Sunday, December 25, 2005

Ethicist for Hire

Didn't get what you wanted for Christmas?

Check out the "ethicist for hire" intimate apparrel.

Saturday, December 17, 2005

Reframing utilitarianism

Fellow thoughful bloggers:

A new thread for conversation. I would like to propose a reframing or extension of utilitarianism. Consider the following four-principle alternative; supporting comments follow.

1. Maximize suitably crafted preference satisfaction. When the inevitable conflicts occur…

2. Resolve the conflict by striking a fair balance of ‘satisfaction sacrifice’, or by …

3. Redefining the conflicting party’s preferences so that principle #1 applies again.

4. Kill all uncooperative adversaries.

I added Principle #4 to give urgency to the other principles, i.e., taking #2 and #3 seriously is the way to avoid #4. Unfortunately #4 lends descriptive power to these principles.

Principle #1 is plain vanilla utilitarianism. I won’t elaborate beyond clarifying that ‘suitably crafted’ means long-term interests. Below I discuss whether different kinds of interests should weigh more than others. (The Socrates and pig matter.)

Principle #2 is the first divergence from utilitarianism. I say tactical oughts involve maximizing utility, while moral oughts involve the prevention and resolution of conflict. Moral claims should be considered effective or ineffective, not true or false. Moral discussion is more about who must carry the burden of sacrifice rather than who gets how much satisfaction. By definition, when there is a conflict someone thinks the system of benefits and burdens that generates the largest aggregate of utility gives them an unfair share of sacrifice relative to the possible alternatives. A fair sacrifice of utility might mean an equal distribution of sacrifice for all participants, or it might mean minimizing the largest sacrifice, etc. But note the point: maximizing utility itself will not do as a solution. If it did, #1 would be satisfied and #2 would remain irrelevant.

Can morality as conflict prevention and resolution be justified? This is too large of a topic for me to address here, but I can make two quick comments. First, whatever else we want, we want our conflict to be the fuel of the expansion of opportunities, not their destruction, which they could become if #4 is reached because #2 and #3 failed. I can not imagine a consistent utilitarian arguing with this assumption.

Second, note that it is impossible for me to persuade you that persuasion has no force. This is a foundational loop that stops an infinite regress of claims and counter-claims in the same way that “I think, therefore I exist” stops a chain of doubt. Persuasion is an attempt to resolve a conflict on the level of conversation, and consensus is proof of persuasion’s success. Thus it is logically odd to argue that striving for a moral consensus, the resolution of conversational conflict, is irrelevant or has no moral force.

Principle #3 involves two ideas. The first is to get back to #1 because the satisfaction of utility is better than the sacrifice of utility. Second, it acknowledges the possibility of moral surprise, i.e., that our interests have simply been wrong, and that conflict resolution was necessary to realize this. Our higher interests now weigh more than our previous interests, making us better off in a way that principle #1 or #2 alone could not. (A satisfied Socrates is better than a dissatisfied Socrates.)

Thursday, December 15, 2005

A Celebratory Haiku

To the Greek Ancients:
A few hundred premises
more and you'd make sense.


Wednesday, December 14, 2005

The ABD Club

I backtracked one of our hits to a link from this blog. Some of their stuff might be of interest to our readers. I have also added them to our list of "other observables."

Episode 113

Intuition and justification

Right on target, I'm working on a paper on reflective equilibrium, and one of my claims will be nobody really "does" RE. Our moral world is norm-centric, not theory-centric. When was the last time you used moral theory against the jerk who butt in line in front of you?

Instead, I claim that what we think of as reflective equilibrium is really just a mirroring of the academic social world: professors and students kicking around moral intuitions and theory's, and the discussion ends when some kind of understanding of all the concepts has sufficiently formed.

The issue of justificatory force for theory is thus irrelevant as it represents a category error.

(Sorry I don't know how to connect this to Arthur's post.)
Ed's Note: Added the link. I'll (PMJ) teach you how to do this, Adam.

Tuesday, December 13, 2005

Ethicist suicide

Maybe I was the only one that missed this a few weeks ago, but I just saw it and wanted to share. No matter what your opinion of the Iraq war, this is a sad and disturbing story.

WASHINGTON — One hot, dusty day in June, Col. Ted Westhusing was found dead in a trailer at a military base near the Baghdad airport, a single gunshot wound to the head.

The Army would conclude that he committed suicide with his service pistol. At the time, he was the highest-ranking officer to die in Iraq.

The Army closed its case. But the questions surrounding Westhusing's death continue.

Westhusing, 44, was no ordinary officer. He was one of the Army's leading scholars of military ethics, a full professor at West Point who volunteered to serve in Iraq to be able to better teach his students. He had a doctorate in philosophy; his dissertation was an extended meditation on the meaning of honor.

full story here

To kill or not to kill?

As you all have probably seen in the news, the Crips gang founder Tookie Wilson was executed for murders he was convicted of in 1979. Let's assume for a second that the death penalty is a proper punishment for his crimes. Many people felt that he should not be executed because of how his life had changed (because he seemingly completely abandoned his gang life and ties) and he had become a Nobel Peace Prize nominee for his anti-gang work and children's books.

So the argument (aside from the death penalty being inherently wrong) for commuting his sentence was: he has done a lot of good (and thus redeemed himself) and he still has a lot of good to do in his anti-gang work.

The courts saw no reasons to overturn the penalty because he was found guilty of the crimes and sentenced to the penalty with no apparent flaws in the trial or case. There was basically no judicial reason to prevent the sentence.

The Governator refused a stay because he had doubts about his convictions, primarily on the fact that he never showed much remorse: he never admitted to the killings (and hence showed no remorse for those crimes), as well as said little about gang violence and remorse for what he had caused and other crimes he had committed (although he did regret his founding of the Crips).

So we are left with the question: assuming that the good he has done and will do is enough to consider sparing his life, is remorse a necessary component? The Governator (and others) seemed to think so.

Here's another argument for sparing his life: Tookie himself said, "There is no part of me that existed then that exists now." While there is some part of that man that committed the crimes still with him, it does seem possible that he has changed enough so that the person who committed those crimes is no longer in existence. A new person, who emerged from the old one through gradual change, was the one executed.

Again, assuming that the penalty of death imposed on Tookie Wilson in 1979 was appropriate, was killing this man today justified or right?

(My very brief take on this: I don't think remorse is a necessary component, and because he still has good to do and is significantly different from the man who committed the crimes, a man was perhaps unjustly punished and it is likely that his staying alive would have caused more good than bad, so I think I'd fall on the side of keeping him alive.)

CORRECTION: Tookie's last name was Williams, not Wilson. His full name was Stanley Tookie Williams.

Monday, December 12, 2005

Test those intuitions

This is so relevant to our earlier discussion, it's scary.

With a hat tip to Pea Soup, the blog of the grown ups here at BG and some other grown ups elsewhere, I give you: The Moral Sense Test. It's from Harvard, and it tests your intuitions that, of course, none of us here rely on for our moral judgments.

Here's how they explain this thing:
The Moral Sense Test is a Web-based study into the nature of moral intuitions. How do humans, throughout the world, decide what is right and wrong? To answer this question, we have designed a series of moral dilemmas designed to probe the psychological mechanisms underlying our ethical judgments. By putting these questions on the Web, we hope to gain insight into the similarities and differences between the moral intuitions of people of different ages, from different cultures, with different educational backgrounds and religious beliefs, involved in different occupations and exposed to very different circumstances.

(Get out your calculator, Arthur, you'll need to compute a lot of utility!)

Moose and Dude

As some of you may know, I used to write a webcomic. It was brilliant. Seriously, seriously brilliant. Don't believe me? Check it out. After some careful consideration and the suggestions of [read: death threats from] our own Mr. Jaworski, I have decided to bring the comic back. Episodes both old and new will continue to appear on my site (which is also linked from my name on the left). As I have decided to give the comic a slightly philosophical bent, new episodes may often appear here as well. And so, without further ado, Moose and Dude, Episode 112:


I'll start us off with a meaty topic.

I am often baffled by the heavy reliance on intuitions in ethics. An unnamed professor in class (let's call him Shmoriarty) recently said "it's all we have!" Yet this concerns me. I understand that we all have intuitions that affect our opinions on ethical matters, but why should an intuition JUSTIFY an ethical conclusion?

I have seen philosophers scoff at ethical relativism, yet defend their intuitions as sensible justification for moral beliefs. It seems to me that intuitionism (and lesser degrees of the reliance on intuitions) boils down to relativism pretty quickly unless we think that everyone has the same intuitions. A brief look back at history (slavery, subjugation of women) informs us that intuitions about a lot of things have changed over time. Why should one's current intuitions have such a sturdy claim on our morals? Shouldn't we all be willing to say that I have intuition X, but in light of argument Y it appears intuition X could be false?

I don't think I am arguing that ethics can be done without a single reference to an intuition (though I suspect it might be possible). I'm wondering what the proper role for intuitions should be. Assuming full blown intuitionism is mistaken, most ethicists rely on intuitions far more than I am comfortable with.

What say the newly assembled BG bloggers?

(webmaster addition)Relevant Articles:
Moral Epistemology (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy)