<div class='navbar section' id='navbar' name='Navbar'><div class='widget Navbar' data-version='1' id='Navbar1'><script type="text/javascript"> function setAttributeOnload(object, attribute, val) { if(window.addEventListener) { window.addEventListener('load', function(){ object[attribute] = val; }, false); } else { window.attachEvent('onload', function(){ object[attribute] = val; }); } } </script> <div id="navbar-iframe-container"></div> <script type="text/javascript" src="https://apis.google.com/js/plusone.js"></script> <script type="text/javascript"> gapi.load("gapi.iframes:gapi.iframes.style.bubble", function() { if (gapi.iframes && gapi.iframes.getContext) { gapi.iframes.getContext().openChild({ url: 'https://www.blogger.com/navbar.g?targetBlogID\x3d2311776453606727856\x26blogName\x3dSuccinct+Rambling\x26publishMode\x3dPUBLISH_MODE_HOSTED\x26navbarType\x3dLIGHT\x26layoutType\x3dLAYOUTS\x26searchRoot\x3dhttp://www.succinctrambling.com/search\x26blogLocale\x3den\x26v\x3d2\x26homepageUrl\x3dhttp://www.succinctrambling.com/\x26targetPostID\x3d2276736899704916998\x26blogPostOrPageUrl\x3dhttp://www.succinctrambling.com/2015/11/a-brief-critique-of-consequentialism.html\x26vt\x3d1361515356735657295', where: document.getElementById("navbar-iframe-container"), id: "navbar-iframe" }); } }); </script><script type="text/javascript"> (function() { var script = document.createElement('script'); script.type = 'text/javascript'; script.src = '//pagead2.googlesyndication.com/pagead/js/google_top_exp.js'; var head = document.getElementsByTagName('head')[0]; if (head) { head.appendChild(script); }})(); </script> </div></div>

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

A Brief Critique of Consequentialism and Ethical Relativism

It feels unpopular in today’s post-modern culture to subscribe to deontological ethics. It was made clear during a recent course I took, for example, that the majority of young thinkers tend towards consequentialism and ethical relativism. It is even less popular, within deontological ethics, to subscribe to divine command theory. This view is often seen as old-fashioned and traditionalist—or worse, judgmental and bigoted. Many believe that rather than being a valid and logical philosophy, it is only the dogmatic result of religious belief. This, however, is not necessarily true. I hope to demonstrate that in many regards it is superior in its explanatory power and usefulness than other views.

Consequentialist ethics look solely to the outcome of an action to determine if it was ethical or not, ignoring the intention of the actor. To the degree that an action produces a good condition, it can be said to have been ethical. One problem with this approach is that does not provide a way to define good and bad. What is good? For whom is it good? Without scrutinizing an act according to some law or convention, the good of an act becomes completely relative. The act’s rightness becomes a matter of opinion. Consequentialism fails to provide criteria for what is right and wrong, and this failure makes it largely useless for making objective moral judgments.

Consequentialism also creates possibilities where well-meaning actors perform unethical acts by accidents of chance—e.g. a man trying to prevent a traffic accident, but by doing so making it worse. Though his intentions were good, the act would be unethical.  Conversely, a criminal intent on evil might unintentionally produce good conditions, thus making the act good. Intuitively we know this does not make sense. The intentions of the actor must be taken into account. In our judicial systems we do distinguish between premeditated crimes and crimes of opportunity. Consequentialism tries to negate this human intuition under the misguided belief that rationalized arguments originating in the neocortex are the only source of valid moral judgements.

This can be connected to Haidt’s Social Intuitionalism (2001) which shows that when eliciting situations occur, an intuitive judgement about its moral content is made. Only then does higher reasoning follow and the subject either confirms his or her initial intuition, or rejects it. This was seen clearly in the recent SBE class where students initially indicated, almost unanimously, that necrophilia was morally wrong. After discussions, however, increasingly more students concluded that the lack of negative consequences meant there was in fact nothing particularly wrong with the action. By applying consequentialist reasoning, the initial intuitive judgement was rejected in favor of an “enlightened,” presumably more valid viewpoint. I would argue that the rejection of moral intuition is not a correct approach to ethics. Rather than leading to more valid conclusions, this approach is nothing more than the post-hoc justification of immoral actions.

But then where do moral intuitions come from, and why should they be considered more valid than consequentialist conclusions? One school of thought gives them an evolutionary origin. The drive to survive—and the need to work together to do so—has ingrained within us a set of instincts which help keep the fabric of society intact. Moral intuition is, in this view, merely a functional trait that contributes to survival. This however fails to account for phenomena such as counter-preferential choice. Why do we feel a “moral resonance” when we witness someone sacrifice his or her life for another—or for a higher cause? Another view is that moral intuitions are sociocultural constructs that we unconsciously learn as we grow, much like language, and become second-nature to us. This idea is elaborated by Mikhail (2007) and could account for counter-preferential choice—if for example, selflessness and sacrifice were highly valued in the social context of one’s upbringing.  But this fails to explain why a society or culture would adopt such non-essential, non-survivalist values in the first place.

A third view, the one that I subscribe to, is that moral intuition is merely another word for an almost forgotten term—conscience. The conscience is a moral compass, existing within every human being, informing him or her constantly of the difference between right and wrong. This very idea necessitatesthe existence of moral “laws” that transcend social consensus or instinct. Just as a real compass always points to the magnetic north—a physical location that remains unchanged regardless of viewpoint, culture, time or place—the moral compass points to real, absolute and unchanging moral laws that are not relative or subject to differences in opinion—for they are in fact divinely decreed. This is not to say that absolute moral laws can always be absolutely known or that any person or institution understands them perfectly—it is only to say that they exist. They must exist, for only then can any meaningful discussion about the “rightness” or the “wrongness” of an action (or its consequences) take place.

Arguing ethics in the absence of a belief in moral absolutes is like arguing about which way is “up” while floating through space. Right and wrong (including extremes such as pedophilia) become only conventions, and the basis for any convention can always be called into question or changed. True north, on the other hand, is immune to differences of opinion and requires no consensus for it is a physical reality that would continue to exist even if no humans ever lived. A man can be said to be going “west” or “east” and such a statement is actually meaningful. If no global frame of reference exists, talk of direction has no real meaning—and this is precisely the case when ethics are discussed irrespective of absolute moral laws. Thus, divine command theory is more useful than consequentialism because it provides a solid framework by which ethics can be discussed in a meaningful way, morality can move beyond mere consensus and the rightness or wrongness of actions can be objectively evaluated.

Haidt, J. (2001). The emotional dog and its rational tail: a social intuitionist approach to moral judgment. Psychological review, 108(4), 814.

Mikhail, J. (2007). Universal moral grammar: Theory, evidence and the future. Trends in cognitive sciences, 11(4), 143-152.               

No comments :

Post a Comment