Saturday, February 23, 2013

theObserver on Do the ends justify the means?

In Do the ends justify the means? theObserver replies to my earlier post of the same name. See my post for our earlier comments.

theObserver begins with a concise, accurate summary of my position:
Larry explains that although all three constructions are problematic, he has come down in favor of the pragmatic view. Deontic ethics suffer from unsolvable epistemic problems while a mixed view only introduces the weakness of both deontic and pragmatic ethics without resolving either. Pragmatism on the other hand offers the possibility of making justifiable decisions through analyzing the outcomes and learning through our knowledge of cultural evolution. Furthermore the meta-ethics of pragmatism contains less ontological entities making analysis more straightforward and consistent.

Note that I typically use pragmatism as a rough synonym for consequentialism. I want to differentiate my ideas from deonticism or essentialism (an actions has an intrinsic moral value independent of its effects) on the one side and expediency on the other (an action can be judged completely on the basis of their short-term or some other limited subset of its effects.)

theObserver has a number of objections. First, he objects that pragmatism is still complicated. It's hard to know the effects, and it's hard to analyze the effects we do know. Second, he also objects that there are some ethical ideas, such as "[g]lory, honor, nationalism, even democracy and liberty" that we cannot, because they are not ends, pragmatically analyze. Third, he complains that pragmatism as recognizes that people can have "bad" preferences, but a meta-ethical system should not simply recognize but systematically fix bad preferences. These objections, however, do not seem to undermine pragmatism in any important way.

I don't see the first problem as a problem at all: I don't claim that pragmatism is a silver bullet. I would see as valid the objection that pragmatism is complicated only if the alternatives were simpler and at least just as valuable as, if not better than, pragmatism. But, as I write in the original post, while certainly simpler, deonticism is considerably worse than pragmatism, because it gives us no systematic justification for moral values at all. Remember, a truly deontic moral system must evaluate the moral value of actions independently of their effects. We must, somehow, justify a prohibition against murder independently of the dead body. Once you reject "God says so," or "The chief says so," it's hard to get a handle on how to justify deontic ethics without somehow importing a pragmatic analysis, as theObserver does in his evaluation of Stalin. So, yes, pragmatism is complicated. We can't just predict of all the effects in infinite time and space, precisely evaluate them, and do a rigorous benefit-cost analysis to come to a concrete, deterministic judgment. But once we know where the messiness, imprecision, and differences of opinion lie, we can start to apply all the intellectual tools we have developed to make improvements.

Second, we can judge some ethical ideas pragmatically, and if we cannot judge some others, so what? Does the social construction of democracy, for example, as best we can judge lead to overall positive or negative outcomes? If positive, then it is a useful social construct; if negative, it is a candidate for modification. Is liberty itself a positive or negative outcome? If it seems that sometimes liberty is positive and sometimes negative, then it's worthwhile to analyze why that would be so. And suppose we cannot just cannot evaluate "honor" in a pragmatic way. Perhaps, then, it is simply not an ethically important idea. It cannot be a criticism of pragmatism just that pragmatism is not deontic; such a criticism would simply beg the question.

I don't quite understand theObserver's third point: "If a pragmatic meta-ethical framework consistently allows "bad" preferences for outcomes then we must alter our meta-ethical framework to fix the problem." The phrase "allows 'bad' preferences" seems vague here. First, any meta-ethical system must account for the existence of both good and bad somethings. That pragmatism says that sometimes people have preferences for outcomes that most other people would consider bad, it's doing the job that any meta-ethical system must do. Second, no meta-ethical system by itself solves any ethical conflicts. People use meta-ethical systems to evaluate situations and guide their actions. Thus, retrospectively applying pragmatism and seeing that the outcome of some choice was bad, because (presumably) either the actors did not apply a pragmatic framework and act to effect the best foreseeable outcome, or they did the best they could with limited human knowledge, would not seem to undermine the analytical framework.

This third objection arose in the framework of a specific case. In his comment, theObserver seems to imply that pragmatism was a sufficient justification for Stalin's evils (accepting arguendo the alleged existence, magnitude, and motivation of those evils): "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." As I remarked in a followup post, Ethics, meta-ethics, death, and killing,, theObserver here is not even alleging a pragmatic justification, neither for Stalin nor Sartre.

So, fundamentally, theObserver's critique here seems to be that pragmatism does not give us easy, "plug-and-chug" answers to ethical problems; true, but why should we expect easy answers? Pragmatism is not deonticism; indeed: it is different. And the philosophy pragmatism is not itself a moral actor. Of course not; no philosophy is. I think pragmatism easily withstands theObserver's challenge.


  1. Larry,

    What would your opinion be to the idea that deontological ethics may simply be the result of a long forgotten pragmatism. Where the pragmatic was the initial impetus but over time the pragmatic justifications fall away, perhaps once understood by everyone, and become the ethical rules or moral duties that people inherit. Even our moral/ethical instincts, it could be argued, are the result of the pragmatism required for survival.

    "That pragmatism says that sometimes people have preferences for outcomes that most other people would consider bad, it's doing the job that any meta-ethical system must do."

    I think I understand what you are saying but unless you are suggesting that popularity be the metric of how ethical a pragmatic solution is, you still have the problem of why any proposed outcome is more ethical than alternatives. Could deonto-ethics just be the initial position that violation of X core moral principles is a worse pragmatic outcome than other outcomes. Does pragmatism need to fiat assume what outcomes are better or worse before actions can be evaluated?

    What would you say is ,at least for you, the ultimate objective of ethics? Why be ethical?
    Apologies if you have answered this elsewhere, I am pretending to be working and can't dally too long on the site!

  2. I took another shot :)


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