Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Do the ends justify the means?

Larry over at the Barefoot Bum asks :

Do the ends justify the means? To understand this question we have to deconstruct it. There are, I think, three ways to look at this question. First, we can say that we can ethically judge only the means: good ends, whatever they might be, are just the ends that results from good means; on this view, the ends cannot justify the means. Second, we can say that we can ethically judge only ends; good means, whatever they might be, are just those that result in good ends. The third is to say that we can judge both the means and the ends, and sometimes we have to weigh the good of the ends against the bad of the means (and vice-versa): sometimes we might have to employ bad means to obtain a good end (e.g. lying to the Nazis to hide the Jews); sometimes we have to accept bad ends to employ good means (e.g. risking a Romney victory by not voting for Obama because he's insufficiently progressive). The first is usually labeled deontic ethics, the second pragmatic ethics, and the third is a mixture, juxtaposition, or dialectical combination of deontic and pragmatic ethics. [link]

Larry explains that although all three constructions are problematic, he has come down in favor of the pragmatic view.  Deontic ethics suffer from unsolvable epistemic problems while a mixed view only introduces the weakness of both deontic and pragmatic ethics without resolving either.  Pragmatism on the other hand offers the possibility of making justifiable decisions through analyzing the outcomes and learning through our knowledge of cultural evolution.  Furthermore the meta-ethics of pragmatism contains less ontological entities making analysis more straightforward and consistent.

I made some comments at the end of the original post which Larry responds to >here< .  In hindsight I was criticizing the broader category of consequential ethics rather than pragmatism which is, as I understand it, a specific form of consequential ethics.

But I still have some concerns with pragmatic ethics.

Firstly, how to we analyse the outcomes?  Any answer to this question must delve into a system of mathematical statistics or game theory or probability which I suspect may make pragmatic ethics in practice complex and unpractical.

Secondly, the meta-ethical the framework behind pragmatism may be simpler and more straightforward  but I'm a fan of the saying "as simple as possible, but no simpler".  In response to my claim that Stalins slaughter and show trails were justified by consequential ethics Larry answered :

It is not clear, however, how pragmatism per se is the culprit here. First, even granting arguendo that Sartre and others really did "welcome Stalin's slaughter and show trials" (I don't know either way), the actual argument is that the extremity of the means justified the ends. This argument might be labeled as perverse deonticism, but it is not pragmatism. A pragmatist could argue only that the ends were so valuable that even the "slaughter and show trials" were of lesser consequence than the value those means obtained. That's a much more difficult case to make; given uncertainty and a welfare-utilitarian view of outcomes, I think the pragmatic case cannot be made. I think the only way to make the case for egregious acts of brutality against human beings is to take a deontic view (e.g. communism is inherently better than capitalism, regardless of any specific consequences), which is of course not an argument against pragmatism, or to take a non-welfare-utilitarian view of outcomes (e.g. the best outcome is one where I have absolute power over other people). [link]

A good answer but there is a difference, at least to my mind, in not making a pragmatic case and in declaring an action unethical. This leads me to my second concern: there may be certain ethical questions which pragmatic ethics must be silent on.  If we are to analyze the ends, then it's trivially true that the ends themselves must be something we can analyze. Motivating ideals for example cannot be analyzed -   Glory, honor, nationalism, even democracy and liberty.  Of course we can attempt to apply Nietzsche hammer and reveal the real underlying material motivation but those can be simply denied.

Thirdly, and leading on from the second, there is the problem of bad preferences:


The latter "bad" case above just rests on "bad" preferences for outcomes. But it is already admitted that a meta-ethical system does not by itself entail that one's actual preferences are good. A meta-ethical system is just a framework for conceptualizing ethics. In much the same sense, the scientific method does not mean that all actual science performed by scientists accurately describes the real world; it's just a framework for a process. So just like saying that a scientist can do bad science (or even do good science and get fooled by the world, which happens a lot),  simply saying that a pragmatist can have bad ethics is not by itself an argument against pragmatism.

And in fact, the theObserver's pragmatic analysis of the specific ethical failures of Stalin shows the power of pragmatism as an analytic tool. The outcome wasn't worth the means to get there; if the outcome had been worth it, if the Soviet Union were today a Stalinist paradise, we would be as tolerant of its historical faults, however grievous, as most people are of the historical faults of every other society, including our own*. We judge Stalin bad not because he contravened any deontic, inherent ethical truth, but because he failed. The ends were insufficiently good to justify the means..

I think this forces the question of  how do we choose which meta-ethical framework to adapt.  If we are emphasizing epistemology by analyzing the 'ends' rather than means, I see no issue with applying historical examples to meta-ethical frameworks and examining the outcome.  If a pragmatic meta-ethical framework consistently allows "bad" preferences for outcomes then we must alter our meta-ethical framework to fix the problem.  If the meta-ethical framework cannot accommodate improvements, then we need to look for a new framework (apologizes for the 'ifs').  My suspicion is that is very hard to learn from our mistakes with a pragmatic meta-ethical framework because of it's limited ontological entities.

We can even apply the same technique to deontic meta-ethical frameworks.  Does a framework containing the axiom "never take human life except to save a life" for example produce better or worse results?

Of course the question can be pushed back:  We can also have bad preferences for meta-ethical outcomes; but we have to assume to common starting point such as basic human traits like empathy and not being complete arseholes.

So it seems we can answer the question 'do the ends justify the means' at different levels of abstraction.  If we assume the question refers to meta-ethical frameworks, then we can only evaluate the ends.  But if we assume the question relates to a real life ethical scenario where we do not have knowledge of the outcome, only of the possible outcomes, then prudence may dictate we evaluate the means according to deontic ethics with all it's messy ontology entities.

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