Saturday, June 28, 2008

Serious Confusion

So apparently I'm not the first one to come up with "jelly theory". In 1845, Sir George G. Stokes coined the term when he was trying to make sense of the dual nature of the ether: was it a perfect fluid or a perfect jelly? I'm no scientist, but I like what Stokes' "jelly-theory of the ether" stands for. Logical contradiction. Debate. Confusion to the max. In the spirit of the ether debate, my first blog post goes to a topic that has seriously confused me for a long, long time. Moral philosophy. This post is also dedicated to my favorite budding philosopher Kevin Kambo, who is likely the sole reader of my young blog.

Moral philosophy attempts to answer the rather weighty question of what is morally good, specifically what kinds of actions carry moral worth? Let's say you're walking along, and you see a woman giving money to a homeless person. On the surface this act seems to have moral value, but how can we be sure if we are excluded from the woman's inner thoughts? What of motives? Suppose the woman gives because it makes her feel like a better person. Is she serving her selfish interests, or is the pleasure she gets from giving a mere byproduct of serving the homeless person? Does it even matter in the end? Some thoughts on a couple theories out there...

Bentham, the father of utilitarianism, argued that the moral life is one fat utility calculation. The highest goal in life is to maximize pleasure and minimize pain. Thus, an action is said to have moral worth when it maximizes pleasure. For an individual, we're talking about the maximization of pleasure across time; for a society, it's about the maximization of pleasure across individuals. If Bentham is right, then a lot of people are out of luck. Suppose there's a hypothetical situation in which person x must kill person y in order to save the entire world. According to Bentham, the answer is easy. Just look at the cost benefit analysis! He would argue that person x should kill person y, and that this act would have moral worth because aggregate utility is being achieved. And yet we're talking outright murder. Justice seems to be missing from Bentham's calculation.

Then there's Kant, who believes that a moral action is one that comes purely from the motive of duty. People are governed by both desire and duty, and only when duty wins the inner struggle can an action be seen as moral. For example, a person who is unbearably miserable wishes to end his life, but instead preserves it out of the duty that he ought to respect his life. Kant would applaud this man. When it's all said and done, morality is about following one's duty. But duty is too forced in my opinion. Moral living shouldn't be that hard, should it?

Aristotle, Hume, Mill, Hobbes, Rand (more modern), etc. The list of moral philosophers who have shaped the debate on morality goes on and on. I almost never understand what these philosophers are trying to say, but in those light bulb moments in between, I'm so into them...albeit seriously confused.