Saturday, March 9, 2013

Do the ends justify the means? (part 2)

Larry has responded to the three criticisms I made in this [post] :-

First, he objects that pragmatism is still complicated. It's hard to know the effects, and it's hard to analyze the effects we do know.
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I don't see the first problem as a problem at all: I don't claim that pragmatism is a silver bullet. I would see as valid the objection that pragmatism is complicated only if the alternatives were simpler and at least just as valuable as, if not better than, pragmatism. But, as I write in the original post, while certainly simpler, deonticism is considerably worse than pragmatism, because it gives us no systematic justification for moral values at all. Remember, a truly deontic moral system must evaluate the moral value of actions independently of their effects. We must, somehow, justify a prohibition against murder independently of the dead body. Once you reject "God says so," or "The chief says so," it's hard to get a handle on how to justify deontic ethics without somehow importing a pragmatic analysis, as theObserver does in his evaluation of Stalin. So, yes, pragmatism is complicated. We can't just predict of all the effects in infinite time and space, precisely evaluate them, and do a rigorous benefit-cost analysis to come to a concrete, deterministic judgment. But once we know where the messiness, imprecision, and differences of opinion lie, we can start to apply all the intellectual tools we have developed to make improvements.

Response :-
I was attacking the claim that "pragmatism makes the analysis of ethical beliefs, good and bad, more straightforward and consistent" and "[w]e can, however, differentiate between deontic and pragmatic meta-ethics metaphysically: pragmatism is simpler and more direct than deonticism, with fewer ontological entities. Hence, pragmatism is a better meta-ethical system than deonticism."

In my opinion pragmatism and deonticism are both equally complex but in different ways.  Deonticism is ontologically complex while pragmatism  is epistemologically complex. Which you prefer is largely a matter of subjective preference.

I for example do not trust intellectual tools to make improvements in our ethics. Nor do I trust the academics who must develop such tools. I suspect pragmatism will result in a form of generalized ethics which runs the risk of ignoring individual humans in the name of the common good.  Instead of  'the chief says so' we will have 'because this system developed by this group says so'.  Can I murder this person for my own gain if I am reasonably sure I will not be caught?

Larry notes that "deonticism is considerably worse than pragmatism, because it gives us no systematic justification for moral values at all". Systematic is 'based on or constituting a system' and justification requires a justifier such as "pragmatism, probability theory, scientific method, logical positivism, empiricism" (Wikiopedia : [link]). So I feel justified in twisting Larrys later comment back upon himself:  it cannot be a criticism of deonticism that deonticism is not pragmatic. 

Second, he also objects that there are some ethical ideas, such as "[g]lory, honor, nationalism, even democracy and liberty" that we cannot, because they are not ends, pragmatically analyze.
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Second, we can judge some ethical ideas pragmatically, and if we cannot judge some others, so what? Does the social construction of democracy, for example, as best we can judge lead to overall positive or negative outcomes? If positive, then it is a useful social construct; if negative, it is a candidate for modification. Is liberty itself a positive or negative outcome? If it seems that sometimes liberty is positive and sometimes negative, then it's worthwhile to analyze why that would be so. And suppose we cannot just cannot evaluate "honor" in a pragmatic way. Perhaps, then, it is simply not an ethically important idea. It cannot be a criticism of pragmatism just that pragmatism is not deontic; such a criticism would simply beg the question.

Response :-
I suspect the category of things in pragmatism which are "simply not an ethically important idea" is very large.  Ideas do have consequences but establishing the causal effect of ideas is very difficult and  predicting the effects ahead of time are even more difficult.  Science works because we can test theories against the natural world.  We don't have that luxury in ethics.

Are individual rights an ethically important idea if they cannot be pragmatically analyzed?  At best such rights are social constructions to be removed when a pragmatic formula returns a satisfactory result because surely everything must be up for removal and 'improvement' if we limit ourselves to the ends rather than the means. There are no checks or balances in such an ethical system and human institutions must be treated as a tabula rosa on which a plan can be imposed. And that worries me.

Does democracy lead to overall positive or negative outcomes? Positive or negative outcomes for whom?  Me? You? The common good?  Does pragmatism tell us which conception of the common good should we adapt?


Third, he complains that pragmatism as recognizes that people can have "bad" preferences, but a meta-ethical system should not simply recognize but systematically fix bad preferences.

I don't quite understand theObserver's third point: "If a pragmatic meta-ethical framework consistently allows "bad" preferences for outcomes then we must alter our meta-ethical framework to fix the problem." The phrase "allows 'bad' preferences" seems vague here. First, any meta-ethical system must account for the existence of both good and bad somethings. That pragmatism says that sometimes people have preferences for outcomes that most other people would consider bad, it's doing the job that any meta-ethical system must do. Second, no meta-ethical system by itself solves any ethical conflicts. People use meta-ethical systems to evaluate situations and guide their actions. Thus, retrospectively applying pragmatism and seeing that the outcome of some choice was bad, because (presumably) either the actors did not apply a pragmatic framework and act to effect the best foreseeable outcome, or they did the best they could with limited human knowledge, would not seem to undermine the analytical framework.


This third objection arose in the framework of a specific case. In his comment, theObserver seems to imply that pragmatism was a sufficient justification for Stalin's evils (accepting arguendo the alleged existence, magnitude, and motivation of those evils): "Thus in post-war France, philosophers like Sartre were able to welcome Stalin’s slaughter and the show trails because they showed, perversely, the great cause was worth fighting for." As I remarked in a followup post, Ethics, meta-ethics, death, and killing,, theObserver here is not even alleging a pragmatic justification, neither for Stalin nor Sartre.

Response :-
If I code an abstract computer module for distribution to various clients and specific instances of my module fail to solve certain client problems, or cause new problems,  then I want to fix my abstract module.  Just noting that no abstract module by itself solves my clients problems does not help anyone.

If human actors doing their best with limited human knowledge cause harmful outcomes through unwise goals or unforeseen consequences, then I want to fix the problem or abandon the meta-ethical framework.  I don't see how pragmatism as a meta-ethical system can be fixed or improved.

Larry notes "First, any meta-ethical system must account for the existence of both good and bad somethings. That pragmatism says that sometimes people have preferences for outcomes that most other people would consider bad, it's doing the job that any meta-ethical system must do.".  

Pragmatism it seems does not help us distinguish between preferences for good or bad outcomes.  It is not a huge leap from this position to claiming the majority are always correct and should therefore coerce the minority to help correct their behavior.  Are we ethical obliged to follow the majority if we disagree the outcome is indeed good?  

Pragmatism strikes me as a system which treats ethics as a form of science with each step forward enabling further steps in the future. But I see no reason to assume ethics is cumulative; nor do I see much reason for optimism for progress in human ethics.  We have over 4000 years of recorded human history to draw upon and that history shows what can be gained can be also be lost.  The growth of human knowledge may have increased our material* well being  but it has also allowed our conflicts to become more savage.  The growth of human knowledge cannot change our fundamental  human nature**.  Ethics should be an individual guide to happiness and flourishing; it should strive to prevent the worst abuses we are capable of.  As an individual ethical guide  pragmatism just leaves me cold; as a political guide it worries me.

*at least for some of us living in the West.
 **at least not yet.

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