Thoughtful Analysis of Professional and General Ethics

Review of Ethics for Professionals in a Multicultural World by David E. Cooper

Note: This review was originally posted on Amazon.com on February 20, 2017.

This is an excellent book. Written primarily as a textbook on professional ethics for undergraduates, Cooper’s analysis goes far deeper than such texts ordinarily go. While Cooper presents a philosophical context for understanding the challenges of professional life, the bulk of the book moves on to discuss the foundations and characteristics of moral reasoning in general. This larger argument about the nature of moral reasoning, and how such reasoning can give us guidance in a world troubled by forces of globalization and cultural conflict, is the most rewarding thing about Cooper’s analysis.

Central to Cooper’s analysis is the idea of what he calls “the moral point of view,” a notion of individual autonomy and respect so fundamental, robust and universal that it has the potential to undergird communal practices, ethical systems and different ways of life across diverse cultures. We can see the movement toward these universal moral principles in, for example, the struggles of children as they attempt to develop an adult sense of ethics and in the historical debates among philosophers attempting to articulate principles of political legitimization such as individual sovereignty, universal human rights, and pluralistic respect for other cultures.

Cooper’s view seems to imply that morality evolves progressively throughout human history. When conditions are right to stimulate shared critical thinking among affected people this leads to the inclusion of the “other,” which is moral progress. While evolutionist views can sometimes be problematic, implying that dominant cultures are both inevitable and superior, Cooper’s view is actually quite different. He does describe a historical progression from ethical systems based on communal intuition to those based on jurisprudence and shared rationality across cultures, but he is not claiming a biological and/or determinate move from earlier inferior to later superior ethical systems. Rather, he is looking at different aspects of morality, some more apparent in specific historical eras than others, and showing how these different aspects contribute to specific types of moral and ethical reasoning that build upon each other at specific levels of abstraction. Since it is based on shared, rational dialogue when conditions make that possible, this progress can easily be reversed if cultural, political, religious and other conditions destroy the opportunity for the kind of shared discourse that leads to the inclusion of the other—a danger which is all too apparent at the time of this review. Cooper’s analysis, however, offers a truly pluralistic moral vision for a contemporary world order where, in the words of Robert Kegan (cited by Cooper, p. 124), “For the first time in human history, three mentalities exist side by side in the adult population . . . the traditional, the modern and the postmodern . . [and] nearly all of us are in over our heads.” Written 2003, Cooper anticipated the dangers of swallowing whole the postmodern skepticism about truth, and drifting, in a state of helpless nihilism, into a nightmare world in which fake news and propaganda threaten to eradicate all boundaries between reality and fiction, civility and thuggery. Now, more than ever, we need a moral point of view that can be nourished by nuanced notions of truth and rationality and that can provide a sound foundation both for protecting human autonomy and for respecting diverse cultures and communities.

In upholding such a moral point of view, professionals have a particularly important role to play, for the professions are the site of specialized knowledge, power and responsibility. Professional codes of ethics, therefore, have to be written with a clear understanding of the ways in which they are grounded in the universal moral order. These codes are not just lists of rules to be followed; they encompass and actualize universal moral principles in real world situations where power is defined on a moment to moment basis. Hence, Cooper does not focus on specific codes and specific rules. Rather, he shows how the professions fit into the larger moral order.

In elaborating this moral order, Cooper draws heavily on Kohlberg’s theory of moral development and Habermas’s theory of discourse ethics. Both Kohlberg and Habermas have been criticized for their adherence to modernist assumptions about rationality and objectivity. But Cooper, who is well aware of these critiques, is not willing to jettison the work of these authors, nor to abandon the commitment to truth and human autonomy that is implied in their work.

Kohlberg, for example, has been subjected to quite a bit of criticism (most famously by Carol Gilligan) for naïve assumptions about gender and the role of cognition in moral development. Before reading Cooper’s book I, personally, had come to regard Kohlberg as a bit passe. Cooper, however, shows how Kohlberg’s theory has more depth and substance and a much greater role to play in the analysis of moral reasoning than I had (and I think many others have) fully recognized. Kohlberg’s stages of moral reasoning are not just milestones that are achieved and then superseded on the way to maturity; rather they sensitize us to different forms of moral reasoning that have intrinsic values in their own right, that are retained in mature ethical reasoning, and that continue to be important as moral character develops. For example, one role of emotion in preconventional and conventional moral reasoning is to encode generations of intuitive wisdom that traditional cultures have developed to cope with the moral complexities of certain typical social situations. These intuitively structured emotions may give substance to the more abstract rules of the “higher” moral stages, but they may also serve an important function by sounding warnings when more abstract conceptions of morality are inapplicable or mistaken, and to provide the grounds upon which the more abstract moral codes might be critiqued. The task of development is not to pass beyond these “lower” forms of reasoning so much as to integrate them into the larger moral picture.

Similarly, Habermas has been subjected to criticisms for adhering to a foundational notion of truth, a practice often considered naïve since the postmodern critiques of Derrida and others; and Habermas’s method for approaching that truth through rational discourse has also been attacked as exhibiting ethnocentric conceptions of communication. But Cooper demonstrates that Habermas’s conception is far from naïve or ethnocentric. Rather than treating truth as a definite and specifiable commodity, Habermas sees it as a moving target, approachable only though norms of discourse and reasoning that are inherently dynamic and subject to constant renegotiation. And while methods of rational discourse are often glossed by Habermas’s critics as drawing on dominant Western and Eurocentric conceptions, Habermas points out that such criticisms ultimately assume inaccurate colonial stereotypes of nonwestern cultures as fundamentally irrational. As Habermas and Cooper both note, wherever there are efforts to communicate and be understood, such efforts always presuppose underlying conceptions of rationality, validity and truth. In the final analysis, Cooper argues, any attempt at moral reasoning must always respect and encompass the viewpoint of the other, solicited through a process of fair and open dialogue, and all the more so when the other is a member of a disempowered group or alien culture.

There are many other insights in this book, and I will not attempt to cover them in this review. Instead, I will simply recommend this book highly, not only as an excellent text for students studying the professions, but as an illuminating treatise for anyone interested in the nature of ethics and moral reasoning.