Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Why treat humans differently than animals?

Well we are having a lovely time in the comments section of another post talking about whether it is rationally consistent to be an atheist and a moral realist at the same time. I wanted to extract my own discussion with someone in the comments section and bring it back out to the main blog so we could continue discussion in without having to go back to the old post.

In this post, I want to address the question of the uniqueness of human beings when it comes to moral judgments. In other words, is man the only "moral animal." From a Christian perspective, he is, since he is created in the image of God, God being a moral being. Animals, not possessing that image, are not moral animals.

I think the point here is that unless you assent to theism, you have no justification for viewing man as qualitatively different from other animals, a view which, as I have said before, leads either to acknowledgment that men can be treated like animals, or the imperative that animals must be treated like men. The only thing that keeps us from this is the view that man is made in the image of God. If you don't believe that, then there is nothing rationally keeping you from allowing for inhuman treatment of humans and nothing rationally standing in the way of the saying that animals are morally equivalent to men--and nothing that prevents you from preferring the first view to the second.

The conversation started over at Secular Right, John Derbyshire's blog. Derbyshire was addressing the abortion question from a purely emotivist perspective and I had criticized that approach to moral questions because it disables you from making any moral judgments, since, under the theory of emotivism, all moral judgments are based on personal emotions, and one person's personal emotions can therefore have no more moral authority than anyone else's.

In short, under emotivism, there really are no moral judgments: there are only expressions of feelings.

But another commenter on the blog, Andrew Stevens, addressed the question from the perspective of "moral realism": the idea that there are objective moral criteria which one can employ in moral judgments. But Stevens is also an atheist. And so the question in the comments section of my post became whether an atheist could consistently be a moral realist.

So there we are. I addressed three questions to Andrew and he has responded. So let's get to the action (my original questions in italics, Andrew's indented)...

First, is your moral metaphysic applicable only to humans? If so, why?
This is an excellent question. No, it is not simply applicable to humans. Animals with brains have evaluative beliefs as well. Survival is good, "I ought to eat this," and so forth. Because their capacity for reason is limited (see answer to your second question), they probably have access only to very basic intuitions.

My theory is that the moral sense evolved because to be able to recognize and do what one ought to do is good for the survival of intelligent social animals (although "good for survival" is only the explanation for their existence and not their normative force). The mathematical sense evolved for similar reasons. Originally, it was just to help survival, but it is far more high-powered than that. (Biographically, it was trying to explain mathematics, not morality, which first lured me away from a materialist worldview.)
First, lurking in Andrew's first paragraph here, I think, is the assumption that any animal with the capacity to reason or engage in evaluative thinking (I think those are one and the same thing) is a creature to which a moral metaphysic is applicable, which is just to say that it is a moral creature--one that we would be obligated to treat with moral concern. In short, it would have what we would now call "rights"--and there is no reason to believe anything other than that these rights are substantively the same as those enjoyed by humans.

But I would challenge the notion that there is any animal (meaning "brute," not "rational" animal) that is rational in any sense that would justify treating it in the same way as a human being. I don't know exactly how far Andrew takes this, but I would assume he has to go some distance in this direction, otherwise I am not sure what point he is trying to establish (not that his answer is any more vague than my question, I suppose).

I also wonder what it is about "rationality" that warrants any moral respect at all. Upon what basis do we lend rationality any sort of moral worth in the first place? You could certainly image creatures who were intellectual, but not moral. I'm thinking here of the Martians in H. G. Wells War of the Worlds, or the same beings in Edgar Rice Burroughs books: they are creatures who are "rational" in the sense of having an intellect, but they are not moral creatures in the way that humans are.

And anyway, the theist is not commanded to treat rational creatures with moral respect. He is simply responding to the explicit moral command of the being who created him, who we obey because he is the primary moral authority, that we treat fellow men with moral respect. And if the question becomes why, then, anyone who is not a theist has any obligation to act accordingly, the answer would simply be that each man knows this command not only by some sort of special revelation (the Bible, for example), but that this understanding is built into every man by virtue of the fact that he was created in the image of God.

In other words, even if you don't know that men should be treated with moral respect because you have been told directly by some divine authority, you know it directly from your conscience, and indirectly, by virtue of reflection, through intuition.

Andrew then outlines a naturalistic view of how the moral sense developed: namely that it did. He admits that "'good for survival' is only the explanation for their existence and not their normative force," a point which it seems to me is telling. In what way does explaining the geneology of something lend itself to answering the question why it has moral force? It seems to me all of these types of justifications for moral judgment in an atheistic worldview fail for this reason: they are how answers to why questions.

To chronicle the mechanism of how moral judgements developed is not an answer to the question of why they have any moral force. One is addressing a question of fact, and another is addressing a question of the intellectual obligation to respect moral imperatives. They simply have nothing to do with each other. For something to have survived because it has survival value says nothing about its moral claim on us. If I simply explain by which my car was made, it tells me nothing about where I should drive it.

So I guess the next question for Andrew is, how does an atheist justify preferential moral treatment of human beings, and upon what basis does the possession of "rationality" constitute moral worth? And how does the history of moral development contribute to an answer to these questions?

20 comments:

Andrew Stevens said...

So I guess the next question for Andrew is, how does an atheist justify preferential moral treatment of human beings, and upon what basis does the possession of "rationality" constitute moral worth? And how does the history of moral development contribute to an answer to these questions?

The second question is, by far, the easier of the two questions. The moral sense developed naturally through evolution. Moral values did not. We evolved a moral sense because it was good for our survival, but it is the moral values themselves which possess the normative force. This dichotomy is exactly the same as for, say, mathematics. The mathematical intuition is what allows us to see the truth of mathematics, but mathematics is not true by virtue of that sense.

The first question is, by far, the tougher question. Either view (animals do have rights or animals do not have rights) would be consistent with the moral realism I have sketched out and atheist moral realists have defended both propositions.

First, lurking in Andrew's first paragraph here, I think, is the assumption that any animal with the capacity to reason or engage in evaluate thinking (I think those are one and the same thing) is a creature to which a moral metaphysic is applicable, which is just to say that it is a moral creature--one that we would be obligated to treat with moral concern.

This is a plausible belief. Some people do seem to have the intuition that what is valuable about us is the ability to make moral judgments. I concede that certain types of animals can make rudimentary moral judgments, akin to those made by very small children. If this is the foundation of rights, then these animals would appear to have them. (We then would have to investigate which animals in fact have evolved this moral sense.)

But I would challenge the notion that there is any animal (meaning "brute," not "rational" animal) that is rational in any sense that would justify treating it in the same way as a human being.

Here, you have not yet made any reference to your theological beliefs. Now you are appealing to rationality, which no atheist denies that humans possess. And many atheists would follow this and say that it is rationality that is the basis for rights (or, perhaps, the capacity for an individual to engage in future rationality). They would argue that these animals with a rudimentary moral sense are simply following the sense blindly. They do not engage in moral reasoning or reasoning of any other kind; they are simply reacting instinctively to moral intuitions. Therefore, they conclude, they don't have rights.

I also wonder what it is about "rationality" that warrants any moral respect at all. Upon what basis do we lend rationality any sort of moral worth in the first place? You could certainly image creatures who were intellectual, but not moral. I'm thinking here of the Martians in H. G. Wells War of the Worlds, or the same beings in Edgar Rice Burroughs books: they are creatures who are "rational" in the sense of having an intellect, but they are not moral creatures in the way that humans are.

Those atheist moral realists who argue that the moral sense is the foundation of rights might agree with you that the Martians have no rights. Those atheists who argue that rationality is the foundation of rights might disagree and argue that the Martians do possess them (though they might still argue that we are justified in destroying the Martians anyway out of self-defense).

Of course, it is also possible to contend that one needs both. This argument would be that it is the capacity to engage in specifically moral reasoning which is the basis for rights. So merely possession of a moral sense or merely possession of rationality does not grant one rights. One must have the capacity for both in order to have rights.

And anyway, the theist is not commanded to treat rational creatures with moral respect. He is simply responding to the explicit moral command of the being who created him, who we obey because he is the primary moral authority, that we treat fellow men with moral respect. And if the question becomes why, then, anyone who is not a theist has any obligation to act accordingly, the answer would simply be that each man knows this command not only by some sort of special revelation (the Bible, for example), but that this understanding is built into every man by virtue of the fact that he was created in the image of God.

Is it your contention that only humans have rights, full stop? If we discovered an alien (or hitherto undiscovered Earth creature, perhaps living deep underground or undersea) with both rationality like ours and a moral sense like ours, would this creature have rights? Or would it not because it is not in the image of God? (I realize that you probably believe that there is no such creature, so treat it as a counterfactual.)

As you may recall from the Derbyshire thread, I related Don Marquis's "futures like ours" as a possible basis for rights. This view would certainly conclude that this hypothetical alien with rationality and the moral sense has rights, but is silent on the issue of whether it still has rights with only one, but not the other, or if it needs both.

Yes, I am ducking your question here. There are a couple of reasons for this: 1) I could be persuaded to any of these views - moral sense, reason, or specifically moral reasoning and 2) I do not wish to preempt the opinions of other moral realists. I am principally concerned with defending my second-order moral philosophy (what it is for something to be good or bad or right or wrong), not any particular first-order moral philosophy (claims about what is good or bad or right or wrong).

Martin Cothran said...

Andrew,

I think most of your "answers" here are more clarifications than answers, which I assume is what you mean by "ducking" the question in your last paragraph, and that is fine. I'm happy to trade intellectual clarity for a common answer any time, and you certainly provide some here.

One of the things you brought more into the light was this issue of the sufficient ground for "rights": intellect, or moral sense, or both.

I think my view is that neither is sufficient, nor are both together sufficient grounds for the awarding of what we call "human rights". I can't think of any argument that would rationally justify the special treatment of man because of either thing, and if neither in itself can be established, then I don't see why both together should.

As a theist, my belief is that the only "reason" that man has special dignity is, as I said before, that he is made in the image of God.

All other theories attribute value on the basis of what something does (whether it is reasoning or making moral judgments, or contributing to society in some way). The Christian view on this seems to be the only theory that attributes value on the basis of what something is.

I have said before that I think this view is intuitive: it is the view that unreflective human beings have always possessed to some extent, and in this sense is the view natural to humans.

The argument for it, I think, would have to be derived from the truth of the religious position in which it is housed, which is another argument.

In regard to non-theistic morally realist views, I still don't see where they have their rational justification or how they are any more rational than the theistic view.

tc said...

"From a Christian perspective, he is, since he is created in the image of God, God being a moral being. Animals, not possessing that image, are not moral animals."

As I understand it, traditionally, the "image of God" is not understood primarily in the sense of moral responsibility, but in God's gift of reason and free will; so there is a certain equivalence between what "being made in the image of God" means, and simply asserting that human beings possess reason and free will. On this basis we can distinguish between animals and human beings in terms of moral culpability, insofar as humans possess reason, and most other animals don't. Of course, there are gray areas in the case of higher order primates, but I think it safe to say that they possess a low-grade rational faculty. So while we may not treat bonobos, for example, in exactly the same way as we treat humans, we might treat them in the same sort of way, according to the degree of similarity between their rational faculty and ours.

Also, we ought not confuse moral worth with moral capacity. For example, we might say that the v-chip in a television has a certain moral worth, or a law on the books, or a beautiful painting, but that doesn't mean we expect them to act morally. Creatures that exercise morality do not exhaust the things which have to do with morality. To quote Nietzsche (from memory, so it might not be completely right): "everything is moral, even in the realm of sense perception." We might have moral obligations towards things, animals, the ecosystem, etc. that cannot make moral decisions.

"I also wonder what it is about 'rationality' that warrants any moral respect at all. Upon what basis do we lend rationality any sort of moral worth in the first place?"

Morality is a function of reason. Reason, in its most simple formulation, is the recognition of a thing as what it is; and the moral aspect of reason is simply recognizing a thing as good or as bad.

Andrew Stevens said...

In regard to non-theistic morally realist views, I still don't see where they have their rational justification or how they are any more rational than the theistic view.

On the second view, I never at any point claimed that non-theistic moral realism is more rational than theistic moral realism. As I believe I made clear in my debate with Lee on your site, I think there are two entirely separate issues here: 1) Do moral values exist? and 2) Does God exist? I answer yes to 1 and no to 2, while you answer yes to both. The fact that a number of silly people on both sides (and atheists are more at fault here than Christians or other religious believers) have conflated the two into a single question is largely because modern atheists have somehow concluded that Divine Command theory is the only explanation for morality (despite the fact that not even most Christians accept Divine Command theory as the origin of morality). And, when you combine Divine Command theory with "God does not exist," you wind up with error theory. Since there is no God, there is no God to give commandments, so there are no moral values. Of course, as I've probably made clear I believe Divine Command theory is just ethical subjectivism in divine dress. Morality doesn't objectively exist - it's just a matter of someone's attitude (namely God's).

And here we come to the answer to your question about whether non-theistic moral views are rational. If you don't assert Divine Command theory and believe that moral values exist, regardless of whether they are part of God's nature or a feature of the universe that God somehow created or even existed independently of God, then obviously you're forced to argue that my view of moral realism has exactly the same rational justification as yours and it's just that my theory is incomplete - I have not provided a satisfactory account for their existence.

This is true, of course; I haven't. I have, in fact, provided no satisfactory account for the existence of the laws of mathematics, the laws of physics, or, for that matter, the universe itself. But this is different from saying that such an account is both necessary and impossible, which is what you would have to argue to invalidate my view. I am not familiar with such an argument, though I'm certainly willing to listen if you think you can provide one.

And, while this doesn't justify my view, I could add a tu quoque. Religious believers have provided no satisfactory account for the existence of God.

Andrew Stevens said...

All other theories attribute value on the basis of what something does (whether it is reasoning or making moral judgments, or contributing to society in some way). The Christian view on this seems to be the only theory that attributes value on the basis of what something is.

I assume that you are against the death penalty, by this reasoning. Has a murderer lost rights because of what he's done, given that nothing has changed about what he is. In fact, it's not clear to me that, on this view, you can take anything away from a person in the way of rights based on his behavior.

tc said...

Andrew,

Are you committed to arguing that moral laws exist in reality (in a way similar to mathematical laws), or would you be satisfied simply to know that good and bad inhere in reality?

Andrew Stevens said...

Tc, an excellent question. It seems like there is strong reason to believe that moral laws exist in reality, but I'm not sure my argument for moral realism actually demonstrates this, so much as it demonstrates that good and bad inhere in reality. I could be persuaded to the view that my belief in moral laws rests on a mistake.

tc said...

The reason I ask is simply that the task of proving the existence of invariable moral laws is far more difficult than if one wishes to assert simply that, in a given situation there is right and wrong.

Really, that's the difference between Kantian (and perhaps rule utilitarian) morality, and Aristotelian virtue ethics. And interestingly, while Kant finds it necessary to posit God for practical purposes (though he admits this doesn't mean God actually exists), Aristotle's ethics don't need to make any appeal to the divine whatsoever.

Strangely though, I don't know of many atheists who hold to virtue ethics, so I was curious what sort of moral structure you were proposing.

Andrew Stevens said...

Well, the closest modern statement to my ethical views would probably be that of W.D. Ross, which is a deontological ethics. Ross is also a well-known translator of Aristotle in addition to his own work in moral philosophy, but Ross's would certainly not be called a virtue ethics. (Interestingly, I have no idea what his religious views were.)

Regardless, of whether laws exist or not, there is no more need of an appeal to the divine for them than there is for the laws of physics and the laws of mathematics. Of course, a theist might argue that we need an appeal to the divine for all of those things as, I believe, Kant did.

tc said...

For Kant (who basically founded deontological ethics, as far as I am aware), one does need to appeal to God, but God doesn't really need to actually exist, we just need to act as though he did. His Critique of Practical Reason is notoriously contorted and self-contradictory on this point. God is a postulate one makes in the practical sphere, not the theoretical. Kant makes as good an argument as anyone for the existence of God on the basis of morality, but the arguments inherent shortcomings are obvious, in that all it can hope to show is that one better fulfills the moral law if one believes in God--and even this doesn't necessarily follow.

I don't think I would be telling you anything you hadn't heard if I say that none of the proofs of the existence of God used by theologians before the modern (Cartesian) argued from morality. However, I think there's an interesting reason for this: traditionally in Christianity, God hasn't really had a whole lot to do with morality. In order to be a good Christian, one doesn't so much have to follow the rules, as effect an existential change (or in the usual language, be born again). Due to evangelical Christianity, many people think the point of being a Christian lies simply in doing the right thing, and this radically misses the traditional theology of salvation. But, I suppose we're talking about ethics here instead of theology, so I will just say this about Christianity: it has little to do with morality, and certainly doesn't ground it (neither does it submit to its demands).

tc said...

On the main point, do you believe that the ethics is apodictic in the same way as mathematics, and if so, how does one demonstrate it? Or that they are like the laws of physics (I am not sure what this would even look like?

Andrew Stevens said...

Kant is often seen as the first deontologist, but I think the Stoics got there first and then later religious philosophers (usually following Divine Command theory) such as William of Ockham. This is not taking anything away from Kant, of course.

As for the argument from morality, it's not a terrible argument and I don't think anybody argues that it proves God exists, just that God is (or may be) a better explanation for the existence of morality than any other. I don't agree because I find the existence of God much more problematic than the existence of morality. It might solve one mystery (though the Euthyphro dilemma indicates that it might not even do that), but it raises a greater one.

I do think Christian morality can be defended against your critique. While you're certainly correct for many branches of Christianity, I would argue that before the Reformation, Christianity was historically fairly concerned with its moral code. This is not to say that the Reformation was a bad thing for Christianity or that the Church was anything like perfect about it prior to the Reformation, just that "faith alone" really only becomes a dominant thread in Christian thought post-Luther. (To give Luther his due, I do believe that his is a reasonable interpretation of the Gospels.)

On the main point, do you believe that the ethics is apodictic in the same way as mathematics, and if so, how does one demonstrate it? Or that they are like the laws of physics (I am not sure what this would even look like?

A simple question with a complicated answer. I regard (some) moral propositions as self-evident, in the sense that understanding it is enough to justify one in believing it. I have, for example, never met an error theorist who did not act in every way as if he believed that "on the subject of the existence of moral values, we ought to believe only what is true" (that is, we should refrain from believing falsehoods) no matter how much he says he doesn't believe it.

I don't think I'd go so far as to argue that this self-evidence is as strong as for, say, logical axioms like the Law of Non-Contradiction, since there are certainly a great many people who claim that they don't believe moral propositions I consider self-evident. But then I've met people who claim to deny the Law of the Excluded Middle as well (some of them even attempt to use modern physics to justify their disbelief).

I've also stacked the deck. The above moral principle (we ought to believe what is true) has a much stronger pull for most people than other moral principles which I also regard as self-evident, such as the duties of fidelity, reparation, gratitude, justice, beneficience, and non-maleficience. These latter could be described as possessing "soft" self-evidence rather than "hard" self-evidence. The hard kind of self-evidence is for those propositions which, when properly understood, one cannot help but believe (though of course one could claim not to) while the soft kind of self-evidence simply provides prima facie justification for belief. (I.e. you are justified in believing it, but it is a defeasible justification. Better arguments could come along and change your mind.)

In general, prima facie justification plays a fairly large role in my personal philosophy. For example, this is how I refute skeptical arguments. I am prima facie justified in believing the evidence of my senses. However, if I am presented with any evidence that I am in a skeptical scenario (the Cartesian demon appears to me and tells me he's been fooling me), then perhaps I would rethink. This is why I am unmoved by arguments of the kind "well, it could be the case that. . . ." I freely grant the logical possibility of these scenarios, but the mere possibility is not enough to cause me to seriously doubt propositions for which I have prima facie justification. I would need evidence or an argument for that and the argument must be built on even stronger premises than the one it seeks to deny.

tc said...

"...I would argue that before the Reformation, Christianity was historically fairly concerned with its moral code... 'faith alone' really only becomes a dominant thread in Christian thought post-Luther."

I was actually referring to pre-reformation. There's no doubt that one can find the general expectations of behavior over the early Christian centuries (though these fluctuated a good bit), but that doesn't really equal a "moral code." Christians were expected to attend the liturgy, for example, but this wasn't considered to be some sort of moral law universally binding on all people. Of course some Christians might believe it to be so, but this is an unwarranted philosophical position much like those monastics (and there were a few) who believed that everybody ought to be a monastic.

The Church was considered to be an institution ordered towards salvation, and salvation was not considered to be anything like a moral restoration. It would be inaccurate to say that one ought to fast as the consequence of a moral law that ought to be followed simply because its the right thing to do; one ought to say instead that fasting was an expression of the Christian way of life which is ordered toward union with God. A Christian might hold one or another view on moral systems, but they're not essential to the mission of the Church. And whatever moral system one might adhere to must allow for teleological suspensions, as Kierkegaard observed.

I don't think this should be a controversial reading of traditional theology; it follows rather directly from orthodox soteriology and ecclesiology. And although one might cite cases of theologians constructing moral systems, I think in most cases they are being misread (St. Thomas adopts Aristotle's ethics, which is not a moral system) or that they simply are not acting as theologians but philosophers.
"The hard kind of self-evidence is for those propositions which, when properly understood, one cannot help but believe (though of course one could claim not to) while the soft kind of self-evidence simply provides prima facie justification for belief."

I could accept that one might see the inherent goodness in such things as a desire to know the truth, fidelity, and so on. I suppose I would question whether these things are self-grounding, and so while one might accept that honesty, for example, is good, I don't know that it would follow that one ought to always be honest. From an Aristotelian perspective, one wouldn't have to argue this to be the case, all one has to demonstrate is that they generally contribute to a full, happy human life. Or one could say from a Christian perspective that these things generally prepare the soul to receive God by allowing human beings to be most fully human. In these views, such moral principles are teleologically ordered towards something beyond themselves (significantly, to the good of persons rather than adherence to higher principles), and so they don't have to be quite self evident. It seems to me that the person who believes virtue ethics has to prove a lot less that the deontologist. Or perhaps deontological ethics allows for the relativization of ethical principles? (I know Kant's doesn't, but I wonder if yours does?)

Andrew Stevens said...

I don't disagree with your view on the early Christian church exactly, but there was definitely a recognition of morality also. St. Paul's theology was that Jesus overturned the Law, but the Law that he overturned were the non-moral bits concerning purity like circumcision, dietary codes, and such. Those things that replaced the purity portions of the Law like attending the liturgy, fasting, etc., I don't think were ever regarded as part of moral law. But there was definitely a view that, for instance, the Ten Commandments (with perhaps an exception made for the Sabbath) was part of the moral law of God and had to be obeyed. Indeed, the debate over homosexuality in the Christian church ought to be about whether the prohibition on homosexuality was due to purity or due to morality, though I'm not sure anyone's actually having that debate.

I could accept that one might see the inherent goodness in such things as a desire to know the truth, fidelity, and so on. I suppose I would question whether these things are self-grounding, and so while one might accept that honesty, for example, is good, I don't know that it would follow that one ought to always be honest.

I think it does follow from the definition of the word good. However, "always" is too strong a word. I follow Ross in his theory of what he called "prima facie duties" (but which properly should be called "pro tanto duties"). Honesty is a pro tanto duty, but it can be moral to be dishonest if honesty would conflict with a more important moral duty, such as saving the life of an innocent other to give an extreme (and obvious) example.

It seems to me that the person who believes virtue ethics has to prove a lot less that the deontologist.

I follow your reasoning here and I think I agree with it. Virtue ethics probably does require less justification than deontological ethics, but I believe deontological ethics is pretty easily justified. (Utilitarianism can be prima facie justified as well, but I believe it has defeaters.) Certainly, though, I have much sympathy for virtue ethics, being something of an Aristotelian in many other respects.

Or perhaps deontological ethics allows for the relativization of ethical principles? (I know Kant's doesn't, but I wonder if yours does?)

It depends on what you mean by "relativization." If you mean by that that the moral thing might depend on people's opinions of what is moral or that it might vary from person to person in identical situations, then no, there is no relativization. If you merely mean that the ethics is context-sensitive, then absolutely it allows for it. If I understand Kant correctly (and I'm by no means an expert on Kant), then I don't believe he ever allowed for context. Lying was always wrong, period. Obviously, my view (following Ross) that honesty is a pro tanto duty indicates that it is sometimes right to lie. I find Kant's view baffling and I think one almost has to be a theist to believe it.

My deontology is that duties often conflict and that we have to weigh the duties against each other in context. For example, perhaps we made a promise to a child to bring him to the park. We have a duty of fidelity to keep that promise. However, perhaps a friend, who has done enormous favors for you in the past, has just had an accident and needs you to take him grocery shopping that same day. You now have a conflicting duty of gratitude and of beneficience.

It is my personal opinion that there is no algorithm which would help us weigh them against each other in all situations, though I don't wish to rule out the existence of such an algorithm. Nevertheless, it is not a teleological theory. "Greatest good for the greatest number" or anything like that does not fall out from the theory. It could be morally right, for example, to help one's own child rather than using the time to help some other child even if one would be helping that other child more than one is helping one's own, amongst many other examples. As Ross said, utilitarians err in thinking that "the only morally significant relationship in which my neighbors stand to me is that of being possible beneficiaries by my actions. They do stand in this relation to me and this relation is morally significant. But they also may stand to me in the relation of promisee to promiser, of creditor to debtor, of wife to husband, of child to parent, of friend to friend, of fellow countryman to fellow countryman, and the like; and each of these relations is the foundation of a prima facie duty, which is more or less incumbent on me according to the circumstances of the case."

Kant was an absolutist deontologist. Ross and I are moderate deontologists.

tc said...

I need to be more precise about the kind of morality which I claim had little to do with the theology of the Church (pre-Great Schism, to make matters easier). I use morality to mean the kinds of rules which ought to be followed for their own sake, rather than towards a further end; to use Kierkegaard's formulation, a moral principle is the kind of principles which has its end in itself and nowhere outside of itself. One common way this shows up is in the idea that we ought to follow God's laws simply because they are God's laws, but it encompasses any ethical system which is unconditional.

Obviously morality in this sense has very little to do with Aristotle's ethics, and I would argue that has little to do with Christianity--to paraphrase the theologian John Zizioulas, salvation is not a matter of moral perfection. For Christians, one does not follow the ethical imperatives simply because one ought to, but for the purpose of being united with God, and a glance at Judeo-Christian history reveals that these laws are usually considered general principles which can be "teleologically suspended" when they happen to not serve as they usually do. I think the radicality of St. Paul's discussions of the Law would be missed if one considered only the dietary codes and things of that sort abolished; the whole principle of the Law is abolished, for now personal interaction is not a matter of legal mediation.

"My deontology is that duties often conflict and that we have to weigh the duties against each other in context."

Certainly this seems more reasonable than Kant's counter-intuitive position on things like lying. You don't commit to the notion of an algorithm that would govern what happens when various duties come into conflict, and so I wonder whether you would say that one duty is greater than another, or whether the conflict between duties should be mediated on the basis of the particular demands of the context.

I think you might be suspicious of the latter as a deontologist simply because it easily leads to the introduction of teleology. However, I wouldn't want to lump teleology completely in with the utilitarians who -- and I hope I am not being needlessly uncharitable, as they aren't around to defend themselves -- don't have a sufficient notion of the good and have not considered the mechanics of a moral action satisfactorily. Instead, we could say that when ethical principles come into conflict they can be resolved in the way which best leads to a well-rounded life. That's what I mean by relativized principles: that these principles are considered good depending on how they fit in the context of human life. That doesn't mean that ethical principles should be considered merely arbitrary expressions of will; ethical relativism does not void the reality of ethics, it just considers it subordinate to something higher.

Andrew Stevens said...

Okay, I now mostly agree with your claims about Christian morality, though I still contend that, prior to Luther, one's salvation had much more to do with whether one had lived a moral life than merely about one's faith.

Certainly this seems more reasonable than Kant's counter-intuitive position on things like lying. You don't commit to the notion of an algorithm that would govern what happens when various duties come into conflict, and so I wonder whether you would say that one duty is greater than another, or whether the conflict between duties should be mediated on the basis of the particular demands of the context.

I have to say the latter. I am not at all certain that a graded absolutism can be made to work. Perhaps it could if the list of duties could be made exhaustive enough. But with a simple list of duties as I've provided, I can't see how to put one over the other. If the duty of fidelity conflicts with the duty of reparation, which am I to obey? It depends on the context, doesn't it? How important was the promise I made? How grievous the harm I need to repair? Etc.

I think you might be suspicious of the latter as a deontologist simply because it easily leads to the introduction of teleology. However, I wouldn't want to lump teleology completely in with the utilitarians who -- and I hope I am not being needlessly uncharitable, as they aren't around to defend themselves -- don't have a sufficient notion of the good and have not considered the mechanics of a moral action satisfactorily.

I am not completely opposed to teleology. I just think the deontological model is a more useful model. I am not terribly concerned with whether I am a "pure" deontologist or not. (I have already embraced "threshold deontology" over absolute deontology, after all.)

Instead, we could say that when ethical principles come into conflict they can be resolved in the way which best leads to a well-rounded life. That's what I mean by relativized principles: that these principles are considered good depending on how they fit in the context of human life. That doesn't mean that ethical principles should be considered merely arbitrary expressions of will; ethical relativism does not void the reality of ethics, it just considers it subordinate to something higher.

This one concerns me. I certainly believe that the meaning of life, such as there is, is to live a morally good life and to live it well. However, there are cases where I may be called upon to sacrifice my life in order to meet that goal so it's not just my own well-rounded life I'm considering (or maybe I am, but in a different way). Presumably the philosophy you're describing would be able to accommodate that, but I'd be very concerned if it couldn't. In the general sense of something being good because it's good for something, be it human life in general, my life in particular, or whatever, yes, that's certainly true. There is nothing at all objectionable about that kind of relativism and I think we all rather assume it. Onions are bad for my cat, but that doesn't mean they're bad for me, nor does it mean that they're just bad.

tc said...

"there are cases where I may be called upon to sacrifice my life in order to meet that goal so it's not just my own well-rounded life I'm considering (or maybe I am, but in a different way)."

I don't think the two are necessarily contradictory; Aristotle certainly considered the greatest death -- and therefore the greatest life -- to be glorious death on the battlefield. He believed that it contributed to one's happiness to die for the sake of one's city, because a person's happiness does not only extend to what that person is conscious of--that's why someone can become more or less happy after their death depending on how their friends and family fare. In Aristotle's virtue ethics, in order to be happy, one must tie their happiness together with that of their friends and community, so personal happiness can't be selfish.

So I would contend that virtues such as courage, charity, etc. are good because they contribute to a happy life; their goodness derives from their contribution to the best possible life. This allows for an appropriate flexibility cross-culturally and discourages dogmatism (in that not everyone has to be the same). But I think the controversial part would be that such ethics are conditional and relative to ones personal situation (though the proper course of action is not arbitrary). Thus, moral maxims are not absolute, but allow for suspensions in unusual situations. However, if this sort of ethics is compatible with yours, it could blur the line between "threshold" deontology and virtue ethics, and I have heard it argued that some forms of deontology are compatible with virtue ethics, though they have a different focus.

Andrew Stevens said...

I certainly believe that my ethical philosophy is fairly consistent with virtue ethics. For example, one of the pro tanto duties I recognize is the duty of self-improvement, which gives me virtue ethics of a kind as a subset.

I am skeptical of virtue ethics on its own however. I'm all for cross-cultural flexibility and non-dogmatism, but only within reason. If a culture makes a habit of blowing up its children, we need to be able to say that this is wrong, even if the culture considers sacrificing one's children a virtue. (I'm certain that a virtue ethics can handle this, of course, but the deontological theory covers every common sense moral truth one might have neatly, whereas I think a virtue ethics has to strain.)

Lee said...

> So I would contend that virtues such as courage, charity, etc. are good because they contribute to a happy life; their goodness derives from their contribution to the best possible life.

In sheer human terms, there is no specification for a "happy life."

What makes some people "happy" repulses others.

Some people are happiest giving charity; others are happiest denying it. Some are happiest when making others happy; some are happy when making others miserable.

> I think there's an interesting reason for this: traditionally in Christianity, God hasn't really had a whole lot to do with morality.

Which Bible are you using? Not the one I'm familiar with.

Andrew Stevens said...

Lee, if he's following Aristotle, he's referring to "eudaimonia," often translated happiness, but probably better translated "flourishing." Aristotle specifically meant it in a sense of being successful and living a life in accordance with virtue. To live a good (in the ethical sense) life and to live well. (Some other Greek philosophers of the time use eudaimonia in a different way. Epicurus identified it with pleasure.)

But there is a confusion here since the English translations we're using don't really properly get at what Aristotle was saying. For another thing, for Aristotle, eudaimonia was a process, not a state one could rest in. But the English word "happiness" refers to a state, not a process. You never accomplished eudaimonia until your life was over.