Friday, October 15, 2010

Linking different views of ethics

Humanism is a fundamentally pragmatic (i.e. consequentialist) ethical system: "suffering"* is inherently bad, and "happiness" is inherently good. Suffering and happiness are states of affairs, not choices. Therefore the ethical application of humanism to choices is pragmatic: when a humanist has a choice, the correct choice is the one that leads to the least suffering and/or the most happiness (by some calculus, and it's non-trivial to determine the correct calculus); i.e. the choice that has the best consequences. Since all choices are evaluated by their outcome, humanism is fundamentally pragmatic.

*While pain, discomfort and inconvenience are related to suffering in a substantive way (and pleasure, comfort and convenience related to happiness), the concepts are distinct. A full treatment of what precisely constitutes suffering is outside the scope of this post.

In the ideal case, we might determine that some choice — such telling the truth when we have the choice between telling the truth and telling a lie — always leads to the best outcome. Since we are determining the value of the outcome independently of the nature of the choice, if we were to make this sort of determination, we would be synthetically determining the "intrinsic" value of telling the truth. Pragmatism might be in the ideal case synthetically deontic.

(Contrast this view with the "analytical" pragmatism: in a fundamentally deontic ethical view, the best outcome is defined to be what follows from the "inherently" correct choice.)

Because pragmatism at least might be synthetically deontic, the observation that we have deontic psychological attitudes does not immediately falsify pragmatism. There might still be particular deontic attitudes that would falsify pragmatism, but just observing any old deontic attitude without considering its content does not falsify pragmatism.

In a more realistic case, we have to consider imperfect information. In the ideal case, we assume we know all the available choices, we know all the consequences of each choice for the entire lifetime of the universe, and we know the "correct" calculus for determining the overall value of these consequences. We obviously do not have all of this information available to us; indeed we have very little information about the consequences of an action. So instead we make time- and space-limited generalizations — more limited than universals, and we can empirically determine generalities with confidence — about the likely consequences of an action. So when a pragmatist says telling the truth is good, she means that telling the truth will generally have the best consequences in the foreseeable future. The generalization stands as long as cases are limited where the particular outcomes of particular choices fall outside the scope of the generalization, e.g. lying to the Nazis about the Jews hiding in your basement. Indeed, it is arguable that the exceptions disappear in the ideal case: there won't be any Nazis to lie to in an ideal world where everyone has good faith, perfect information and perfect rationality.

Not only do we have to little information, we also paradoxically have too much information. Our ethical beliefs are informed by all the choices that all human beings have made since we invented the concept of ethical evaluation, sometime in our prehistory. These choices have influenced our ideas, our individual and social psychology in an evolutionary manner*: we have heritable variation of our ideas and some ideas are selected against** by nature and are thus removed from the "meme" pool. Nature cannot select directly against intentions; nature directly selects against only outcomes. Our actual cognitive structures are thus informed by at least a summary of our actual choices from the past.

*I'm talking about the direct evolution of psychological attitudes; the academic discipline of evolutionary psychology deals primarily with cognitive selection on genetic evolution. There may well be genetic factors at work in our ethical beliefs, but identifying these factors is far beyond my scientific competence.

**Selection against psychological attitudes is usually directly against the attitudes and their verbal transmission, not against the life or biological reproductive success of the individuals holding those attitudes.

So we have evolved collections of ethical ideas we actually use to evaluate our actions. But a collection of ethical ideas is just another name for a virtue. If it is empirically true that telling the truth generally leads to the best outcome (and, more importantly if it is empirically true that lying leads to bad enough outcomes that the propensity to lie has been selected against), we would expect people to retain the ethical ideas that lead us to generally tell the truth: we would expect them to evolve the virtue of honesty, even if they were not at all consciously aware that telling the truth generally led to the best outcome.

Thus we can see that pragmatic and humanistic ethics relate to the supposed "alternatives" of deontic and virtue ethics by virtue of imperfect information and the evolution of human beings' individual and social psychology.

We have an overwhelming epistemic problem trying to explain ethical behavior in fundamentally deontic or virtue-ethical way. A fundamental deontic ethical system must offer us a way of knowing which choices are intrinsically good without any appeal to an independent evaluation of the outcomes. We must say, at least in an ideal theory, that a good choice might always lead to an inferior outcome by any independent method of evaluating those outcomes. But how would we know, independently of the outcome, that such a choice really is good? The same is true of virtue ethics: how do we know some virtue is good independently of the outcome of exercising that virtue? In all my reading of philosophy (which while extensive is not, of course, exhaustive) I've not found even a hint of such an epistemic method that does not in some way covertly import an independent evaluation of the outcome. Pragmatic humanism, on the other hand, has an empirically determinable foundation: we can observe suffering and happiness: it rests on the same general epistemic foundation as all of modern science.

Not only is pragmatic humanism related to deontic and virtue ethics, the specific character of the relation succinctly explains not only our ordinary moral behavior, but also all the weird anomalies.

The canonical exception to deontic ethics is precisely the "lying to Nazis" scenario. If telling the truth is inherently good, regardless of the outcome, we should not feel any discomfort imagining that if the Nazis asked straight out if there were Jews hiding in the basement. But of course we do (or at least I do) feel an intense discomfort in such a scenario. Alternatively, if telling the truth is not inherently good, why do we feel any discomfort ever about lying, regardless of the circumstances? Clever philosopher have, of course, addressed these issues, but the efforts look more and more like epicycles; the fixes have a decidedly unreal flavor. Imperfect information and psychological evolution, however, seem immediately and concretely real.

Even supposed anomalies in pragmatism, such as the Trolley Problem, seem adequately addressed by including imperfect information and psychological evolution.

Almost all investigations into pragmatic ethical intuitions include the assumption of perfect knowledge of the outcomes. We know that pulling the lever will definitely lead to one person being struck and killed by the trolley instead of five. We know that pushing someone in front of the trolley will definitely stop the trolley, and we know that failing to do so will definitely kill five. Additionally, these problems typically assume that pragmatism entails that in actual practice we routinely make our choices by consciously considering the alternatives and making the choice that we consciously evaluate to have the best outcome. One might just as well assume that we consciously set up and solve a quadratic equation every time we catch a ball. But of course we have ethical intuitions in the first place precisely because we have imperfect information. The more removed the consequences, the more they are uncertain: the deaths caused by just switching a lever is more removed and thus more uncertain than the death caused by pushing someone on the track, but the lives saved are just as remote. It is unsurprising then that we would have different intuitions about the different cases.

(Also note that ideal deontic and virtue ethics also predicts identical choices in the different scenarios; no ideal case absent imperfect information and psychological evolution predicts different behavior. Only pragmatism, however, easily encompasses these qualifiers.)

We thus see that pragmatic, deontic and virtue ethics are really the same thing, they just operate at different levels of abstraction. "Deontic" ethics just talk about those actions that generally have the best outcome, and prescribe that we follow the generally best choice when the outcome is really unknown. Virtue ethics just talk about the psychological attitudes that we actually use to evaluate circumstances against our understanding of the generally best choice. And all rest on a fundamental foundation of pragmatism.

1 comment:

  1. The trolley problem reminds me of teaching intro physics. Intro physics students intuitively understand that in order to move an object, you need to push it. So when you talk about a block sliding on a frictionless surface, they think there must be some force to keep it in motion.

    We intuitively understand that it's wrong to push a heavy person in front of a train in order to stop it from running over five other people. So even when we state that outcomes are certain, we still think it must be better to let five people die rather than one.

    The difference between the two situations, is that in physics we know the theory is right and our intuition wrong, because we have empirical observations to back it up. In ethics, intuition is a source of ethical knowledge, so we instead think that the underlying theory (ie pragmatism) must be wrong. But sometimes our intuition is just dumb.


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