Scope of Ethics

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AuthorTopic: Scope of Ethics
Law Bringer
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Profile #50
quote:
Originally written by Thuryl:

Well, yes, an ethical system in which you can always justify your actions is awfully convenient, but as a society we'd surely rather have an ethical system in which some actions aren't justifiable.
As Homer Simpson stated, the Patriot Act trampled on the Constitution. So we are in a system where actions that have be considered as immoral like torture are now justifiable for the greater good. Bush has refused to sign legistlation that would restrict torture.

While most of us could agree on what would be ethical behavior, there are those who will always feel that only they can determine what is ethical and are always justified in their actions.
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Electric Sheep One
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Profile #51
Yes, the categorical imperative explicitly requires you to sign off on applying all your own principles to everyone else. That's its point, that the litmus test for whether your principles are moral is whether or not you're cool with applying them to everyone else as well.

By my lights at least, there is definitely something good about the categorical imperative. It succinctly captures a sound principle. I don't think it works as a perfect logical foundation for all of ethics, but I think that in practice it would catch an awful lot of stuff that most people would like to call unethical, and that a fair amount of this stuff would be hard to catch otherwise. Of course people today don't need to read Kant to recognize that double standards are wrong. But expressing this principle clearly and prominently was a substantial contribution.

And I think the Golden Rule has a similar status. It's not an axiom sufficient to support a rigorous global theory of ethics all by itself. But it can be a handy rule of thumb, and that's not a small thing. Looked at carefully, though, it is quite different from the categorical imperative. In particular it is more turn-the-other-cheek-Christian than I realized before this discussion (especially Zeviz's posts), because it is so easily compatible with holding yourself to a tougher ethical standard than you ask of anyone else.

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What makes Kantianism so sound? It can't be that it simply fits in conveniently with common understanding of morality or that it's useful to adopt, because neither of those necessarily tell us what's true about ethics.
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Electric Sheep One
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Profile #53
On the contrary, I think both those features do tell us true things about ethics, and that that's a darn good thing, because we have precious few other sources to draw on for ethical truth, besides common opinion and practicality.

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That ethics relies on common sense in itself is absurd. That ethics relies on practicality is moot; even if the recitation of an ethical system is practical, that doesn't make the ethical system itself valid.
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Electric Sheep One
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Profile #55
It may be disheartening, but it is hardly absurd. Many of the best things rely on common sense. Validity is itself a will o' the wisp, and no guarantee of truth even if attained.

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Profile #56
Things may rely on common sense in how we justify them, but that doesn't mean that things are true because they are common sense, just that we know that they're true (if we even do) because they are common sense. When I ask you what ethical system you use, however, I am not asking you about how you know any ethical system is superior to any other; while you may use your path to knowledge in order to justify your given ethical system to me, I am asking you for what that ethical system is.

I may not be the best at providing examples, but: Imagine that we are trying to determine what drags all things towards the Earth when released. Even if you say "well, I know things fall to the earth because it's common sense," you're still not identifying what the thing in question is.

Of course if you're saying that following common sense is an ethical system unto itself, that's... something, I suppose. At least, it would certainly be a courageous position to hold. :)
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quote:
Originally written by Diprosopus:

Of course if you're saying that following common sense is an ethical system unto itself, that's... something, I suppose. At least, it would certainly be a courageous position to hold. :)
Hey, if it's good enough for G. E. Moore...

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Posts: 9973 | Registered: Saturday, March 30 2002 08:00
Electric Sheep One
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Profile #58
I entered this thread by saying as much about two ideas about ethics as seems appropriate in a message board post. You responded with an unlikely hypothetical situation in which one of these ideas would not work well. Your point in so doing seemed to be that the hypothetical possibility of a hard case makes a law worthless. I conclude that you seem to be interested only in rigorous formal prescriptions that must apply neatly to every possible case.

I consider that there are no such systems. There is no universally adequate formulaic definition of a chair; how can there be one of morality? Morality is not meaningless, any more than furniture classification is meaningless. It is useful and admits widespread consensus. But it is nowhere near as simple as gravitation.

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That others balk at impartial ethics leaves ethicists who believe in impartiality compelled to address the concerns of their discontents. Even if impartial ethical systems are workable rules of thumb, the ethical systems in question are internally inconsistent if they're justified only by appealing to their usefulness for the ethicist in question.

Also, just because something is complex doesn't mean that we can't know it. Further, it seems like discovering what's ethical is as pertinent as anything.
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Electric Sheep One
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Profile #60
I don't fault ambition. I see appreciating the failure of systemization not as giving up on understanding ethics, but as progress in doing so. The Enlightenment had its heart in the right place, but was insufficiently rigorous in its reasoning to discern the surprising limits of rigorous reason. Those were discoveries of the twentieth century, and they rank as breakthrough advances in the pursuit of truth, regardless of the fact that they made truth seem much less accessible than it had. Destroying an illusion is progress.

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That we have not answered our questions sufficiently yet does not prove that we cannot answer our questions. The Enlightenment is only 400 years past, a drop in the bucket of human history. I must presume you have a very pressing theory as to why rigor will never permit us to know the nature of ethics; I can only wait for it anxiously. Not being able to pursue truth would be a very relaxing position to maintain :cool:
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Electric Sheep One
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I refer you to Messrs. Gödel, Tarski, and Wittgenstein, and wish you the best of luck.

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Sir, I appreciate your candor in encouraging me to broaden my literary horizons. (I can also see how Wittgenstein would be applicable; yet Tarski seems a stretch, and Gödel more so.) If you mean to imply that your opinions aren't worthy of an audience, I hasten to disagree; that being said, I would await the unveiling of your insight from beneath the appeals to authority so soon as you might inflict the luxury upon me.
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Electric Sheep One
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I'm not appealing to authority; I'm telling you that you have a lot of reading to do, which I cannot summarize here. Perhaps a philosopher or mathematician could, but I almost certainly lack the expertise, and quite certainly lack the time.

Tarski and Gödel are both relevant, because there is no rigor short of a formal system, and their theorems pertain to formal systems in general.

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I am not considering an absolute formula for ethics; I simply suggest that your reasoning that "we can't know anything to such a great extent" makes my criticism of "Kantianism may not be precisely obtaining the nature of ethics" invalid. Even if it is impossible both practically and theoretically to make a perfect model of ethics, that doesn't indicate to me why better models cannot be constructed. I might hope that you pardon me my indolence for not dropping more names to clarify the issue. :)

I simply wished to pose the dilemma which I humbly suspect a discontent poses to Kantianism: Can those who act contrarily to treating humanity as an end really be called irrational? People find themselves in situations where they would have to violate their impartially ethical commitments to avoid personal detriment. Is expecting someone to stay committed to her ethics really unreasonable? If it is, then I fail to see what authority that ethical system could claim.
(If it's reasonable–which I doubt–then the CI permits the dissenter to object at the same time it permits the others to act on their maxim in spite of the dissenter. And yet, it's not difficult for people to agree that both parties cooperating in a prisoner's dilemma is preferable to both parties defecting, and so by the CI's own standards, it must forbid violating the objections of rational dissenters to its maxims.)
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quote:
Originally written by Diprosopus:

I simply wished to pose the dilemma which I humbly suspect a discontent poses to Kantianism: Can those who act contrarily to treating humanity as an end really be called irrational? People find themselves in situations where they would have to violate their impartially ethical commitments to avoid personal detriment. Is expecting someone to stay committed to her ethics really unreasonable? If it is, then I fail to see what authority that ethical system could claim.

(If it's reasonable–which I doubt–then the CI permits the dissenter to object at the same time it permits the others to act on their maxim in spite of the dissenter. And yet, it's not difficult for people to agree that both parties cooperating in a prisoner's dilemma is preferable to both parties defecting, and so by the CI's own standards, it must forbid violating the objections of rational dissenters to its maxims.)

Now hang on, you're playing a clever trick with words here to create a false dilemma. You're saying that either it's rational to act in accordance with one's own sincerely-held ethical beliefs, in which case Kantians face a contradiction when they try to enforce their ethics on others, or it's irrational to act in accordance with one's own sincerely-held ethical beliefs, in which case Kantians are just plain wrong.

Basically, what you're asking for is a Kantian analysis of the maxim: "It is always permissible to act in accordance with one's own sincerely-held ethical beliefs". Put that way, I don't think many people would agree with it, unless they think terrorism is okay. To a Kantian, it's obviously only rational to act in accordance with Kantian ethical beliefs.

As a final aside: not every real-life situation is reducible to the prisoner's dilemma. Sometimes cooperating for the sake of cooperation does more harm than good. (See also: the Abilene paradox.)

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My dilemma was more about how the CI isn't precise with respect to maxims. When can one be sure that one's maxim has passed the standards of the CI? Even if the sincerely-held beliefs of two different people are both Kantian, it strikes me that they could be placed opposed to one another.

Or, in the case of the objector to Kantianism, Kantians would certainly agree that she would be irrational. That, however, strikes me as a particularly strong claim for Kantians to make, and I am not convinced why I should treat humanity as an end unto itself.

As for your remarks on game theory: I'm not sure how people's cooperating simply for the sake of cooperating has any bearing on things, other than perhaps make Kantianism look even less desirable.

[ Monday, February 18, 2008 23:18: Message edited by: Diprosopus ]
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Electric Sheep One
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The problem with your objections, Diprosopus, is that it is not always clear whether you are trying to identify a significant and basic problem in a given ethical theory, which really ought to be remedied, or are merely concocting ad hoc hard cases, which prove only that no system is entirely perfect.

If you do understand the inevitable limitations of any systematic ethics, then you are quite right that we can still reasonably try to improve our understanding of ethics. But the bar is then raised for worthwhile critiques. To say that a notion fails to provide certainty, or to tell us the truth necessarily, or the like, is always an easy point to make; but it is not worth making, because nothing provides certainty or infallibility, anyway. You have to make it plausible that the concerns you raise are actually important. A specific and realistic example, as opposed to a far-fetched hypothetical scenario that is obviously going to be a special case for anyone's ethics, can help a lot with this.

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That Kantianism encourages conflict doesn't seem particularly worthless. Also, that Kantianism divorces people from their values is perhaps the most important critique of Kantianism in ethics to date.

While my previous examples may have been obscure (the sadist and the like), that's simply because I want to make one in which no confounding factors can be identified (hence why I corrected your revision of my sadist example). And in either case, that you defer to a pragmatic justification for Kantianism proves that you don't actually believe Kantianism anyway, just that Kantian standards offer you a convenient rule of thumb. Ethics is not (at least not necessarily, and certainly not according to Kant) trying to determine merely what is most convenient.
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