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.

10 comments:

k3vin k! said...

Yeah, confusion is certainly the state of moral philosophy today. The problem is that, unlike the physical sciences, you cannot do empirical experiments of philosophical ideas .... The right thing to do, I believe, is to read good books. I would start with this address by Benedict XVI at Regensburg which explains a lot of the problems with philosophy and religion today and this delightful essay, The Abolition of Man, by C.S. Lewis which covers a lot of the problems with moral philosophy specifically. Though I hope I am not the only reader, I am happy to see that I am the first! Good job!!

-k-

Michael said...

LOL your question about the old woman giving money reminds me of "Friends" when Phoebe and Joey get in an argument because Joey thinks there's no such thing as a selfless act. Can you say that she is maximizing her utility by reducing the guilt she feels? Maybe on some level she is, but then to what extreme can you take that argument? Would Bentham argue that all selfless acts by an individual are a matter of personal utility? Shouldn't some credit be given to individuals who find happiness in giving, whether it's through guilt or genuine concern? Maybe I'm totally misunderstanding Bentham's argument, and he's talking about morality on a societal level. I agree with you that Bentham's theory is missing some humanism, because the "kill y to save z" can be used to justify many immoral acts, from eugenics/genocide to totalitarianism.

And regarding Kant... who or what defines duty? Is all duty--Confucian, Christian, Western, for me--equal?

wakka? said...

I never liked Kant, always thought he was too stuffy, but a worthwhile viewpoint. I would have to say that Kant sometimes is better, but other times not...and even then that's contingent on one's personal beliefs.

Jelly said...

Perhaps Kevin can provide a better explanation, but I'll give it a try. Kant's definition of duty is very specific: a duty is an action that is done out of respect for the moral law, which requires that an action be...
1. universalizable: we could potentially expect everyone to do it
2. respectful in that we treat the people involved as ends and not means to achieve our own selfish goals
3. understanding of a person's autonomy and freedom to make his/her own choices as a rational decision maker

k3vin k! said...

Hello! And happy new year!

To understand Kant, it helps to be able to situate him in the historical development/unravelling of moral philosophy.

Prior to Kant, the dominant ethics in the West was naturally enough Christian moral philosophy which is/was in the classical tradition of Aristotle and Aquinas. In this philosophy there are three facts that must be considered before doing any moral philosophy. The first is that there is a God, second that God created everything in an ordered manner for a specific end. This is to say that there is an order to Nature, especially human nature. Third that there is therefore a Natural Law knowable to man according to which he may order his actions towards the end or goal of happiness, which is what he lives for. In such a framework there are such things as intrinsically evil acts (such as murder) because they do not conform to the Natural Law (i.e. respect for the dignity of man). Reason therefore judges human acts according to the criteria of the natural law and the nature of things.

With Kant, we lose all three - God, Nature and therefore the Natural Law - since he wishes to base his ethics solely on reason. Whereas before reason judged acts according to extra-mental criteria, now reason becomes both judge and standard. Of course without Nature then reason itself becomes merely formal - i.e. logical - and not concerned with knowing things like the nature of the world. It follows then that there are no longer any intrinsically evil acts. The Moral Law then becomes purely logical (the Categorical Imperative) - what is commanded is not to be contradictory, and the rightness or goodness of an act depends on whether the maxim can be universalized.

As Jelly said, then, the maxim should be universalizable- applicable to all - for it to be good, after it passes the Categorical Imperative. Reason is king and hence the eminence of rational autonomy. And so rational agents, i.e. people, need to be respected as ends and not as means.

The problem with Kant is that his is a system developed from within a Christian culture and meant to achieve a Christian ethics without Christian revelation. In a pluralistic society such as ours, with people starting with such disparate assumptions, a lot more things can be rationalized and universalized than Kant imagined or could have foreseen. The reason, again, is that his does not have a concept of intrinsically good or evil actions. For him the goodness of the act depends on the goodness of the reasons, whereas common sense morality and the Natural Law tradition affirm that there are some things that one many never do regardless of the reasons.

Anyway, that is my two cents. Hopefully it helped. -k-

Jelly said...

Good point. Kant could not foresee our modern pluralistic world and the layers of complexity it would add to his moral ethics. I wonder how much of what we now call Kantian ethics is his, and how much has been added by philosophers and readers over the years. Like, here I am blogging about him...;)

Michael said...

*whoosh* This discussion has gone way over my head...

Pulmonary embolism, anyone?

Nick L. said...

k hits on some salient gaps in kant's thinking, and there are even more issues with his emphasis on rational, autonomous beings and his conception of civil society -- specifically the racial logic that undergirds his whole project. a new book by a theologian named j. kameron carter titled "race: a theological account" teases this out, but a couple of bloggers have distilled the main points:

http://mbway.blogspot.com/2008/11/carters-race-5.html

http://blog.beliefnet.com/jesuscreed/2008/10/loosening-the-grip-5.html

Jessica Lee (Jelly) said...

It's been awhile, Nick! I'm glad you found my blog and shared the blog links. I'll read them over and respond in more detail soon...

Jessica Lee (Jelly) said...

"Thus believing that race is a natural and inherent and permanent feature of humanity, he singles out one race, a kind of super race, as the one destined to fulfill human destiny." - Broadway

Wow.

Nick, I never knew about the racist elements of Kant's moral theory -- though, somehow I'm not surprised. I read over the two blog posts, thanks for sharing them here. Reminds me of how little I know about moral thinkers; hence, serious confusion...