Posts Tagged ‘My moral theory’

Responsibility, Guilt and Morality.

July 16, 2013

So, a while ago someone, somewhere posted a link to a FAQ about consequentialism by Scott Siskind. Siskind is in favour of consequentialism, and number of the entries in the FAQ are aimed at demonstrating that consequentialism is superior to other moral theories.

One thought experiment that he tosses out is this:

3.3: What do you mean by a desire to avoid guilt?

Suppose an evil king decides to do a twisted moral experiment on you. He tells you to kick a small child really hard, right in the face. If you do, he will end the experiment with no further damage. If you refuse, he will kick the child himself, and then execute that child plus a hundred innocent people.

There are certain moral philosophers who would tell you to refuse. Sure, the child would get hurt and lots of innocent people would die, but it wouldn’t, technically, be your fault. But if you kicked the child, well, that would be your fault, and then you’d have to feel bad about it.

But this excessive concern about whether something is your fault or not is a form of selfishness. If you sided with those philosophers, it wouldn’t be out of a concern for the child’s welfare – the child’s getting kicked anyway, not to mention executed – it would be out of concern with whether you might feel bad about it later. The desire involved is the desire to avoid guilt, not the desire to help others.

The problem with his analysis of this thought experiment is that while there are a number of philosophers who would indeed say to not kick the child, most of them won’t say that it’s because you might feel bad afterwards, or that it might make you feel guilty. No, what they’d say is instead that if you kick the child, you yourself would have taken an immoral action, while if you don’t then you have, in fact, refused to take an immoral action. So, if someone feels guilty for choosing to kick the child, the philosophers will argue that they ought to, that the guilt in this case is a reflection of their actually doing something immoral, and not just some misfiring emotional reaction.

Let me highlight this by referring to one of the things I find most compelling about Stoicism: the idea that you are responsible for your own actions and reactions, and not for the actions or reactions or others, or for any consequences of your actions that are not under your direct control. In this case, the evil king is saying that they will commit a horribly evil act unless you commit an evil act. But they are responsible for their own evil acts, and their attempt to make you responsible for their actions by claiming that they’ll only do those evil things if you don’t do evil things is a invalid move. What they are trying to do is make you responsible for their evil and evil intentions, but you are not responsible for their choice to take an evil action just because you refused to take an evil action.

So, in this case, if you kick the child, then you have taken an immoral action or, to put it better, you will have caused harm to that child. Siskind’s counter is that if you don’t kick the child, the child will be kicked anyway, and will then be killed, and then more people will be killed. Under the consequentialist model, because the consequences of not kicking the child are worse than those that come from your kicking the child, you are morally obligated to kick that child. But these consequences are not natural consequences — ie following without the intervention of moral agents — of your actions, and they only follow from the moral choice of the king. Even if you refuse to kick the child, the king is still free to choose to not follow through and so to not kick the child, or kill the child and those people. The consequentialist approach, therefore, makes you responsible for the immoral actions of someone else. Under the Stoic model, that’s simply wrong; you are responsible for the your own morality, not the morality of others.

What’s interesting is that this comes in a section dedicated to assigning value to other people, but the thought experiment reveals how consequentialism doesn’t, in fact, do that … at least, it doesn’t as it is presented here. Let’s compare Siskind’s answer to the thought experiment to that of a hypothetical Kantian who insists on treating others not merely as means, but as ends in themselves. To make this more clear, let’s change the thought experiment slightly, so that either you kick the child or the king will kill 100 innocent people, but that the child will neither be kicked nor killed. Surely, the consequentialist will argue that you should indeed kick the child; it’s hard to see a consequentialism where the case described in the original thought experiment demands that you kick the child but that in this case you shouldn’t. So, what you should do is decide to cause the child some small harm to prevent greater harm to more people.

The Kantian, however, will object that what you are doing is using the child as a means to an end: the end of less harm. It is certainly true that less harm is a desirable end, but you are treating the child as a means to that end nonetheless. And how, then, can you claim to value that child as an individual person if you are willing to use them as merely a means to achieving more utility? All consequentialist theories that calculate the consequences based on overall harm or utility treat individual persons as nothing more than a number, a utility value to be aggregated to achieve the end of overall greater utility. Which is why they all allow their adherents to sacrifice one individual for the greater good, and potentially to do so even against the will of that individual if there’s enough utility in it. On the other hand, the moral views that refuse to allow you to harm the child simply to prevent worse consequences actually treat the child as someone with value in their own right, as having value as an individual person, and so are not willing to harm them as an individual just to make the total happiness numbers come up beneficial. So, it seems to me, if you want to respect and assign value to other people, you have to consider them as having value not just as one figure in an overall spreadsheet of utility, but as having value in and of themselves. As a trump card, not as a point in the game.

So, then, if you really assign value to people, can you really accept consequentialism, that lets you harm people if, overall, there’s less harm overall from it? Or should you instead choose a morality that says that you can’t harm them in order to achieve any end, even one as good as less harm overall?

Breaking the Law to Do What’s Right …

January 25, 2013

So, I was reminded today of people who, in the name of social change and changing unjust and immoral laws, break the law to do so. Either they protest when protest is illegal, give out information they shouldn’t, or simply break the unjust laws to demonstrate their unfairness. And, in doing so and being tried and convicted for those crimes, they draw major attention and, if done right, outrage, which causes the laws to be repealed. And most of the time, a lot of time is spent talking about how they shouldn’t be in prison, and they are often released when the laws are changed.

To me and my moral code, this is what the ideal person should do in those cases:

Oppose the law by breaking the law.
Get the law changed.
Either present themselves for legal punishment, or insist on serving out the rest of their sentence. Although they can accept a legal pardon, at the very least they shouldn’t think that they’re owed one.

This is because of one of the things that really attracts me to the Stoic view, which is their hard-headed insistence on responsibility. Ultimately, in this case the person knowingly broke the law, and knew that the consequence of that was that they might be imprisoned for it. It therefore should not be a surprise to them when they are, in fact, imprisoned for breaking the law. Even if the law was unjust, they knew what the consequences of breaking that law were, and should be prepared to accept them. If they weren’t, they shouldn’t have broken the law in the first place.

Thus, that person — and all of us — should break the law when it conflicts with our morality, but be prepared to accept the consequences of the legal fines and even imprisonment that comes from that (although if we can avoid that legally, that would be nice). And this applies to any other circumstances we might have to face. If my doing the right thing will cause other people to hate me, then they’ll hate me. That’s just what has to be done.

Recall that for the Stoics one should give up one’s life before doing what is immoral, and so it seems that there could hardly be any consequences more severe than that. If we accept that view, then the other consequences surely are far less worthy of acting immorally, and so cannot be used as a reason to not act morally in all instances.

(And yes, I am aware that this is actually really, really difficult at times. Hence, why I claim that some moral lapses are understandable, even if they are still moral lapses).

Virtue and Vice; Ends and Means

August 3, 2012

Lately, I’ve been pondering the difficulty all Virtue Theories face in defining and justifying what counts as a Virtue, Vice or, in my case, an Indifferent. I had started from Kant’s “Treat everyone not merely as means, but always also as ends in themselves” principle, which I tied to the idea that what is critical to morality is moral agency, and that means treating moral agents as moral agents, making — I argued — agency the primary focus. But there’s a lot of work to be done in moving from agency to a full set of virtues and vices, because agency can’t carry the burden itself; there are some things that we do want to think vicious that it seems that agency could carry on its own. That might mean that I need a new underlying principle, but how to come up with that? It seemed a massive puzzle.

But, it turns out, it isn’t. I can start from Kant himself and justify all of my virtues, and didn’t realize the power of the statement that I had already justified. See, I started from agency, but because I started thinking about it from Kant’s principle I didn’t realize that it wasn’t the principle itself that justified my move to agency. That I took from the definition of morality, arguing that morality requires moral agents and so must have as its key principle that moral agents must be treated as moral agents. Thinking that this, then, was the proper translation of Kant’s principle in my model, I needed to find a way to get from that principle to my set of virtues and vices, but it was difficult to do. Why? Because being a moral agent means choosing between what is virtuous and what is vicious, so it’s hard to move from moral agency that says that you must be able to choose between them to a set of virtues and vices that defines what it means to make morally appropriate and inappropriate choices. Basically, I was trying to move from the general definition of “We must respect choosing moral and immoral actions” directly to “And here’s what is and isn’t immoral”, and that’s really hard to do. I needed another step in-between, another premise, to get from the general to the specific.

And what I have is Kant’s actual principle: Treat others not merely as means, but always also as ends in themselves. One of the things about agents in general is that they have ends or goals they want to achieve. Moral agents can try to achieve these goals in moral or immoral ways; they are capable of grasping the intellectual force of morality and choosing their means in accordance with it. So, for example, lions have ends, as they count as agents; one of those is to find food. But they aren’t capable, as far as we know, of acting based on a full consideration of moral principles; they are too tightly tied to instincts to properly do that. The same thing could be said for primates, even those that we claim show empathy; they act on empathy, not on a moral consideration of that empathy and how it is properly moral to act on it. Humans, however, really do seem to be capable of properly understanding and acting on moral principles, which is what makes them moral agents. They won’t, of course, always make the right moral decisions, but being capable of making the wrong moral decisions is indeed what makes them moral agents.

So, what we have are moral agents who have ends, and who have the ability to choose the means by which they achieve those ends. From our starting principle, that means that unless we give them the full ability to choose the means they use to achieve their ends, we are not treating them as moral agents. And if we don’t treat them as moral agents, then we are at best amoral and, I would argue, actually being immoral. Thus, we must always keep in mind that they as moral agents have ends. Thus, we must never treat moral agents as merely means to our ends, but in all interactions with moral agents we must treat them as having ends in themselves that they must fulfill, and carefully act always in a manner that allows them to choose moral or immoral means towards their own ends. We don’t have to do that for agents that are not moral agents — ie we can treat them as ends — because the means they use to achieve their ends aren’t relevant because they aren’t moral, and so are at best amoral. Note that this doesn’t mean, however, that we have no moral obligations to animals because we are ourselves moral agents, and have obligations to our own ends and to our own moral means of achieving those ends, and so we can get obligations to animals through that (although a lot more work is required). And unlike modern morality, we can indeed have things that are immoral even if they impact no one except ourselves, if we treat ourselves as means to our own ends instead of as moral agents in and of ourselves.

More work needs to be done, of course, but it’s easy to come up with at least some examples of how this will define certain actions as immoral from these principles:

Murder — If you stop someone from being able to take any actions merely to satisfy your own ends, you are clearly treating them as a means to your end.
Rape — You are clearly simply using them as a means to your desire for sexual pleasure.
Lying — You are impeding their ability to make proper choices so that you can achieve your own ends.

Now, the biggest problem I had previously was this: it looked like under my model that I couldn’t give someone a painless truth serum to get them to tell me where they had hidden a bomb that would kill many people, but that I might be able to torture them to get the information. I got into this problem because I needed to be able to punish people who did wrong, and justified that by claiming that giving people consequences isn’t impeding their choice in a bad way — under the Stoics, things like that are things you should overcome in order to act morally — but clearly taking away any meaningful choice would be. Lying is a case of this because it isn’t just giving them an impediment that they can overcome in order to act virtuously, but is instead making them think that they have the proper information to make their choice when in fact they don’t. They, being unaware that you are deceiving them, can only overcome this deficit by, in fact, not trusting what you tell them, which they have no reason to do. Note that this analysis of lying fits nicely in with Kant’s universal ban on lying, although this allows for white lies in cases where there is no impact on someone’s choices or decisions, such as in Edward Feser’s car joke.

But if I add in another long held principle of mine, I can easily escape this problem. I am, of course, an intentionalist, and a strong one. What you intend to do is what matters in determining morality, not what happens. So, what will determine whether the torture case counts as a “consequences” case will be what your intention in carrying out the torture is. If you torture them to manipulate them into giving you the information, then your intent is wrong and you are doing something immoral. If, on the other hand, your intent is just to take the necessary steps given the situation at hand, then your intent is fine and you are doing nothing immoral. So, for example, if you decide to lock someone in a small room for 3 hours because you think it will make them talk, that’s immoral, but if you lock them in a small room for 3 hours because they are dangerous and that’s the only room available, that’s not immoral.

From this, we can define Virtues, Vices, and Indifferents:

Virtues: Treating a moral agent as a thing that has ends that they can achieve morally or immorally.
Vices: Treating a moral agent only as a means to your ends.
Indifferents: Actions or ends that one can achieve either morally or immorally.

I find the idea that things like money, sex, power, friendship and even food and life are things that don’t in and of themselves have moral value and yet can be rationally desirable irresistable. This allows me to define them: anything that can happen or be achieved by either moral or immoral means (at least in theory). So:

Money: One can become rich by manipulating, lying to, and cheating people, or by producing a really good product or service that everyone wants to buy.
Sex: One can get sexual fulfillment through an open and honest relationship — even one that’s just for sex — or by lies, manipulation or even rape.
Food: One can steal food, or earn it.
Life: Life is just one big set of choices of moral and immoral means, including when one’s life ends.

So, now I have Virtues, Vices and Indifferents, all — I think — justified from what it means to be moral by definition. This is a good place to stop, for now. Later, I’d like to go through the Catholic and Stoic/Greek virtues and vices to see if my model can encompass them, and why they aren’t if I can’t.