Sunday, August 06, 2017

Sidgwick: Methods of Ethics, Part 01

In 22 days, I will be in class.

One of those classes, I strongly believe, will begin with an evaluation of Henry Sidgwick's Methods of Ethics. As this is considered a work of central importance in philosophy, I am reading through it and feel that I should provide a critique of its contents.

Unfortunately, it is the nature of a critque of this sort to focus on points of disagreement rather than on points of agreement. And, I have a point of disagreement.

In Book I, Chapter 1, Sidgwick lays out what he takes to be the proper focus of his study. He wants to examine the various ways in which people make moral decisions - various "methods of ethics". These are intuitional - the immediate apprehension of the good or the bad of an action; the egoistical - the good of the agent who is making the decision; the utilitarian - the general good of all people. He argues that people generally tend to rely on all three methods, shifting from one to another. It is his intention to study these three methods, to determine their proper realm, and to find some intellectual balance between them.

In considering his account, I have come up with a way of viewing the various moral theories as they relate to desirism.

Desirism says that individuals with particular ends or desires, living in a community where they can influence the desires of others, have reasons to use their social tools to mold the desires of others in ways compatible with the fulfillment of their own desires.

To illustrate. I have an aversion to pain. I have reason to cause others to have an aversion to causing me pain - doing so will help me to avoid a state in which I am in pain. They, insofar as they have an aversion to pain, have reasons to cause in me a like aversion to causing pain.

Of course, an aversion to causing pain will do some good. However, there is more than one way for them to get me (and for me to get them) to act in ways that will prevent the realization of a state in which they are in pain (or I am in pain, respectively).

But, if I want others to refrain from acting in ways that will put me in a state of pain, there are several ways I can do this. I have mentioned these several ways before, but I have not systematically set them side by side for examination.

I have spoken about the use of reward and punishment as incentive and deterrence. However, I have said that this is not an actual interest in the subject of morality. This is its purpose in law - and in enforcing the rules of a game.

In the realm of morality, reward and punishment are used to alter desires and aversions - to prevent me from causing you pain because, for one reason or another, I do not wish to cause you pain or - better yet - I wish that I do not cause you pain or - even better - I wish that you are not in pain.

I regularly distinguish between a desire to realize some state and a desire that realizes some state. For example, you can get me to avoid actions that cause you pain by getting me to have an aversion to causing you pain. Or I can have an aversion to doing something that might cause you pain. You may want to cause in me an aversion to driving drunk on the grounds that if I had an aversion to driving drunk, I would have an aversion that would make it less likely that you or somebody you care about will be in a state of pain. You may have reason to cause in me a desire to keep my promises because, if I had such a desire, you would be able to plan your own actions based on a reliable prediction that I will do what I said I would do. This will help you to fulfill your other desires. My desire to keep my promises is not a desire to help you fulfill your other desires, but it is a desire that helps you to fulfill your other desires.

I would like to address another set of distinctions - using a desire to tell the truth as an example.

You can give me a desire to tell the truth - a desire to report what is true because it is true, and an aversion to saying what is false because it is false. This is a desire or an aversion that takes truthtelling as its object - the agent is directly concerned with the fact that her statements are true regardless of their consequences or any other consideration. This is not to say that this desire or aversion cannot be outweighed by other concerns, but it does exist so as to motivate a person to generally tell the truth and refrain from lying.

You can also give me a desire to do that which is right and an aversion to doing that which is wrong - accompanied by a belief that telling the truth is right and lying is wrong. This has an advantage over the first system in that it is easier to modify. All one needs to do is change my belief about what is right and wrong and this will change my actions. Whereas the first system requires a change in my desires - a shift in my desire to tell the truth and my aversion to lying. On the other hand, what is an advantage is also, at the same time, a disadvantage. Being an intelligent and reflective person I am likely to look into this belief that telling the truth is right and lying is wrong and ask, "What is it? Can such a thing ever be?" And, questioning whether telling the truth is right and lying is wrong, I lose the motivation to tell the truth and refrain from lying.

A third option is to simply promote an interest in general utility. It would follow, for a person interested in the overall good, that a general disposition to tell the truth and to refrain from lying is a disposition we would all have reason to adopt and to promote in others. And yet we would recognize that this disposition may need to be overridden if following it would, itself, produce a great deal of misery. The problem with utilitarianism rests in the fact that it works best if there is a single ultimate end to be maximized - and there is no such end. This began as a simple aversion each individual had to experiencing their own pain. This provided people generally with reasons to promote in others a set of interests that would reduce the chance that they would be in a state of pain. Now, as a result, we have people with multiple interests. Each person still has their own aversion to pain. They have an aversion to others being in pain. They have an aversion to bringing it about that others are in pain. They have a desire to do that which is right and refrain from doing that which is wrong. They have a desire to maximize utility. And each and every one of these motivations provides its own reason for action.

Sometimes these motives or springs of action conflict with one another. Situations will arise in which a person's aversion to his own pain will conflict with his aversion to others being in pain, or his aversion to doing that which is wrong and belief that an action that will prevent some pain for himself is wrong. There is no single end guiding an individual's action - but multiple ends. So there is no single "end" for the interest in utility to latch onto.

What I like about this is that it shows us where the three dominant theories of ethics comes from.

You have the person who tells the truth because it is the truth and refrains from lying because it is lying. This is the virtue conception of ethics - the idea that morality consists in having good character traits.

You have the person who has a desire to do what is right and a belief that truth-telling is right, and an aversion to doing what is wrong and a belief that lying is wrong. This is deontological moral theory - the theory that states that right and wrong is determined by following certain rules, and that there is no greater virtue than acting from a sense of duty - doing right the right thing because it is the right thing.

Finally, you have the person who tries to maximize utility - recognizing that truthtelling, as a rule of thumb, tends to maximize utility.

All three major types of morality can be grounded on the interests of individuals in avoiding their own pain - and similar natural, biological interests - and nothing more complex or mysterious than that.

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