IMAG0203We just finished an interesting interview with Dr. Julie Tilsen. We talked about the influence of post-modern constructionist thinking on ethics. She and Scott Miller are presenting a live workshop in Chicago on August 12. After hearing the interview you may well want to attend.

Much of modern ethics is modeled on a cognitive style called Prevention. We Must Stop The Bad Thing From Happening (also known as WMSTBTFH). Tilsen shifts us to a constructionist / narrative position of humbly learning from others about their world experience. She argues there are ethical implications of this shift.


If you missed the interview, or if, for some twisted evil reason you want to listen again, here is the link:


Here is a link to an article that Julie wrote on this topic. I have read it, and found it enlightening.

I seem to represent an important group in this interview, Fat Old White Guys (FOWGs). I come to ethics from somewhat of a traditional view, yet I can see some real advantage to her point of view. She talks about relational ethics and argues that traditional ethics with the traditional emphasis on boundaries can lead us to positions that are morally indefensible. Without a construcivist point of view, those positions seem self-evident. The moral question would escape the conversation.


I FOWG up the issue with my highly simplified view: there are three sources of ethics, Utilitarianism (Jeremy Bentham), Deontology, or the Categorical Imperative (Kant), and Reversibility, or the golden rule (present in all cultures, Jesus perhaps putting it best).


I don’t like Bentham because utilitarianism seems to me to lead to “the end justifies the means” rationalization. We see this a lot on the extremes, either left or right. We see it now in ISIS’s murders of Muslims who don’t believe in their vision, as well as their joy in beheading Christians. The quest for utopia has been the cause of most of the horrors of the 20th Century, from Stalin on the left to Hitler on the right. The 21st Century gives me no reason to hope. People with power still want to create utopias. I find consequentialism a thin reed on which to lean.


The Categorical Imperative / Deontology is helpful: Would you want everyone to behave as you propose to behave? It can fail, since we (humans) never seem to predict the consequences of our actions. That is, all efforts to improve things have unexpected consequences. But Kant believes we can foresee consequences. Kant makes a really poor post-modernist. In fact, he represents the opposite. He thinks that morality (hence, ethics) is always accessible to all people. I do like that pretty well.


For me, reversibility is the key. How would I want another person to treat me if I were in the other’s position? That is the easiest approach. It can get complicated, though, because my acts are like a stone in a pond, and one must ponder the reverberations of one’s acts. If I give money to a street beggar, am I promoting panhandling as a viable career choice?


Yet, all three are helpful. They are like three lenses through which we view a world that might otherwise be invisible.


Julie is skeptical of reversibility as she views cultural groups as having different world views. How can I know how I’d want to be treated if I were, as our dialog goes, a young black man in the street, surrounded by enemies, calling out to a therapist he knows for help? Julie attributes the white therapist’s unwillingness to help to cultural blinders. Or so I misunderstand her.


I argue that reversibility still works. I can easily imagine how I’d feel in that situation. I don’t think there is much difference because of culture. (In retrospect, I wonder if the therapist were practicing meditation whether the outcome would have been different, since we know that all kinds of meditation seem to raise empathy.)


Well, download and listen. We agree on many things, like the ethical conundrum of mental health diagnosis, and our disagreements might deepen your own thinking. So I would hope, as the disagreements seem respectful, at least to me.


PS: The icons seem a bit confusing above. Try this: here is the link to where I have the interview saved, and you can right-click (or, control-click) and download it to your computer.


You will want to select “save as” or something similar and then store the file where ever you want. The file is 23 megabites.


Want to know more about the Miller / Tilsen workshop?

More info on Scott’s Chicago workshops: