Error 404 – “Ought” Not Found

(follow-up to Difficult Questions)

I know I said I’d get into some particular moral thought experiments last time.  But it occurred to me that those thought experiments would be meaningless at best if I didn’t first consider this question:

Why should we care about any of this?

No really, what’s at stake in all of this ethical navel-gazing, if we already generally have an idea of how to be “good people”?

Well, I introduced this series of posts in the context of politics, broadly speaking.  You can see the implications of these fundamentals of ethics in the American libertarian movement, for example.  Many libertarians and so-called anarcho-capitalists believe that to the extent that there is a state, that state should defend and be limited by the Non-Aggression Principle.  Basically it’s the “my fist ends where your nose begins” principle, applied not just to physical violence but also to property, hence libertarians’ staunch opposition to taxation and welfare.  Libertarians tend to reject utilitarianism to the extent that it has no room for strict rules of that sort.  The point of this particular post isn’t to defend or refute that perspective (although I personally find it unconvincing and it often has consequences that libertarians wouldn’t like).  I’m just giving an example of philosophy informing politics.

Lest you think it’s only libertarians who would care about this, at the heart of the Democratic Party’s defenses of welfare (not to say only Democrats defend this) lies a sort of Rawls-based belief that justice mandates redistribution, if an unequal distribution leaves the least well-off people in society worse than they would be under equality (or at least something closer to equality).  This, too, is a “deontological” rule that admits of no exceptions in which the ends might justify the means, as is the belief that no calculation of expected lives saved by ending World War II could justify the bombing of many innocent Japanese citizens.  In debates about abortion, even, the pro-choice rejoinder to the pro-life claim that abortion is a violation of a child’s right to life isn’t always utilitarian (that is, a rejection of a full-stop “right to life” for fetuses considered incapable of suffering, particularly when weighed against the suffering of the mother).  Rather, the pro-choice movement has tended to pit one deontological axiom against another, namely the unalienable right to bodily autonomy.

This isn’t to say a utilitarian couldn’t agree with the conclusions of libertarians, welfare defenders, or pacifists.  Far from it!  But the consequentialist/deontologist split does seem to have some practical implications, in that the latter philosophy is what motivates people to say that the effects of a certain policy or action could never, under any circumstances, override certain absolute obligations.  The pretense of liberal society seems to be that nothing is absolute, and absolutism is dogmatism, but in practice this society rejects this view.

Even in thought experiments, ask someone if they, as a hypothetical surgeon, would kill a healthy patient to distribute their organs to five patients on the brink of death who would be saved by such organs, and they’ll overwhelmingly be repulsed by such a notion.  There are some consequentialist justifications for this view, actually, such as the consideration of the long-term suffering of creating a society in which people fear the prospect of getting killed at the hospital, as well as the concern that the surgeon can’t be certain that the dying patients actually will be saved.  But these are rather weak post hoc rationalizations, it seems, and the justifications people give when they immediately respond to this dilemma are overwhelmingly deontological.  They generally say, in my experience, that there’s something inherently wrong in the act of killing an innocent person, using them as an instrument even for a supposed “greater good.”

I share that intuition, make no mistake.  But that doesn’t mean I trust it completely.  When I actually reflect on this thought experiment, I honestly can’t think of what it would mean for something to be “inherently” wrong, wholly independent of its consequences for actual people’s experiences.  In the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy’s article on deontology, for example, deontology is described as prioritizing the “Right” over the “Good” – indeed, “If an act is not in accord with the Right, it may not be undertaken, no matter the Good that it might produce.”  For the life of me, I just do not see how this could possibly make sense.  What would it mean for something to be worth doing, if not as a means to the Good or a source of the Good in itself?  What even is this “Right”?

I’ve said this before in my first few posts on these matters, but it needs to be said again.  Intuitions are important as far as they go, and the psychological (not to mention social!) damage of violating them is often quite enormous.  If I convince myself through reason that something I once considered acceptable is actually in conflict with my values, then over time intuition can serve as a shortcut of sorts for future moral choices.  Still, the intuition that something is wrong isn’t in itself a reason not to do it, in my estimation.

If there are reasons doctors shouldn’t kill one patient to save five, and there may well be, we should be able to articulate those reasons in terms that go beyond, “That’s just wrong!”  Otherwise, how could we tell a genuinely immoral act from something that is just deemed wrong by the prejudices of the time, but which is actually harmless if not obligatory?  Morality would just be a set of expressions of “boo!” and “yay!”  It’s fine for morality to be reducible to preferences, indeed that’s the only thing it can be reducible to if it is to have any persuasive force of “ought” whatsoever – but I see no reason to think any preferences can be deemed absolutely valuable, with no room for revision or debate.

You could retort that the value I place on happiness and the absence of suffering is just an intuition, too, and you’d have a point there.  If you asked me why I care about happiness (that of myself and that of other sentient beings), I couldn’t exactly tell you, except that that’s the only thing that I can say is valuable without speaking nonsense, according to my own intuitions.  Still, there seems to me a clear difference between (a) the intuition that slavery is the will of God and acceptable, and (b) the intuition that happiness is worth pursuing and suffering is worth avoiding, all else equal.

A friend of mine once posed the question, “What would you consider evidence for a moral theory?”

If accordance with intuition were the only evidence we could find for a moral theory, I’d hesitate to call it a “theory” at all.  Perhaps a useful way of systematizing intuitions, sure – this seems to have been Aristotle’s project in the Nicomachean Ethics.  But it wouldn’t predict anything, now would it?

If not intuition, then what?  I suppose we should expect that a group of people who consistently apply a certain moral theory to their decision-making, and the people affected by their decisions, will report after some time that their lives are better than they were under the same circumstances before they tried out such a theory.  But achieving the “same” circumstances is enormously difficult.  And the rub also lies in “some time.”  When exactly is that time?  It would seem alienating indeed if all of morality demanded that we sacrifice every modicum of joy from the next 1,000 years so that everyone who lives after that era will be in indefinite paradise.  But clearly we live with some respect for delayed gratification, denying ourselves certain foods to preserve the health of our future selves, saving money for retirement, and such.  At what point could you be reasonably confident that the moral theory is “working”?

I don’t think those are impossible questions to answer, and as I’ve suggested in earlier posts, this “making lives better” litmus test (as glib as it may be) is I think the right starting point.  If that’s the case, perhaps ethics is nothing more or less than a systematic way of figuring out which types of actions promote or thwart that end, and in what ways they do so.  One might well ask whether that even merits the name “ethics,” as opposed to just “prudence,” “wisdom,” or “practical reason.”  If that’s the case, so be it.  Leave categorical imperatives for the birds.

There’s more to discuss, but I want to end this post with a request for your thoughts.  A while back, I made a survey on ethics.  Please take it!  For science!


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