Wednesday, December 05, 2012

Do the ends justify the means?

Do the ends justify the means? To understand this question we have to deconstruct it. There are, I think, three ways to look at this question. First, we can say that we can ethically judge only the means: good ends, whatever they might be, are just the ends that results from good means; on this view, the ends cannot justify the means. Second, we can say that we can ethically judge only ends; good means, whatever they might be, are just those that result in good ends. The third is to say that we can judge both the means and the ends, and sometimes we have to weigh the good of the ends against the bad of the means (and vice-versa): sometimes we might have to employ bad means to obtain a good end (e.g. lying to the Nazis to hide the Jews); sometimes we have to accept bad ends to employ good means (e.g. risking a Romney victory by not voting for Obama because he's insufficiently progressive). The first is usually labeled deontic ethics, the second pragmatic ethics, and the third is a mixture, juxtaposition, or dialectical combination of deontic and pragmatic ethics.

All three constructions are problematic.

Deontic ethics have an essentially epistemic problem: how do we know whether some means are intrinsically good or bad, independently of the ends? We have our intuitions about means, but how do we know our intuitions are accurate? Remember, for everyone who asserts that lying or killing is intrinsically wrong, independently of the outcome, there's another who asserts that atheism, or homosexuality, or equal rights for women or black people, etc. is intrinsically wrong, regardless of the outcome that would result from tolerating the intrinsic wrong. But how do they know? By definition, we cannot evaluate the intrinsic ethical character of some means by looking at their ends, so what can we observe to determine the character of means, especially when there's controversy about people's intuitive opinions of means?

Pragmatic ethics suffer from the "Omelas" problem, from Ursula LeGuin's story. What if we really could achieve very great positive ends (the deep "spiritual" fulfillment of a whole society) by small but horrific means (the unremitting torture and degradation of a single child)? It intuitively seems that there are some acts that shock our consciences so deeply that even though the harm is relatively small, no possible gain could justify it, especially when the harm is intentionally inflicted, rather than accidentally occurring. That there are some means that seem so desperately wrong that no ends could possibly justify them deeply challenges pragmatism.

A mixed strategy just brings in both problems without resolving either.

Fundamentally, I've come down on the pragmatic view. We can, in theory, judge only ends, not means; it therefore trivially follows that the ends justify the means. We can see people's happiness and suffering more directly than we can see the ethical value of means, and our judgment of happiness and suffering (broadly defined) as good and bad, respectively, seem relatively uncontroversial. Once we accept that human (or sapient, or sentient) happiness and suffering are morally relevant, our epistemic problem disappears.

But the pragmatist must explain our intuition that means really do have intrinsic moral character. Even (and perhaps especially) if these intuitions were completely erroneous, why would we have them? Why do they seem so compelling? Why do some walk away from Omelas? Why do we have very different intuitive reactions to the different constructions of the Trolley Problem, even though the outcomes seem exactly identical?

Although pragmatism solves the foundational epistemic problem posed by deontic ethics, it has its own practical epistemic problem. We cannot know all the ends that will from any means even in the short term, and we know no ends at all in the long term. Theoretically, a pragmatic philosophy must look at every implication of every actions, however trivial, until the end of time, to make an optimal choice. This kind of infinite analysis seems entirely impossible.

A curious paradox! We can know what the means are exactly, but we have no basis to judge them. We can judge the outcomes consistently, but we cannot know completely and exactly what they actually will be. We cannot judge what we can know, and we cannot know exactly what we can judge.

However, while the epistemic problem of deonticism seems fundamentally unsolvable, the epistemic problem of pragmatism is at least partially tractable. We cannot analyze outcomes completely, but we can often analyze outcomes well enough to make justifiable decisions. We can, for example, analytically predict with measurable confidence that laws against murder really will result in greater overall happiness, with the benefits clearly outweighing the drawbacks, even though we don't completely know the outcome in precise detail. If chance* really does exist, then chance seems to be proportional to distance and time: it is impossible to predict the effect that my eating eggs in the US for breakfast this morning will have on a middle-class family in China because all the chance between me and them renders the effects of my actions unpredictable.

*In the sense of in-principle unpredictability, which is compatible with ontological determinism.

In addition to our reasonable analytic capacity, we also develop our pragmatic understanding from cultural evolution. We know from history, for example, that people seem happier and suffer less in societies that have a particular range of liberty, somewhere between absolute submission to authority and chaotic, uncoordinated individualism. This finding is not directly analytical, but seems scientifically supported by a study of history. Thus, there is evidence that our moral intuitions about means is just our accumulated understanding of what has and has not pragmatically worked in the past; it's not some mystical judgment about the means themselves, independent of any possible ends.

Indeed, I've argued before, the main problem with Omelas (and related arguments) are their lack of realism. It's difficult to believe that the torture of a child really could result in the spiritual fulfillment of a whole society. We might be reacting negatively to the torture of a child simply because, on some intuitive level, we do not believe that such torture really could have good results; we might really object that the result of the torture could not possibly be as LeGuin describes it. Other counter-arguments, such as the Trolley Problem, can be similarly recast in pragmatic/habit forms.

We cannot differentiate between deontic and pragmatic meta-ethics directly by experiment. Every pragmatic conclusion can be recast as a deontic conclusion, simply by saying that it's irrelevant that deontically good means tend to have pragmatically good ends, simply because we've become conditioned to approve of the ends that come from good means, just as in a pragmatic philosophy, we say that we become conditioned to deontically approve of the means that generate good pragmatic ends. We can, however, differentiate between deontic and pragmatic meta-ethics metaphysically: pragmatism is simpler and more direct than deonticism, with fewer ontological entities. Hence, pragmatism is a better meta-ethical system than deonticism.

8 comments:

  1. I’ve never understood this question; do the ends justify the means? Because, of course the do. If they didn’t, then you’d know that whatever end you were at was really just the beginning. The reality is you never reach the end, that’s what the pragmatist approach is all about. The Realist may say that discovering all the Truth and encircling it with language is the goal of science and philosophy. But the Pragmatist says, I have no idea what it would be like to reach the goal, so far as we know exchanging justifications for the things we do, believe and say is true is what life will always be about.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Andrew,

    You seem to ignoring a multitude of possible ends in deference to some ultimate end. Suppose there is no ultimate end. I will still need to eat. If I don't I will die. My immediate ends are to prevent my death and to sate my hunger. Do those ends justify the theft of my neighbours food? etc. etc.

    I’ve never understood this question; do the ends justify the means? Because, of course the do.
    My immediate end is to obtain a house to live in by myself. I obtain this end by murdering a family of four and moving into their house.


    Can I be said to be just in my actions because the end that I was aiming for is worthy enough intrinsically?
    or
    Is the end sufficent to make the means of it's obtaining just?

    This sort of question seems emminently straghtforward and perfectly understandable.

    ReplyDelete
  3. Bob: Keep in mind that there is a substantive difference between what I arbitrarily label as "pragmatism" and "expediency." Briefly, the former considers all the ends, as best we can determine; the latter considers only one or a few ends in isolation. A good justification of pragmatism can fail for expediency.

    ReplyDelete
  4. Bob,
    I guess I don't see myself as ignoring that unless you're looking for some sort of absolutist answer to the question. Since there isn't one (unless you have one to offer), then it's always going to be a question with continually shifting responses.

    We don't currently live in an environment where you can justify to society the theft of food or the murdering of your neighbor. Even if you can justify to yourself based on the simple premise that you need food to avoid death and shelter from the storm.

    Take abortion for example, today it's legal and most people think it should stay that way. However go back 40/50 years and the story is different. So what's happened? Did we realize we were wrong and we're now right? Or could it simply be that the thinking of 40 years ago doesn't work for people today as, I don't know, our needs and interests are different.

    It seems to me that given a context (our current one) there are easy consensus driven answers to these questions. The real trick seems to be how we skip the stone to the next piece of open water where justification for something new lies. If the idea takes, a pier is built to reach that new way of thinking. If it doesn't take, the dock withers away and falls back into the sea. Perhaps a question is, how do you justify something? Again, there's no absolutist answer, so it's really a question of context and justification - for me anyway.

    ReplyDelete
  5. I think a ‘radical honesty’ is called for. All systems of ethics are flawed so we pick the systems that match our nature and serve us best. As an individualist, I opt for virtue ethics. Pragmatism is focused on epistemology which appeals to analytical minded people strongly influenced by the success of the scientific method. Deontological ethics is focused on ontological matters which appeal to those who need the appearance of certainty and the absolute, perhaps with a healthy helping of mysticism.

    But to address your actual post, ‘do the ends justify the means' is asked in the context of sacrifices, attacking the lack of protection given to the individual in some ethical arguments: How many people can we kill to make the world a better place for the rest? How much must I sacrifice to reach my goal? Deconstructing it in terms of means vs. ends doesn't really meet that attack because deontological systems usually try to have it both ways by claiming breaking moral laws which are observed in nature will always have negative and usually unforeseen consequences.

    I don’t think we need to rely on thought experiments like Omelas for objections to pragmatism. Modern history offers its own objections, even when using a pragmatists own standard. France for example with its long history of revolutionary political violence accepted such violence as the inevitable price of change. Thus in post-war France, philosophers like Sartre were able to welcome Stalin’s slaughter and the show trails because they showed, perversely, the great cause was worth fighting for. The communist revolution was the Party and to dissent against the Party was to weaken the revolution. Therefore sacrifices must be made for the great cause.

    You may answer ‘Yes but as a result of pragmatism I no longer support a party system and instead support delegate democracy.’ Fair enough. But cost of that knowledge was horrendous and consequentialist ethics were deployed to justify these actions in opposition to deontological ethics. If we were to pragmatically choose ethical systems based on pragmatism by observing outcomes, I don’t think pragmatism itself comes out ahead very often.

    Also, who decides what standard we analyse the outcomes against and by what standard is an outcome good or bad? Surely we’ll end up with committees of experts and competing standards and systems of measurement? I think the epistemology problems are just as great with pragmatism as with other systems of ethics. Yes, there are fewer ontological entities but that is not necessarily good if the overall theory is flawed or weak and the conclusions lead to disaster.

    ReplyDelete
  6. A considered and thoughtful reply, TO. I will have to consider your remarks carefully, and respond after all my final papers are complete on Wednesday.

    There are some points I would like to see expanded.

    '[D]o the ends justify the means' is asked in the context of sacrifices, attacking the lack of protection given to the individual in some ethical arguments: How many people can we kill to make the world a better place for the rest?

    I don't necessarily think that that is the point of pragmatism. But sometimes, perhaps, we might indeed have to kill people to make the world a better place. May we kill the tyrant? His soldiers? His supporters?

    Modern history offers its own objections, even when using a pragmatists own standard. France for example with its long history of revolutionary political violence accepted such violence as the inevitable price of change. Thus in post-war France, philosophers like Sartre were able to welcome Stalin’s slaughter and the show trails because they showed, perversely, the great cause was worth fighting for.

    Is this merely a mistake, or an inevitable consequence of pragmatic ethics?

    If we were to pragmatically choose ethical systems based on pragmatism by observing outcomes, I don’t think pragmatism itself comes out ahead very often.

    An interesting point, that deserves a more complete exposition.

    I think the epistemology problems are just as great with pragmatism as with other systems of ethics. Yes, there are fewer ontological entities but that is not necessarily good if the overall theory is flawed or weak and the conclusions lead to disaster.

    Another interesting point on which I'd like to hear a more detailed exposition.

    ReplyDelete
  7. I think a ‘radical honesty’ is called for.

    I'm all for radical honesty. :-)

    ReplyDelete

Please pick a handle or moniker for your comment. It's much easier to address someone by a name or pseudonym than simply "hey you". I have the option of requiring a "hard" identity, but I don't want to turn that on... yet.

With few exceptions, I will not respond or reply to anonymous comments, and I may delete them. I keep a copy of all comments; if you want the text of your comment to repost with something vaguely resembling an identity, email me.

No spam, pr0n, commercial advertising, insanity, lies, repetition or off-topic comments. Creationists, Global Warming deniers, anti-vaxers, Randians, and Libertarians are automatically presumed to be idiots; Christians and Muslims might get the benefit of the doubt, if I'm in a good mood.

See the Debate Flowchart for some basic rules.

Sourced factual corrections are always published and acknowledged.

I will respond or not respond to comments as the mood takes me. See my latest comment policy for details. I am not a pseudonomous-American: my real name is Larry.

Comments may be moderated from time to time. When I do moderate comments, anonymous comments are far more likely to be rejected.

I've already answered some typical comments.

I have jqMath enabled for the blog. If you have a dollar sign (\$) in your comment, put a \\ in front of it: \\\$, unless you want to include a formula in your comment.