Saturday, November 25, 2006

Kid Galilee at the University of Chi-town? Say it ain't so

Ipsa quidem virtus pretium sibi

Rawls if not Hobbes and the utilitarians begin with an acknowledgment of ethical relativism; or, shall we say, instead of theology or Platonism (or the Marxist state), utilitarians and contractualists proceed from a secular and naturalist perspective based on individual needs and desires. The point is to overcome the relativism by something other than making obvious "pragmaticist" points such as "Ethical principles vary from society to society," or "the law of gravity seems substantially different than a statement about ethics."

There are problems with the utilitarian tradition, of course: if 25% of the population of the state of, er, Gonzalopolis were illegal immigrants from Tazmania, and they were committing the great majority of crimes (and say getting away with it, usually), liquidating the Tazmanians as a whole would produce a greater good for the rest of the State (and perhaps would be lent support by an Off the Tasmanian proposition on the Gonzalopolis Ballot), yet that would hardly be considered Just. That'a bit obvious, but anyone arguing for a non-objective, ethics-by-consensus (or say ethics as Wittgensteinian language game, multiculturalism etc.) perspective runs into that problem. Nonetheless, utilitarian considerations--consequentialism, in other words--apply to most political or ethical decisions, especially at the macro level. Who would deny that in many if not most circumstances that a possible act or policy decision--at either personal level or political -- must be assessed in regards to the possible effects entailed by implementing the proposed policy? ( environmental concerns--say regarding cattle , or petroleum---would hardly seem capable of being put into a pure "deontological" framework). But consequentialism doesn't appear to work in ALL circumstances (i.e. Justice), and consequentialism could possibly be injust in certain situations (a tyranny of the majority etc.). And justifying egalitarianism, or perhaps denying it--does not seem to be purely a matter of consequentialism (Hobbes assumes some degree of egalitarianism as a given, and Rawls seems to suggest that is the rational choice).

Consider this situation: Somebody has raped Mrs. Higginsbottham at the mall--. The town is up in arms. Vigilante squads form: and yet no one is found matching her description. After a few months, the cops locate a bum, X, who vaguely looks like the suspect, but who is in fact innocent (say he has a criminal record as well). They arrest X and the DA files charges against him, and put him up for trial; X doesn't have much cash, and he takes the public defender and the jury finds him guilty. (Or imagine more sinister scenarios--falsified evidence, etc.--not uncommon). The townspeople are relieved; the newpaper features the bum as Hannibal Lector du jour etc. X's off to Pelican Bay.

What can the ethical relativist/hedonist or anti-foundationalist really say about this? More pleasure was provided to the community by not upholding justice; the "facts" of the matter it could be argued were shaped for a good purpose; it was more useful to deny the truth (doesn't "use" have something to do with effects, and effects with pleasure/satisfaction, yada yada yada), put away the innocent, then it was to allow the evil to go unpunished. Regardless of the amount of pleasure or satisfaction provided, however, the injustice of the DA's actions is not simply a matter of what a majority of people would say about it (in other words, if the majority of a town voted in a rule in effect claiming that "it's ok to put away the innocent when it's good for the community," that would still be injust--thus a Justice "universal" seems to hold apart from individual opinion/choice).

Related to the problems of ethical relativism is Hume's celebrated dictum that one cannot derive an "ought from an is." (the fact/value distinction). There have been arguments offered against Hume's skeptical chestnut. One of Rorty's mentors, Gewirth, argued for a rationalist ethics which he felt was sufficient to overturn the Humean/util./hedonist school. Gewirth's argument is quite convincing, though it's probably not so appealing to literary hepcats, nor to Starship Troopers of the USA, nor to postmods: his argument is based on what sorts of rights (or a freedom from being constrained) any rational agent claims--and values-- simply by being an agent. Most normal humans value a "right" of some sort--or at least the absence of constraints and limitations--to pursue and attain their economic/biological/social needs and requirements (say, like, education, employment, a mate etc). Thus it's reasonable to assume other normal human agents value their own freedom to attain their ends as well; indeed, Gewirth argues that's its necessary for people to do so (though one could imagine various Malthusian/anarchistic scenarios where that identity is erased). There may be ways to counter Gewirth, but there does seem to be a "moral fact" involved in an agent's own pursuit of the goods and resources needed to sustain his own life, and his own valuing of his freedom to act--and it's not a great stretch to see that other agents also need (and value) the same freedom to pursue their own ends, and that agent X is obligated to recognize agent Y's own entitlement as it were, given a sort of human-identity criteria--and Gewirth's rational ethics are not too distant from Kant's imperative (though Kant's arguments leave something to be desired), nor so different from J.C. AKA Kid Galilee's injunction, in that old collection of poesy, the Beatitudes: "do unto others as you would have them do unto you, man." During a war-- or a Katrina--or for a Pol Pot or Nuremberg trial, it might be difficult to uphold such a view, and marxists or mafiosi would probably object; at the very least, Gewirth put Master Hume in check.

Rawls offers another method for getting around the fact/value issue, related to Hobbes: asked to choose a society (and with a high probability of living in the world he chooses), one would probably choose various policies (or Hobbes' covenants) which are more or less "just" in conventional terms (say, to honor contracts/promises): that one should honor the contracts one consents to does seem to be a "fact" of civil society (and justifiable on utilitarian grounds as well)--most rational humans would choose to live in a society where their contracts were honored (that's a simplication, but will suffice for a blog post).

Thus there are various ways to get around Hume (and utilitarianism, instrumentalism--which may owe something to Hume--and amoralism), however quaint or moralistic or tendentious they appear. (and one might say there is a determinist--naturalist ala Darwin--if not Nietzsche and BF Skinner--perspective denying ethics of any sort--or at least those based on agency or choice). If one simply takes the Humean dictum--or say a pure egoism-- as faith (and many humans--even ones in philosophy departments--obviously do take amoral hedonism or machiavellianism as an item of faith) then, well, it is as pointless to discuss the issue, as it would be to discuss religion with a fundamentalist Xtian or mooslim. Of course, the Machiavellian-Aristotelian school (and Nietzsche also not far from a sort of updating of the Nichomachean Ethics) cares little for any sort of axiomatic ethics, deontological, contractural or otherwise; and in a very real sense, most American institutions--whether education, business, bureaucracy, journalism--uphold that vaguely stoical and nationalistic "force-policy" to some degree, and one doesn't have to empathize with some fancy French deconstructionists to perceive that. And even a hip Stanford-like pragmatist--or literatteur-- probably prefers some flavor of Machiavelli to, like, Kant's imperative, "Act as if every act was a maxim to be applied to all."

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