Thursday, December 13, 2012

Ethics, meta-ethics, death, and killing

In his comment to my post, Do the ends justify the means?, theObserver encourages "radical honesty." theObserver believes that all ethical systems are to some extent flawed and self-serving. While I don't agree that all ethical systems are "flawed" — I don't know what would constitute a flaw in an ethical system — I do agree that all ethical systems are in a sense self-serving: an ethical system just is systematic expositions of one's socially relevant preferences. But theObserver raises an interesting question: Do one's preferences dictate a meta-ethical system or any of its components?

In one sense, the question is trivial, since if you dig down deep enough, one's preferences, in some sense, dictate everything. Even science: our preferences dictate what we choose to study scientifically, how we choose to study it, and how what kinds of models we use to describe an object of study. Yes, some specific propositions emerge from this methodology that are preference-independent, but as philosophers since Kuhn have noted, the whole process is so subjective and preference-driven that the notion that science is absolutely "objective" and preference-independent is obviously incorrect.

In another sense, though, we do have methodologies, such as science, that really do subvert some of our preferences. It would be unacceptably reductionist to simply say that we just believe what we prefer to believe, without any reference to constraints imposed on our beliefs by observation, experience, and reason. Thought is complicated, and I don't think it a good theory to say that every particular thing a person does and says results directly from a preference that is simply a brute fact of his or her consciousness. On the other hand, people do have preferences which do inform their speech and action, and while these preferences presumably have a causal history, they are actual facts about the world.

As theObserver correctly notes, the difference between deontological and pragmatic meta-ethics is philosophical rather than scientific; neither deontological nor pragmatic meta-ethics by itself actually solves any particular ethical question. But that observation seems unsurprising. If someone has "bad" preferences, i.e. the sort of preferences that you, gentle reader, and I both find unacceptable or abhorrent, phrasing them in terms of deonticism or pragmatism isn't going to make those preferences any better. I claim that at best, pragmatism makes the analysis of ethical beliefs, good and bad, more straightforward and consistent.

theObserver, however, goes on to make a stronger claim:
Modern history offers its own objections [to pragmatism], 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.
It is not clear, however, how pragmatism per se is the culprit here. First, even granting arguendo that Sartre and others really did "welcome Stalin's slaughter and show trials" (I don't know either way), the actual argument is that the extremity of the means justified the ends. This argument might be labeled as perverse deonticism, but it is not pragmatism. A pragmatist could argue only that the ends were so valuable that even the "slaughter and show trials" were of lesser consequence than the value those means obtained. That's a much more difficult case to make; given uncertainty and a welfare-utilitarian view of outcomes, I think the pragmatic case cannot be made. I think the only way to make the case for egregious acts of brutality against human beings is to take a deontic view (e.g. communism is inherently better than capitalism, regardless of any specific consequences), which is of course not an argument against pragmatism, or to take a non-welfare-utilitarian view of outcomes (e.g. the best outcome is one where I have absolute power over other people).

The latter "bad" case above just rests on "bad" preferences for outcomes. But it is already admitted that a meta-ethical system does not by itself entail that one's actual preferences are good. A meta-ethical system is just a framework for conceptualizing ethics. In much the same sense, the scientific method does not mean that all actual science performed by scientists accurately describes the real world; it's just a framework for a process. So just like saying that a scientist can do bad science (or even do good science and get fooled by the world, which happens a lot),
simply saying that a pragmatist can have bad ethics is not by itself an argument against pragmatism.

And in fact, the theObserver's pragmatic analysis of the specific ethical failures of Stalin shows the power of pragmatism as an analytic tool. The outcome wasn't worth the means to get there; if the outcome had been worth it, if the Soviet Union were today a Stalinist paradise, we would be as tolerant of its historical faults, however grievous, as most people are of the historical faults of every other society, including our own*. We judge Stalin bad not because he contravened any deontic, inherent ethical truth, but because he failed. The ends were insufficiently good to justify the means.

*Stalin is a monster, and communism is utterly discredited, because Stalin unjustly tried and killed a few hundred thousand people. The founders of the American Republic, however, who suborned the actual enslavement of millions of human beings and laid the foundation for our present society that imprisons and oppresses millions of black and Hispanic human beings and is has killed tens of millions of human beings for its colonialist and imperialist ambitions, were intelligent, thoughtful men struggling as best they could (and quite well indeed) with difficult political problems, and they helped build today's capitalist society , which is, absent a few judicious reforms, a successful, vibrant political system which should serve as a model for the rest of the world.

theObserver continues:
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.
I don't see this as much of an objection. First, all knowledge, and all changes in our ethical beliefs, have come about by horrendous costs. All of human history is written in the blood of children. More importantly, I am not convinced that "consequentialist ethics were deployed to justify these actions in opposition to deontological ethics." As theObserver himself notes, the difference between consequentialist/pragmatic and deontic ethics is philosophical, not scientific: any ethical belief, good or bad, can be framed in both pragmatic and deontic terms, and any objection to some ethical belief can be similarly framed in both meta-ethical terms. One can, therefore, simply frame everything bad that's happened in pragmatic terms, and frame all the objections in deontic terms, and poof! pragmatism comes out looking terrible. One can also do the opposite, of course, and find deonticism to be completely horrible. Therefore, this kind of analysis does not seem promising.

However, it's worth noting that deontic meta-ethics often tries to frame its principles in terms of pragmatism or pseudo-pragmatism. As theObserver notes, deontic ethicists assert that deontically worse actions (somehow) always have "negative and usually unforeseen consequences"; they also usually assert that deontically better actions always have positive consequences. To the extent that the consequences of actions can be judged independently of the means, then they are simply asserting the equivalence of deonticism and pragmatism. However, there are three varieties of pseudo-pragmatism. The first is vacuous pseudo-pragmatism: the best outcomes are whatever happens to occur from deotically better actions; we cannot judge an outcome independently of the means used to obtain it. So if, for example, the deontically good free market system entails that we have massive unemployment and a permanent hyper-exploited and imprisoned underclass, well, those must be good outcomes; people are getting what they deserve, or, bad as these outcomes might be, any change would be for the worse. The second is unfalsifiable pseudo-pragmatism: submitting to the Church's moral authority will have a pragmatically better outcome, more people will go to heaven in the afterlife), but while the pragmatic outcomes can be independently judged (it is better per se to go to heaven than hell), they cannot be independently observed. Finally, there's delusional pragmatism, means justified by some imaginary end that cannot possibly be known to result from those means. None of these are actual pragmatism (rational pragmatism entails that the ends be reasonably knowable and known), but all four of these cases show the value of pragmatism: even when they cannot do so, and have to retreat into metaphysical bullshit, the pragmatic argument remains powerful.

Finally, I want to confront one of theObserver's points head on. "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?" These are questions that demand, I think, answers less simplistic than "none" and "nothing," respectively. How many people should we have killed to end slavery? We can argue that perhaps, the answer is less than the hundreds of thousands who died in the U.S. Civil War, but to answer none at all is to suborn chattel slavery. How many should Gandhi have encouraged to protest, exposing them to death, to achieve Indian independence? Hundreds, perhaps a thousand, were killed in the Jallianwala Bagh massacre alone. How many construction workers have to fall to their deaths or electricians have to be electrocuted so we can have our homes and offices? Again, the answer might be fewer than actually occur, but none? We live in a hostile and uncertain world, and we have to make trade-offs, sometimes trade-offs that result in people's death. If you absolutely condemn killing as unjustifiable, then you also, I think, have to absolutely condemn putting people in situations where you know some will die; else you cannot condemn Hitler, who never, as far as I know, actually killed anyone. And, fundamentally, if you will not kill, or suborn actual killing, you cannot defend yourself against tyranny and oppression.

This is not to say that killing and death are entirely unproblematic, tools as benign as eating and drinking. They always result in, well, the deaths of human beings, which is an unarguably bad outcome. Without a doubt we always want to have fewer deaths (i.e. shortened lives), but we cannot have zero.


  1. Another excellent post Larry. I'm on my third draft of a reply but hopefully I can write something semi-coherent in the next day or two.

  2. I wrote some further comments [here]. Sorry for the long delay.


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