A Philosopher's Blog

Slavery: Consequences & Status

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy by Michael LaBossiere on July 19, 2017

While there is a multitude of moral theories, two of the big dogs of ethics are utilitarianism and deontology. John Stuart Mill presents the paradigm of utilitarian ethics: the morality of an action is dependent on the happiness and unhappiness it creates for the morally relevant beings. Moral status, for this sort of utilitarian, is defined in terms of the being’s capacity to experience happiness and unhappiness. Beings count to the degree they can experience these states. Obviously, a being that could not experience either would not count—except to the degree that what happened to it affected beings that could experience happiness and unhappiness. Of course, even a being that has moral status merely gets included in the utilitarian calculation. As such, all beings are means to the ends—namely maximizing happiness and minimizing unhappiness.

Kant, the paradigm deontologist, rejects the utilitarian approach.  Instead, he contends that ethics is a matter of following the correct moral rules. He also contends that rational beings are ends and are not to be treated merely as means to ends. For Kant, the possible moral statuses of a being are binary: rational beings have status as ends, non-rational beings are mere objects and are thus means. As would be expected, these moral theories present two rather different approaches to the ethics of slavery.

For the classic utilitarian, the ethics of slavery would be assessed in terms of the happiness and unhappiness generated by the activities of slavery. On the face of it, an assessment of slavery would seem to result in the conclusion that slavery is morally wrong. After all, slavery typically involve considerable unhappiness on the part of the enslaved. This unhappiness is not only a matter of the usual abuse and exploitation that a slave suffers, but also the general damage to happiness that would tend to arise from being regarded as property rather than a person. While the slave owners are clearly better off than the slaves, the practice of slavery is often harmful to the happiness of the slave owners. As such, the harms of slavery would seem to make it immoral on utilitarian grounds.

It is important to note that for the utilitarian the immorality of slavery is a contingent matter: if enslaving people creates more unhappiness than happiness, then it is wrong. However, if enslaving people were to create more happiness than unhappiness, then it would be morally acceptable. The obvious reply to this is to argue that slavery, by its very nature, would always create more unhappiness than happiness. As such, while the evil of slavery is contingent, it would always turn out to be wrong.

Another interesting counter is to put the burden of proof on those who would claim that such slavery would be wrong. That is, they would need to show that a happy system of slavery was morally wrong. On the face of it, showing that something that created more good than bad is still bad would be challenging. However, there are numerous intuition arguments that aim to do just that. The usual approach is to present a scenario that generates more happiness than unhappiness, but intuitively seems to be wrong—or at least makes one feel morally queasy about the matter. Ursula K. Le Guin’s classic short story “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas” is often used in this role. There are also other options, such as arguing within the context of another moral theory. For example, a natural rights theory that included a right to liberty could be used to argue that slavery is wrong because it violates rights—even if happened to be a happy slavery.

A utilitarian can also “bite the bullet” and argue that even if such a happy enslavement might seem intuitively wrong to our sensibilities, this is a mere prejudice on our part—most likely fueled by examples the unhappy slaveries that pervade history. While utilitarian moral theory can obviously be applied to the ethics of slavery, it is not the only word on the matter. As such, I now turn to the Kantian approach.

As noted above, Kant divides reality into two distinct classes of beings. Rational beings exist as ends and to use them solely as means would be, for Kant, morally wrong. Non-rational beings, which includes non-human animals, are mere objects. Interestingly, as I have noted in past essays, Kant does argue that animals should be treated well because treating them badly can incline humans to treat other humans badly. This, I have argued elsewhere, gives animals an ersatz moral status.

On the face of it, under Kant’s theory the very nature of slavery would make it immoral. If persons are rational beings (and rational beings are persons) and that slavery treats slaves as objects, then slavery would be wrong. First, it would involve treating a rational being solely as a means. After all, it seems difficult to imagine that enslaving a person is consistent with treating them as an end rather than as a means. Second, it would also seem to involve a willful category error by treating a rational being (which is not an object) as an object. Slavery would thus be fundamentally incoherent because it purports that non-objects are objects.

Since Kantian ethics do not focus on happiness and unhappiness, even a deliriously happy system of slavery would still be wrong for Kant. Kant does, of course, get criticized because his system relegates non-rational beings into the realm of objects, thus lumping together squirrels and stones, apes and asphalt, tapirs and twigs and so on. As such, if non-rational beings could be enslaved, then this would not matter morally (unless doing so impacted rational beings in negative ways). The easy and obvious reply to this concern is to argue that non-rational beings could not be enslaved because slavery is when people are taken to be property and non-rational beings are not people.

It is, of course, possible to have an account of what it is to be a person that extends personhood beyond rational beings. For example, opponents of abortion often contend that the zygote is a person despite its obvious lack of rationality. Fortunately, it would be easy enough to create a modification of Kant’s theory in which what matters is being a person (however defined) rather than being a rational being.

Thus, utilitarian ethical theories leave open the possibility that slavery could be morally acceptable while under a Kantian account slavery would always seem to be morally wrong.

 

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Introduction to Philosophy

Posted in Aesthetics, Epistemology, Ethics, Metaphysics, Philosophy, Reasoning/Logic, Universities & Colleges by Michael LaBossiere on July 17, 2015

The following provides a (mostly) complete Introduction to Philosophy course.

Readings & Notes (PDF)

Class Videos (YouTube)

Part I Introduction

Class #1

Class #2: This is the unedited video for the 5/12/2015 Introduction to Philosophy class. It covers the last branches of philosophy, two common misconceptions about philosophy, and argument basics.

Class #3: This is the unedited video for class three (5/13/2015) of Introduction to Philosophy. It covers analogical argument, argument by example, argument from authority and some historical background for Western philosophy.

Class #4: This is the unedited video for the 5/14/2015 Introduction to Philosophy class. It concludes the background for Socrates, covers the start of the Apology and includes most of the information about the paper.

Class#5: This is the unedited video of the 5/18/2015 Introduction to Philosophy class. It concludes the details of the paper, covers the end of the Apology and begins part II (Philosophy & Religion).

Part II Philosophy & Religion

Class #6: This is the unedited video for the 5/19/2015 Introduction to Philosophy class. It concludes the introduction to Part II (Philosophy & Religion), covers St. Anselm’s Ontological Argument and some of the background for St. Thomas Aquinas.

Class #7: This is the unedited video from the 5/20/2015 Introduction to Philosophy class. It covers Thomas Aquinas’ Five Ways.

Class #8: This is the unedited video for the eighth Introduction to Philosophy class (5/21/2015). It covers the end of Aquinas, Leibniz’ proofs for God’s existence and his replies to the problem of evil, and the introduction to David Hume.

Class #9: This is the unedited video from the ninth Introduction to Philosophy class on 5/26/2015. This class continues the discussion of David Hume’s philosophy of religion, including his work on the problem of evil. The class also covers the first 2/3 of his discussion of the immortality of the soul.

Class #10: This is the unedited video for the 5/27/2015 Introduction to Philosophy class. It concludes Hume’s discussion of immortality, covers Kant’s critiques of the three arguments for God’s existence, explores Pascal’s Wager and starts Part III (Epistemology & Metaphysics). Best of all, I am wearing a purple shirt.

Part III Epistemology & Metaphysics

Class #11: This is the 11th Introduction to Philosophy class (5/28/2015). The course covers Plato’s theory of knowledge, his metaphysics, the Line and the Allegory of the Cave.

Class #12: This is the unedited video for the 12th Introduction to Philosophy class (6/1/2015). This class covers skepticism and the introduction to Descartes.

Class #13: This is the unedited video for the 13th Introduction to Philosophy class (6/2/2015). The class covers Descartes 1st Meditation, Foundationalism and Coherentism as well as the start to the Metaphysics section.

Class #14: This is the unedited video for the fourteenth Introduction to Philosophy class (6/3/2015). It covers the methodology of metaphysics and roughly the first half of Locke’s theory of personal identity.

Class #15: This is the unedited video of the fifteen Introduction to Philosophy class (6/4/2015). The class covers the 2nd half of Locke’s theory of personal identity, Hume’s theory of personal identity, Buddha’s no self doctrine and “Ghosts & Minds.”

Class #16: This is the unedited video for the 16th Introduction to Philosophy class. It covers the problem of universals,  the metaphysics of time travel in “Meeting Yourself” and the start of the metaphysics of Taoism.

Part IV Value

Class #17: This is the unedited video for the seventeenth Introduction to Philosophy class (6/9/2015). It begins part IV and covers the introduction to ethics and the start of utilitarianism.

Class #18: This is the unedited video for the eighteenth Introduction to Philosophy class (6/10/2015). It covers utilitarianism and some standard problems with the theory.

Class #19: This is the unedited video for the 19th Introduction to Philosophy class (6/11/2015). It covers Kant’s categorical imperative.

Class #20: This is the unedited video for the twentieth Introduction to Philosophy class (6/15/2015). This class covers the introduction to aesthetics and Wilde’s “The New Aesthetics.” The class also includes the start of political and social philosophy, with the introduction to liberty and fascism.

Class #21: No video.

Class #22: This is the unedited video for the 22nd Introduction to Philosophy class (6/17/2015). It covers Emma Goldman’s anarchism.

 

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Obligations to People We Don’t Know

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy by Michael LaBossiere on September 10, 2014

One of the classic moral problems is the issue of whether or not we have moral obligations to people we do not know.  If we do have such obligations, then there are also questions about the foundation, nature and extent of these obligations. If we do not have such obligations, then there is the obvious question about why there are no such obligations. I will start by considering some stock arguments regarding our obligations to others.

One approach to the matter of moral obligations to others is to ground them on religion. This requires two main steps. The first is establishing that the religion imposes such obligations. The second is making the transition from the realm of religion to the domain of ethics.

Many religions do impose such obligations on their followers. For example, John 15:12 conveys God’s command: “This is my commandment, That you love one another, as I have loved you.”  If love involves obligations (which it seems to), then this would certainly seem to place us under these obligations.  Other faiths also include injunctions to assist others.

In terms of transitioning from religion to ethics, one easy way is to appeal to divine command theory—the moral theory that what God commands is right because He commands it. This does raise the classic Euthyphro problem: is something good because God commands it, or is it commanded because it is good? If the former, goodness seems arbitrary. If the latter, then morality would be independent of God and divine command theory would be false.

Using religion as the basis for moral obligation is also problematic because doing so would require proving that the religion is correct—this would be no easy task. There is also the practical problem that people differ in their faiths and this would make a universal grounding for moral obligations difficult.

Another approach is to argue for moral obligations by using the moral method of reversing the situation.  This method is based on the Golden Rule (“do unto others as you would have them do unto you”) and the basic idea is that consistency requires that a person treat others as she would wish to be treated.

To make the method work, a person would need to want others to act as if they had obligations to her and this would thus obligate the person to act as if she had obligations to them. For example, if I would want someone to help me if I were struck by a car and bleeding out in the street, then consistency would require that I accept the same obligation on my part. That is, if I accept that I should be helped, then consistency requires that I must accept I should help others.

This approach is somewhat like that taken by Immanuel Kant. He argues that because a person necessarily regards herself as an end (and not just a means to an end), then she must also regard others as ends and not merely as means.  He endeavors to use this to argue in favor of various obligations and duties, such as helping others in need.

There are, unfortunately, at least two counters to this sort of approach. The first is that it is easy enough to imagine a person who is willing to forgo the assistance of others and as such can consistently refuse to accept obligations to others. So, for example, a person might be willing to starve rather than accept assistance from other people. While such people might seem a bit crazy, if they are sincere then they cannot be accused of inconsistency.

The second is that a person can argue that there is a relevant difference between himself and others that would justify their obligations to him while freeing him from obligations to them. For example, a person of a high social or economic class might assert that her status obligates people of lesser classes while freeing her from any obligations to them.  Naturally, the person must provide reasons in support of this alleged relevant difference.

A third approach is to present a utilitarian argument. For a utilitarian, like John Stuart Mill, morality is assessed in terms of consequences: the correct action is the one that creates the greatest utility (typically happiness) for the greatest number. A utilitarian argument for obligations to people we do not know would be rather straightforward. The first step would be to estimate the utility generated by accepting a specific obligation to people we do not know, such as rendering aid to an intoxicated person who is about to become the victim of sexual assault. The second step is to estimate the disutility generated by imposing that specific obligation. The third step is to weigh the utility against the disutility. If the utility is greater, then such an obligation should be imposed. If the disutility is greater, then it should not.

This approach, obviously enough, rests on the acceptance of utilitarianism. There are numerous arguments against this moral theory and these can be employed against attempts to ground obligations on utility. Even for those who accept utilitarianism, there is the open possibility that there will always be greater utility in not imposing obligations, thus undermining the claim that we have obligations to others.

A fourth approach is to consider the matter in terms of rational self-interest and operate from the assumption that people should act in their self-interest. In terms of a moral theory, this would be ethical egoism: the moral theory that a person should act in her self-interest rather than acting in an altruistic manner.

While accepting that others have obligations to me would certainly be in my self-interest, it initially appears that accepting obligations to others would be contrary to my self-interest. That is, I would be best served if others did unto me as I would like to be done unto, but I was free to do unto them as I wished. If I could get away with this sort of thing, it would be ideal (assuming that I am selfish). However, as a matter of fact people tend to notice and respond negatively to a lack of reciprocation. So, if having others accept that they have some obligations to me were in my self-interest, then it would seem that it would be in my self-interest to pay the price for such obligations by accepting obligations to them.

For those who like evolutionary just-so stories in the context of providing foundations for ethics, the tale is easy to tell: those who accept obligations to others would be more successful than those who do not.

The stock counter to the self-interest argument is the problem of Glaucon’s unjust man and Hume’s sensible knave. While it certainly seems rational to accept obligations to others in return for getting them to accept similar obligations, it seems preferable to exploit their acceptance of obligations while avoiding one’s supposed obligations to others whenever possible. Assuming that a person should act in accord with self-interest, then this is what a person should do.

It can be argued that this approach would be self-defeating: if people exploited others without reciprocation, the system of obligations would eventually fall apart. As such, each person has an interest in ensuring that others hold to their obligations. Humans do, in fact, seem to act this way—those who fail in their obligations often get a bad reputation and are distrusted. From a purely practical standpoint, acting as if one has obligations to others would thus seem to be in a person’s self-interest because the benefits would generally outweigh the costs.

The counter to this is that each person still has an interest in avoiding the cost of fulfilling obligations and there are various practical ways to do this by the use of deceit, power and such. As such, a classic moral question arises once again: why act on your alleged obligations if you can get away with not doing so? Aside from the practical reply given above, there seems to be no answer from self-interest.

A fifth option is to look at obligations to others as a matter of debts. A person is born into an established human civilization built on thousands of years of human effort. Since each person arrives as a helpless infant, each person’s survival is dependent on others. As the person grows up, she also depends on the efforts of countless other people she does not know. These include soldiers that defend her society, the people who maintain the infrastructure, firefighters who keep fire from sweeping away the town or city, the taxpayers who pay for all this, and so on for all the many others who make human civilization possible. As such, each member of civilization owes a considerable debt to those who have come before and those who are here now.

If debt imposes an obligation, then each person who did not arise ex-nihilo owes a debt to those who have made and continue to make their survival and existence in society possible. At the very least, the person is obligated to make contributions to continue human civilization as a repayment to these others.

One objection to this is for a person to claim that she owes no such debt because her special status obligates others to provide all this for her with nothing owed in return. The obvious challenge is for a person to prove such an exalted status.

Another objection is for a person to claim that all this is a gift that requires no repayment on the part of anyone and hence does not impose any obligation. The challenge is, of course, to prove this implausible claim.

A final option I will consider is that offered by virtue theory. Virtue theory, famously presented by thinkers like Aristotle and Confucius, holds that people should develop their virtues. These classic virtues include generosity, loyalty and other virtues that involve obligations and duties to others. Confucius explicitly argued in favor of duties and obligations as being key components of virtues.

In terms of why a person should have such virtues and accept such obligations, the standard answer is that being virtuous will make a person happy.

Virtue theory is not without its detractors and the criticism of the theory can be employed to undercut it, thus undermining its role in arguing that we have obligations to people we do not know.

 

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Ethics, Children & Immigration

Posted in Ethics, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on July 30, 2014

While children, accompanied or not, have been immigrating to the United States from Central America for quite some time, this matter has attracted considerable attention as the number of children has increased (although not as dramatically as some media coverage would suggest). Not surprisingly, this has become a political issue within the larger context of the immigration policy debate and both Republicans and Democrats are struggling to figure out how to best exploit the opportunity (or best avoid disaster).

To focus the moral discussion, I will narrow the subject considerably and focus on young children who are arriving from Central America and who are not gang-members or other sorts of criminals. One reason for this is that the issue of allowing criminals to come to the United States is easy enough to address: they should not be allowed to come here for the purpose of committing crimes.

Since many Americans claim that the United States is a Christian nation, it is certainly tempting to apply Christian ethics to this matter. The bible is rather clear about this issue: “Thus has the LORD of hosts said, ‘Dispense true justice and practice kindness and compassion each to his brother; and do not oppress the widow or the orphan, the stranger or the poor; and do not devise evil in your hearts against one another.’” The bible also enjoins people to “not mistreat or oppress a foreigner, for you were foreigners in Egypt.” Given these clear statements, it would seem to follow that those who which to practice Christian ethics would be morally (and religiously) obligated to show compassion and kindness to the children who are strangers and foreigners.

There are, of course, people who do take these injunctions seriously and act in accord with them. However, there are others who profess the religion but have reacted quite differently to these words: “But they refused to pay attention and turned a stubborn shoulder and stopped their ears from hearing.…” Perhaps such folks believe that following Christian ethics is merely a matter of being opposed to birth control, abortion and equal rights for women.

Alternatively, a person could profess the principles and content that they are overridden by other concerns. One possible line of argumentation is to point out that the children are here illegally and this entails that they should not be given the full measure of compassion but rather shipped back to their point of origin immediately. Another possible line of argumentation is utilitarian: though extending kindness and compassion to the children would be laudable, to do so would require resources that are either unavailable or would be better used elsewhere (such as helping poor Americans). On this view, utilitarian ethics or practical concerns would trump the religious based ethics.

There are, obviously enough, people who are not Christians and people who, though professing to be Christians, reject the specific principles mentioned above. As such, other reasons would be needed to show that the children in question should be treated with suitable compassion and kindness.

One fruitful avenue is to appeal to a principle of moral debt: that is, when someone has been harmed or wronged, the wrongdoer has an obligation to set matters right. In the matter at hand, it has been claimed that some of the children have been sent from Central America to escape the terrible violence that plagues the region. This, of course, can be challenged—one could argue that the children are being sent to the United States for other reasons, such as better economic opportunities (or to become parasites on the American taxpayer). These arguments are not without merit and must be given due consideration. After all, if the children are coming to the United States illegally to escape danger and death, then that is a rather different matter than if they are coming to have a better life (perhaps at the expense of the taxpayer).

That said, let it be supposed that some of the children are, in fact, fleeing danger and the risk of death. The obvious concern is why this might obligate the United States to allow them to stay. One answer, as noted above, is to appeal to a moral debt owed by the United States (that is the people of the United States as a collective political body). Some might wonder what the foundation of such a debt might be. There are two easy and obvious answers to this.

The first is that the United States has a well-documented history of political and economic machinations in the region and these include toppling governments, supporting death squads, and other such nefarious deeds. In short, the United States has significantly contributed to the conditions that threaten the children of the area with death and danger. Fairness does, of course, require noting that the United States has not been alone in its adventures in the region (the Cold War helped shape much of the current situation) and some of the instability and chaos is self-inflicted. Given the United States’ role in creating the current situation, it would seem that we owe a collective debt and this would obligate us to addressing the consequences of these past actions.

The second is that a significant cause of violence in the region is drugs, specifically the production and distribution of drugs. While there is obviously local consumption, the people of the United States are a primary market for the drugs produced in this region and the war on drugs pursued by the United States has been even more disastrous in Central America than it has been in the United States. Given our role as drug consumers and our war on drugs, the United States is thus a major contributor to the violence and danger of the region. Since we are doing wrong, this would certainly seem to create an obligation on our part in regards to the children that are fleeing this situation.

To use an obvious analogy, if affluent outsiders wreck a neighborhood and serve as the prime customers for the drug industry that arises there, then these outsiders have a significant degree of moral accountability. If children try to flee the ruins of that neighborhood and head into the affluent neighborhood, it would certainly be wicked of those people to insist on sending them back into the mess they themselves worked so hard to create and maintain.

 

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Moral Methods

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy, Reasoning/Logic by Michael LaBossiere on March 30, 2012

Thanks to the budget cuts in education, I won’t be teaching this summer. On the plus side, this has encouraged me to write yet another short philosophy book, Moral Methods. As per tradition, I am making it available as a free PDF on this site. It is also available in the Kindle format in the US and the UK for the usual 99 cents (or the UK equivalent in fish and chips).

This concise reference work is intended to provide the reader with the basics of moral argumentation and specific tools that should prove useful in this process. There is no assumption that any specific moral view is correct (or incorrect) and no specific moral agenda is pushed in this work.  Rather, the intention behind this work is to assist people in making better moral arguments.  If a reader disagrees with a specific example, then an interesting exercise would be to consider a counter-argument against the conclusion presented in the example.

The book divides into three parts. The first provides a basic discussion of arguing about ethics in the context of moral issues. The second, which is the majority of the book, presents a variety of methods that should prove useful in moral argumentation.  The third part consists of short moral essays that provide additional examples of moral reasoning.

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Example Failure

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy by Michael LaBossiere on October 24, 2011
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For years I have been making use of a plane crash example to illustrate the moral distinction between killing people and letting people die and the results have always been the same, at least until this past week. Before getting to that, I will briefly present the examples.

I usually open my discussion of utilitarianism by noting that people tend to have utilitarian intuitions in many cases, such as those involving emergency medial treatment. My stock example is as follows:

“Imagine that you are the only available doctor on an island when a plane crashes with six people on board. You have no idea who these people are-they literally fell from the sky. Examining the people, you know that if you try to save the badly injured pilot, you will lose 3-4 of the others for sure. But, if you allow the pilot to die, you are certain you can save at least four of the passengers, maybe even five. What do you do?”

As you might suspect, everyone always says something like “save the five because five is more than one.”

When transitioning to my discussion of rule-deontology, I make the point that sometimes our intuitions seem to steer us away from just the consequences to also considering the action itself. To illustrate this intuition, I change the story just a bit:

“Imagine that you are the only available doctor on an island when a plane crashes with five people on board. You have no idea who these people are-they literally fell from the sky. To save them, you need a lot of blood and you need it fast. Coincidentally, Ted the hermit has come in for his yearly checkup. Ted has no friends or relatives and no one checks up on him. By a truly amazing coincidence Ted’s blood type means that he can donate to all five people. Unfortunately, getting enough blood to save all five will kill Ted. What do you do?”

For years, my students have said that killing Ted even to save five people would be wrong and I fully expected my current students in my class to give the same answer. But, rather than the usual “that would be wrong”, I was met with silence. So, I asked again and two students said that they’d drain Ted. When I said that this was the first class that ever said that, the reply was “times have changed.”

I’m not quite sure what the significance of this might be, but it was certainly interesting.

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Debating Meat V: Utility

Posted in Ethics by Michael LaBossiere on March 13, 2010
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One common approach to debating the ethics of meat is to argue within the context of utilitarianism.

Put is simple terms,  for the utilitarian, an action is right if it creates more utility for the morally relevant beings than disutility. A key part of the debate for the utilitarians is the moral status of animals: are they morally relevant or not?

If animals are not morally relevant, then their treatment would not be morally significant.  If animals are morally relevant, then their treatment would be relevant to the moral assessment of actions.

Of course,  it is possible to accept that animals are morally relevant, but to argue that humans count more than animals. For example, Mill argues that sentient beings count morally but he also argues that humans have higher faculties. This can be used to argue that humans count more than animals and this can, in turn, be used to justify treating animals worse that humans.

One way to argue that animals count is to argue (as Mill did) that pleasure is of positive value (utility) and pain is of negative value (disutility). Since animals feel pleasure and pain, they would play a role in the calculation of utility and hence would be relevant beings.

The template for arguing on utilitarian grounds has the following steps:

1)  The utility generated by the practice is assessed.

2)  The disutility generated by the practice is assessed.

3) If the disutility outweighs the utility, then the action is immoral.

4) If the utility outweighs the disutility, then the action is moral.

As an example, consider the following argument about veal: Humans enjoy eating veal and gain some pleasure from this. The creation of veal involves imprisoning a calf in a stall that is too small for movement, force feeding the calf which causes the calf to have various problems, and then killing the calf. The horrible treatment of the animals creates more pain than the eating of veal generates. Therefore the treatment of the animals is morally wrong.

Of course, the utilitarian approach can also be used to argue for treating animals not so well. For example, humans test important medicines on animals and develop treatments for serious health conditions. The animals involved in the testing suffer from these experiments.  However, the animals are treated as humanely as possible and the medicines significantly increase the patients’ quality of life and even permit them to keep on living. The benefits of such testing outweigh the suffering of animals, therefore the testing is morally acceptable.

Getting back to the matter of meat, utilitarian arguments can be given for eating meat.  One argument can be based on pleasure: while the suffering of animals creates pain, the enjoyment that people get from eating meat outweighs this suffering. Therefore the eating of meat is morally acceptable.

Of course, this sort of argument could be used to justify any sort of seemingly wicked activity. This would be done by merely  showing that those committing the apparent misdeeds enjoy their misdeeds more than their victims suffer. This problem is not specific to meat, but rather a general concern with utilitarianism.

A second sort of utilitarian argument can be based on need: humans need to consume meat in order to remain healthy. While animals suffer from being killed for food, the need of humans outweigh the needs of animals. Therefore eating meat is acceptable.

This argument can, of course, be challenged. There is considerable debate over whether humans actually need meat or not. The best evidence seems to be that humans can do fine without meat, provided that they have access to foods that can replace meat. Naturally, in some contexts, people do not have an alternative to meat. Of course, this line of reasoning can also justify cannibalism, at least in survival situations. However, just as cannibalism is unacceptable when there are alternatives, it would seem that eating animals is also unacceptable when there are alternatives.

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Toyota & The Invisible Hand

Posted in Business, Ethics by Michael LaBossiere on February 24, 2010
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In an interesting coincidence I happened to be teaching about ethical egoism about the time that the Toyota problems were hitting a peak. Ethical egoism is, crudely put, the moral theory that people ought to maximize their own self interest. So, I should maximize my self interest and so should you. Famous theorists in this camp include Thomas Hobbes, Adam Smith, and Ayn Rand.

Interestingly, Hobbes argued that out of self-interest we should cooperate and obey the laws of the state. This was, of course, to avoid the horrors of the state of nature (a “war of all against all”). As such, our self interest is supposed to motivate us to keep our self-interest in check.

Adam Smith, the theorist who gave us the “invisible hand“, argued that market forces would sort things out between individuals who were acting on the basis of self-interest. What is often overlooked in Smith’s theory is his view that the end is to create social utility via the free market. Of course, the motivation to act well is based in self-interest.

Altruistic views, which are typically presented as the opposing views to the various forms of ethical egoism, enjoin us to take into account the interests of others and not just our own. In the case of altruism, it is often claimed that people should act well because it is the right thing to do and not merely a matter of self interest.

One obvious concern about taking the self-interest approach is that a person will (and should) act against the interest of others when doing so is in his interest. Put rather crudely, if a person can gain more by doing what might seem to be wrong, then that is what the person should do. Naturally, this takes profit to be the measure of right.

In the case of Toyota, there is evidence that the company might have taken deliberate action to avoid having to recall vehicles so as to keep their profits. While this certainly seems to have put people at risk (and perhaps even killed and wounded some people), it would be a prudent act on the part of the folks at Toyota, provided that their gain exceeds their losses. In fact, this seems to be a rather standard practice in numerous fields. For example, a drug might turn out to cause heart attacks, but this might simply be covered up (perhaps with the collusion of regulatory folks) so as to keep profits high.  Obviously, individuals use the same approach in their own lives, doing less than upstanding things so as to gain or to avoid a loss.

Getting back to Smith’s invisible hand, what is supposed to happen is that the misdeeds of businesses are supposed to create a loss for them. As such, they have an incentive to act well so as to maintain their profits. Toyota seems to have gambled that by avoiding recalls they could keep substantial profits. Currently, of course, Toyota is reaping what it has sown and is taking a massive PR hit. Of course, Toyota might still come out ahead. If so, delaying the recalls might turn out to have been a good decision.

One factor that allowed Toyota to do what it did (and perhaps helped motivate the action) is the fact that the folks responsible for making such misdeeds costly seems to have been under the sway of Toyota. This seems to be a general problem-all too often the regulatory agencies are very cozy with the companies they are supposed to regulate. Then again, if the goal in life is to maximize self interest, then the companies and the regulatory folks are acting as they should-they are all trying to get the biggest slice of money pie that they can. Naturally, the public is suffering because of this, but that is because the public seems unable to ensure that it is in the best interest of the regulators t0 make sure that it is in the best interest of companies to not act against the interests of the public.

When company decisions makers are acting prudentially in regards to profits, they elect to take the actions they believe will maximize profits. Naturally, the actions that maximize profits might be regarded as rather immoral (such as marketing a risky drug or not fixing defective vehicles). Since appealing to what is right seems to have little impact on people (this is why police carry guns rather than handbooks on moral philosophy) what needs to be done is to ensure that actions that are wrong will come with a high cost. For example, rather than allowing the regulatory folks to let Toyota get away with their alleged misdeeds, the cost of not fixing such problems needs to be increased until it is not prudent to allow them to persist.

Of course, it is reasonable to be worried that people are not prudent. After all, there are harsh penalties for crimes and for doing stupid things, yet people persist in doing both. So, maybe corporate folks would continue to do such things even when the cost outweighs the profit. It is also reasonable to be worried that the regulatory agencies will always slide into cozy relations with the industries they are supposed to regulate.

I won’t even argue that we should hope that people will do the right thing because it is right.

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Ring of Gyges: A Case for Injustice

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy by Michael LaBossiere on December 30, 2009

It is my position that the life of injustice is preferable to the life of justice. In support of this claim I will show that the material goods are what truly matter in life and that injustice provides the best means of reaching said goods.

In his work Utilitarianism[i] J.S. Mill presents the well-known argument that the way to prove that something is desirable is to show that people desire it. If Mill is correct, then it should follow that a way to prove that something is preferable is to show that people prefer it.  It is my contention that people prefer material goods and that they are thus preferable.

In support of my claim I offer the following support. First, if you ask people what they want, the most common answers, at least in my experience, involve material things-money, jobs, power, cars and so on. Of course, this is based on my experience, which might be unusual. Hence, there is a need for a broader base of evidence. This brings me to a second category of evidence-the media.

A quick glance at the leading magazines of today clearly shows what people prefer. Business magazines, such as Business Week, extort the value of wealth and success in business. Celebrity magazines, such as People glory in the fame and wealth of the stars. Turning to television, channels such as VH1 and MTV show the houses, cars, fame and wealth of celebrities and, of course, these things are all held up as being of great value. Many of the music videos, a defining art form of the 21st century, present the glory of wealth, fame and power. Given that art tends to reflect the values of a culture, it seems evident that wealth, fame and power are valued and preferred in this culture. If additional evidence is needed, a survey of the rest of the media will reveal that the general glorification of wealth, success and material goods is common. Thus it may be safely concluded that the media provides ample evidence that material success is preferable.

Third, there is the fact that many people pursue material goods at the expense of non-material goods. For example, people are willing to engage in degrading activities for material gain or fame. Reality television shows such as Fear Factor, Flavor of Love, the various versions of Survivor and similar shows make this quite evident. Magazines such as Maxim, Playboy, Playgirl, Penthouse and Hustler also make it clear that people are willing to engage in degrading behavior for the sake of money and fame. As another example, people are willing to sacrifice their physical and mental health in order to acquire money. In Japan, for example, people have been known to work themselves to death. In the United States, people are willing to work long hours and focus on their careers at the expense of their personal relationships in order to achieve material success. As a final example, people are quite willing to engage in immoral behavior for material success. People lie, cheat, steal and murder in order to gain material goods. Dictators throughout history ranging from Caesar through Hussein have been willing to employ the most terrible methods to secure their material power. These facts indicate that people greatly value material goods and, given the above argument, it would follow that these goods are preferable.

Fourth, people are willing to risk punishment in order to acquire material goods. Prisons are full of people, ranging from former corporate officers to petty thieves, who committed crimes in the attempt to make material gains or in search of material pleasures. Given that people will risk terrible punishments in order to gain material goods, it seems reasonable to believe that these goods are preferable.

Overall, given the arguments presented above, it seems eminently reasonable to accept that material goods are what people prefer and hence are preferable. What remains is showing how being unjust enables one to better acquire such goods.

Consider, if you will, two people who are each starting their own software companies. One, Bad Bill is unjust. The other, Sweet Polly is just. Now, imagine a situation in which both Bill and Polly stumble across a lost CD at a technology expo. This CD, of course, contains key trade secrets of another competing company. Polly will, of course, return the CD to the rightful owners and will not look at any of the details- the information does not belong to her. Bill will, of course, examine the secrets and thus gain an edge on the competition. This will increase his immediate chance of success over the competition.

Now imagine what will happen if Sweet Polly continues along the path of justice.  She will never take unfair advantage of her competition, she will never exploit unjust loopholes in the tax laws, and she will never put people out of work just to gain a boost to the value of her company’s stock. She will always offer the best products she can provide at a fair price.

In direct contrast, if Bad Bill follows his path of injustice, he will use every advantage he can gain to defeat his competition and maximize his profits. He will gladly exploit any tax loophole in order to minimize his expenses. He will put people out of work in order to boost the value of the company stock. His main concern will be getting as much as possible for his products and he will make them only good enough that they can be sold.

Given these approaches and the history of business in America, it is most likely that Sweet Polly’s company will fail. The best she can hope for is being a very, very small fish in a vast corporate ocean. In stark contrast, Bad Bill’s company will swell with profits and grow to be a dominant corporation.

In the real world, Bad Bill’s unjust approach could lead him to a bad end.  However, even in reality the chance is rather slight and, given Glaucon’s conditions, it must be assumed that Bill is never caught and never punished. In the real world, Polly’s chances of success would be rather low, this showing that her choice is a poor one-even in reality. Adding in Glaucon’s conditions, she would have nothing but her justice and her poor, pathetic life. Given these conditions, it should be clear that Bill’s choice for injustice is preferable to Polly’s choice.

Naturally, more than a story is needed to make the general point that injustice is superior to justice. Fortunately a more formal argument can be provided.

The advantages of injustice are numerous but can be bundled into one general package: flexibility. Being unjust, the unjust person is not limited by the constraints of morality. If she needs to lie to gain an advantage, she can lie freely. If a bribe would serve her purpose, she can bribe. If a bribe would not suffice and someone needs to have a tragic “accident”, then she can see to it that the “accident” occurs. To use an analogy, the unjust person is like a craftsperson that has just the right tool for every occasion. Just as the well equipped craftsperson has a considerable advantage over a less well equipped crafts person, the unjust person has a considerable advantage over those who accept moral limits on their behavior.

It might be objected that the unjust person does face one major limit-she cannot act justly. While she cannot be truly just, she can, when the need arises, act justly-or at least appear to be acting justly. For example, if building an orphanage in Malaysia would serve her purpose better than exploiting those orphans in her sweat shop, then she would be free to build the orphanage. This broader range of options gives her clear edge-she can do everything the just person can do and much more. Best of all, none of her misdeeds can ever lead her into trouble. As per Glaucon’s conditions, she can never be caught or exposed. With her advantage she can easily get the material goods she craves-after all, she can do whatever it takes to get what she wants.

Turning to the real world, an examination of successful business people and other professionals (such as politicians) shows that being unjust is all but essential to being a success. For example, it is no coincidence that Microsoft is not only the top software company but also rightly regarded as being one of the most unjust. Now I turn to the just person.

If a person, such as Polly, is just then she must accept the limits of justice. To be specific, insofar as she is acting justly she must not engage in unjust acts. Taking an intuitive view of injustice, unjust acts would involve making use of unfair tactics such as lying, deception, bribes, threats and other such methods. Naturally, being just involves more than just not being unjust. After all, being just is like being healthy. Just as health is more than the absence of illness, being just is more than simply not being unjust. The just person would engage in positive behavior in accord with her justice-telling the truth, doing just deeds and so forth. So, the just person faces two major impediments. First, she cannot avail herself of the tools of injustice. This cuts down on her options and thus would limit her chances of material success. Second, she will be expending effort and resources in being just. These efforts and resources could be used instead to acquire material goods. To use an analogy, if success is like a race, then the just person is like someone who will stop or slow down during the race and help others. Obviously a runner who did this would be at a competitive disadvantage and so it follows that the just person would be at a disadvantage in the race of life.

The situation becomes extremely dire when Glaucon’s conditions are taken into account. In Glaucon’s scenario, the just person has no chance of material success and cannot even enjoy the reputation of being just. In light of these conditions, the just life would be a foolish choice indeed.

In light of the above arguments it is evident that the life of injustice is the preferable life.


[i] John Stuart Mill, Utilitarianism (London, 1863)

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