Thursday, June 5, 2008

Deontology, Duty, and Death

Sister Y over at ‘The View From Hell’

http://theviewfromhell.blogspot.com/

has me brushing up on my ethics theory this week (damn, her prolificacy is maddening!). You can read some of the more salient posts and comments here...

http://theviewfromhell.blogspot.com/2008/06/nagel-trashing-subjectivism-crude-and.html

http://theviewfromhell.blogspot.com/2008/05/where-do-rights-come-from.html

http://theviewfromhell.blogspot.com/2008/06/tort-law-and-harm-of-death.html

Now, ethical theory has never held a lot of interest to me, for reasons which will become clear as we proceed (I think). But Sister Y has laid out the case so clearly (and fairly, I might add), that I feel obliged to add my own two cents, though I fear my insufficiencies will forever leave me flailing and gasping for air at the kiddie’s end of the pool. That said, we begin...

I guess I should start by defining deontology in its broadest terms. My Webster’s defines it thusly...

‘The ethical doctrine which holds that the worth of an action is determined as by its conformity to some binding rule rather than by its consequences."

This as opposed to consequentialism, where the rightness or wrongness of an action is determined by its consequences (predicated on prediction or ‘common knowledge’, I suppose; otherwise, things seem to be running backwards here). It seems that utilitarianism would fall under this umbrella, though I don’t doubt there are some technical differences of which I am unaware. From here we move on to what I would describe as the ‘strong’ and ‘weak’ views of deotology...

STRONG VIEW: Moral absolutism, whose edicts are arrived at either through divine command (God says it, I believe it), or by discerning and/or concretizing certain universal moral maxims (Kantian categorical imperative mumbo jumbo).

WEAK VIEW: Here, there’s more of a focus on the intrinsic ‘rightness’ or ‘wrongness’ of actions, where the appeal to a transcendent authority is replaced either by ‘moral intuition’, or by a sort of looping-back of universal consequentialism into prima facie pre-suppositionalism.

Speaking first to the strong view, and skipping over the obvious doubts concerning the existence and nature of any particular deific moral lawgiver, the natural question seems to be, how does one judge whether any given divine maxim is morally ‘right’? Of course, the moral absolutist would counter by pointing out that the very nature of the situation takes such concerns out of our hands; God says it, and that’s it! But isn’t that just another way of saying that ‘might makes right’? Is this a good starting place in ascertaining ethical standards? History might say otherwise- not to mention how this plays out in the sub-deific world, where gods rule by proxy, and there’s no way to determine how well His prophets and surrogate sovereigns are translating the workings out of His ‘perfect will’ here on earth. Furthermore, there’s the matter of psychologically internalizing these supernal moral schemas; is there to be any attempt at harmonization with our natural humanistic sensibilities, or are we simply called upon to ‘bite the bullet’?

As far as the weak view is concerned...first of all, I’ll admit I have a real problem with distinguishing between the concept of ‘moral intuition’, and ‘it feels good to me!’ It’s true that we can frame this in such a way that our intuitions take on a quasi-objective quality, by appealing to universal sentiments (themselves having their roots in biological and sociological evolution) and subsequently deriving somewhat comprehensive, ‘inherent’ maxims from there. But all this smacks of a certain rarified artificiality to me; chimeras rising from the misgivings of half-repentant agnostics. "Pass me a slice of that categorical imperative, but hold the lawgiver (or is that, raw liver?). Firstly, it’s empirically observable that ethical systems are temporally hammered out, and that even the moral pre-suppositions upholding those systems change over time-changes often motivated by the very ethical systems which they spawned (Oedipal osmosis? Hmmmm....).

Secondly, and more telling, I think, is that no matter what value is placed on this or that action, this or that proposition, the desirability of that value (or lack thereof) is ALWAYS measured in terms of a cause/effect relationship. Murder is ‘wrong’ BECAUSE we don’t like ‘wrongful’ death...etc. And even if we revert back up to the strong view, what are we left with? ‘Murder is wrong, because (name your deity) says so, AND if I go against (name your gender)’s will, there’s a possibility things may not go well with me (name your poison). And this brings me to my third point, namely that...

DEONTOLOGY IS INCOHERENT! Not because there’s no ultimate lawgiver. Not because there’s no sure way of determining ultimate moral values, much less of fashioning a consistent, across-the-board approach vis-a-vis ethical practices. But because morals and ethics are inextricably bound to consequences of one kind or another. Period.

Now, that’s not to say that all of us aren’t ipso facto deontologists from time to time. Given a particular situation, most of us will fall back on ‘that’s just wrong’ from time to time; it’s the end-product shorthand of even the most deconstructive of us. But it’s a philosophical misstep to give the idea any more credence than that. The concept just won’t stand up to any sustained critical analysis.

At this point, I’d like to paste an excerpt that’s part of an essay by Sister Y over at TheViewFromHell...hoping she doesn’t mind...

To reason is to think systematically in ways anyone looking over my shoulder ought to be able to recognize as correct. It is this generality that relativists and subjectivists deny. Even when they introduce a simulacrum of it in the form of a condition of consensus among a linguistic or scientific or political community, it is the wrong kind of generality - since at its outer bounds it is statistical, not rational.The worst of it is that subjectivism is not just an inconsequential intellectual flourish or badge of theoretical chic. It is used to deflect argument, or to belittle the pretensions of the arguments of others. Claims that something is without relativistic qualifications true or false, right or wrong, good or bad, risk being derided as expressions of a parochial perspective or form of life - not as a preliminary to showing that they are mistaken whereas something else is right, but as a way of showing that nothing is right and that instead we are all expressing our personal or cultural points of view. The actual result has been a growth in the already extreme intellectual laziness of contemporary culture and the collapse of serious argument throughout the lower reaches of the humanities and social sciences, together with a refusal to take seriously, as anything other than first-person avowals, the objective arguments of others. . . .Many forms of relativism and subjectivism collapse into either self-contradiction or vacuity - self-contradiction because they end up claiming that nothing is the case, or vacuity because they boil down to the assertion that anything we say or believe is something we say or believe. I think that all general and most restricted forms of subjectivism that do not fail in either of these ways are pretty clearly false.

Thomas Nagel, The Last Word

Here’s the problem: Truth statements are objective only as measured against pre-supposed, or agreed upon, frameworks. Even in mathematics, ‘proof’ is only valid insofar as all the values of all the factors are agreed upon. Change one value, and POOF! It all goes to hell. And ethics is all about shifting and sliding values, our relationships to rules, laws, unspoken prejudices and desires, and of course, to each other...are they not? That’s not to say that the truth of a thing in itself collapses, but we’re talking about perception here, not fact. Now, what Sokal did in his spoof of deconstructionism was not to eliminate the inherent subjectivism inherent in these discussions, but to point out the inconsistencies in postions not well thought out...i.e. a lot of folks at the left end of the political spectrum will say something like ‘all cultural practices are relative’, inferring that they all have equal value. Problem is, when pressed with examples of cultural atrocities, they’ll often find themselves at odds with their own moral sensibilites; in this way, their beliefs are self-contradictory.

But as I hope I’ve pointed out, deontology is likewise self-contradictory, because it employs consequentialism as a way of eliminating same. In a sense, it posits a ‘meta-consequentialism’ as a justification for its own existence, then says ‘ok, that’s enough. It all stops here.’ And as far as Nagel saying that subjectivism is just a way "used to deflect argument, or to belittle the pretensions of the arguments of others’, I’d respond in kind that deontology is just an attempted end-run around its own consequentialist orgins, where intellectual rigour is replaced with a bid for ultimate authority (no matter the mitigating language involved). In fact, his ‘Last Word’ seems more like an ad hominem sermon than any kind of reasoned treatment (ugh! 2 hours sleep is making me snarky...best wrap up).

*I just proofed what I’ve written, and the text has taken on the blurred appearance of the business card in ‘American Psycho’ (shhh, it’s a secret!). Feel free to correct, hack away, or otherwise decimate. Oh, the title? I was in a ‘D’ mood when I started this thing, that’s since shifted down to an ‘F’, so...fuck it. Oh, and don’t have kids!*

11 comments:

Utilitarian said...

Your writing style is quite unique and enjoyable. Thanks for the post!

It seems that utilitarianism would fall under this umbrella, though I don’t doubt there are some technical differences of which I am unaware.

No, I think utilitarianism is the classic textbook example of a consequentialist position. Often, "utilitarianism" is even used colloquially as a synonym for consequentialism (though it's actually only a subset of the space of all consequentialist doctrines).

the natural question seems to be, how does one judge whether any given divine maxim is morally ‘right’? Of course, the moral absolutist would counter by pointing out that the very nature of the situation takes such concerns out of our hands; God says it, and that’s it!

This relates to a classic question called the Euthyphro dilemma: "Is what is moral commanded by God because it is moral, or is it moral because it is commanded by God?" More generally, it's an instance of the is-ought problem: Just because this is what God told us to do, why ought we to do it? In this excellent article, Peter Singer points out that, regardless of what terms we use, there's fundamentally a gap between the claim that "objective morality is such and such" and "why should I care?"

This problem is more universal than just applying to deontology, however. Consequentialism, too, has a gap between what it prescribes and the intuition on the part of individuals that would motivate them to follow it.

morals and ethics are inextricably bound to consequences of one kind or another.

I share your intuition about the importance of consequences in morality -- as you can tell from my user name :) -- but I actually know several people who do believe that actions are right or wrong intrinsically, regardless of what happens, and with absolutely no reference to good/bad consequences. It happens that many of their deontic rules tend to coincide with what are generally considered good consequences, but in instances of conflict, these people actually prefer following the rule over avoiding a bad outcome.

Even if such people didn't exist, I don't think deontology would be incoherent (I can understand perfectly what it means), merely unpopular. This depends on how you define morality, though.

Many forms of relativism and subjectivism collapse into either self-contradiction or vacuity - self-contradiction because they end up claiming that nothing is the case [...].

True. The subjectivist replies, "What do I care about self-contradiction? That assumes the existence of truth and falsity. I don't understand such terms. And even my statements now are meaningless. Oh well."

your host said...

Greetings, utilitarian! Nice to see you here. I'm just pondering outloud on a subject probably best addressed by others.

I'm really getting the feeling that consequentialism is the motivating factor behind deontology (both kinds). What does it even mean to say that x action is 'just right' or 'just wrong', without appealing to the justification of consequence? The idea seems to grant a sort of inchoate authority by making unquestionability part of the structure of the concept itself. But I suspect that this is a case of God's left hand simply going unacknowledged.

As far as the subjectivity thing goes, and especially as it relates to deontology, well...let me put it this way. You say x is good, and y is bad. I say y is good, and x is bad. How do we discern who's right, apart from exploring our feelings about the consequentialist predictions as they pertain to our subjective worldviews? In this sense, deontology seems to be the ultimately subjective approach, and even beyond into inscrutability, for there are absolutely no objective measurements against which to judge our competing evalutions of x and y.

This circular logic is why I always try to appeal to the self- evident commonalities that I believe most people share. The problem as I see it cannot be solved by appealing to pseudo-platonic moral structures, but by pointing out where we are inconsistent with our own desires and sensibilities. 'Tis a messy business.

Great to see you! Take care.

Utilitarian said...

What does it even mean to say that x action is 'just right' or 'just wrong', without appealing to the justification of consequence?

Take lying, for instance. The idea is that, if I were to lie, it would impinge upon my moral character, and it wouldn't be the sort of thing that a moral person does. It's somewhat plausible to imagine people claiming that this derives from the intrinsic nature of what lying is (i.e., deception of one human being by another), which can be taken as bad regardless of how it affects anyone.

I suppose one could say that "the state of deception of one person by another" is a consequence of my action of lying, and I want to avoid that consequence because I regard it as a bad consequence; hence I'm really a consequentialist. But I guess this stretches the sense of what people usually mean by that term. For any moral system, there exists some objective function such that following that moral system is equivalent to maximizing the function. (Trivially, for instance, if our function maps from actions to the real numbers, we can take it to assign value 1 to "the action you should do" and 0 to everything else.) But I think consequentialism generally refers only to those moral systems whose objective functions have particular forms (e.g., maximization of some concrete property of the world, like happiness or paper clips).

You say x is good, and y is bad. I say y is good, and x is bad. How do we discern who's right, apart from exploring our feelings about the consequentialist predictions as they pertain to our subjective worldviews?

But the consequentialist has the same problem, just one step removed: You say consequence x is good; I say consequence x is bad. The problem of subjectivity remains even once we've argued and come to agreement about whether an action will cause x.

In practice, this may not be so much of a problem, because people often agree about whether outcomes are good or bad. (But certainly not always....)

your host said...

"But the consequentialist has the same problem, just one step removed: You say consequence x is good; I say consequence x is bad. The problem of subjectivity remains even once we've argued and come to agreement about whether an action will cause x."

I guess what I'm trying to get across is that the value I place on x is, admittedly, a reflection of my own desires, preferences, prejudices, etc., and these desires are consequentially motivated. I have no problem with the subjectivity factor; in fact, my argument is that it could never be any other way.

This is far from something being 'just right'; and I think the weak deontologists recognize this, so they try for the 'meta-consequentialist' status, whereby the effect is artificially lifted out of the context of its own cause, and given some kind of formal autonomy. In the end, I find this approach bogus.


"Take lying, for instance. The idea is that, if I were to lie, it would impinge upon my moral character, and it wouldn't be the sort of thing that a moral person does. It's somewhat plausible to imagine people claiming that this derives from the intrinsic nature of what lying is (i.e., deception of one human being by another), which can be taken as bad regardless of how it affects anyone."

But the motivation to be a 'moral person' isn't due to the intrinsic nature of not telling the truth, but on consequentialist evaluations of why telling the truth might be preferred to lying.

Curator said...

Hey guys.

I think the main difference between consequentialist systems and (non-stupid) deontological systems is the objectivity of perspective. In consequentialism, there's no distinction between something you do and something that happens that you could have prevented, somehow. (You could be required to "aim at evil" in order to prevent greater incidence of the "evil" by others.) In non-consequentialist systems, there's room for it to matter whether it's you doing the killing, or someone else.

I've articulated the weird position that one of the reasons most forms of consequentialism suck is that the consequences of consequentialism suck. While you might get maximum material utility in some sense, there are certain miserable realities to life under consequentialism. All your actions are either required or prohibited - there's exactly one right action at any given time, the one that maximizes everybody's utility. No room for freedom. And no room for what Bernard Williams (in "Consequentialism and Integrity") calls "integrity," either - acting according to your values, whatever they may be. Not only could you be called on to do terrible things at any time, with no moral ground to refuse, but you're also at any point liable to have terrible things done to you - you're not inviolable, and if harming you would prevent greater harm, you have no moral ground to object.

I'm not one for the Kantian school, but I think Nagel has it right that there's value to "inviolability" of certain rights - and occasional violations of those rights are not going to overcome the "utility losses" from getting rid of inviolability. (He sees it as something special that can't be measured at all against utility gains, but I'm being intellectually reckless and claiming it can.)

your host said...

Curator: See all the problems you've caused? hehehehehe!

Seriously, I suspect that some of this is extended semantical wrangling. Still, I've enjoyed all the conversation muchly. Thanks to one and all!

Curator said...

One more thing (since I never have the chance to talk to an actual utilitarian). There's an old problem in utility-maximizing economics, posed by (my hero) Richard Posner, about rape. Economists, of course, do more than speculate about the utility consequences of various actions; they try to measure it by criteria like willingness-to-pay. Usually, coercive acts like theft and rape must be prohibited under utility-maximizing economic systems, because by bypassing a market, there is a high likelihood that the "transaction" will not result in a net utility gain. Certainly, it won't be a mutual utility gain.

But some people - a special kind of rapist - is not interested in consensual sex (available in market transactions, monetary or otherwise), but only in coercive rape. Consensual sex would be an extremely poor substitute for him. There is the possibility, in this case, for efficient rape - where the utility gain from the rapist would exceed the utility loss to the victim (measured, maybe, by willingness to pay), we allow the special rapist to buy a sort of rape license, and allow the rape.

Of course, having there be an "efficient rape" doesn't accord very well with most people's notion of the just society.

One way to get around this is to add in a "cost" to the rape - the cost to the community through "regard for others." So you can figure in R, make R large, and boom, no efficient rape! But that's exactly the same thing as making an inviolable right! (Just a neat super-utilitarian way to do it.)

And one other problem - in societies where there isn't much regard for others (like marital rape victims in the Middle Ages), efficient rape is a real possibility, because R is nonexistent.

See "Of Distributive Justice and Economic Efficiency," Wasankari et al., in Zerbe's Research in Law and Economics, for the whole insane awesomeness.

Cia said...

so, a bunch of guys and 'willing' women discussing the utility of rape bothers me... probably means i lack the intellectual capabilities that they seem to have... but i rather prefer it that way... people don't exist in intellectual vacuums... and discussing matters like rape without compassion, empathy and a regard for those it happens to is 'just wrong' to me... guess i just made somebody's point...

Curator said...

The capacity to ignore suffering and violation isn't an "intellectual capacity" anyone should want. I introduced the example to illustrate a limitation of rights-free utility maximization (that seems to be how Posner sees it, too) - not to minimize the suffering of rape victims. I don't think rape or torture are ever morally permissible, absent a moral catastrophe.

Chip said...

Curator,

Is "moral catastrophe" an ethical term of art? I'm guessing it would mean some sort of dreadful scenario in which rape becomes the least harmful of several forced options. The sort of thing that would cause a deontologist to bite the bullet or let the heavens fall. Am I close? Is there a specialized literature on "moral catastrophism" as such? Just curious.

Curator said...

How I'm using "moral catastrophe" is - under normal conditions you don't do a utilitarian calculation to decide whether to violate a right, once you've determined it should be a right. But it's hard to think of a right so inviolable that you can't think of *any* situation where an ethical person might violate it. That's a moral catastrophe. I'm not sure if I'm using the same word Nagel uses, but it's his concept I'm borrowing. (Like, would I violate X right to save 100,000,000 children from being raped and tortured their entire lives? Pretty much yes, for any X. These situations are extremely unusual, to say the least. It's not the same as saying X right doesn't exist.)