Chapter 5 Moral Philosophy

5.1 To-do list (Week 6)

  • Reading: Mill (Blackboard) and Singer, Famine, Affluence, and Morality

    • What is utilitarianism? Can it be applied in your advocacy?
    • Participate in the discussion forum on Blackboard.
  • Reading: Kant (Blackboard)

    • What is categorical imperative? Can it be applied in your advocacy?
    • Participate in this google doc

Here is an addtional source:How The Good Place taught moral philosophy to its characters — and its creators.

5.2 Moral Dilemmas

Recall the divide on abortion. We often disagree on what is morally right or wrong.

Here is The 10 biggest moral dilemmas in science.

5.2.1 Should we … Give other animals rights?

For centuries, ethical debates have foused on certain fundamental, inalienable rights (regardless of what you do or how evil you are). But should animals be granted similar protections?

  • Last November, an Argentine court endowed a chimp called Cecilia with the right to live in her natural habitat and ordered her release from Mendoza zoo. Six months later, a Canadian court upheld the notion that pigs are property that can be denied food, water or rest in transit for up to 36 hours.

  • Chimpanzees provide a salient example of the problem. They have had their rights championed more than most: it is now illegal in many countries to do scientific experiments on them, and efforts are under way to grant them personhood – effectively, human rights.

  • Jennifer Mather, an animal behaviour expert at the University of Lethbridge, Canada, sees no reason why chimps should receive such privileged status. “Animals from all taxa deserve consideration,” says Mather, although she admits others may disagree.

  • “I am all for working towards improved welfare of animals, but that doesn’t mean ascribing them rights,” says Steven Cooke at Carleton University in Canada. “I care far more about ensuring that we properly manage populations and habitats to ensure resilience and enable appropriate human use,” he says.

  • The truth is that most of modern life, from clothing manufacture to agriculture, relies on exploiting animals and treating them with less regard than humans – especially if they invade our space.

  • Would mosquito rights lead to the end of eradication programmes and thus the spread of malaria? Would horse or cattle rights force humans to take up gruelling physical labour?

5.2.2 Should we … Genetically engineer our children?

  • Supporters:

    • Nature is not perfect.
    • There are already some actions taken.
    • The genome-editing technology has improved greatly.
    • Hence, it appears immoral not to genetically improve our descendants in every way we can.
  • Opponents:

    • Gene editing could be a way of “disappearing” certain types of people, suggested actress Kiruna Stamell, who has a rare form of dwarfism, at a recent debate. “By eradicating individuals with the condition, we are not beating the condition, we are not curing it.”
    • The issue is whether some states we regard as disabilities are just differences that are only a problem because the rest of society treats them as such.

5.2.3 Should we … Make everyone ‘normal’?

“Imagine a pill or therapy capable of rewiring your neural circuitry so as to make you more empathetic: one that decreases aggression, and causes your capacity for moral reasoning and tendency to forgive to go through the roof. Wouldn’t the world be a better place if we were all encouraged to have it? In fact, if human happiness lay on the other side of a tablet, why not embrace utopia and prescribe it by force?”

5.3 Moral philosophy

We will focus on utilitarianism and categorical imperative. Check here for more theories of moral philosophy.

5.4 Utilitarianism

The greatest happiness of the greatest number is the foundation of morals and legislation.

— Jeremy Bentham, COLLECTED WORKS (1843)

5.4.1 Historical background

  • The late 18th and 19th centuries: a series of social upheavals.

  • Bentham and Mill were as revolutionary as the other two great intellectual innovators of the 19th century, Charles Darwin and Karl Marx.

  • Why it is so radical? (Divine Command Theory)

    • Morality is not “a system of nasty puritanical prohibitions … designed to stop people [from] having fun.” Rather, the point of morality is the happiness of beings in this world, and nothing more; and we are permitted — even required — to do what is necessary to promote that happiness. This was a revolutionary idea.

5.4.2 What is utilirarianism

  • What do you know from the reading?

  • Classical Utilitarianism can be summed up in three propositions:

      1. The morality of an action depends solely on the consequences of the action; nothing else matters.
      1. An action’s consequences matter only insofar as they involve the greater or lesser happiness of individuals.
      1. In the assessment of consequences, each individual’s happiness gets equal consideration.
  • Here is a video by crash course on Mill and Utilitarianism.

5.4.3 Social reformers

  • The utilitarians were not just philosophers. They also sought social changes.

  • An example: Nonhuman Animals

    • Is it wrong to be cruel to animals? (what would an utlirarian argue?)
  • Theological justifications

    • “Hereby is refuted the error of those who said it is sinful for a man to kill brute animals; for by the divine providence they are intended for man’s use in the natural order. Hence it is not wrong for man to make use of them, either by killing them or in any other way whatever.” (by Saint Thomas Aquinas)
  • Philosophical (secular justifications)

    • animals are not rational, can’t speak, or are simply not human

5.4.4 Can animals experience (un)happiness?

  • The day may come when the rest of the animal creation may acquire those rights which never could have been withholden from them but by the hand of tyranny. The French have already discovered that the blackness of the skin is no reason why a human being should be abandoned without redress to the caprice of a tormentor. It may one day come to be recognized that the number of the legs, the villosity of the skin, or the termination of the os sacrum are reasons equally insufficient for abandoning a sensitive being to the same fate. What else is it that should trace the insuperable line? Is it the faculty of reason, or perhaps the faculty of discourse? But a full-grown horse or dog is beyond comparison a more rational, as well as a more conversable animal, than an infant of a day or a week or even a month old. But suppose they were otherwise, what would it avail? The question is not, Can they reason? nor Can they talk? but, Can they suffer? (by Bentham)

5.4.5 Another thought experiment

5.4.6 Critique against utilitarianism

Most moral philosophers, however, reject the theory. Here are some objections.

- Is Pleasure All That Matters?
- Are Consequences All That Matter?
- Should We Be Equally Concerned for Everyone?

5.4.7 Consequences

  • Justice. In 1965, writing in the racially charged climate of the American civil rights movement, H. J. McCloskey asks us to consider the following case:

  • Suppose a utilitarian were visiting an area in which there was racial strife, and that, during his visit, a Negro rapes a white woman, and that race riots occur as a result of the crime. … Suppose too that our utilitarian is in the area of the crime when it is committed such that his testimony would bring about the conviction of [whomever he accuses]. If he knows that a quick arrest will stop the riots and lynchings, surely, as a utilitarian, he must conclude that he has a duty to bear false witness in order to bring about the punishment of an innocent person.

5.4.8 Consequences

  • Rights. Here is an example from the U.S. Court of Appeals. In the case of York v. Story (1963), arising out of California:

  • In October, 1958, appellant [Ms. Angelynn York] went to the police department of Chino for the purpose of filing charges in connection with an assault upon her. Appellee Ron Story, an officer of that police department, then acting under color of his authority as such, advised appellant that it was necessary to take photographs of her. Story then took appellant to a room in the police station, locked the door, and directed her to undress, which she did. Story then directed appellant to assume various indecent positions, and photographed her in those positions. These photographs were not made for any lawful or legitimate purpose.
  • Appellant objected to undressing. She stated to Story that there was no need to take photographs of her in the nude, or in the positions she was directed to take, because the bruises would not show in any photograph …
  • Later that month, Story advised appellant that the pictures did not come out and that he had destroyed them. Instead, Story [made additional prints and] circulated these photographs among the personnel of the Chino police department.

  • The “tyranny of the majority

5.4.9 Equally concerned for everyone?

  • Suppose you are on your way to the movies when someone points out that the money you are about to spend could be used to feed the starving or to provide inoculations for third-world children. Surely, those people need food and medicine more than you need to see Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie. So you forgo your entertainment and donate your money to charity. But it doesn’t stop there. By the same reasoning, you cannot buy new clothes, a car, a smartphone, or a PlayStation. Probably you should move into a cheaper apartment. After all, what’s more important — that you have these luxuries, or that children have food?

5.5 Categorical Imperative (or Deontology)

  • Harry S. Truman: the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

  • “The decision whether or not to use the atomic bomb,” Churchill later wrote, “. . . was never even an issue. There was unanimous, automatic, unquestioned agreement around our table.” Truman said that he “slept like a baby” after signing the final order.

  • Harry Truman and Elizabeth Anscombe: 1956, Oxford University.

  • Anscombe wrote a pamphlet

  • Truman was a murderer because he had ordered the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. “For men to choose to kill the innocent as a means to their ends,” she wrote, “is always murder.” To the argument that the bombings saved more lives than they took, she replied, “Come now: if you had to choose between boiling one baby and letting some frightful disaster befall a thousand people — or a million people, if a thousand is not enough — what would you do?”

  • Anscombe’s point: some things may not be done, no matter what.

5.5.1 Now, let’s talk about Kant

  • For Kant, there are different “oughts.” What are they? What is the difference between Hypothetical vs. Categorical Imperative?

  • Categorical Imperative:

    • Act only according to that maxim by which you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law.

5.5.2 Therefore, lying is always wrong

  • For Kant, lying under any circumstances is “the obliteration of one’s dignity as a human being.” Why? What are the reasons Kant gave? Do you agree?

5.5.3 Kant’s argument

  • His main argument relies on the Categorical Imperative. We could not will a universal law that allows us to lie, Kant said, because such a law would be self-defeating.

  • Suppose it was necessary to lie in order to save someone’s life. Should you do it? How would Kant reason?

5.5.4 More on Kant’s argument

    1. We should do only those actions that conform to rules which we could will to be adopted universally.
    1. If you were to lie, then you would be following the rule, “It is okay to lie.”
    1. This rule could not be adopted universally, because it would be self-defeating: People would stop believing one another, and then it would be impossible to lie.
    1. Therefore, you should not lie.
  • Although Anscombe agreed with Kant’s conclusion, she was quick to point out an error in his reasoning. The difficulty arises in step (2).

    • Why should we say that, if you lied, you would be following the rule, “It is okay to lie”? Perhaps your maxim would be: “I will lie when doing so would save someone’s life.” That rule would not be self-defeating. It could become a universal law. And so, by Kant’s own theory, it would be all right for you to lie. Thus, Kant’s belief that lying is always wrong does not seem to be in line with his own moral theory.

5.5.5 The Case of the Inquiring Murderer.

-Here is an intro by crash course on Kant and Categorical Imperative.

  • Many of Kant’s contemporaries thought that his insistence on absolute rules was strange. One reviewer challenged him with this example: Imagine that someone is fleeing from a murderer and tells you that he is going home to hide. Then the murderer comes by and asks you where the man is. You believe that, if you tell the truth, you will be aiding in a murder. Furthermore, the killer is already headed the right way, so if you simply remain silent, the worst result is likely. What should you do?

  • Under these circumstances, most of us believe that you should lie. After all, which is more important: telling the truth or saving someone’s life?

  • Kant responded in an essay with the charmingly oldfashioned title “On a Supposed Right to Lie from Altruistic Motives.”

    • Whoever lies, Kant says, “must answer for the consequences, however unforeseeable they were, and pay the penalty for them.” Kant states his conclusion in the tone of a stern schoolmaster: “To be truthful … in all declarations, therefore, is a sacred and absolutely commanding decree of reason, limited by no expediency.”
  • If justified in terms of consequences, what if the results are unexpectedly bad?

    • Therefore, the best policy is to avoid the known evil—lying—and let the consequences come as they may. Even if the consequences are bad, they will not be our fault, for we will have done our duty.
    • A similar argument for Truman.

5.5.6 What do you think of Kant’s argument?

  • Potential problems:

    • An unreasonably pessimistic view of what we can know.
    • How about bad consequences of telling the truth?

White lies? When saving lives? This points to the main difficulty for the belief in absolute rules: Shouldn’t a rule be broken when following it would be disastrous?

5.5.7 Should that principle be dismissed?

  • As Alasdair MacIntyre (1929–) observes, “For many who have never heard of philosophy, let alone of Kant, morality is roughly what Kant said it was” — that is, a system of rules that one must follow from a sense of duty. Is there some basic idea underlying the Categorical Imperative that we might accept, even if we don’t believe in absolute moral rules?

  • Rational; good reasons

    • It is no good saying that you can accept reasons some of the time, but not all the time; or that other people must respect them, but not you. Moral reasons, if they are valid at all, are binding on all people at all times. This is a requirement of consistency, and Kant was right to think that no rational person may deny it.
  • This insight has some important implications. It implies that a person cannot regard herself as special, from a moral point of view: She cannot consistently think that she is permitted to act in ways that are forbidden to others, or that her interests are more important than other people’s interests.

    • If Kant was not the first to recognize this, he was the first to make it the cornerstone of a fully worked-out system of morals.
  • Kant went one step further and said that consistency requires rules that have no exceptions.

    • All that Kant’s basic idea requires is that when we violate a rule, we do so for a reason that we would be willing for anyone to accept.
    • President Truman could also say that anyone in his position would have been justified in dropping the bomb. Thus, even if Truman was wrong, Kant’s arguments do not prove it. One might say that dropping the bomb was wrong because Truman had better options. Perhaps he should have shown the Japanese the power of the bomb by dropping it onto an unpopulated area — negotiations might then have been successful. Or perhaps the Allies could have simply declared victory at that point in the war, even without a Japanese surrender. Saying things like that, however, is very different from saying that what Truman did violated an absolute rule.

5.5.8 Other lingering points

  • Treating people “as an end.”

    • “Act so that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or in that of another, always as an end and never as a means only.”

5.5.9 Retributivism

  • What would an utilitarian say? How about a Kantian?

  • Jeremy Bentham (1748–1832) said that “all punishment is mischief: all punishment in itself is evil.”
    • “If [punishment] ought at all to be admitted, it ought to be admitted in as far as it promises to exclude some greater evil.”
  • In America, the utilitarian view of punishment was once dominant. In 1954, the American Prison Association changed its name to “the American Correctional Association” and encouraged prisons to become “correctional facilities.” Prisons were thus asked to “correct” inmates, not to “punish” them. Prison reform was common in the 1950s and 1960s. Prisons offered their inmates drug treatment programs, vocational training classes, and group counseling sessions, hoping to turn them into good citizens.

  • Kant would have no part of utilitarian justifications. Instead, he believes that punishment should be governed by two principles.

    • First, people should be punished simply because they have committed crimes, and for no other reason.
    • Second, punishment should be proportionate to the seriousness of the crime.

5.6 Acknowledgement

This section draws from The Elements of Moral Philosophy.