Morality, Ethics, and Consequences

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Re: Morality, Ethics, and Consequences

#21  Postby palindnilap » Nov 08, 2010 2:53 pm

You probably don't know it yet, but it might be a good move of yours to ask a philosophical question outside the philosophy forum. ;)
The downside is that you are likely be left with amateurish answers like mine.

Curious Ape wrote:On another note -- I've never heard a good (logical) argument which proposes that morality/ethics are not contingent upon consequences. Personally, I think they're entirely dependent upon consequences, even if we're talking about intent. But I would love it if anyone could present a sound opposition.


I won't present a strong opposition since like you I am almost exclusively a consequentialist. But here are some questions and other points of views that it certainly doesn't hurt to contemplate :

1) Predictability : Consequences are an unfair judge when randomness is involved (i.e. in almost any decision). Suppose I have to play head or tails and if I choose correctly a large amount is distributed to a great charity organisation. If I lose, I hope you would agree that my choice wasn't immoral, just unlucky.
Once one thinks in terms of probabilities and winning expectations, I don't think that the above is any challenge to consequentialism, only to your formulation.

2) What goal ? Estimating which consequences are desirable and which aren't is very much an open question. Utilitarians think that aggregate happiness is the proper evaluation function. That sets problems of defining / assessing happiness, and of seemingly impossible trade-offs. I think that we consequentialists had better remain at least somewhat agnostic about what counts as consequences. But we have quite some work to do in explaining how to aggregate potentially incommensurable quantities.

3) Which benefactors ? In short, should we care only about things from the point of view of humans ? Of life in general ? Of the entire universe ? In which proportions ? It doesn't seem very realistic to disallow for any tad of egoism.

4) How to aggregate ? John Rawls' imaginary contract makes an interesting case for equality. He asks us to choose what society we would like, under a veil of ignorance : not knowing who we will be born into. He then argues that most of us would choose a society which maximizes the well-being of the people who are the worst off in the society. I think that line of reasoning capitalizes a bit too much on our risk aversion bias. On the other hand, it allows to condemn more easily the idea of making a bunch of scapegoats suffer horribly for the sake of enhancing the general aggregate well-being.

5) Absolutes : Even with religion set aside, many people are effectively basing their morality on more exalted principles, e.g. freedom for libertarians, or human dignity for Kantians. I don't have a lot of sympathy for those types of ethics, but one must leave to them that they make a better account for some taboo trade-offs that it is difficult to get rid off. E.g. would you allow to make auctions for human organs, or to allow people to hire other people for performing a civic duty in their place ? An interesting thing is that for many people, even considering such questions is morally condemnable !

6) Virtue : Aristotle's interesting idea is that some people are more deserving of some goods that others are. It is domain-specific. For example, a fantastic violonist is more entitled to get a Stradivarius than a billionnaire philanthroper. I think that it is possible to integrate Aristotle's idea into a consequentialist view based on the idea that it enhances human flourishing.
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