Sunday, August 22, 2010

One thing begats another

In the Bible's Genesis there is a lengthy section on who begat whom.  Lineage seems to be an important lesson.
Well like everything else, this lineage came to mind as I sat down to read the Sunday paper.

Susan Estrich had a commentary called "Ground Zero mosque' is in the wrong place." In her well reasoned support of her position (which is opposite of mine) she talked about the Nuns who put up and occupied a convent "at" Auschwitz. Needing to learn a little more and find out what "at" really meant I went out a-googeling and that started me a begating.

Nuns begat a blog called "Oasis" and his well reasoned take on the mosque issue (again opposite of mine).  In his discussion he talks about a "moral psychologist [named] Jonathan Haidt."

Jonathan Haidt begat a visit to "The Edge" web site where I read Dr. Haidt's speech at their conference.  In his speech he talks about his theory on morality and discusses "The two major ethical systems that define Western philosophy Utilitarianism and Deontology."

Utilitarianism and Deontology begat a website called "Physics Forum" and a discussion on Utilitarianism vs. Deontology.

And so here we are with a new thing to add to the ol' gray matter.
Utilitarianism vs. Deontology
Utilitarianism: Utilitarianism is an ethical system that is most often attributed to philosophers such as John Stuart Mill and Jeremy Bentham. Utilitarianism believes that the most ethical thing to do is to maximize the happiness within a society. Utilitarians believe that actions have calculable outcomes and that ethical choices have outcomes which lead to the most happiness to the most members of a society. Utilitarianism is thus often considered a 'consequentialist' philosophical outlook because it both believes that outcomes can be predicted and because it judges actions based on their outcomes. Thus, utilitarianism is often associated with the phrase 'the ends justify the means.' 
Deontology: Deontology is an alternative ethical system that is usually attributed to the philosophical tradition of Immanuel Kant. Whereas utilitarianism focuses on the outcomes, or ends, of actions, deontology demands that the actions, or means, themselves must be ethical. Deontologists argue that there are transcendent ethical norms and truths that are universally applicable to all people. Deontology holds that some actions are immoral regardless of their outcomes; these actions are wrong in and of themselves. Kant gives a 'categorical imperative' to act morally at all times. The categorical imperative, in its most widely used formulation, demands that humans act as though their actions would be universalized into a general rule of nature. Kant believes that all people come to moral conclusions about right and wrong based on rational thought. Deontology is roughly associated with the maxim 'the means must justify the ends.' 
The conflict illustrated: A classic example illustrates the conflict between these two ethical systems. Suppose an evil villain holds you and ten other people at gunpoint and tells you that she will kill all ten of your fellow prisoners unless you kill one of them yourself. You have no doubts about the veracity of the villain's threats; you believe fully that she will do as she says she will. Therefore, you have two options. The first option is to kill one of the ten people to save the lives of the other nine. The other option is to do nothing and watch the villain kill all ten people. Utilitarians would most likely conclude that you should kill the one person because it has the most beneficial outcome. Deontologists would most likely conclude that you should not kill the one person because killing another person is wrong as a universal moral truth. 
Utilitarianism's answers to deontology: Utilitarianism's first answer to deontology is to say that there are no 'universal moral truths.' Such truths are difficult, if not impossible, to ascertain. On the other hand, the benefits and disadvantages of actions are much more easily calculated. Thus, rather than relying on amorphous, vague moral truths to guide action we should look to more concrete ways of determining the ethics of a particular act. Also, utilitarianism would argue that deontology leads to morally untenable outcomes, such as in the example above. Utilitarians would argue that the outcome of ten deaths is much less desirable than one. Thus, we should always look to the ends rather than the means to determine whether an act is ethical or not. 
Deontology's answers to utilitarianism: Deontology's first answer to utilitarianism is to say that the ends are illusory. That is, it is impossible to predict the outcomes of one's actions with absolute certainty. The only thing one can be sure of is whether his or her actions are ethical or not based on the categorical imperative. Additionally, deontologists believe that we can only be responsible for our own actions and not the actions of others. Thus, in the example above you are only responsible for your decision whether to kill the prisoner or not; the villain is the one making the unethical choice to kill the rest of the prisoners. One is only responsible for following the categorical imperative. Finally, deontologists argue that utilitarianism devolves into dangerous moral relativism where human beings are allowed to justify heinous acts on the grounds that their outcomes are beneficial. 

I'll write more on Jonathan Haidt's theory after I digest it a bit (no pun's an analogy he uses)

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