My colleague Ian Pollock last week registered an interesting essay on Rationally Speaking (where I blog occasionally) on Daniel Kahneman’s new book, Thinking, Fast and Slow. In the book, Kahneman — who won the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences in 2002 — differentiates between two different types of thinking:
…. between a here-and-now preferrer — the experiencing self — that wants this pleasure to continue and this pain to cease, and a storyteller — the remembering self — that looks at an experience as a whole and evaluates its worth, with special attention paid to the beginning, climax and ending.
What Pollock then procedes to do is explore the implications of these two different thought processes, these two selves, for moral decision making:
One of the areas that it seems worth applying to is ethical philosophy; specifically the contrast between virtue ethical and consequentialist strains of thought.
For virtue ethics, the point of morality is to help you to be a better, happier person. Here, happiness is emphatically not understood in the popular modern way as a mere persistent good mood. On the contrary, happiness (or eudaimonia) involves living an ethically good life, with close ties to friends and family, and strong community involvement. A lifetime of good deeds and fine company could be undone by your child’s turning out to be a villain, even if it were not your fault — hence, Solon says “call no man happy until he is dead.”
Meanwhile, consequentialism (particularly its subspecies, utilitarianism) seeks to maximize welfare or utility across all beings. In utilitarianism this gets defined as the balance of pleasure over pain, or some such concept. The definition of utility is always vexatious, but needn’t concern us overmuch here — the point is that almost all plausible consequentialist theories care quite a lot about moment-to-moment mental states like pleasure and pain.
I suspect you may be able to see where I am going with this. Virtue ethics is speaking directly and pretty much exclusively to the remembering self, while utilitarianism is much more friendly to the experiencing self. Is this a defect in one, or in both of these theories?
Keep reading here.
By Michael De Dora
I have never thought much of consequentialism, the moral theory which asserts that determining “the good” or “the moral” is a matter of measuring outcomes. Decisions about what is moral, consequentialists say, should depend on the potential or realized costs and benefits of a moral belief or action. There are myriad problems with this line of thought, and while I have already discussed several on this blog, I would like to use this post to examine in more depth what I think are the four strongest objections to consequentialism.
First, consequentialism says nothing about the substance of one’s ethic. While most consequentialists are utilitarians — a position I also consider vague and tenuous — one obviously needs only value consequences to qualify as a consequentialist. Yet, since everyone has different moral goals, everyone will have different views about potential outcomes. For reasons discussed below, consequentialism does not help us decide which are better or worse. Rather, one’s moral values come prior to consequential calculation, and help determine what one thinks about the consequences.
Second, consequences are often not at all predictable or in line with the actions that caused them. For example, does the fact that certain Muslims riot over the printing of anti-religious cartoons suggest that printing said cartoons is immoral or wrong in some other way? Not in the slightest. It only suggests people have some twisted ideas regarding free expression. Or, consider an exchange I witnessed at a recent Intelligence Squared debate. At the event, two sides of two speakers each debated the motion “The U.N. should admit Palestine as a full member state.” The side taking position against the motion argued that the audience ought to stand with them because of the potential military situation — probably started by Israel — that could be brought on as a result of the U.N.’s recognition of Palestine. Unfortunately, there was no discussion about whether such military action itself would be reasonable.
This gets at a third problem with consequentialism: it often ignores foundational questions of right and wrong for questions of expediency. Or, it ignores concerns about intent for pragmatic concerns. The question of whether a war might start due to the U.N. admitting Palestine as a full member state is an important and interesting one, but it does not answer the distinct question of whether it is right to admit Palestine to the U.N. as a full member state. Those are two different questions that must be considered separately.
Lastly, consequences must be weighed alongside other factors and possibilities. Let us examine a recent exchange on this blog. It occurred in the comments to the recent post, “Massimo’s Picks, special Hitchens edition.”
In the comment thread, Massimo wrote about his skepticism toward the effectiveness of New Atheists like Christopher Hitchens to better the public acceptance of atheism. I replied that:
“Hitchens might not have been the person best fit to sway the majority to our side, but he was part of a movement (the so-called “new atheists”) that I think did do two things to help us get to the point where that’s even feasible. First, their out-front writings and speaking engagements put atheism on the forefront of the Western world’s consciousness, and created the space for more widespread conversations on religion (like this one!) that were not happening here beforehand. Second, their public work encouraged many apathetic secularists and fence sitters to be more assertive and engage with the problem of religious dogmatism. I think both of these were productive first steps toward getting a majority to embrace secular thinking. And I think these two points can be accepted whether or not you agree with their arguments, or how they stated their arguments.”
“… for an allegedly evidence-driven community I hear a lot of claims about all the good that the New Atheists have done, with precious little backing up in terms of data. Are we seriously arguing that atheism wasn’t widely discussed before the Hitchens-Dawkins-Harris-Dennett books? And on what evidential grounds are you asserting that more fence sitters have been drawn inside the movement rather than repelled by the NA’s rhetoric?”
I replied by asking Massimo: “certainly atheism was being discussed long before the arrival of the New Atheists, but on such a widespread and popular scale? The NA all had best-selling books, major TV and magazine appearances, and auditoriums packed with sometimes thousands of people.” His reply: “Nobody doubts that the NA have had an impact. The question is whether it was an overall positive one.”
Massimo’s legitimate empirical question aside (any takers?), I think his last comment is most relevant to our discussion on consequentialism. Whether or not the New Atheists were effective in broadening public acceptance of secular thinking, Massimo raises the following questions: Were the New Atheists necessary to raise such recognition? Couldn’t atheism have been put on the map in some other form or fashion? Indeed, hadn’t atheists previously in human history tried other effective methods? If not, why?
The point here is that there are certainly other possibilities for fostering the kind of space atheists wanted, or an even better space. None of those possibilities were enacted, so we should be thankful for where we are right now. But that does not make what happened desirable.
Regardless, consequentialists could reply that ignoring what may be terrible consequences is unethical. Would they have a point? Consider this common thought experiment: you are a German hiding a Jewish family during World War II, and Nazi guards are at your door asking if you have seen any Jewish people lately. Do you lie to potentially save their lives? Or do you tell the truth and essentially kill the Jewish family? The point here is not that there is an easy answer between lying and not lying. The point is that the consequences — a dead family — are so compelling that they warrant consideration. And this is just one of numerous examples.
What are the implications of all this? That consequences are important, you might conclude? Not necessarily. Instead, I think we have realized only that we have a range of different values, some of which are or can be in tension among themselves. For example, in the case we just considered, we might be stuck between, on one hand, the value of honesty, and on the other, the value of human lives.
As such, perhaps consequentialism should not be looked at as an ethical system in itself — again, it is bare of ethical content — but as a way to figure out if our different ethical systems — based on duties, obligations, virtues, rights, etc. — are working properly or as intended. In other words, consequentialism might help us to see if we are securing the kind of consequences we want. And if we aren’t, it’s time to adjust our aim and try for better consequences.
The idea I would like to propose is that while each ethical system discussed so far has its shortcomings, we can assemble a mature moral outlook by piecing together parts of each of the different systems put forth by philosophers over the centuries.
My colleague at Rationally Speaking, Ian Pollock, has now entered his own attempt at a pluralist ethic: “the ugly theory that could.” Pollock’s article is much longer than mine, though that provides him more room to flesh out his theory. More importantly, however, we agree on his main point:
… in order to actually make your way in this world as an agent who is sincerely attempting to do the right thing, you’re going to have to use the vocabulary and concepts of consequentialism, deontology and virtue ethics, or your understanding will be impoverished.
You can read the full post here.
By Michael De Dora
The history of Western moral philosophy includes numerous attempts to ground ethics in one rational principle, standard, or rule. This narrative stretches back 2,500 years to the Greeks, who were interested mainly in virtue ethics and the moral character of the person. The modern era has seen two major additions. In 1785, Immanuel Kant introduced the categorical imperative: act only under the assumption that what you do could be made into a universal law. And in 1789, Jeremy Bentham proposed utilitarianism: work toward the greatest happiness of the greatest number of people (the “utility” principle).
These attempts, while worthy, have failed, if only because moral philosophers have tough standards — and for good reason. Each proposal has been fully deconstructed, and shown to have flaws. Many people now think projects to build a reasonable and coherent moral system are doomed. Still, most secular and religious people reject the alternative of moral relativism, and have spent much ink criticizing it (among my favorite books on the topic is Moral Relativism by Stephen Lukes). The most recent and controversial work in this area comes from Sam Harris. In The Moral Landscape, Harris argues for a morality based on (a science of) well-being and flourishing, rather than religious dogma.
Harris’ book has drawn much criticism, most of it focused on his claim that science can determine human values. I do not wish to consider that here. Instead, I am interested in another oft-heard criticism of Harris’ book, which is that words like “well-being” and “flourishing” are too general to form any relevant basis for morality. This criticism has some force to it, as these certainly are somewhat vague terms. But what if “well-being” and “flourishing” were to be used only as a starting point for a moral framework? These concepts would still put us on a better grounding than religious faith. But they cannot stand alone. Nor do they need to.
The idea I would like to propose is that while each ethical system discussed so far has its shortcomings, we can assemble a mature moral outlook by piecing together parts of each of the different systems put forth by philosophers over the centuries (plus some biology, but that’s Massimo’s area). The following is a rough sketch of what I think a decent pluralist approach to ethics might look like.
The most basic claim is the one made by modern utilitarians and virtue ethicists: that morality ought to function to increase the well-being (the state of being happy, healthy, or prosperous) and flourishing (to grow, to thrive) of conscious creatures and societies. Of course, this is open to some interpretation. What does well-being mean? What does it entail? Who gets what? In its purest form, you might say, it is still the mob rule of early utilitarian writing. But what if we fleshed out the framework with a couple of additional moral concepts? I would propose at least these three:
1. The harm principle bases our ethical considerations on other beings’ capacity for higher-level subjective experience. Human beings (and some animals) have the potential — and desire — to experience deep pleasure and happiness while seeking to avoid pain and suffering. We have the obligation, then, to afford creatures with these capacities, desires and relations a certain level of respect. They also have other emotional and social interests: for instance, friends and families concerned with their health and enjoyment. These actors also deserve consideration.
2. If we have a moral obligation to act a certain way toward someone, that is often reflected in law. Rights theory is the idea that there are certain rights worth granting to people with very few, if any, caveats. Many of these rights were spelled out in the founding documents of this country, the Declaration of Independence (which admittedly has no legal pull) and the Constitution (which does). They have been defended in a long history of U.S. Supreme Court rulings. They have also been expanded on in the U.N.’s 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights and in the founding documents of other countries around the world. To name a few, they include: freedom of belief, speech and expression, due process, equal treatment, health care, and education.
3. While we ought to consider our broader moral efforts, and focus on our obligations to others, it is also important to place attention on our quality as moral agents. A vital part of fostering a respectable pluralist moral framework is to encourage virtues, and cultivate moral character. A short list of these virtues would include prudence, justice, wisdom, honesty, compassion, and courage. One should study these, and strive to put these into practice and work to be a better human being, as Aristotle advised us to do.
As you have likely noticed, this pluralist approach does not include all moral theories (I mean, did you really expect me to bring up divine command theory?) The most notable omission is consequentialism, as far as it is distinct from utilitarianism. I’ve previously written about that here. As it relates to this essay: I think we should indeed try to imagine, and then achieve, the sort of outcomes we want. But consequences often do not match one’s original intent, as many factors are out of our control. Furthermore, our judgment of which consequences are desirable largely depends on our prior conceptions of harm, rights and virtue.
Still, some say that irreconcilable tensions can arise between the different conceptions of ethics, which may mean that ethical pluralism is doomed. At least two examples are discussed in chapter 8 of Michael Sandel’s Justice, as they relate to the relationship between justice and law (an unavoidable issue when it comes to ethics).
The first example highlights a potential tension between the utilitarian and virtue views. Aristotle believed that law was meant to inculcate moral virtue and make good citizens. What then about well-being? Aren’t these two different approaches to ethics? Not exactly. Law can be about instilling moral worth as a necessary step toward increasing our well-being, the overarching function of morality. The second example pits virtue ethics against rights theory. Aristotle believed the purpose of law was more to form an upstanding populace, and less to create rules and rights. But it goes both ways: forming good citizens with upstanding character requires a certain level of protection of rights; and cultivating virtue is a good way to make sure we support the correct rights.
A third potential tension has been mentioned in criticisms of Harris’ book. It is between utility and rights theory. Imagine if scientific data proved that slavery leads to greater societal flourishing. Would slavery then be moral? No. The point of a pluralist approach is that you do not rely on a single universal rule. Slavery might increase the collective well-being, but it would do so by limiting an essential right. And you don’t take away peoples’ rights just because the majority would be happier that way.
Indeed, each aspect of a pluralist ethical approach is intricately tied to other aspects. The way to increase well-being and flourishing is to feel obligated to accord conscious beings a certain level of respect and rights, to not cause harm to them without very good reason, and to actively work toward building moral character so that these promises are fulfilled.
I think most people already are ethical pluralists. Life and society are complex to navigate, and one cannot rely on a single idea for guidance. It is probably accurate to say that people lean more toward one theory, rather than practice it to the exclusion of all others. Of course, this only describes the fact that people think about morality in a pluralistic way. But the outlined approach is supported, sound reasoning — that is, unless you are ready to entirely dismiss 2,500 years of Western moral philosophy.
Note: this essay was first published on the blog Rationally Speaking in May 2011. In the coming months, I will be republishing many of my articles that previously appeared elsewhere in an effort to house more of my work here.
Philosopher (and friend) Massimo Pigliucci has now published the second in a series of essays on the foundations of ethics over at his blog, Rationally Speaking. The first article proposed a meta-ethics found between objective and relativist approaches. The second article explores the ethical theory consequentialism. Spoiler: Pigliucci doesn’t find it very compelling. He concludes:
[T]he reflections I forced myself into while writing this confirm my overall impression of utilitarianism: it is an initially appealing idea that is likely to die the death of a thousand small ethical cuts. This certainly doesn’t mean that consequences shouldn’t enter into moral discourse, but it does mean that I do not see an exclusive focus on consequences as viable to construct an entire ethical theory.