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Ethical Problems Strengths and Weakness
Against Conventional Morality: Friedrich Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil • Dubs utilitarianism the morality of the herd. • He sets out a genology of morals – historically informed critique of how various moral principles came into being. • Moral principles are seen by Nietzsche as attempts by the weak masses to protect themselves against dynamic and powerful individuals – against the ‘highest and strongest drives, when they break out passionately and drive the individual far above the average and the flats of the herd conscience’.
Beyond Good and Evil • Nietzsche points to the complexity of human existence, the darkness and power of the unconscious forces of the human psyche. • Nietzsche proposes a complete overcoming of conventional morality – a task ‘for the very few, a privilege for the strong’. • ‘Spirits strong and original enough to revalue and invent eternal values.” • Strength is necessary because tidily rational systems of morality will have to be discarded, and the darker, more dangerous, more passionate and mysterious aspects of human existence plumbed to the depths.
Utilitarianism’s Problems • To recap, utilitarianism must essentially have something to do with promoting happiness and well-being and minimizing unhappiness and misery. • All for the greatest amount of people in society or community. • One major problem rests on its “consequentialist” nature.
Utilitarianism’s Problem For example, suppose you had to go to court for failing to pay a few parking fines. You are alone in a small courtroom with the judge, the bailiff, and the court reporter. After the bailiff reads the charges (“failure to pay three fines for expired parking meters”), you respond (“Guilty, your Honor”), and she announces her judgment: “I find you guilty on all charges. The punishment will be that you shall suffer death at the hands of a firing squad.” Continue…
Utilitarianism’s Problems “What?!!” you scream. “Death for three lousy parking tickets??” The judge leans forward and whispers, “I know you don’t deserve this punishment, but there has been a rash of murders in our community, and a study has been released demonstrating that immediately after an execution, the crime rate drops substantially. Unfortunately, we don’t have any convicted murders on our hands right now. But we do have you, and there is every reason to believe that if we execute you, the public good will be served…
Utilitarianism’s Problem “Hence, even though my decision may seem unfair to you personally, it will certainly promote the greatest amount of happiness for the greatest number of people. So it is the only judgment I can really reach in good conscience.”
Utilitarianism’s Problems Take another example: Sam, a basically normal, rather nondescript but “nice” human being, goes to the hospital to visit his only living relative, his senile, sick aunt. His visit coincides with five medical emergencies at the hospital. One person needs a liver transplant, another a spleen transplant, another a lung transplant, another a new heart, and a fifth a new pineal gland.
Utilitarianism’s Problem Each of the five patients is tremendously important, much-loved person whose death would bring a great deal of grief and actual physical discomfort to a great number of people. Sam’s death, on the other hand, would be mourned by no one (except possibly by his aunt in her lucid moments). The top members of the hospital administration, all strict utilitarians, lure Sam into a operating room, remove all his vital organs, and distribute them to the other needy patients, thereby operating (literally) in accordance with the principle of utility: the greatest amount of happiness for the greatest number of people.
Utilitarianism’s Problems • Neither the parking meter violator nor Sam deserve the fate dished out by the executing judge and the hospital staff. • Both cases are compatible with utilitarianism.
Utilitarianism’s Problems • Act Utilitarianism: one must perform the specific act that will produce the greatest amount of happiness for the greatest amount of people. • Rule Utilitarianism: a person should perform that act governed by a (hypothetical) rule whose general obedience would produce the greatest amount of happiness. (Supported by Mill and Sidgwick)
Utilitarianism’s Problem • Under rule utilitarianism, lying and deceiving, generally cause more unhappiness than happiness. • Also in view of rule utilitarianism, the judge and hospital administration cannot proceed as the y desire because the rule governing their acts would be some thing like this: “If the lives of a number of people (or even a few exceptional people) can be saved by sacrificing an innocent bystander, the sacrifice should be performed.” • A society or community that excepts this rule lives in constant fear of being arbitrarily killed or disemboweled.
Utilitarianism’s Problems • General problem with rule utilitarianism – one can think of a general rule to rationalize all sorts of questionable behavior – ex. “Shoplifting from large department stores is okay as long as one doesn’t get caught and no one ever finds out.”
Utilitarianism’s Problems • Also notice, that no act is good or bad in and of itself – every act is good or bad only in terms of its consequences (against Kant). • This leaves open the question of wanton cruelty – such as stabbing kittens or kicking puppies. • Furthermore, some acts are right independent of their consequences (Kant would agree).
Kant’s Strengths and Weaknesses • First Categorical Imperative: “I ought never to act except in such a way that I can also will that my maxim should become a universal law.” • Second Categorical Imperative: “Act in such as way that you always treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any other, never simply as a means, but always at the same time as an end.”
Kant’s Strengths and Weaknesses If a heavily armed madman, frothing at the mouth, asks me if I know where Sue Smith is, and I realize that he intends to kill her if her finds her, my moral intuition tells me that I ought to lie – in fact, that it would be immoral to tell the truth.
Kant’s Strengths and Weaknesses Yet Kant says that I must tell the truth even to a murderous madman, on the grounds that the principle behind lying cannot be universalized without contradiction. Critics of Kant have pointed out something that was mentioned in connection with rule utilitarianism, namely, that it is possible to generate modified rules that can be universalized, such as: “One ought to lie when doing so will save the life of an innocent person.”
Kant’s Strengths and Weaknesses However, Kant argued against such modifications on the grounds that they destroy the universalizability of the rule by making it more context bound. Kant thought that acts whose principle cannot be universalized cannot in any way commit us to moral obligation. (Reminder: if an act is declared to be bad when you perform it, then an act that is the same in all relevant respects must be bad when I perform it, in exactly the same way that if this figure → ▲ is a triangle when you draw it, then it must also be a triangle when I draw it.)
Kant’s Strengths and Weaknesses Surely we don’t have a moral obligation to perform every act whose maxim can be generalized. (I like to smile when I see birds. The maxim behind that act might be ‘It is good to express joy in the presence of pretty things’. This maxim can be generalized without contradiction, but it’s hard to believe that therefore we all have a moral obligation to smile at birds, to whistle in the dark, or to clear our throat before scratching our nose.)
Kant’s Strengths and Weaknesses • Kant, instead, argues that we have a duty to perform every act whose maxim can be universalized, only that such acts are morally permissible. • What gives an act moral with is not simply the fact that it can be universalized but the fact that it was chosen as a moral act.
Kant’s Strengths and Weaknesses • Our duty is not that of performing any specific acts bit to choose only acts that can be universalized; and what makes them moral is that we chose them in order to be performing our duty. • Remember – ‘goodwill’ is the will to do one’s duty. • The same act – like helping a neighbor fix her flat tire – may be either moral, morally neutral, or even immoral, depending on its motivation.
Kant’s Strengths and Weaknesses • Kant’s idea of duty and ‘goodwill’ at this point contrasts big time with utilitarianism/ consequentialism, in that the act’s moral worth is no determined by its results, but by its intentions.)
Kant’s Strengths and Weaknesses • In the tire example, my act is immoral if my motivation is to deceive her into thinking that I’m a nice guy so she will bestow favors on me. • It is morally neutral if the reason I helped her is because I felt sorry for her (Mere feelings can never be the basis of morality, according to Kant.) • The act is moral only if my motive for performing it is the desire to do my duty.
Kant’s Strengths and Weaknesses • For Kant, an agent’s intentions must be considered when assigning moral worth. • Kant has a problem with the Good Samaritan, because his heart went out to the suffering human being – not a peculiarly moral act. • Yet, Kant thought that a Good Samaritan who loathes people, including the man he helps, yet helps him nevertheless out of a sense of duty, is a moral man.
Kant’s Strengths and Weaknesses • A coldness lurks in the heart of this doctrine. • Perhaps feelings cannot be the sole criterion of moral worth, but they certainly enter into the picture in a big way. • A truly good person must have sympathy and empathy for a fellow human being. • Thank goodness this icy side of Kant’s moral philosophy can be ignored without damaging his insights about universalizability.
Criticisms of Virtue Ethics • First, it takes education to instill into the subject the sense of respect and self-respect which will turn a profit made by selling his soul into a loss. • Second, it takes a secure and stable political or social system to generate bad effects on the villain, such as a loss due to discovery, or loss of reputation. • Third, it takes a culture or politics properly to identify a lapse from virtue in any case.
Criticisms of Virtue Ethics • Suppose women systematically lack opportunities and resources that the men have. • Men (and women) in such a society my not be conscious of anything wrong here. • They have internalized the traditional values. • Their conception of a woman flourishing will be that she is nicely subservient or obedient to the men.
Criticisms of Virtue Ethics • In such a world, the man oppressing the woman has no bad conscience, and suffers no loss of respect from those he care about – mainly other men. • He can flourish in his own eyes, and in his friends’ eyes, and even in the eyes of the women.
Criticisms of Virtue Ethics • Relate this to the example of a tree that flourishes by deriving other trees of light, and the western white person who flourishes because of the economic and educational derivation of people, including children, in the third world. • It takes something more than a desire to flourish to motivate concern for them.
Criticisms of Virtue Ethics • The modern Aristotelian, less inclined to discount inferiors and outsiders than Aristotle himself, can fight back. • They can say a life lived amidst lies, or in a fool’s paradise, is not a flourishing life. • So the ingredients are there to suggest that real flourishing or true human health implies justice.
Criticisms of Virtue Ethics • It implies removing the oppression, and living so that we can look other people, even outsiders, in the eye. • Objection: Our generation may flourish by consuming all the world’s resources, and letting the future go hang. • It is only when we have a conversation with the dispossessed that we scramble for rationalizations.
Criticisms of Virtue Ethics The biggest criticism of Virtue Ethics is that it doesn't give clear guidance on how to act in specific circumstances. It cannot tell us what the law should be about abortion, euthanasia, pre-implantation genetic diagnosis etc. It gives no clear answer to questions such as 'Is the environment intrinsically valuable?'. The lack of moral rules or a method of addressing dilemmas is the main concern here, but there is also uncertainty about how you decide on what the virtues are. Many critics say Virtue Ethics simply doesn't do the job of an ethical theory.
Criticisms of Virtue Ethics • There are no absolute answers to these questions (MacIntyre takes this view). Contemporary ethics has distanced itself from real people and real issues by debating fine legalistic points which they will never agree on. Virtue Ethics asks a much more important question - what sort of person should I be? This question may have different answers depending where and when it is asked, but it gives real direction and purpose to people.
Criticisms of Virtue Ethics • There are absolutes (Nussbaum says this). However, it is virtues that have value, not rules. We should strive for Justice, Wisdom, Temperance etc. rather than looking for absolute rules. When thinking about whether to go to war, there are no absolute rules (You must not kill an innocent person, for example, is seen as impractical as all wars lead to innocent people dying). However, we have elected a leader who we want to act justly, to be temperate, to have wisdom etc.
Criticisms of Virtue Ethics • Issues such as Embryo Research depend a lot on answers to questions such as 'When does an embryo/fetus become a person?' These questions cannot be answered by ethical theories. MacIntyre would say that to move forward in these issues, we need to better understand the context. For example, we are a society where thousands of embryos die at various stages of the IVF process. There is therefore a contradiction between our society's comfortable response to IVF and the often violent negative reaction to embryonic stem-cell research. When approaching these issues, we should aim to respond with wisdom, right ambition, temperance etc.
Criticisms of Virtue Ethics • Virtue Ethics responds confidently to many of these criticisms by drawing attention to the failings of deontological theories and 'consequentialist' positions (GEM Anscombe coined the phrase 'consequentialism' in her 1958 article "Modern Moral Philosophy" which attacked contemporary ethical theories for being out of touch with the real world. This article may have been largely responsible for the resurgence of interest in Virtue Ethics).
Criticisms of Virtue Ethics • There are other criticisms, though. For example, Virtue Ethics rejects moral absolutes such as 'Do not lie', but then values the virtue of honesty. Critics claim that the virtues are really another way of stating moral rules, and that the virtues depend on the existence of these rules. Honesty is precisely a virtue because it is wrong to lie. This sort of criticism can lead to a circular debate, but it is actually the biggest threat to the virtue theorist.