Saturday, February 19, 2011

Normative Ethics: after the leap into Objectivism.

Ye olde leap o faith.

The oft misquoted Dostoevsky saying reads: If there is no God then everything is permitted. This is a rough summary of perhaps one or more of the utterances of Ivan Karamazov, a character in Dostoevsky's classic novel: The Brothers Karamazov. It might even be a summary of Father Zosima (another character in The Brothers Karamazov) when he says: "Our people believe tirelessly in the truth, acknowledge God, weep tenderly. Not so their betters. These, following science, want to make a just order for themselves by reason alone, but without Christ now, not as before, and they have already proclaimed that there is no crime, there is no sin. And in their own terms, that is correct: for if you have no God, what crime is there to speak of? All in all, this hyperbolic expression falsely attributed to Dostoevsky seems to correctly amplify the over all debate in his novel, and possibly, his personal opinion. The opinion that if there is no absolute God, then there is no absolute morality.  

When examined at first glance "absolute morals" point towards religion. Albeit, the fact that there are varying principles of morality within the paradigm of religious belief seems to indicate that divinely prescribed morals are at least not true in every instance. In Islam, for example, it is not OK to eat pork, whereas in Jainism vegetarianism is a compulsion. It is however also worth noting that there is no way to bargain/weigh-in divinely prescribed morals for its adherer.

How can we question the perfect word of God? This is not a question but a condition. Believers of such morals feel that they have answers or guidance and they are satisfied or obliged to follow. This in turn gives meaning to their life. 

But not everyone who believes in absolute morals believes in religion, what then is their moral compass?

Normative Ethics is the part of moral philosophy, or ethics, concerned with the criteria of what is right or wrong- good or bad. It is the discipline of philosophy concerned with formulating or stipulating moral guidelines for human actions, institutions (such as the legislative sort), and how one should live. Thusly, the pivotal query of normative ethics is determining how basic moral standards are arrived at and justified. The answers to this question fall into two broad categories: deontological and teleological.

Deontological theories use the authenticity of its own inherent virtues or rightness to establish moral standards, while teleological theories consider the good and value brought into being by actions as the principal criterion of their ethical value. Thus, deontological theories akin to religion stress the concepts of duty, ought, obligation, and right and wrong, while teleological theories lay stress on the good, the valuable, and the desirable. 

Deontological theories set forth formal or relational criteria such as equality or impartiality; teleological theories, by contrast, provide material or substantive criteria, as, for example, happiness or pleasure. The word "teleological" is derived from the word ‘Telos’, which is Greek for "purpose".

Utilitarianism is a teleological theory of ethics which sees "the pursuit of happiness" to be paramount. But what would Utilitarians say about female circumcision? They would approach the issue by looking at how this practice affects the interests of those involved. In a tribal African village it may be that a young girl and her family will suffer more from refusing to undergo the operation than if she is circumcised. Whereas here in a more modern state, it is more likely that the girl will suffer more as the result of having to undergo the operation. So female circumcision may be morally right in the tribal context but not in the cultural context of other nations. This is not a relativist view. The moral judgement in each case depends, not simply on what the local social conventions are, but on how the practice of female circumcision will benefit or harm the people involved.

Will the action or practice produce more harm than good? Does it have 'utility'? That is the question Utilitarians believe is the fundamental one we need to ask when we are trying to decide what is morally right or wrong.  For this reason, Utilitarianism is said to be a teleological theory of ethics: it has as its aim or goal or telos the production of more good than harm in the world. The right action is the one that will produce the most good overall or the greater good. So what is right in the utilitarian view is determined by what is good.

Asking what course of action will produce more good than harm involves four key elements:
1) The concept of interests and/or desires, preferences.
2) Reflection on the consequences of actions (consequentialism).
3) The weighing up of all the foreseeable consequences of different courses of action on the interests or preferences of those involved in order to determine the 'best consequences' or 'the greater good' or 'the lesser evil'- ie the most utility.
4) Accepting responsibility for all the foreseeable consequences of our actions.

In utilitarianism the concept of interests is ambivalent. It can mean:
1) What we are interested in- what we desire or prefer.
2) What is in our interest- values or goods that are not simply desired but are judged to be worthwhile or beneficial- i.e objective values or goods.

What we desire may not always be in our interest- for instance the child who cannot swim wanting to jump in the pool. So utilitarians speak of informed or rational interests or preferences.

Thus far I've given a general overview of some key elements of Utilitarianism, and if I am to assume that my understanding is coherent to the reader, the general plausibility of Utilitarianism must arise so far due to:
1. Wanting the world to be a better place seems intuitively right.
2. Our practical thinking is often concerned with weighing up the pros and cons, advantages and disadvantages, pluses and minuses of following different courses of action- that is, with utility.

But what did classic Utilitarians such as Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill have to say about it?

Classical Utilitarianism

The eighteenth century English philosopher Jeremy Bentham suggested that pleasure or enjoyable experiences is the ultimate end of all our actions and is therefore the sole intrinsic good ( as opposed to an instrumental good like money) and pain/suffering is the sole intrinsic evil. Pleasure is self-evidently and objectively good and pain is self-evidently and objectively bad. Hence pleasure = happiness (hedonism); and since the only thing we all desire /prefer for its own sake is pleasure, human activities are ranked according to the amount of pleasure they yeild. Bentham thus says:

"The utility of all these arts and sciences,-I speak both of those of amusement and curiosity,-the value which they possess, is exactly in proportion to the pleasure they yield. Every other species of preeminence which may be attempted to be established among them is altogether fanciful. Prejudice apart, the game of push-pin is of equal value with the arts and sciences of music and poetry. If the game of push-pin furnish more pleasure, it is more valuable than either. Everybody can play at push-pin: poetry and music are relished only by a few."

Perhaps John Lennon read a bit of Bentham. Albeit, for Bentham the fundamental moral norm is: to act so as to bring about the greatest happiness (pleasure) of the greatest number (sometimes called the Principle of Benevolence).

For the 19th century English philosopher and polymath John Stuart Mill, there are higher pleasures- the pleasures of mind or mental pleasures - and lower or bodily pleasures. The experience of  competent judges throughout history shows that the higher pleasures are to be preferred to the lower- poetry is (objectively) more pleasurable than a round of "Call of Duty (PS3)". Hence for Mill it is 'better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a pig satisfied'. Greater happiness will therefore be achieved in the pursuit of the higher pleasures of the mind.   

So, we see that when we suppress the lurking meta-ethical questions of Relativists and Subjectivists and take the free fall or "leap of faith" in to Objectivism, we don't have to believe in religion or deontological virtues to derive an Objective right or wrong. In my next post, I will discuss the views of more Utilitarian philosophers, some of whom are our contemporaries (as in, from our times). Furthermore, I will, as usual, put forth some criticisms of Utilitarianism. 

But before all that, I would like the readers of this blog to consider the following cases and try to imagine how Bentham and Singer would handle them:

a) A married woman in Germany in the 1930's agreeing to have sex with a member of the Gestapo who has imprisoned her husband in order to free him OR the same woman seducing the Gestapo in order to free her husband.

b) A Danish family during the war lying to the Nazis about the whereabouts of a Jewish family hiding in their cellar. 

c) A child who is refused entry in to a kindergarten because he/she has AIDS. 

d) A person being forced to rape or risk losing their life. 

Now take some time to  ruminate upon how religious people would decide the same matters. Now leap.

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