Normal and abnormal ethics

Where a community is homogeneous, everyone in the community shares a common worldview and “speaks the same language’. In such communities ideas tend to be readily understood by all members and proposals are commensurable enough that they can be compared and debated without preliminary understanding work.

Where a community is heterogeneous, however, multiple worldviews overlap and, at points, clash in incommensurability.

These regions of incommensurability have been studied and described, most famously by Thomas Kuhn. His accounts were objective and behavioral, viewed from an outside perspective: A crisis occurs in a community. The parties in the conflict understand the world according to different paradigms and not only think differently, but also perceive phenomena differently and talk differently. They talk past each other, and communication breaks down. What Kuhn called “normal science” can no longer be counted on to resolve the crisis. Much is at stake: reputation, resources, interests, so the conflict intensifies and as things get personal, people misbehave. But eventually, one of the paradigms prevails and there is a revolution. A paradigm shift has occurred.

Kuhn’s insights were themselves revolutionary. In his domain of interest, history of science, it caused many people to re-understand science in a less linear way. Progress is less straightforward (literally!) than we thought, and this, for many, weakened the mid-century’s popular faith in science as a guarantee of permanent, steady social progress. And it also loosened the grip of scientific positivism — that conceit that scientific knowledge is ultimate knowledge, and that other ways of knowing only approximate the knowledge of science. This make Kuhn’s insights highly abusable, and these abuses probably account for most of Kuhn’s popularity. (It certainly accounts for Kuhn’s popularity with me.) Vice always trumps virtue in the marketplace of ideas. Vice sells.

One of the finest abusers of Kuhn’s theories was another beloved hero of mine, Richard Rorty. Rorty expanded Kuhn’s framework to interactions outside the scientific community, to the broader academic community, especially those in the community who engage in philosophical discourse. Most notably, Rorty observed that philosophers, too, had crises, and in crises engaged in “abnormal discourse” a mode of discussion quite different from the “normal discourse” to which most of us are accustomed.

A place where I’d like to explore further, which I think needs to be more fully developed, is the experience of crisis — especially everyday crisis — where ordinary people find themselves encountering incommensurable worldviews and must learn to navigate them. What is is it like to participate in such a crisis? To experience the crisis firsthand from within it, which means to be a partisan on one side of the struggle?

Most importantly, what are the ethics of situations where the only possible discourse is abnormal discourse? We are quite used to normal ethics, where right and wrong is a mostly settled issue, and the core issue is resolve to do the right thing. But do any of us really know how to navigate abnormal ethics? Don’t most of us “double-down” on our principles in these situations? Don’t most of us feel that our morals resolve is being put to the test, and now is the time to stand on principle? Is that the right response in an abnormal ethical situation?

And what are the challenges to skillful navigation of abnormal ethical situations? As a design researcher and strategist my entire life is spent in abnormal discourse, do I have quite a stock of primary experience. These range from suspiciously intense disagreement, to apprehension of other people’s conceptions, to full disorientation and perplexity where problematic situations cannot even be framed as problems, questions cannot be asked, and participants in the situation are gripped in the existential anxiety.

Abnormal ethical situations induce existential crisis.

I believe very few of us are equipped to recognize such situations, nor to conceptualize them, nor speak about them, much less navigate them skillfully. So we suffer not only the perplexity itself, but perplexity about what is happening to us.

In my own experience, at least being able to diagnose the terrible feelings as perplexity reduces the pain considerably, and makes the suffering bearable. Being able to agree with others that the group is in perplexity reduces it enough that the suffering disappears and the remaining pain becomes an interesting discomfort, almost a stimulant.

Finally, knowing what can be gained by traversing perplexity — both radical innovation and deeper personal relationships — provides a genuine this-worldly reward for good-faith struggle through everyday crises.

This is all stuff I’ve been obsessed with and written about extensively over the last couple of decades.

What is new here is 1) adopting an “abnormal ethics” redescription, 2) understanding that one consequence of this strange social change where “we all live on campus now” is that abnormal discourse has escaped the lab of academia and is now rampant everywhere, which means paradoxically that abnormal discourse is now normal, and 3) recognizing that, consequently, abnormal ethics might be on the way of becoming the norm. To be ethical in these new conditions might require “leveling up” and becoming good at both normal and abnormal ethics, and know how to mode-switch appropriately. Similarly we might need to do an ethical meta-leap with the electrum rule (my combo golden and silver rule) and ask ourselves not only “is this fair?”, but also “is my standard of fairness imposed fairly?” “Is this just?” must also be meta-interrogated with the question “Is my justice just, and is it imposed justly?” And we must look for prejudices in where we see prejudice (or where we see good or permissible prejudices against some identities and where we see unacceptable, oppressive prejudices) and the logic by which we justify prejudices.

The biggest prejudice of all we will need to overcome is our conceptions of empathy — that understand people is primarily a matter of feeling, caring, valuing. These things are important, but they are part of something bigger and more influential, that basic set of conceptions we use to make sense of the world even before we emotionally respond to it. We need to activate not only our hearts, but also out minds and probably our hands and feet, and all our senses if we want to form better understandings of one another and the world we share.

The good news is that we may have been accidentally preparing the last couple of generations for this by teaching them design thinking. Design practice truly does equip people for abnormal ethics– if they have the wisdom to use their design thought for thinking politics, and to set aside the political indoctrinations they also received.

Seems like there’s something here to work with.

Leave a Reply