Fun with ethics|An update for the Machiavelli sequence!
Links for the earlier posts are included at the update.
It's a discussion of virtue ethics (the important thing is to be the right sort of person), deontology (there are rules. obey them!), and utilitarianism (get the right outcome), with examples of sorting out the ethical philosophy of various famous fictional characters.
Batman. Absolute commitment to never using lethal force: deontology. (Unless we think he refrains from killing out of fear of what killing would do to his moral character.)
Spiderman. Uncle Ben was killed because of Peter Parker’s selfish and vengeful impulse in that moment he let the thug go instead of using his powers for good. Why, then, does Peter dedicate himself to fighting crime? If it is because he has come to an absolute conclusion that with great power comes great responsibility, i.e. he is morally required to, that is deontology. If it is because he hopes to redeem the flaw in his character which led to his selfish decision, it is Virtue Ethics at its most habit-of-virtue Aristotelian.
This entry was posted at http://nancylebov.dreamwidth.org/549735.html
. Comments are welcome here or there.
comments so far on that entry.
|Date:||August 27th, 2012 04:37 pm (UTC)|| |
I would need to see a systematic argument for those three being the only approaches to ethics that are possible, and also for their being mutually exclusive. Utilitarianism strikes me as basically a variant on deontology, when you come right down to it. Consider the following cases:
Kant: The right thing to do is what conforms to the moral law, uninfluenced by your personal inclinations or interests.
Comte: The right thing to do is what serves the good of others, uninfluenced by your personal inclinations or interests.
Bentham: The right thing to do is what serves the good of everyone, giving equal weight to your own good and to the good of every single other sentient being in the universe.
Really, the difference between Comte's advocacy of total self-sacrifice (this is the man who criticized Jesus's moral teachings because "love thy neighbor as thyself" assumed that it was morally acceptable to love yourself) and Bentham's advocacy of equal concern for every human being is negligible; the probability that your own personal preferences will tip the scale in deciding what serves humanity is indistinguishable from zero. (That's leaving Bentham's advocacy of equal weight for animals aside; it would just make the conclusion stronger.) And Comte's advocacy of serving the good of others is just giving concrete content to Kant's "what conforms to the moral law," and indeed concrete content not very different from the specific principles that Kant took as instantiating his concept of the moral law.
And that makes me think that there is at least one specific additional path, which is hedonism, or "do what gives you pleasure."
Thanks for the suggestions for additional systems of ethics. However, no one in this discussion said that the first three covered all possibilities.
Exurbe was describing the state of thought about ethics that Machiavelli was dealing with. I merely said "fun with ethics", though arguably it's possible to have more fun (point for hedonism) if you have a more complete list.
|Date:||August 27th, 2012 05:36 pm (UTC)|| |
I think Spiderman is clearly motivated by virtue ethics. His entire story is a story of becoming who he believes he should be as viewed through the lens of Uncle Ben, having internalized the (perhaps unrealistically idealized?) impression of what Uncle Ben expected him to be.
First, I reject utilitarianism completely; the ends can never justify the means.
Second, I reject deontology as flawed; there are no such things as universal or natural moral laws. If there were such a thing, it would be impossible to break them, just as you can't break gravity or entropy. A person may set up their own personal moral code and act strictly on its basis, but this would be as close to deontology as the real world comes.
Finally, I find "virtue ethics" questionable. As the country saying goes, if the cat has kittens in the oven, it doesn't make 'em biscuits. Much of the "courage" of the line soldier in wars came from the certainty of disgrace and death for running against the mere possibility of death by going forward. Going to church regularly certainly didn't make medieval priests and prelates virtuous- quite the contrary. If a person's virtues change from habit, it is not because of the habit but rather because of experiences gained over the years of performing that habit.
To address some of the specific fictional examples:
Batman: Depending on the writer and setting, there are three different explanations for his dislike of guns. One such is a visceral hatred of guns stemming from the night his parents were murdered. Another (esp. 1950-60s era) is a deliberate decision to hold a superior moral code in every way to the criminals he battles. My personal preference, though is this: Batman is aware that he is almost as mentally disturbed as the freaks who make up his rogues gallery. He avoids using guns, and indeed avoids lethal tactics as much as possible, because he fears himself; he thinks, if ever he starts killing, he may never be able to stop. The decision here is not moral at all, but rather a decision of survival.
Spider-Man: Peter Parker, by dedicating his life to protecting the innocent, is acting penance for the death of his uncle, which he feels as responsible for as if he had killed Ben Parker himself. If this is a moral decision, it comes close to deontology; my view, however, is that it is an emotional decision with a moral rationalization.
Prospero and Caliban: Prospero combines vengeance for Caliban's deeds with the habits of a nobleman accustomed to rule and privilege. By his own moral code, it is nearly impossible for him to do wrong, because being noble he is by definition always right. Prospero's decisions are based on arrogance and privilege, not any abstract or absolute moral code. (It requires the experiences of The Tempest to bring him to any level of repentance.)
Caliban recognizes but rejects the moral code of humans. His moral code boils down to utilitarianism (or Objectivism) in its starkest sense, i. e. whatever's good for me is by definition good, period.
Any discussion on the moral right or wrong of this relationship is moot, with the outcome always depending on the personal moral code of the person making the judgment.
Sherlock Holmes: Holmes, the logical, rational, analytical detective, has a strong romantic streak in him, as befits the period of his creation. He rejects absolute moral laws, regarding them as tyrannical without tempering mercy. Thus all his acts are based, first and foremost, on his personal moral judgment on the criminal in question. In those cases where his judgment clashes with the law of the land, he feels no qualms about ignoring or even defying the law to uphold his own verdict. Holmes uses utilitarian means to reach virtuous ends, seeking no justification except that of his own ego- which makes his decisions not moral but emotional in nature.
Vader: A good place to sum up. It is absolutely safe to say that morality played no part whatever in any of the life-changing decisions made in the life of Anakin Skywalker. Each and every one was based on emotion unchecked- and this, in Lucas' hamfisted storytelling, is what leads both to his downfall and redemption. Debating what mode of ethics Vader lives by is not only moot but pointless, because in the course of his life he breaks every last one of them.
Remember: we humans are not rational, but rather rationalizing, creatures. In practical terms, morality is a game we play, where we make up the rules after we've already made our move.
|Date:||August 27th, 2012 08:52 pm (UTC)|| |
You really don't understand Objectivism, or utilitarianism, if you think of Caliban as an example of either.
I will admit to not being well-studied in utilitarianism.
However, after spending eight years fighting the greed-headed Rand-worshippers in the Libertarian Party before I gave it up, I consider myself quite thoroughly educated in the odious philosophy which is Objectivism- and Caliban would fit right in.
|Date:||August 27th, 2012 10:09 pm (UTC)|| |
I remind you of what Kipling said on the subject: "It is his disciple/Shall make his labor vain." Anyone can claim to be a follower of Rand, or Buddha, or Jesus, or Marx; that doesn't mean they necessarily understand what they claim to follow. And in any case, claiming that a belief is false or an argument invalid because the person who puts it forward has some personal flaw has been recognized as a fallacy since the ancient Greeks.
I've read what Rand says about ethics, and thought about it for decades, and I am convinced that you are wrong about her ethics, and indeed you are attributing to her positions that she explicitly rejected.
You might want to consider that Rand held that the Libertarian Party is evil, so any Objectivist in the party would be a questionable representative of Objectivism.
Anyway, speaking as a more-or-less Objectivist, I'd like to point out that, while it may be a handy shorthand to say that "the good is what's good for me", that fails to properly encapsulate the Objectivist ethics. What it leaves out is that an Objectivist can't merely decide "this is good for me" and then say "this is therefore good".
This is hardly the place to write an essay on how an Objectivist should decide what is good but I do want to point out that part of the Objectivist ethics is the principle that one should treat other human beings as they deserve. So, an Objectivist who is characteristically an asshole violates his ethics, because he fails to consider the nature of others before he treats them with disrespect. So also does an Objectivist who puts the accumulation of material wealth above all other goals, because he thereby neglects "spiritual" necessities.
an Objectivist who is characteristically an asshole violates his ethics
In the real world, I have yet to meet any other kind.
he fails to consider the nature of others before he treats them with disrespect
My own reading of Rand's works (averaged about 30 pages at a time before the book got thrown against a wall) strongly implies that others are not to be considered, EVER; selfishness is all.
Rand is more complex than that-- note that her good guys have doing excellent work as a major motivation.
One might also note that the Randian heroes in Atlas Shrugged sometimes displayed deep compassion. See, e.g., Rearden in the scene where Tony ("Non-Absolute") dies.
*I* am not an asshole and I *do* consider others, as is required by my ethics which, in this regard, does not diverge from Objectivism.
So, I suggest, your knowledge of Objectivism and of Objectivists is inaccurate.
|Date:||August 28th, 2012 01:16 am (UTC)|| |
Given enough time to prepare, Batman can refute any ethical system.
|Date:||August 28th, 2012 05:18 am (UTC)|| |
Heh. That's pretty good.
|Date:||August 29th, 2012 01:22 am (UTC)|| |
"The Machiavelli Sequence" would be a pretty good name for an espionage novel or techno-thriller.
The one I want is The Doomsday Valet
. The Doomsday Vault
is a pretty good steampunk novel, but I kept
misreading the title.