June 11, 2008

The utility of ethics

The ethics exam is going to come hurtling down on Philosophy students this Saturday, and naturally this means I am desparately trying to remember whatever parts of it I learnt in the first place.

The mode of analysing ethics covered in the module proceeds by the method of "reflective equilibrium". Here's how it works -

First off, we look through our beliefs about a variety of morally challenging scenarios, and see what sort of intuitions they generate. So for example, imagine that you are on a run-away railway trolley hurtling down a track at 5 workmen. The train-track is running through a valley, so there is no possible way for them to escape death - unless that is you redirect the trolley onto a siding by pressing a big red button. BUT! Another unfortunate workman is sitting on this siding. If you redirect the trolley, you will undoubtably kill him. Yet many people think this is permissible.

Once we have our intuitions about a range of cases, we look and see whether there is an underlying rule which can explain them all. Perhaps there are several cases like this - we can imagine lots of scenarios in which, unless one person dies, five people will die. So we will make a general rule - it is better than one die than that five people die.

Once we have our generalisation, we put it to the test again. Are there situations where the rule allows something that our intuition rules out? Suppose that we are a doctor with the power to perform perfect transplants: anyone he transplants an organ into will survive, and not only that, will live just as well as if the organ was their own. Now it just so happens that five of our patients are going to die from organ failure - two are missing lungs, one needs a new heart, one needs a liver and a fifth needs a pair of kidneys. In to our surgery walks a freindly janitor, whose tissue type happens to match all five. We ask him if he will sacrifice himself so that we can save the five, but he regretfully declines. It so happens that we have a small pistol in our pocket...

Is it permissible for the doctor to proceed? By our previous principle, he should be allowed to. After all, if the one person dies, and the doctor uses his organs, the five will not die. This will be the better course of action according to the last principle. But our intuition says that the doctor may not proceed.

We now have two options - we can reject the principle, or reject the intuition. Maybe we think the principle is good enough that it is worth ammending our intuitive moral judgements - or maybe we think the intuition is so sacred we will need to refine our principle before it becomes tenable.

Reflective equilibrium is the point we arrive at when we have bounced our general rules and our native intuitions together until they start to stick. When we have made a culling of our intuitions and a refinement of our principles, we eventually decide that this, right here, is our ethical system.

I don't much like this mode of procedure. For one thing it's conservative. If we spend enough time, we can finesse our moral theories indefinitely until we reach the point at which they produce a 1:1 match with our intuitions. But whilst this could be seen as refinement of the theories, taking away sharp edges, to me it looks like dulling them down beyond the point of interest. What is incredible about Utilitarianism is that it demanded every person be counted as one in the moral calculation, irrespective of social position. What it achieved it achieved through radicalness. By finessing the parts of Utilitarianism we find hard to swallow, we may also slip the loop of any requirements it places upon us. To refine the theory to match our existing convictions is to neuter it.

Another problem I have with the level of theoretical discussion is that frequently, the points being made have bearing only conceivably on the theoretical level. When we live in a world where thousands die from starvation and grain is dumped from container ships when prices dip low, it is surely irrelevant whether we believe that it is the lack of equality between rich and poor that is at issue, or the lack of priority that is given to the poor on an absolute scale.

I hold out hope for ethics' potential for making the world a better place, in what I can only think of as a trickle-down effect. Abstract debate informs less abstract debate, feeds into think-tanks, informs policy groups, and eventually arrives in the political realm as reforms in one direction or another. But to me the link seems painfully tenuous.


- One comment Not publicly viewable

  1. Sue

    My first thought when reading this was that the man who was by himself would be dying alone which seems to put him at a disadvantage but I ‘m not sure exactly why, I think it’s probably an irrational thing to think. At the moment I’m reading a book about heuristic reasoning which I’m finding very interesting. It says that we are often obliged to use heuristic reasoning. We can attain complete certainty when we have obtained the complete solution but before obtaining that certainty we must often be satisfied with a more or less plausible guess. Apparently in 1908 a large object passed over Siberia at a height estimated to be between 5 km and 8.5 km above the ground. For many years it was thought to be a black hole but as eye witnesses described it as very bright it’s unlikely that it was a black hole as they are black.

    12 Jun 2008, 00:36


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