Ethical architecture 

UM philosopher Albert Borgmann on the good life

“In my ethics course,” says Albert Borgmann, regents professor of philosophy at the University of Montana, “when I have 120 fairly young students sitting before me, I say, ‘The most important decision you can make as a young couple is whether you are going to get a television and, if you do, where you are going to put it. That’s pretty much going to shape your domestic life.’”

American philosophy is largely unconcerned with the placement of household furniture. But for Borgmann, a philosopher of society and culture who has taught at UM since 1970, the physical implements of life matter to ethics, the area of philosophy concerned with the good life and how to live it. With respect to decisions like a young couple’s alignment of sofa and television and larger questions communities face about roads, parks, development and public space, Borgmann employs what he calls Churchill’s principle, the explanation and application of which is central to Borgmann’s Real American Ethics: Taking Responsibility for Our Country, published early this year.

Churchill’s principle derives from a speech former British Prime Minister Winston Churchill delivered following the destruction of the British House of Commons chamber during World War II. Churchill argued that the design of the rebuilt chamber would influence how the legislative body functioned, saying, “We shape our buildings, and afterwards our buildings shape us.”

Borgmann attributes “broad social and cultural significance” to Churchill’s principle, which he applies to both literal and metaphorical structures. “The buildings include not only the physical buildings,” says Borgmann, “although they are the ones that are most neglected and overlooked in their moral force, but also social institutions, habits and so on.”

These have moral force because they affect the actions of the people who inhabit them, favoring some choices over others. In Real American Ethics, Borgmann likens the force of institutions to features of the landscape shaping the movement of water for the analogous way in which they “bank the moral course” of human lives. Just as some moral choices are better than others, some types of public and family institutions make a better life easier to live.

The standard by which Borgmann judges the value of such institutions is their “engagement with a time, a place and a community.” In his book, Borgmann offers North Reserve Street, populated by chain stores much like those on commercial corridors in any town and serviced by multi-lane roads and interstate highways that effectively necessitate driving, as an example of disengagement. By contrast, Borgmann writes, “In Missoula’s [farmers’] market, the local, temporal and communal bonds are evident and vigorous. You can only sell what was locally grown, roughly within a few hours of Missoula. The market reflects the progress of the seasons with seedlings, rhubarb and lettuce first, then the peas and peppers, finally the tomatoes and corn. Social interaction is central.”

Ethics is often presented as a question of what should be done; for Borgmann, it is also a question of what should be built. “There is a tangible and material side to [ethics]…We make things like North Reserve or the river corridor and ethics gets built into material objects. I think there’s little consciousness of how that happens and consequently we often do the wrong thing—I should say we make the wrong thing.”

And making the wrong thing is a moral failure, Borgmann says. “If you are concerned about the good society and the good life, you have to distinguish between two kinds of responsibilities that people have. One is within the buildings that we have shaped…Then there is responsibility for the arrangements…We don’t have much of a conversation about them, and so the point of Churchill’s principle is to awaken people to that higher responsibility, the responsibility for the system and not just responsibilities within it.”

Criticizing people for failing to lead a good life, as happens when Americans are berated for being overweight, ignorant or apathetic, while ignoring the pervasive effects of social institutions, Borgmann says, is “heartless to useless…It’s not that people are by their very nature incapable or unwilling to do the right thing. They just go with the flow.” What’s needed, he says, is attention to the sorts of homes and neighborhoods that make lives engaged with the world around them less a struggle against the current.

So to the traditional store of virtues like social justice, environmental stewardship, wisdom, courage and friendship, Borgmann aims to add “consciousness and savvy when it comes to the moral quality of the tangible material environment,” with the goal of making places that encourage celebration—engagement with others who are present—whether around a home’s dinner table or in a city’s riverfront park.

Discerning what sorts of places are likely to encourage engagement is no great quandary, either. “Everyone is capable of distinguishing between North Reserve and Ogren Park,” Borgmann says. “Everyone is capable of distinguishing between the new urbanism and distended suburbs.” Acting against that knowledge, however, is “a strange unwillingness to look at the concreteness of life and its moral qualities.”

Borgmann says Missoula’s debate over financing for a performing arts center in the Riverfront Triangle illuminates this incuriosity about how the buildings we make in turn make us. A performing arts center is the sort of venue, he says, that “is real in the sense which I talk about…There is engagement. You make a commitment to go there and sit through the thing, attentively pay attention, show respect to the performers, and it brings you together with people you might not meet.”

Alternately, developing the stretch of riverfront into a purely commercial space would, Borgmann says, “just advance and replicate the machinery of consumption.” While that’s no crime, it is noteworthy, says Borgmann, “how uneasy City Council members are in opposing that trend…It shows how unbalanced the concerns of celebration and consumption are.”

Albert Borgmann discusses Real American Ethics on Thursday, Feb. 22, at 7 p.m. in the Dell Brown Room of Turner Hall on the UM Campus. Free.

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