The principle of reversibility: Some problems of interpretation

Journal of Value Inquiry 20 (1):19-28 (1986)
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Abstract

In summary, the question of how to construe the procedure called reversibility cannot be given an absolute answer. No one moral interpretation of the principle is universally applicable, that is, applicable to all moral issues. The decision concerning which to apply cannot be made a priori, but only in context - that is, only when we are faced with a particular moral problem. Moreover, there appears to be no rule which would enable us to choose which version is correct in a particular case. It is a matter of judgment.That the various versions represent a moral progression from lower to higher constructions is debatable. We have seen that the altruism of reversibility3 - the ethic of care - may recommend itself in some personal relations to the point of making either version of reversibility4 irrelevant. Similarly, it is not clear that reversibility3 is always higher than reversibility2. For example, parents in trying to decide what is morally best for a young child should often - in the spirit of the second construction - substitute the judgment of their mature selves for the judgment of the immature self of the child. Moreover, this substitution may not be justifiable in terms of either utility or autonomy.If I seem to have ignored reversibility1 in this discussion that is because I consider it outside morality: it is, if anything, a principle of self-interested calculation. If Baier is correct in holding that we teach children to think morally when we get them to take the standpoint of others, that requires, I believe, getting them beyond the stage of crude reciprocity. If Piaget and Kohlberg are correct in their developmental claims, we cannot immediately teach children reversibility4 but must help them progress through the other two versions. There is some basis for thinking that children can transcend egoism and sympathize with others much earlier than Kohlberg allows - an important consideration in the development of a system of moral education. That point has been pursued by Michael Pritchard in his critique of Kohlberg. Pritchard, p 44. My point is a different one: even granting Kohlberg's theory of development (which asserts, for example, that a particular cognitive ability is required to think like a Kantian), it does not follow that the moral thinking which accompanies the highest cognitive stage is morally superior to the moral thinking which accompanies the lesser cognitive stages. That it is cognitively easier to master reversibility3 than reversibility4 does not settle the question of which is morally superior. Rather than arguing about which moral version of reversibility is morally best- a pointless debate if the desirability of a version is understood as contingent upon appropriateness with respect to context - we should instead celebrate the richness of the concept of reversibility. In teaching students the moral point of view by getting them to put themselves in another's place, we would not be asking them to master a rigid formula, but rather to be sensitive to the decisional context and to make a thoughtful judgment about which version of reversibility is most appropriate to that context. We would not be teaching them either moral relativism or moral absolutism, but the complexity of trying to make a moral decision by applying an ancient and philosophically rich ethical principle

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