Friday, May 19, 2006

Channelling the Professional Spirits

I've just finished reading 'Channellers, Cowries and Conversations with the Gods: Explaining Multiple Divination Methods in an Afro-Brazilian Religious Tradition,' a book chapter/working paper by Emma Cohen, at the Institute of Cognition and Culture here at Queen's. It's a fascinating piece whose basic question is 'why do people who can access information from the spirit world directly (through possessed mediums) also seek information from other forms of divination (like reading signs in shells etc)?'

Cohen spent some time in a Brazillian terreiro, a 'cult house,' where people can, for a fee, receive guidance from spirits. A spirit would possess the local head honcho and pass on priivleged information about the future, or about a person's love life or the like. What puzzled Cohen was that the house leader's 'customers' also sought information from the specialised use of various runes. Why wouldn't they just go for the possession stuff, since this would give them direct, and presumably more reliable, access to the spirit world?

The theory that Cohen formulates is that, though people patently believed that the 'pai-de-santo' was possessed, they were held back by simple cognitive barriers. The manner in which the brain processess information about familiar faces means that it is very difficult to make the cognitive leap to entirely accepting that the same body can, through possession, become the vessel of another person. Our brains are hardwired, when we see a familiar face, to retrieve all sorts of information about that person, enabling us to predict their attitudes, read their expressions etc. We may, at some level, believe that possession turns them into someone else with an entirely distinct identity, but that belief can never be total. I can never fully believe what I believe I believe, to put in nice and simply (Cohen explains it so much better in her paper)... So I often opt for runes of various sorts because seeing a medium 'read' the runes is more cognitively comfortable than seeing them possessed.

OK - enough description. The dodgy bit is next...

One of the many problems with us boffins is that there is literally no piece of academic work on the planet that we can't be made to believe is really about what we're doing. So here goes... For some reason (waking up at 4 this morning maybe) Cohen's work - very obliquely - touches on stuff I am doing at the moment on professional ethics. I'm just finishing a piece that at root acknowledges the dilution of responsibility within professional roles. In Ethics of an Artificial Person, Elizabeth Wolgast talks of 'role moralities,' where people, in their professional lives, behave in a way that they themselves would find morally repugnant if they did the same thing outside of their roles.

One striking example of this involved some asbestos cases, where lawyers for liable companies put barrier after barrier in the way of class action suits coming to court, up to and including harrassing people on their deathbeds, because, knowing they would lose the case once it got to court, they figured they could save a few bob for their clients if the case was delayed long enough that many plaintiffs would die.

It strikes me - and here's where I come back to Cohen's point - that there is some small resemblance between possession rituals, where we believe that possession entails one person disappearing and another manifesting himself, and professional life, where we believe that many aspects of a person's identity - primarily the sense of virtue they generally profess - must disappear and a professional identity takes over. Though it may not be to the same extent, they become another person.

So, why don't we judge the asbestos lawyer more harshly? Why do we think that his or her playing a role makes their actions excusable? Why does the role act provide moral distance to the general person? Cognitively, if Cohen is right, we ought not to be able to separate different sets of behaviour out in response to formal changes in role.

One reason might be that moral narratives have profound unifying force. The asbestos lawyer, in acknowledging the problematic nature of their strategy, can plausibly appeal to a higher moral priniciple. It is a basic precept of our legal system - highly valuable in itself - that a lawyer ought to attend as closely as possible to the interests of his or her client. The doing of some repugnant things must be forgiven since the role serves a higher ideal.

On the face of it, this ought to be implausible. The virtues of the legal system might explain the lawyer's dirty hands, but that needn't render the lawyer's actions forgivable. Moral tragedy cannot simply be collapsed into moral equivocation.

Cohen's thesis isn't designed to address these questions but, stretching them a bit, it might be possible to argue that the imperative is not to begin with the moral axioms and wonder at the cognitive/moral dissonance that - given those axioms - must be involved. Instead, one begins with the concrete person and then seeks an explanation as to how that unified being can make all the decisions in their lives. The 'higher principle principle' does that work quite well. Personal identity maintains its single moral narrative.

It does so, however, by disregarding the role morality per se, instead relying on a general ends-based moral system. If this is true, moral theorists might be just as well accompanying their study of role moralities with an awareness of the strong motivations presented by narratives of personhood. You protect the unity of the self not by pigeon-holing behaviour in a formal role but by explaining the role through some story about the self.

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