Saturday, March 10, 2012

A Short Disgression on Moral Epistemology

I have written a lot on many past blogs about the topic of morality. I have affirmed that morality certainly does not come from god, and that I consider divine command theories concerning ethics to be morality repulsive. My favorite argument against this is the Euthyphro Dilemma, and I rest my moral semantics of the second horn of the Euthyphro, that there is an external set of moral standards objective to all of us, including god, if he exists. But I want to explain further, where I get my moral epistemology, or how I acquire my moral understanding. Here I am concerned with ethics and how I decide what is moral and what is not.

There are 3 major branches of ethical philosophy: consequentialism, deontology, and virtue ethics. Consequentialism evaluates morality based on its consequences. Deontology emphasizes the act itself regardless of the consequences, based on duties, rules and obligations. Emmanuel Kant is considered one of the most widely known deontologists. Virtue ethics on the other hand, puts emphasis on one's inner character on having desirable characteristics. Their actions would therefore not be moral or immoral based on their consequences or intentions. Aristotle was one of the more famous virtue ethicists. Finally, there is a forth branch, utilitarianism, which borrows somewhat from consequentialism. Utilitarianism determines what is moral by whether it produces the greatest possible good for the greatest possible number.

A divine command theorist would probably lay in the school of deontology because it says that there are moral absolutes and duties that one must adhere to regardless of the outcome. So if god says lying is wrong, then it is always wrong even it it will save human lives. After schooling myself in ethical philosophy, not to the level or professionality, but to a level of post-novice understanding, I have arrived closer at my ethical philosophy. Considering how all these branches of ethics contradict each other, no one school of thought is perfect. One must in some way, pick and choose from more than one in order to have a well rounded ethical philosophy. And so it is here that I have arrived closer to where I take my moral epistemology.

I am largely a consequentialist when it comes to ethics. Now I am well aware of the criticisms of consequentialism and I agreed that it has its flaws, but that is the great thing about philosophy-it's not dogma. One is free to pick and choose bits and pieces from each branch as long as they do not heavily contradict each other. With my philosophy I combine a little consequentialism with a little deontology and a little ethical egoism, and perhaps some utilitarianism. Virtue ethics I am not too concerned with, because one's desirable characteristics, in certain societies, can have negative consequences for those in it.

I believe we all consider the consequences of our actions when determining what is ethical to a degree. Torturing and killing people for fun for example, is considered wrong on a near-universal spectrum because of the needless human suffering involved. In other words, it is wrong because it has negative consequences to sentient beings. Kindness and compassion are good actions because they help others in need, and we are all in need of help at times in our lives. Consequentialism's main flaw is that is does not consider the intentions behind the action. One can intend to do good and have negative outcome, or intend to do harm and it could result in positive consequences. A careful balance between the intentions behind and consequences of one's actions, is needed in my view, for a sound moral framework.

But back to consequentialist ethics, we cannot always know the consequences of our actions immediately, and somethings that have negative consequences at first have good consequences in the long run. And somethings that have negative consequences for some, have good consequences for others. The questions then arises: consequences for who? This is where consequentialists must tread carefully. When faced with an innumerable palate of ethical dilemmas, we must often make difficult decisions. One must sometimes be faced with choosing the lesser of two evils. When we do know the true outcome of the consequences of our actions we must make it based on the best possible knowledge one has at the time. They may be wrong, but at least an informed decision should be made. When it comes to long term versus short term gain, the balance must be considered by how harmful the short term suffering would be for the long term gain. So, if we are faced with the prospects of bliss for a majority of us 5 years from now, but the price will be that until then a minority of us must suffer dire consequences, and even give their lives we must use logic and reason to deduce whether it is worth it. A well rounded ethical position should always image one as the sufferer, the one "sacrificed" for the greater good of humanity. Utilitarianism comes to play in such a dilemma. For the greatest amount of good for the greatest number of people should weigh in if one must choose between several bad prospects.

This brings up the famous trolley experiment: You are at a rail crossing and you see a trolley speeding out of control. On one track there are 5 people, on the other track there is only one. The trolley is speeding on the track with 5 people on it. You stand near a rail switch that can divert the out-of-control trolley to the track with only one person, killing him, but sparing the other 5. Do you pull the switch? Utilitarians and consequentialists say yes, because 5 being killed is worse than 1 being killed. I've thought about this experiment and I am not sure what I would really do in that situation, but I think I would not pull the switch, despite being a consequentialist. I'd probably feel a lot better with myself if my hands were not responsible for anyone's death. This might be from my slight deontological streak. I also would consider the people on the tracks if possible. What if the 5 were escaped convicted murderers from prison, and the one was Barack Obama? Wouldn't then we consider the life of one more important than the many? What if the one on the track was someone you love deeply, wouldn't their life be worth more than the other 5 or 10 people on the track or however that many? An infinite number of monkey wrenches can be thrown into ethical dilemmas to challenge our perceived ethical notions. In the trolley scenario however, you know nothing of the people's lives and characteristics and have mere seconds to decide whether to pull the switch or not. Given such an opaque perspective, I stand by my decision to no pull the lever.

So with moral growth and understanding I feel I have a very good head on my shoulders on the virtue and semantics of ethics. I love probably more than anything else, to debate morality with people because it is such a fascinating and personal topic, as we are all affected by it. It makes for one heck of a good intellectual conversation. "An intellectual conversation, is the only conversation worth having", as I like to joke around. And, as the great Greek Philosopher extraordinaire Socrates said "the unconsidered life, is not worth living". Continue the conversation when I'm long gone.

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