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Sunday, May 15, 2011

Morality Part II: Some Good Ideas


God doesn't work, nature doesn't really offer a lot of answers.  Where the heck can we go now?  It turns out that the noodle in our skull is not a bad option.  We have been given a gift, the gift of rational thought.  Perhaps we should use it.

If we use reason to determine what is right, what is a good rule to apply in making moral decisions?  Utilitarianism was developed by David Hume, Jeremy Bentham, and John Stuart Mill.  It says that an action is right if it promotes the most happiness for the most people.  An action is wrong if it fails to do this.

"Jim, the good of the many, *cough*, outweigh, *cough*, the good of the few"
On the surface this seems like a good rule, in fact it seems blindingly obvious.  Mill calls it the Greatest Happiness Principle.  (But at the time it was a radical departure because it didn't reference God.)  Rachels quotes Peter Singer, the liberal Australian philosopher, from Singer's Animal Liberation book.

Singer observed an experiment at Harvard where dogs trapped in small boxes were shocked hundreds of times on their feet.  They initially tried to jump away, yelped, urinated, defecated, but eventually they realized that they couldn't escape.  They stopped resisting.  The experimenters observed that they were "impressed" by the finding that a plate glass barrier and foot shock were "very effective" in eliminating jumping behavior in dogs.

Singer: Free the animals, mate
Singer says that the questionable benefit brought about by the experiment's results are far outweighed by the incredible suffering incurred by the dogs.  This is a very simple Utilitarian argument.

But there are a couple serious problems with Utlitarianism that means it cannot be used in every situation.  The first is that any means justifies a good end.  If it takes dropping an atomic bomb on Hiroshima and killing hundreds of thousands of innocent civilians to win a war, Utilitarianism says that is fine.  Or to take another example, Utilitarians would nod their head in agreement at cannibals who were forced to eat each other on an island without enough food.

The other problem which is more serious is that it doesn't offer any protection to minorities or individuals when they in conflict with larger forces.  Suppose there was a society where it was OK to for each group of 10 free people to own 1 slave.  This slave allowed the group of 10 free citizens to live an easy, comfortable life, and it could be argued from a Utilitarian perspective that the happiness of the many outweighed the suffering of the one.  This same argument could be used to convict innocent people of crimes, strip people of property in order to satisfy corporate or national interests, and so on.  In other words, in Utilitarianism human rights have no place.

Kantian Ethics

Kant: The Greatest Modern Philosopher
OK, so now what?  Imagine that someone is fleeing from a murderer and tells you he is going home to hide.  Then the murderer comes along and asks where the first man went.  You are certain that if you tell the truth the murderer will find the man and kill him.  What should you do?  Tell the truth or lie?

We should lie.  We don't think we should go about lying as a general rule, but in these circumstances it seems like the right thing to do.  Immanuel Kant, however, the greatest philosopher of the modern age, thought we should never lie under any circumstances.  Kant believed that morality was a matter of following absolute rules.  He formulated his famous Categorical Imperative as follows:

"Act only according to that maxim by which you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law."

Now to me, the first time I read it, it sounded identical to Jesus' Golden Rule: "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you."  I didn't realize at the time that Kant implied absolute rules that don't take specific circumstances into account.  Perhaps his bed was too stiff, maybe he needed to smoke a doob.  However, if you do a simple reformulation of his Imperative, it works great.  All you have to do is add a second sentence:

"When one violates a rule, one must do so for a reason that anyone else would be willing to accept, were they in that position."

In this way, you can lie to the murderer and be on firm moral ground.

I find Kantian Ethics with this addendum to be a great moral framework.  It matches human intuition and has parallels in Christian and Buddhist thought.  If you look, you can find some version of "Love Thy Neighbor" and "Do Unto Others" in every great world religion, and there is a reason for this.  It is one of the universal truths about human life.  Without it, any great religion would fail the test of our common sense.

Kant also formulated a second maxim that he said was the same as the Categorical Imperative, although philosophers have wondered why he said that ever since.  It appears to be talking about something completely different.  Maybe Kant did smoke a doob after all.

Kant believed in basic human dignity.  He stated:

"Act so that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or in that of another, always as an end and never as a means only."

Vitruvian Man is special
Humans are unique among the animals.  We are free agents capable of making our own decisions and guiding our conduct by reason.  The only way that moral goodness can exist at all in the world is for rational creatures to apprehend what they should do and, acting from a sense of duty, do it.  This, Kant thought, is the only thing that has "moral worth."  Thus, if there were no rational beings, the moral dimension of the world would disappear.

The more I think about this, the more it seems to be true.  What if, tomorrow, all humans disappeared?  Would the world still be beautiful?  Does a tree falling in the forest make a sound?  One could argue that a sound is the brain's interpretation of vibrations in the air.  And so if there are no ears and no brain, then there is no "sound."  And likewise, one could easily say that the Earth with no humans would only be beautiful if God still existed to marvel at it, or if aliens from afar looked upon it and declared it beautiful.  The animals still on the Earth would not care.  Now it is debatable if dolphins or chimps can value things like we can, so perhaps that viewpoint is a stretch.  But certainly things like Monet's paintings would no longer be worth anything.

Things have value only as means to an end, and it is humans who give them their value.  Because humans are the judges and creators of value, they have a special place in the world.  Therefore, Kant concluded that humans have intrinsic worth, i.e. dignity, and their value is "above all price."  Thus Kant, following Locke, firmly planted the seed of human rights into the world.

(Now it turns out that saying only humans have intrinsic worth is a very dangerous view, it has led to the ongoing destruction of the Earth's environment and horrifying pace of species extinction.  More on this later ...)

This is what Kant means by never treating anyone as a "means," and always as an "end" only.  Imagine you needed money from your friend to pay a debt, even though you know you will never repay this debt.  It was funny that Rachels used this example, because in fact this happened to me very recently.  A former friend of mine got laid off, borrowed $2000 and promised to pay it off when he got a payout he was expecting.  But in fact he wasn't expecting any payout, instead he was hoping to land another job in the near future and wasn't sure if he could pay me back at all.  He lied to me to get the loan.

Kant says this kind of manipulation is using someone as a "means."  Now, suppose my friend had treated me as an "end" instead.  Gay implications aside, using someone as an "end", according to Kant, means respecting that person's dignity as a rational agent, who has intrinsic value just as important as your own.  What my friend could have said was that he didn't know if he could pay me back at all, but he hoped he could pay me back when he found another job.  If he had told the truth and respected my worth, I could have made my own decision as to whether to loan him the money.  And then, if he didn't pay me back, I would have to shoulder the blame with him for my decision.  Perhaps I wouldn't even have de-friended the bastard.

So it seems to me that Kant's respect of other's dignity is good for two reasons.  One, he is right about human worth.  We shouldn't manipulate others simply for the fact that we are no better than they are.  But perhaps a more motivating reason is that when you break that trust, when you lie or manipulate others, there is a very good chance that one day you will be found out, and it will ruin that relationship forever.

Kant's ideas also have an interesting corollary with regards to "getting people back."  Suppose someone screams insults at you or steals your money.  These people are in effect saying that they think this kind of behavior is acceptable, and therefore, it is OK for others to treat them the same way.  In other words, if your friend treats you rudely, it is OK to then return the insult.  Now you don't have to act this way, but in Kant's view it would be perfectly justifiable.  You aren't breaking the rules you have established for yourself, you are simply acting in a manner that the rude person implicitly agrees with because he initiated the bad behavior towards you.  When it comes to retribution, this leads to "an eye for an eye."  The punishment must fit the crime.

But as Ghandi once said, "An eye for an eye makes the whole world go blind."

And then noone could "like" my awesome Nepal trekking pics.

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