Monday, November 10, 2008

Good against Evil

Here's a big steaming pile of lies: good against evil, namely in the sense of black and white (the Bible and the ten commandments come to mind.) The mere fact that the philosophy of ethics hasn't been able to come to a solid conclusion of some sort of metaphysical, universal laws of ethics should be a starting point for today's inquiry. What I'm not saying is that good doesn't exist. I most certainly will admit that there is plenty of good in the world and of course some evil, but to say that we can plug in the variables of each moral situation and conclude an actions moral standing seems ridiculous to me.

Black and White
To start, we have divine law. In this case we are specifically speaking of the Bible because it is possible for other religions to preach what I am about to argue for. Many fundamentalists like to claim that the Bible is the inerrant word of God, so the teachings within it are, of course, inerrant. If something is inerrant, then whatever contradicts it must be errant. And from this, we get the black and white picture of the moral universe. If an action contradicts a teaching, it's immoral.

But this seems ridiculous. Take for example, the commandment to not kill. This sounds good at first and, to be honest, should generally be followed, but there are clearly cases where killing may be necessary. Suppose there is an axe-murderer wreaking havoc amongst your neighbors' homes. When she arrives at your house, you have a choice: kill her or let her continue to murder. The clear choice is to violate the divine command of not killing. The justification is that you acted for the 'greater good' (I hate that term.) If your action may bring about greater good, then obviously this action is better than any other possible action. If that is the case, then you should most definitely choose that action.

Simple, right? This isn't anything groundbreaking. Clearly, divine law has some problems with our very most basic intuitions. We don't have good reason to believe it anymore. There is another view which holds the world in black and white: Kantian ethics!

Specifically, Kant's 'categorical imperative', which was basically a rule which was to be followed at all times. He had three formulations of it and he thought them all to be the same, but it is generally accepted that each formulation is actually quite different. We'll deal with the first two.

"Always act in such a way that you could will your maxim to be universal law."
Let's clear some terms up with the first form. Actually, just one: maxim. A good way to describe maxim would be to call it motive. Maxim is motive for our purposes. Kant said that the only way to truly consider an action moral is if the maxim for a certain action was done from duty. This gets rid of the possibility that an action may be done in accordance with morality (ie, you save your arch enemy from falling off of a cliff, but only from the motivation of reward.) A truly moral action would be one where you save your enemy, but only because you have a duty to save him. With this cleared up, we can elaborate on this formulation.

This formulation says that your actions should reflect how you think the world ought to be. If you think that no one ought to ever lie, then you should never lie because in this way you can will your maxim to be universal law. Kant was a deontologist, so he thought that there was a rule to being moral. However, it's quite obvious that Kant's first formulation has run into some trouble. Who is to decide which wills are moral? Our different intuitions cause a snag. In other words, I may think it's ok to sometimes lie, while you may think no one ever ought to lie. So, we hold different intuitions about who's maxim shoud be willed as universal law... But who is to say which is right? This makes the first formulation subjective.

"Act in such a way that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any other, always at the same time as an end and never merely as a means to an end."
A very simplistic way to restate this is to say that you should never use someone as a mere means to an end. So, never lie to someone in order to better yourself for example. However, the emphasis here is on 'mere means'.

Here's the classic thought experiment: you are standing over a railroad track. There are five people tied on the tracks and a train is coming! You have the option to save them by pushing the fat man next to you off the track, stopping the train right in its tracks (literally!) People tend to be divided on the issue. A consequentialist would say push the fat man and save five lives. A Kantian scholar would say pushing him would be using him as a mere means.

Here's the problem with the Kantian answer - this isn't using him as a mere means. You can say we're ignoring the fat man's will, but what of the will of the five peope? Are we to ignore theirs instead? How is that any better? Clearly, pushing the man here is using him as more than a mere mean. And this poses a question: Where is the line between mere and important drawn? Is this left to the intuition? If so, whose? And we run into the same problem, it becomes subjective.

So, black and white, just don't seem right.

All Good Things are Grey
I mentioned this before in the post - acting for the greater good, the basic idea of utilitarianism. This theory says an action is moral if the consequences are favorable. And of course, an action which promotes the greatest amount of good (such as furthest away from pain as possible and the greatest amount of happiness,) such an action would be best.

Now this would be great if we had formulas and such to calculate which actions would promote the most good, but we don't. In fact, it's hard to tell the consequences of many actions beyond a few simple causal events. So are we to say an action is only to be moral if the predictable steps promote the most good, compared to other actions? Well this runs into problems - drilling for oil on the American coast may lower gas prices somewhat, and that's fine. But, in the long run, it may damage our enviroment and exacerbate global warming. So it seems the more moral actions aren't always evident at first. Again, this is leading the theory to become subjective.

In example, what if good is defined differently by people. Even supplying Mill's definition of good as 'the furthest away from pain as possible...' leaves subjectivity.

Also, utilitarianism leaves something out - the truth. What is more important, truth or the good? Religious extremists would have the entire world follow their religion, and this may be a good thing. If such a case were to occur, then clearly the world would be a more peaceful place. But most, if not all, religions laugh in the face of scientific discovery (unless you pull some serious strings.) So we have a situation which places no value on the truth, but has promoted a vast amount of good across all of humanity. I don't know about you, but my bullshit meter just went off the charts.

Perhaps, utilitarianism should place value on truth next to pleasure and happiness, but as for now, that is not the case.

Clearly though, the world of ethics is far from black and white, and it seems almost anything may be justified in some way. Of course, some actions still remain vile and evil. Unfortunately, we live in a world where many feel as if good is on their side (the citizen who feels God protects their country, for example.) And this view may be dangerous. If someone believes good is on their side, then they are less likely to question their own position. This may lead to grudges, fights, hatred, and wars (ie, the clash of religions throughout history.) A world in which every person displayed greater humbleness with their views, and were more open to consider new ideas, would certainly be a safer world indeed.

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