My Central Tension in Moral Philosophy
Jul 25, 2011

My Central Tension in Moral Philosophy

It would be nice to be able to say that my moral leanings followed a consistent system of moral belief and didn't leave central questions such as the source of morality unanswered. Were that the case, it might superficially lend credence to the weight and convictions of my many moral claims as evidenced on this blog. Alas, this is not the case for I am plagued by the infamous and classic conflict in moral philosophy between absolutism/deontology and consequentialism/utilitarianism. Despite this conflict, a pragmatic approach remains possible and beneficial.

The mathematician in me cries out for the use of formal systems. In mathematics, one typically chooses to accept some small set of axioms (such as the five axioms of Euclidean Geometry) and then deduces a large body of theorems from these axioms and associated rules of logical inference in order to have a body of knowledge that can be considered to be absolutely true under the assumptions. One then considers this body of knowledge as tested against our observable universe and should it appear to correlate (as, say, general relatively so perfectly does) then we are motivated to consider the foundational axioms as valid and so too for the subsequent body of knowledge.

The natural extension to moral philosophy would be to try and identify a foundational set of moral claims that would become the axioms in a moral system. One would then derive (ideally deductively, but for pragmatic reasons induction and other forms of inference wold surely be used) a large body of moral claims. Should this body of moral claims seem to coincide well with my own sentiments, and that of the general population, it would appear worthwhile to accept the assumptions as valid and the conclusions as informative, motivating and useful.

Aesthetically, such a formal moral system would be very pleasing. Provided that derivations within the system were reasonably possible, it would lend a certain absolutism to the statements deduced and allow for strong moral claims about how we ought to act. Perhaps most importantly, it would then merely require for one to agree with the axioms (and the validity of ones subsequent logic) in order to force them to logically agree with ones conclusions. Compared to asking someone to accept or reject any specific moral claim in isolation, this approach is very powerful.

The problem, however, is not in the a priori nature of this approach, which is certainly desirable, but in the products of the approach. I have simply never seen a deontological moral system worth much consideration and, after many attempts, have not been able to come up with one on my own.

Philosophical approaches to absolute or deontological moral systems seem to fail in one of two ways. They might be too specific, such that innumerable counterexamples immediately crop up; imagine the moral claim 'thou shalt not kill' which might seem reasonable until one considers, say, whether killing Hitler would have been justified. Alternatively, they might become too general where no meaningful or practical deductions can be made. Sometimes they are both; Kant's infamous categorical imperative (that an act is moral only if it remains so should it before a universal law) is highly general but whenever one tries to deduce something further it becomes of the same form of over-specificity as 'thou shalt not kill'. A priori, one could imagine a perfectly balanced system that was neither too general such that we had the freedom to still derive conclusions but not too specific such as to induce numerous counterexamples. In practice, it would appear that the shear complexity of human civilizations makes that perfect balance too elusive for us to find even limited systems of any reasonableness.

I am thus forced due to pragmatic considerations, despite my aesthetic hesitations, to accept utilitarianism. Instead of having a fixed and narrow moral system where an action is right or wrong in accordance to whether it violates one of these sacrosanct rules, utilitarianism claims things are right or wrong in accordance with the much fuzzier concept of whether it appears to maximize some understanding of the public good. How one precisely defines this is not necessarily fixed, but the central idea is grounded in pragmatism and a willingness to embrace a detailed calculus of a specific situation opposed to merely considering the applicability of a fixed rule. It is hard to claim any form of absolute truth or epistemological certainty in moral claims of this nature. But what it lacks in these domains, it more than makes up for in being able to actually make useful claims, and it is for precisely this reason that essentially all of my moral claims and considerations frequently espoused on this blog are ultimately utilitarian in nature.

The philosophical difficulties with deontological and absolute moral systems is confounded by the fact that several such systems are loosely within the political sphere and all of them I strongly dislike and have discussed at some length on this blog. Firstly, we have the biblical and other religious, deontological moral systems that make the claim that morality is both given and defined, absolutely, by a deity and that an act is or is not moral in accordance to the text of the religious canon. Biblical morality, however, is far removed from any morality that I would find appealing and, despite popular belief that our culture is Judeo-Christian in its moral practices, remains at odds in many ways with the standard moral beliefs of our culture that should form the basis for comparing any deontological system. Secondly, the libertarian moral system is largely a one axiom deontological moral system that asserts that violation of private property is the single inviolate moral claim; this blog resists this notion frequently. Thirdly, particularly in the US, there is a strong constitutional reductionism where an act is considered moral in accordance with whether it coincides with the constitution. Regardless of the difficulties of the constitution itself that I might identify, a constitution should reflect the views of the people and not determine the views of the people; the almost deistic glorification of the American founding fathers, history and tradition that is prevalent in some circles blinds people of this reality. All three of these moral systems are lacking in many ways and do not do well at motivating continued effort in the deontological approach.

There is a pragmatic hybrid between the systems that I have advocated for in the past. Instead of trying to define ultimate sources for morality or answer any of the deeper philosophical questions surrounding morality, it tries to identify common moral trends that are widely accepted in our society and then apply an essentially utilitarian analysis to deducing further claims. Absolutism isn't established, but one does get some sense of grounding and a place to stand upon which to build a moral framework. Where this approach really excels is in dialectic. One might be arguing for a contentious moral claim and can then instead raise an uncontentious moral claim which is widely accepted and demonstrate how the contentious claim follows logically from the uncontentious one. This is the method of deontology but without ever have written down a fixed, immutable, small set of moral axioms and instead one is using a more fluid and transient set of guidelines each of which may not have universal applicability. It is more of a heuristic than absolute truth; its value lies in its ability to actually talk about politics in a coherent way and make relatively strong claims about what one advocates.

Previous related posts:
Politics as a Formal System
Local vs Global Issues in Formal Political Systems
Constitutional Reductionism

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SweenyTenit said...

Utilitarianism as a moral code could work, but I don't think utilitarianism always translates to what's best. If utilitarianism is merely doing what makes people happy, I'm less eager to get behind it, but if it means behavior that minimalizes human suffering as much as possible, then I see far more reason to back it.

I never think that's what you should keep in mind purely, as there's other facets worth consideration. Take for example that some people find harmful things to others to make them happy I(owning a business that overworks people so they can have a good life). Just because happiness is invoked, it doesn't mean it's just or fair.

And that's really what morality should come down to. Fairness. I'm for egalitarian utilitarianism, but pure utilitarianism (and those who subscribe to it) tend to miss a beat. Your behavior should be shaped by what makes sense, logically and as fair as possible. Sometimes doing the right thing will make a few people unhappy - which could contest utilitarianism. But it's still right, and it's still worth following.

Another point, on obligated morality. It's important to point out that religiously obligated morality is rubbish and obsolete, and that institutionally backed morality isn't always correct either. But morality is obligated in one sense: civilization obligations. We're part of a society, and so we're expected to act a certain way. And so we should. Morality exists so long as people recognize it, and the world could be a much better place if everyone has an obligation to do what's right - hopefully, they learn and accept this on their own through reason and logic, instead of text from centuries ago.

Objective morality doesn't technically exist, but hypothetically, there could be an optimal moral code that minimalizes human suffering and provides the fairest code of conduct towards everyone.

bazie said...

Part of the problem seems to be in trying to ground utilitarianism in a a basic framework of values (or "an optimal moral code" as you put it). You considered three such possible groundings: maximize happiness; minimize human suffering; maximize fairness. Essentially this approach is a bit of a hybrid as one is trying to find some sort of deontological basis upon which to conduct a more utilitarian analysis. However, I am not convinced this is at all easy to actually do.

Consider the dual aims of minimizing human suffering and maximizing fairness. It is quite possible that these aims are going to be contradictory at times where the "fair" approach does not actually minimize human suffering. Take, for example, the sometimes proposed "Fair Tax" which taxes a fixed percent of income for all people without progressive gradations. Some people might consider this more "fair" than a tax which chargers the rich more than the poor as we have today. However, the case is pretty strong that this would not minimize human suffering even if we agreed it was fair.

Ultimately, I think it is really difficult to come up with a truly objective conception of what the word "fair" means such that in any situation you and I and everybody else would all just objectively agree as to what was the fair approach. If we could, we could probably just discover an absolute deontological morality.

As it is, the best we can do is ascribe to loose values like "fairness" or "minimize human suffering" without objective measures of those concepts and have to rely on our utilitarian analysis to provide a little bit of light in an otherwise morally dark world.

SweenyTenit said...

I lean more towards the fair. I don't consider whining suffering to be nearly as important as real suffering.

Let's look at your specific example, a flat income tax rate. Just because it's called fair, it doesn't mean it's reality so. It's unfair that a select few get the majority of wealth, while the majority deal with an minority of income. That's unfair and harmful on many levels, and a flat income tax rate does nothing to correct those levels of unfairness and problems.

A progressive income tax rate, that charges a higher percent on those with wealth (in combination with competent redistribution methods and social programs) would both minimalize real suffering, and be realistically fair.

Just because people would argue that's not fair hardly means they're correct, or I'm not correct. Empirically, allowing plutocracy or aristocracy to exist causes serious economic harm to a significant percent of people, and is unquestionably unfair to those in an less-than-fortunate situation.

Which coincides with what I said, hopefully people would understand what's truly fair, and what's truly reasonable.

And I do agree that all we really can do it ascribe vague notions of fairness and equality and the sort, but I think it's important to keep in mind what your fundamental framework for judgement is.

At the core, you need to be reasonable. I think reason includes fairness.

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