Wednesday, July 18, 2012

On Evolving Phlilosophy and Ideas

Looking back at my earlier posts is sometimes revealing in how I thought at that time. I have certainly changed my opinion on quite a few things. My blog has become an insightful reflection on my philosophical evolution. For example, I had previously written that when it comes to ethical epistemology, I'm a consequentialist. While I haven't exactly did an about-face, I now lean more towards utilitarianism but I acknowledge the virtue of deontology. Utilitarianism largely considers the consequences for determining what is moral and immoral. Utilitarianism can be summed up in its most basic teaching, that what is moral is "the greatest amount of good, for the greatest amount of people".


Though this is not a huge moral transition, I do accept the criticisms of utilitarianism that have been pointed out over the years, largely by deontologists. I understand that no one philosophy covers ethical dilemmas perfectly as they all have their flaws. Consider the following thought experiment: 10 people were kidnapped and are being held for ransom at some undisclosed location and you have just captured their kidnapper. He knows he is already going to jail and refuses to identify where he is hiding the people for fear that in doing so he will lose all hope of escaping criminal prosecution. The10 people will die of thirst in a few days if they are not found. Would it be ethical to torture the kidnapper so that he gives up the location of the 10 people? The utilitarian says yes: one suffers, and 10 lives are saved, we have successfully maximize the greater good. 


Now imagine that the kidnapper under the threat of torture isn't at all phased and doesn't give up the information, but, you discover a bargaining chip. He has a young child of his own and you threaten to torture her. This makes the kidnapper unnerved, and realizing the kidnapper's susceptibility to his daughter's livelihood, you must ask yourself if it would be ethical to torture an innocent child to save the lives of 10 people? Based on utilitarian principle alone, the answer is yes. One gets tortured to save the lives of 10. In mathematical terms, the lives of the 10 kidnapped people, are of greater value that the single child's. But this is where utilitarianism opens up some scary possibilities. When thinking about this moral dilemma, I try and imagine how differently I would consider the situation if I were the child. Why should my well being be used as a means to someone else's end, especially when I had nothing to do with the events? Is it ever ethical to use human beings as a means to an end, or are all human beings ends in and of themselves? Deontological ethics of the Kant variety would say the latter, and that it would never be right to torture the child no matter how many lives could potentially be saved. The utilitarian takes the former, in that the moral thing to do would be whatever it takes to save the larger number of lives, even if it means torturing a child.


These two classically opposed ethical schools of thought, have no easy reconciliation. I say I lean more towards utilitarianism in most situations but by no means is it a dogmatic practice. The toolbox approach is best when tacking every kind of ethical problem. I think that in this situation I have described above, I would lean more towards the deontologist rather than side with the utilitarian. There is something about the sanctity of life that I  feel is inviolable. I am torn across the belief that we should never think it is OK to kill a human being, to save the many, at the very least, in theory. I know that would violate the very heart of utilitarianism's ethics, and I am kind of stuck in the middle between this most classic of ethical arguments between deontology and utilitarianism.


Rule utilitarianism attempts to strike a compromise between the two and does a decent job. Rule utilitarianism finds the best actions to particular situations based on whether it conforms to the utilitarian principle, but turns them into rules that should always be followed. So lying to save a life is accepted since it results in the greatest good, and this ultimately becomes a rule. But it is only a rule when it results in the greatest good, and so lying never becomes part of any absolute categorical imperative as it does in deontology. Rule utilitarianism ultimately fails at resolving the debate between deontology and utilitarianism because once a rule is in place, it must be followed as a categorical imperative.


So I am left to think about these conundrums and read and learn more about philosophy more, and debate, and evolve. This is unavoidable. This is what it means to be a rational, thinking human being. I hope I can at the very least inspire others, and feed off of them, and bond, and stir the pot of ideas and philosophy.







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