Musings on Ethics
(As with my “musings” series, I offer less structured thoughts about a topic in hope of clarifying – and possibly solidifying – ideas about it. I do this for myself and for the interested readers. I’m not necessarily concerned with making extended arguments. It is possible that I merely pontificate in an armchair sort of way, ending the procedure on no less marshy ground than when I began. But that’s good philosophy anyway, isn’t it?)
People have long been concerned with ethics, a guiding set of moral principles or convictions that persuade them to act in certain ways. There are private ethics and public ethics, and written records indicate that people have long been concerned with both. Public ethics interests me far more than private ethics. It’s not that I am uninterested in private ethics altogether; it is just that public morality by its very nature concerns an extended network of people. I suppose that my utilitarian framework of considering ethical matters extends to the study of ethics itself. The wider the net of affect, the more it matters.
That isn’t to say that the morality of a private relationship, say, doesn’t matter. A cheating spouse may find that his partner is far more worried about his indiscretions than the state of public affairs. Subjectively, it probably seems to matter far more than the ethics of banking or trade law, for instance. As a matter of moral realism and moral objectivism, I would say that public morality is more pressing. I do want to be clear, however, that these two types of morality – public and private – are often not mutually exclusive. One can uphold certain tenets privately, and still concern oneself with public justice. As a matter of course, I will focus more on theory here, where it trespasses on both the public and private spheres. At any rate, the consequences of certain actions seem to me to be the baseline for any ethics. All ethics is derivative of this principle.
There are three historical “types” of ethics, or ethical paradigms, that are adduced to cover the range of ethical attitudes and behaviors. These are Virtue Ethics (Aristotle), Deontology or Duty Ethics (Kant), and Utilitarianism (Bentham and Mill). This may seem reductive, but in fact I believe the list to be bloated. All three work together and ultimately converge on Utilitarianism, or, as I prefer, Consequentialism. Utilitarianism gets a bad rap because it seems like a cold calculus about “the greatest number” affected. To be fair, this was more Bentham than Mill. John Stuart Mill adjudicated ethical dilemmas qualitatively more so than quantitatively. There are qualitatively better outcomes for more people. For instance, Mill would object to a Huxley-esque utopia where “the greatest number” lived in a pervasive and perpetual state of drug-induced euphoria. It’s possible that people may want this against their own best interests, and its possible for them to be confused about those interests. It’s possible to confuse dystopia with utopia.
The reason why consequentialism is a better way to think about this form of ethics is because the consequences of all factors are taken into consideration. This usually entails a utilitarian ethic, but sometimes it can oppose it. Utilitarianism can abide by a closed off community, a religious cult say, where most if not all members agree their best interest is promoted by leaving their friends and family, engaging in a worshipful cult of personality around a figurehead, and ultimately committing suicide. But consequentialism would challenge this ethical outcome. The consequences to the members’ own psychological and physical health is at stake, as well as the consequences to the feelings of their former friends and family. Not to mention, what are the consequences to society by not issuing a skeptical challenge to groupthink and cult behavior? Consequentialism, on my count, is a broader and deeper view of utilitarianism. The challenge of moral relativism is ever present, and I will address that momentarily.
I noted that Virtue Ethics and Duty Ethics (Deontology) ultimately collapse into a consequentialist paradigm. I want to take a moment to unpack that a bit. Aristotle promoted the “virtues,” such as charity and honesty and justice. Kant talked about a sense of duty to others based on “universalizing” principles. Kant’s sense of universal duty collapses into Aristotle’s virtues using the “golden mean.” And they both collapse into a view of consequences. The reason why honesty and charity and justice are virtues – and the reason why these things can be “universalized” into a duty (Kant) – is because the consequences of these behaviors lead to better outcomes most of the time for most people. And insofar as these qualities would not be preferable in outcome, a different behavior should be considered. The usual example prompted here is the SS officer showing up to your house where you are hiding Anne Frank. Do you tell the truth to the officer, following both the virtue of honesty and duty, and surely sign her death warrant in so doing? Or do you temporarily suspend the virtue of honesty, and lie to save her life? A view of the consequences helps answer these questions.
Any twisting of the dials or turning of the knobs in these examples doesn’t change the long view of consequentialism. Some note that perhaps the SS officer, angry that the girl was not found in your house, moves on and summarily executes two or three Jewish prisoners. Or perhaps the SS officer knows you are lying, barges into your house and finds her. He then kills her on the spot and arrests you, surely to be killed after a swift trial. In these examples, the consequences seem to be worse by trying to protect the poor Jewish girl. There is a problem here. One is that we only know what we know. We cannot make smart moral decisions of this sort based on hypotheticals. There is also a biological and cognitive component here: it seems the best decision in the heat of the moment is to lie to save her life. Granted, a long view of the consequences is often not considered in moments like these, but we only have the cognitive equipment we are dealt. And we only have the facts at hand. In the case of the SS officer and Anne Frank, a consequentialist view is to suspend the virtue of honesty and lie to save her life. The more we know about the consequences in any given scenario, the better able we are to determine ethical behaviors. It’s certainly not always easy.
Two challenges to consequentialism come from opposite ends of the spectrum. Those are moral objectivism and moral relativism. I believe that consequentialism is morally objective, but some might not see it that way. I’ll address this first. Some might ask if saving Anne Frank is the most important thing to do even if you know the details of more horrifying outcomes. In other words, if I know that by protecting her two or three more would die, would it still not be morally correct to save her? After all, she is a human being like everyone else, not a number. And she is hiding in your house. You can see her, and she is your responsibility now. What kind of monster starts crunching figures in some sort of crass utilitarian calculus? This is a challenge that I cannot answer. This is an objective realism that, while not at odds theoretically with consequentialism, certainly challenges it in examples such as these. One might refer to this as “heat-of-the-moment morality.” The problem is that while in some cases this would be the correct ethical behavior, in many other cases it wouldn’t be (think the Trolley problem taken to whatever scale you wish). Our moral intuitions are sometimes right, but sometimes they are not.
Moral relativism is a challenge that consumes ethicists, and I believe it has caused more problems than it has provided clear benefits. Moral relativism was supposed to provide clarity and fairness and a dose of reality to the objectivism of religious authority or other forms of unchallengeable ethics. This is good in theory. No Mosaic codes or other tenets etched into stone tablets. Morals from authority are not necessarily good or right, and moral relativism helped chip away at this idea of ethics. But its course ran right into the postmodern canyon. Now we get questions like, “Whose to say if coercing women into burkas isn’t the right move for them.” The subjective always wins the scenario, at the expensive of any objective truth (relativists would of course deny any objective truth at play). There are two problems here. The first is that this ethical view runs awash into reductio ad absurdum territory. How far can we take it? Is everything relative? If so, then why are we even discussing it? The buck has to stop somewhere. If there is nothing objective or true somewhere down the line, then there is no ethics at all. The entire project of navigating ethical terrain is to find out what the right thing to do is. Even relativists have to draw the line somewhere. If anything can be right for every different person, then we have no need for ethics - or even a discussion about the future for that matter. Why bother? Relativists would be engaged in a self-abnegating discipline.
The other problem is a logical one (but the same type of problem as the other). Pure relativism is a self-contradictory notion: if one intends to base the veracity of relativism on something, one has to find objective grounds to do so. Otherwise who is to say who is correct? Your relativism is only correct relative to you, and so therefore cannot be extrapolated or universalized. The game is up before it begins.
So, if morals from authority are traditionally insufficient (if not immoral), and relativism is self-contradicting and effete, then is there another solution? Can moral objectivism or moral realism base its rightness and rectitude on substantive facts? This has become a nearly insoluble problem due to the supposed breach between facts and values. (I will turn to that next and last.) But it’s only a problem in the ethics community – a community of thinkers and scholars – or with armchair ponderings, come to light in digital conversations. Nobody suffering from genital mutilation, poor sanitation, malnutrition, or lack of education (sometimes forced) believes it is controversial to suggest that the right or ethical thing to do would be to address those issues. Those afflictions should be addressed universally and without question. The consequences matter. The people so suffering don’t have the luxury to consider ethical paradigms dreamed up in university philosophy departments.
I’m not suggesting that a moral relativist would argue that those things are not necessary, because presumably those suffering would want to be relieved of their benighted state. And relativists are at least ostensibly humanitarian-minded and science-oriented. The problem is that they give far too much credence to culture. One of the biggest casualties of postmodernism isn’t the outright rejection of science or humanitarian principles or Enlightenment values generally, but rather the shifting of importance of those things in relation to culture and identity. So, if a relativist encountered a culture that believed that some deity wanted its people to be hungry and poor and in pain, that relativist would be required to opt in favor of their cultural beliefs and identity. It doesn’t matter that science and our understanding of physical and psychological well-being tells us how these people can live better and happier lives. It doesn’t matter that this culture is simply wrong about their deity and their interests. This is my problem with relativists. It isn’t cultural hubris to suggest universal and objective remedies based on well-being; it is irresponsible and immoral to deny these remedies. Especially when you have the capacity to know better.
Sam Harris’s concept of the moral landscape is the most convincing to me (along with John Rawls and the veil of ignorance, where it concerns justice). All we know about the facts of the world is what we have to develop right or wrong ethical action. While it’s difficult to negotiate every turn through every scenario, it is clear that there are certain peaks and valleys in the landscape that strike our attention. Certain objective things like nutrition and education and shelter are undeniably good and necessary for well-being. Moral objectivism is rooted in science, specifically the science of well-being. It is possible to be right or wrong here, and it’s possible to be confused and unsure. But there are objective ethical truths to be found, even if they remain hidden.
Lastly, I want to address the supposed gap between facts and values, a perennial challenge to moral objectivism. It isn’t that I think the is/ought argument is contentious or difficult; I simply don’t see a gap in the first place.
People have resurrected David Hume’s argument about facts and values, or the is/ought divide. It is very popular these days, especially among relativists. According to the argument, one cannot derive values from mere facts about the world. One cannot logically state that something is the case (facts) and then derive what one should do (ought to do) or think (values). In theory it sounds good. There is no middle connector there. It turns out this is much ado about nothing. It is a linguistic trick. In the real world there is always a modifier or connector between the is and ought. We simply don’t talk or think without these modifiers. Moreover, the only reasons we ever act on what we think we (or others) should do are based on the totality of present or potential facts of the world. What else would we act on? Do we simply wake up one day with a mysterious idea of values planted in our heads, ideas of “shoulds” and “oughts” floating around in there? Of course not. They are based on specific situations or circumstances, facts about the world in which we live. I can tell someone they ought not to jump off the bridge, knowing the facts about height and velocity and so forth. The only modifier necessary is the person’s interest in living. If I know the person wants to live, I can derive the ought from the is. The same applies to any other situation. Do you want to get into a good college? If the answer is yes, then you ought to study. The facts about studying, completing assignments, and doing well on graded assessments has everything to do with going to post-secondary school. If you have no interest in going to a good college, then I have no “ought” recommendations for you there. Facts and values are never divorced in the real world, and there is always a modifier or qualifier. An example below:
Fact: Treating people poorly will not gain you friends
Value: You ought to treat them kindly
Modifier: Do you want friends or not, asshole? Yes? Then see above.
The fact that people get so hung up on this little linguistic hiccup continues to circumvent real ethical progress and the diagnosis of real problems. Even if the qualifier is unknown, one can still suggest an ought based on an is. After all, a suggestion based on the science of well-being is not coercion. I’m not sure how I would address the “forcing” of parents to vaccinate their children, even though the consequences for people are clear and move in a singular direction. But there is no is/ought problem there. Move along.
The “musings” series will have no denouement, coup de maître, or peroration (save perhaps that line itself). I merely close by summarizing my ruminations on these matters. I believe that consequentialism is the most effective and honest way to approach ethical considerations, and I believe that this adheres to moral objectivism. Moral relativism and Hume’s is/ought divide cause more damage than they provide clarity or accuracy. The only real challenge to a truly well considered consequentialism is what I dubbed a “heat-of-the-moment” ethical call. Relativists may claim this for their side, but in these sorts of moments the decision is anything but relative (consider again the example of saving Anne Frank). This is an interesting challenge to consider moving forward with our collective ethical understanding. I see that a future “musing” might be digging into the bloated word “consequences,” and trying to tease that apart in meaningful ways. To be continued.