Work in Progress: Finding the philosophical heft in apparently bland codes of conduct…

Friday 25 November 2022

In I mentioned my recent space ethics talk (which was titled “What is space ethics?”), which touched on the idea of codes of conduct, and in I had earlier discussed the codes of conduct drawn up by Descartes and Benjamin Franklin for themselves, also discussed in my space ethics talk. I expected that talking about codes of conduct would be quite dull, but it turned out to be rather interesting, and there is more that could be said about this.

One of the reasons I expected to find codes of conduct to be rather uninteresting is the near total lack of any connection to explicitly articulated ethical principles. On the other hand, one could see this as an opportunity, as there are any number of codes of conduct that have been drawn up, and one could set oneself the exercise to determine which, if any, moral theory is the implicit basis of any such code.

I did a lot of poking around in the past week to find more material related to codes of conduct in relation to the space industry, and, while there is a lot available, there is also a lot that is missing. There seems to be some lack of transparency with NASA, which is puzzling because one would think that, 1) codes of conduct would be pretty bland and unremarkable, and therefore uncontroversial, and that 2) a public entity like NASA would want to showcase its code of conduct. However, this does not seem to be the case. In the article by Keith Cowing of NASA Watch, there is a long explanation of the author’s attempt to track down NASA’s code of conduct for astronauts.

It is relatively easy to find the code of conduct for astronauts on the International Space Station, (there is also an online paper about the ISS code of conduct, , by A. Farand, Legal Affairs, ESA, Paris), and it seems obvious that an international agreement like this would need to be public. Finding out NASA-specific codes of conduct is, however, a bit more challenging. NASA has a highly legalistic page, , which is more about rules and regulations than it is about ethics.

While I cannot find a nuts-and-bolts code of conduct for NASA apart from these rules and regulations, there is a . However, this NASA Astronaut Code of Professional Responsibility reads more like a statement of principles than a code of conduct (in my “What is space ethics?” talk I explicitly distinguished codes of conduct from statements of principle). There is no hard and fast dividing line between a code of conduct and a statement of principles, but we can usually recognize the degree of specificity of a code of conduct (like those drawn up by Descartes and Benjamin Franklin) and the degree of generality of a statement of principles (like the ). Also, codes of conduct are usually framed in terms of individual agency, whereas statements of principle are usually framed in terms of collective action. This still allows for a generous gray area where codes of conduct and statements of principle will overlap, and this seems to be the case with the NASA Astronaut Code of Professional Responsibility.

Both codes of conduct and statements of principles could be subsumed under moral rules, and here we could also subsume Kant’s hypothetical and categorical imperatives, deontological rules generally, and the rules of . That makes the category of moral rules more comprehensive than either deontology or teleology taken alone, which between them split the contemporary moral universe in twain (on the usual reading of philosophical ethics).

From the standpoint of philosophical ethics, of this comprehensive category of moral rules we would want to ask questions such as these: What is the metaphysical status of moral rules? What is the source, or what are the sources, of moral rules? How do we come to know moral rules? What is the philosophical logic of moral rules?

Also interesting from a philosophical standpoint is the moral psychology of moral rules, and, in particular and more specifically, the moral psychology of codes of conduct. Given the specificity of codes of conduct, one can easily imagine someone could become fixated on codes of conduct in an unhealthy way and would tend toward rigid observance even where a rational consideration of a situation would point to greater flexibility in the application of a code of conduct. Precisely because of their specificity, codes of conduct will inevitably be confronted with an ambiguous situation that requires moral problem solving beyond strict adherence to some rule of conduct. Overly zealous rigidity would mean confidently following a moral rule when greater flexibility would be called for.

In contradistinction to the implied rigidity of codes of conduct, statements of principle often possess infinite degrees of interpretation and so can be made to fit any action with any circumstance. Statements of principles declare our aspirations, but they do not always help us to understand the particular steps we need to take to get from where we are to where we want to be. The moral psychology of aspirational principles speaks to what we would like to be in our better moments, but their openness to interpretation allows us to indulge in Walter Mitty fantasies about our virtues without following up with concrete actions.

Ideally, codes of conduct would give us the concrete steps that would help us to realize the good life for ourselves, while our statement of principles would outline the fully realized good life we are seeking to approximate by following the code of conduct. Thus both codes of conduct and statements of principle can be understood in relation to the good life, which as an ancient philosophical idea has a respectable pedigree, and gives us a philosophical way to legitimize codes of conduct and statements of principle, even if we do not in fact see them explicitly justified in this way.

Would a clearly articulated conception of the good life be the basis of a statement of principles, or would the statement of principles come first, and the conception of the good life be derived from them? This seems like a legitimately open question. In actual practice this probably means that if we both reflect on our principles and attempt to formulation our conception of the good life, the two will mutually influence each other as principles imply the content of the good life, and the good life, as its shapes comes to greater clarity in the moral imagination, implies the principles upon which its rests and from which it derives its moral content.

I don’t find myself with parallel intuitions when it comes to the relation between codes of conduct and the good life: I imagine that a clearly articulated conception of the good life would be sufficiently clear that a code of conduct likely to converge upon the good life could be derived from this conception of the good life. However, it is entirely possible that someone with a Kantian conception of discipline might regard the good life as that life which takes shape as a result of everyone rigorously following some code of conduct. When I say a Kantian conception of discipline I am thinking of the passage from his Critique of Pure Reason such that We name the constraint, whereby the constant tendency to deviate from certain rules is limited and finally annihilated, Discipline. Few of us, I think, are fully prepared for Kantian discipline. This conception of discipline could be used to define rigidity in rule following such as I described above.

“We name the constraint, whereby the constant tendency to deviate from certain rules is limited and finally annihilated, Discipline.” Immanuel Kant

I’m pleased to have made this connection between codes of conduct, statements of principle, and the good life, but I suspect that codes of conduct mostly have their origins in past conflicts, and a desire to better handle such conflicts as are known to arise. And we often find that codes of conduct are repeatedly revised as new conflicts arise and the need is felt to resolve them as past conflicts were resolved by some rule of conduct. It is arguable that this approach is consistent with an evolutionary ethics that takes its point of origin from Darwin’s observation that any species that develops sufficient cognitive capacity will inevitably be lead to some kind of moral understanding of interaction:

“…any animal whatever, endowed with well-marked social instincts, the parental and filial affections being here included, would inevitably acquire a moral sense or conscience, as soon as its intellectual powers had become as well, or nearly as well developed, as in man.”

Frans de Waal is known for working on this question; there is a short essay on this by Soshichi Uchii, “.” There are, of course, a great many books on evolutionary ethics and on evolutionary explanations of morality and religion. One might even call this a cottage industry. Yet there is a great deal implicit in this brief Darwin quote that has not, to the best of my knowledge — which is, admittedly, severely limited — been treated in the literature. Taking Darwin at his word, that a moral sense develops as soon as a species’ intellectual powers develop to a human level, this suggests that there is a hierarchy of levels of moral sense based on cognitive capacity, with less cognitive capacity coupled to a less developed moral sense, and a greater cognitive capacity coupled to a more developed moral sense. Thus a species that developed a cognitive capacity in excess of the human might develop a finer moral sense, or a more comprehensive moral sense, or might be able to recognize virtues or values to which we are blind.

“…any animal whatever… would inevitably acquire a moral sense or conscience, as soon as its intellectual powers had become as well, or nearly as well developed, as in man.” Charles Darwin

Those animals that live in large groups especially have to negotiate a variety of daily misunderstandings. Misunderstandings result in conflicts, and rules of conduct can help to reduce conflicts — or even merely to keep these conflicts below the threshold of fatal confrontation. As a species evolves, and a community comprised of a given species evolves along with the species, behaviors change and rules of conduct also must be revised in order to keep abreast of the change.

In this way, not only can we relate codes of conduct to the good life, but also to evolutionary ethics, and all this without even having undertaken the obvious project of attempting to derive the ethical principles implicit in a code of conduct. It is possible to discover some philosophical heft, then, even in something as apparently superficial as a code of conduct, seemingly bereft of philosophical interest.

Social animals experience selection pressure to cooperate.



Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store