevolent lie to corrupt authority figures even though doing so could prevent the deaths of innocent others, or intentionally sacrificing the well-being of one individual to promote the greater good by enriching the lives of twenty others).

In contrast, feminist care ethics emphasizes that factors such as personal relationships and emotional sensibilities help us better understand our moral experiences more than any pre-packaged formulas ever could. Rather than hindering our ability to identify what would be the right or wrong thing to do in a situation, it is suggested that attention to the inherent particularities of any given situation significantly helps inform our moral choices and actions. For instance, a good physician must empathize with the terminally ill patient as an individual person in order to understand and address her particular needs. Handling an ethical situation, especially a delicate situation that involves acknowledging the thin line between life and death, requires that one be able to accurately identify the genuine needs at hand and respond accordingly. It also means that the right thing to do in one situation may not be appropriately applied to all others.

Thus, despite the convenience of defaulting to rules and principles (and our ability to then trust that we did the “right” thing), questions of ethics are hardly ever simple or clear-cut enough have obvious, easy answers. If we can’t rely on rules, principles, calculations, or formulations to tell us how to best behave, the burden of figuring out how to navigate tricky situations falls solely on us. Before anything else, ethics requires that we, as moral agents, cultivate certain moral capacities and sensibilities; we have to be able to accurately read a situation before we will be able to appropriately respond to it.

To be clear, this is not a type of relativism where the rightness of an action solely depends on whatever the person thinks is right. It’s more sophisticated than that. The point, rather, is that there is a morally right or wrong thing to do, but how one discerns the best ethical response requires a completely different process of moral deliberation. To appropriately respond to a moral situation requires sensitivity, partiality, and emotional and personal involvement with the current circumstances and those who are involved. Attempts at abstraction, generalization,  and universalization could leave one so detached from the actual situation that they actually compromise one’s ability to appropriately respond with the best moral action.

Here’s one obvious way that the inappropriateness of responding to everything in the same way relates to our everyday personal lives and how we handle ourselves as people: Nothing and no one is ever the same. Over the course of even just one day, the people we interact with are not copies of one another – people are different and we should not respond to our friend who might be depressed in the same way that we respond to our boss when she is irritable, our partner when he is vulnerable, or our children when they are excited about what they learned at school. Nor are they stagnant versions of themselves. As things change around us, we all encounter different joys, stresses, concerns, and challenges and we feel differently about those different things. Our friends, bosses, partners, and children will experience different highs, lows, thrills, fears, anxieties, and pleasures. That’s to be expected since we are, after all, complex beings who live in a temporally dynamic reality where things change. 

This, of course, can be extrapolated to apply to the rest of our experiences: Our responses to others today will not be the same as tomorrow’s or the next day’s and so on and so forth. In fact, it would be incredibly inappropriate if they were so. 

With respect to how we respond to others, the need to adjust to the present situation and circumstances might seem obvious enough. However, the real reason why I wanted to write this post is because I think that many people have difficulty responding to their own lives with such sensitive variety. Or, perhaps it’s more accurate to suggest that people seem reluctant to reveal the multiple dimensions of their personalities and experiences with others. I’ll grant that perhaps some people are rather two-dimensional subjects with very constant affects. For example, (…maybe) they are always happy. Always interested. Always passionate about what they’re doing. Always fine, okay, and well. For those few who have achieved such states of contentment and equanimity, that’s awesome. For the rest of us, though, let’s be real.

Maybe some people think that it’s not okay to share with others or show how we are really doing, as if it’s inappropriate to be sad, scared, intrigued, curious, insecure, hopeful, or even happy about certain parts of our lives. (I hope it’s clear that this doesn’t only apply to hard or difficult challenges; we might also be reluctant to share good, interesting things out of a fear of judgment – “You like what?!?” – or to avoid risking another’s misperception.) As a result, we share only some. We filter the things that we post online to look just so (“Oh, our relationship is so stellar!”). We tell people that everything’s going well when we actually feel quite scared or uncomfortable (“No, I’m fine. Who needs a job, anyway?”). We try to figure out our questions and solve our problems on our own, even if someone else might have very helpful insights and experiences (“What if I AM gay?!”).

What’s not so great about this tendency is that we might end up being read by others as guarded, fake, or insincere. The unwillingness to be vulnerable and open could actually be interpreted by some as an unwillingness to be honest and open with them. It may end up pushing people away because, as we all should know, we are complex beings so the chances are good that anyone who acts otherwise is either lying, a robot, or a lying robot. (Or they just don’t want to talk to you about it….but read on.)

Perhaps worst of all, though, is that presenting ourselves in ways that don’t genuinely represent the whole of who we really are and how we really feel actually robs others of the opportunity to respond to us appropriately. It means that those around us can’t respond in the best ways because we never even give them the chance. Sure, never creating the space for others to respond may mean that we save ourselves from the potential hurt and disappointment of inappropriate responses. But it also means that we never give others the chance to surprise and impress by making us feel seen, heard, and understood. Maybe a cost-benefit analysis is tempting here, but hidden behind one’s own self-made cocoon of two-dimensionality is a very lonely place to find oneself no matter how you cut it.

Now, I’m not intending to prescribe any generalizable “ought’s” here about what we should do. There could be lots of powerful reasons that prevent someone from feeling comfortable with openly acknowledging their thoughts and feelings with others. I also expect that not the least of those reasons could be that we, as those others, often seem to lack the skills and capabilities that better enable us to genuinely and appropriately respond. (I think one important place to start is by learning how to listen.) As individuals, the “work,” then, falls on both sides of the equation: We can work to be better people in terms of how we support and respond to others. We can also work on being more honest, full-dimensional people ourselves (since the good-hearted, perceptive folk who really do care about us already are probably onto the guise anyway).

* On a personal note: I started writing this post last night. This morning my most beloved, charismatic, and endlessly amazing cat died very suddenly in my arms at the breakfast table. I’m finishing this post hours later, after numerous notes of support given the loss that permeates our house right now. Thank you for those notes.

Oliver was the best little beast I could have ever hoped to love and know for the three years of his life.

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5 thoughts on “Person vs. Lying Robot: A Lesson In Ethics

  1. I’m so sorry about Oliver. Sometimes I think I have a closer connection to my cats, than I do with the people in my life. Your post brings up something that I frequently struggle with. I am a very guarded person and I like to think for very good reasons. However, I do question the worth of being so guarded when I am missing out on knowing so many fabulous people and have them know me. While I work to have genuine relationships with the people in my life already, I do wonder about those outside of my air tight bubble. What am I denying myself?

    • Esther, thank you for reading and posting a comment. I think that the writing you have already shared on your blog is a powerful demonstration of how you are putting your guard down in incredible ways. Thank you for sharing your thoughts and experiences (here and there). I look forward to your future posts!

  2. A very beautiful, insightful, and thought-provoking post Cori. Thank you for the words of light. I’m so glad I had the opportunity to meet your one-of-a-kind Oliver. His infectious personality and “beasty” curiosity was love of Life in full force. Like the melody of a favorite song, he will always be with you. Namaste’

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