Posted by: Gray | March 11, 2014

Reframing Ethics Itself in a Conflict Resolution Paradigm

 This is a talk I gave recently at the Point of View Conference: “Ethics, Conflict and Resolution” at George Mason University, February 15th, 2014

Reframing Ethics Itself in a Conflict Resolution Paradigm 

             “Mainstream ethics” is nicely illustrated by one of the most popular courses taught at Harvard, Michael Sandel’s “Justice”.  Like other courses in ethics it introduces students to theories through applications to difficult cases, typically dilemmas, in which significant – often life and death – decisions must be made. The paradigm of reasoning adopted  is modeled loosely on mathematics and natural science in that it is supposed that given one or more basic axioms, like the CI or GHP, and some specific conditions of the case, a single person acting as a judge or agent can infer what the  correct choice would be.  Such an approach is “monological” precisely in the sense that it assumes that given the principles and specific conditions, one person can determine what is the ethical thing to do. No dialogue is necessary.  Unfortunately the quest for an ethical theory that can really serve this role has been profoundly frustrating to philosophers and their students who find themselves left with self-contradictory theories, conflicting intuitions, ad hoc solutions, and the increasingly desperate sense that the plague of relativism will doom all our best efforts.

A clue to an alternative way of conceptualizing ethics and its pedagogy is provided by the first episode of Sandel’s course broadcast on Youtube.   In the dilemma it presents to students, they are asked to suppose they are a doctor with six patients, five of whom are each in need of a new vital organ to survive. The sixth is a perfectly healthy patient with all five needed organs — in for a check up currently unconscious, napping in the next room. The doctor is asked to consider harvesting organs from the healthy patient to save the others. The pedagogical point here is, in part, to push students who had been favoring a strict Utilitarian ethic to consider if their intuitions would indeed lead them to promote the greatest happiness in this case by sacrificing the one for the many. Interestingly, one student proposes an alternative answer. He says he would harvest organs from one of the five patients already compromised to provide for the other four – since that victim would have died anyway, given the suppositions of the case. The flow of Sandel’s pedagogical process is briefly disrupted by the sustained applause for this suggestion. Smiling, he comments that: “That’s a pretty good idea. That’s a great idea except for the fact that you just wrecked the philosophical point.” And then he redirects the discussion.  In doing this, Sandel is, of course, following a standard approach in mainstream ethical pedagogy of pushing students to confront the hard cases through maintaining their formulations as dilemmas.

But think about this for a moment. If one of your students comes up with a way of making an ethical dilemma go away, isn’t that precisely the sort of thinking you would want to encourage?  Of course there may still be value to the study of dilemmas to hone judgment and clarify concepts BUT it would seem that the larger frame we should adopt in thinking about ethics should be the one Sandel’s student implicitly was adopting – that of negotiation, group problem solving, conflict resolution and transformation.  What  are the central features of ethics if it is reframed in that way?

1 . Instead of supposing ethics should provide a monological decision procedure for ethical judgment, we should view it as a dialogical process of negotiation, group problem solving and conflict resolution for arriving at agreements. 2.) In seeking objective values to guide our pursuit of agreements, the conception of objectivity   should not be that of  the sort sought in math and physics with its absolutist view of  truth as that which is invariant — universal, exact, and eternal. Instead we should seek truths that are objective in the sense of being more impartial and complete but which are contextualized, approximate, emergent cross-cultural and trans-historical truths. 3.) Instead of grounding ethical analysis in a “golden rule” that advocates some form of universal principle (as interpreted in either Utilitarian or Kantian ways), we should ground ethics in a principle of diversity, a kind of “rainbow rule” that advocates “doing unto others as they would have us do unto them”.  4.) The epistemological and metaphysical approach to understanding respect for persons and related values such as human rights should be interpreted in ways developed by Martin Buber and Gandhi in his practice of satyagraha – as emergent values that are demonstrated by non-violent witnessing rather than absolute values that are demonstrated by logical proofs. 5.) Limiting cases where dialogue breaks down will need to be ever watched for and struggled with, cases in which the incapacities of some participants in a situation make it impossible for them to engage effectively in dialogue and cases in which the power imbalances present enable other participants to refuse to listen. We have to be ever wary of when the moment has come to set aside conflict resolution skills for the moment and intervene on behalf of the disempowered.

 Let me elaborate on each of these five points.

First, to say this paradigm frames ethics as dialogical rather than monological is to note that the aim is to talk and interact back and forth with others until some form of shared consent is achieved. The outcome cannot be defined ahead of time by any single party to the dispute. In this way it is quite different frm the model of ethical judgment that typifies mainstream ethics in which the courtroom and, in particular, the decision of a judge, is viewed as the paradigm. Further, while the process can make use of insights from formal game theory, it can not be formulated as a decision procedure coded in an algorithm that would be calculated by one “player” or party to the dispute. This is because negotiation and conflict transformation  practices of  dealing with disputes emphasize creative initiatives in which the terms of the conflict are redefined and transformed – by revising participants understandings of what their real interests are, what options may be available, what criteria might be appropriate for assessing them, et cetera.

What notion of objectivity is appropriate for this way of framing ethics? At the very core of the concept of objectivity is the notion that there is something that is true independently of me and you and our individual or community beliefs. Mainstream ethics has sought a version of  this modeled on math and physics – objective truths that would be absolute and invariant — universal, exact, and eternal. But earth science, biology and history provide a different notion of objectivity more appropriate to ethics: the objective as the less one-sided, the more impartial, the more complete understanding of what is true, independently of our beliefs.  The shape of the earth, the evolutionary origin of humans, the  history of the modern market system – these are things which are real and objective but  not universal, absolute or eternal. Instead, as realities, they are embedded in contexts, filled with grayish border areas, and emergent. Like the knowledge of them,  knowledge of objective truths in ethics takes the form of  contextualized, approximate,  emergent cross-cultural and trans-historical truths.  One brief example of this which I hope might be suggestive is Aldo Leopold’s in “The Land Ethic” in which he argued that our understanding of who or what should count as a member of our community has changed – growing from the inner gang of  Princes like Agamenon and Odysseus in the Iliad to include the hoplite warriors of Athens to later include slaves, women, other races and even now other species and the whole of the ecological community on this planet.

Many have argued a key candidate for such an emergent objective value would be some version of the Golden Rule which is found in many cultures and which Utilitarians and Kantians have claimed as a core original insight that is best articulated by their particular theories. The traditional version can be stated as: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” This makes sense if you are dealing with your neighbors — and you and they are part of a homogeneous community.  But otherwise,  this Golden Rule would seem to invite ego-centric and ethnocentric behavior that ignores the often very legitimate values and points of view of people from other conditions in life or cultural traditions – just as so many nineteenth century missionaries seemed to have done in promulgating the Golden Rule and the Christian Faith throughout the world. Flawed as they are in their powers of  articulation and limited as we are in our powers of listening, it is still true that in general the best resource we have for figuring out what other people want is to ask them. And the best rule for taking their concerns into account in any situation is not to “Do unto others as I would have them do unto me” but, instead, to “Do unto others as they would have me do unto them.” This second rule is one that recognizes and embraces the diversity in the world.  It might be called the “Rainbow Rule”, in that sense. It is a “rule” that  is widely applied in successful ways by wise people in settings where there is considerable diversity in the interests and outlooks of people involved. . It fits us to love not only neighbors like us but enemies who are quite different.



Mainstream Ethics

Alternative  Paradigm

1. Model of reasoning:


Decision procedure


To arrive at judgment


Negotiation & problem solving process

To arrive at agreement

2. Objective truth as knowledge of a reality independent of  our belief and:

        Absolute, Invariant





          Impartial, more Complete



Cross-cultural & Trans-historical 

3. Reading of core Judeo-Christian tradition:

Golden Rule: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.

(love of neighbors)

Rainbow Rule: Do unto others as they would have you do unto them.

(love even of enemies)

4. How the value of persons exists and is known:

Absolute reality known by

Deduction and argumentative proof


Emergent reality known by witnessing through non-violent methods such as dialogue and satyagraha (Buber and Gandhi)

5. Limiting cases for ethical relations with others:

In principle none should be allowed because the theory sought is universal.

When dialogue is not possible and another kind of intervention is called for.


            Respect for persons is a further candidate for an objective value, used to undergird our understandings of human dignity and human rights, for example.  Despite the fact that it is articulated in different nuances it seems to have a common core that is embraced across  many different cultures around the world. And yet philosophers have found it extremely difficult to provide a logical deduction of the  foundations for it.  Why?  Because, I suggest, such a value is objective in the sense of being an emergent truth which is appropriately demonstrated not by logical deductions of the Kantian kind but by the nonviolent witnessing that Buber and Gandhi practiced – engaging people in dialogue that draws them into I/thou relationships,  witnessing to our own sense of a truth that we are ready to hold fast to in a self-sacrificing “satya-graha”.  Philosophical analysis can help us understand our concepts of  human dignity – but the value of it is something that is not proven via logic but known directly by experience.

            Of course there are times when we encounter humans who are unable to engage in dialogue – or who are in positions of power that enable them to choose to not enter into I/thou relations with the people who are objects of their oppression. In such cases, the methods of dialogue and satyagraha may reach their limits – and we need to be ready to shift to other forms of advocacy and action – just as the wise teacher knows that bullying on the playground may sometimes  need to simply be interrupted and the wise divorce mediator knows there may be times when, because of power imbalances, mediation needs to stop and another kind of intervention should begin. 

            In general, I want to suggest the dialogical paradigm I have sketched here should be used to frame our teaching, research and action and that we should work to elaborate it more carefully and systematically than I have been able to here. Thanks!




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