Showing posts with label ethics. Show all posts
Showing posts with label ethics. Show all posts

Friday, June 14, 2013

Discovering the Philosopher in You: Part 7: Happiness and Right Action: How Are Morality and Human Welfare Related?

Continuing the series on discovering the philosopher in yourself.  While the last part of the series was about ethics and moral truth, the fact that there is a right and wrong and that we can know it, this entry goes further down the road of morality and its relation to happiness.

The first three-quarters of the lecture it seems like Prof McGinn is defending the idea of Utilitarianism, and how morality is linked to happiness like a sort of mathematical equation.  It seems like he's defending utilitarianism as the best way to describe right actions, but it seems obvious to me almost immediately that it's not going to work.

Here's how Prof McGinn describes utilitarianism: on the surface it seems like a very fair, no-nonsense system.  Because who doesn't like a system where the sole determination of right action is based on producing the most happiness?  So utilitarianism says that the right action is the one that will produce the greatest amount of happiness.  My first thought is how do we measure an amount of happiness, and  Prof McGinn says he'll discuss that concept later in the lecture.  He really doesn't say much about it, other than asking that same thing, how does one measure happiness?  So, the example Prof McGinn uses relates to choosing one charity over another.  The only criteria for choosing which charity to support is only determined by which charity will produce the most happiness.  This flies in the face of almost all other systems of morality, which is highly controversial.

It's an apparently egalitarian view and quite democratic.  Taxes, this system of morality says that all tax systems must be inherently designed to spread out wealth so that the most people gain the most happiness.  It's also democratic, because the best way to find out what makes the most people happy is to allow people to choose for themselves what makes them happy.  This system is purely mathematical.  There's no room for motivation or character.  It doesn't matter if a person has the worst (or best) of intentions.  It doesn't matter what your motive is, as long as more happiness is produced it's a good action.

There are many implications and arguments that have come out of utilitarianism, including (supposedly) abolishing slavery and arguing against animal cruelty.  The system isn't without it's shortcomings though.  Here's one that Prof McGinn points out: one innocent man knows the location of a billion dollars, and the happiness of ten wicked men can be greatly improved by torturing the one innocent man.  By utilitarian standards, that would be acceptable.  Here's another one, supposedly utilitarian arguments led to the end of slavery (at least in many parts of the world).  Here's my issue with that, if there are fewer people being enslaved and usually that's the case, hence minorities are typically the group(s) being enslaved, then utilitarian ideas say that it's right/good to enslave the few to improve the happiness of the many.  As long as the slaves are outnumbered by the enslavers, and their happiness is increased by the slavery.  Here's another one, murder or even mass murder, like the Nazi genocide attempts, are permissible under utilitarian morality as long as the group being exterminated is fewer in number than the exterminators and the extermination of the minority will lead to the happiness of those doing the killing.

In the end I'm not okay with a system of morality that can excuse mass murder, torture, and slavery.  I've said it before and I'm sure I'll probably say it again, any moral system that excludes God leads to moral relativism.  Utilitarianism cannot be a complete system because it leaves out too many variables that are inherent in morality.

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Discovering the Philosopher in You Part 6: The Basis of Ethics: What Makes Something Right or Wrong?

Continuing the series on the Discovering the Philosopher in You; part six, which is probably the most interesting lecture in the series so far.  Also, it's interesting to me that it confirms what I've thought for a while now, that is that I agree with much of Prof McGinn's views on philosophy.  However, I do completely disagree with him in a specific area as you'll see.

So ethics, obviously a difficult subject which Prof McGinn approached in a quite logical straightforward manner.  I totally recommend you listen to the audio recordings if you can his style is quite approachable and easily understood.  The first question (and one that I agree with Prof McGinn on) is about ethics being knowable.  That is, are ethical truths the same as truth as we discussed previously?  In case you missed that part of the series and don't want to read it, I'll sum it up...  Truth is objective based in reality.  You can't think something into falsehood.  Snow is white no amount of wanting it to be different will change that truth.  Now if (and I hold that it is) ethics is knowable truth then it is also not subjective.  Also, it must also be a priori as was discussed previously.  Again, I'll sum that idea up; a priori is NOT necessarily something that is known from birth, rather something that can be known without experience.  The prime example is mathematics, one can know that 1+2=3 but no one can point to a one, two, three, plus or equals (not the symbols, but the objects, which don't exist as we think of existence).  So one can know that murder is wrong without being able to see wrong or right in and of themselves.  So, knowledge of ethics definitely falls under the realm of a priori knowledge.

Well, there are many that dispute that claim.  The primary disagreement is that moral or ethical claims are merely emotive statements, in fact emotivists say they're less than that.  To an emotivist, saying, "murder is wrong," is the equivalent of saying "murder, boo."  Emotivism is just one of the many attempts to escape the reality of moral truth.  The most important thing to take from this lecture is about how non-cognitivists (those that believe morality is not knowable truth) are guaranteed to come away with moral relativism.  It's obvious, if saying, "rape is wrong" is equivalent to "boo, hiss" then what's the point of any moral statements?  They're all worthless.

Here's where I have some disagreement with Prof McGinn...  After talking about how he believes that moral truth is NOT subjective, that it's completely objective and just as trustworthy as mathematical truths.  So far, I can agree with him.  Then, he starts into a critique of divine command theory.  Let me first say, I'm not a fan of the divine command theory.  I've read the Euthyphro dialogue (granted, it was a few years ago in college) but I do remember enough to know that Prof McGinn seems to make a mistake, like the one he made when he retold the cave myth from the Republic.  He says that Socrates meets Euthyphro while walking around Athens, which is not true to the dialogue.  In the dialogue, Socrates meets Euthyphro on the porch of King Archon (steps of the courts) because he's on trial.  They strike up a conversation, and the so called, "Euthyphro dilema."  I've written about this before, Is something good because God commands it, or is something good commanded by God because it is good?  Euthyphro doesn't have a good answer, and as I've mentioned before, I feel that's mainly because of a misunderstanding of the nature of God.  The ancient Greek gods were very anthropomorphic and fallible.  God as He actually is, isn't fallible as a man, he's immutable, perfection, omnipotence, omniscience, among other characteristics, all of which are the furthest any being can be from humanity.  God is not the foundation of morality, God is the definition of morality.  Murder isn't wrong because God says it's wrong (per se) rather because it's against the very nature of God and morality.