The Dallas Examined Life Philosophy Group Message Board › My Own Brand of Ethics

My Own Brand of Ethics

A former member
Post #: 2
Thanks for giving me a response I can seek my teeth into, Nathaniel. :)

My first response to your suggestion is a question: is it moral or immoral to be exclusively homosexual?

According to my definition, given the predictable consequences of universal ‘participation’ that you mentioned (the end of humanity), the answer would be yes.

But what if exclusive homosexuals also embraced a commitment to propagating the species (by making contributions to sperm banks, embracing parenting roles, etc.)? If all of us were exclusively homosexual but we also dedicated ourselves to propagating the species, it would no longer be possible to claim that we would all be worse off (at least with respect to this particular consequence that you mentioned).

Sometimes, compensating actions can render innocuous certain types of behavior that would otherwise have to be considered immoral. It helps a lot to know what ultimately defines an act as moral/immoral, but that does not eliminate the complexity that we are often faced with, e.g., in most moral dilemmas.

Re: your example of someone watching another person drown, we can confidently state that yes, if everyone who is able to safely rescue a drowning person were to always act to save people in such circumstances, then we would all be better off. But then, we would not all be better off if those with little swimming experience were to always try to save drowning people, since we could reasonably expect that many of them would drown in their attempts.

See how this exposes the foolishness of simplistic deontological rules?

And then there is also the complication of whether or not would-be rescuers have an accurate perception of their less-than-expert swimming abilities. Even if they know they are good swimmers, they can still guess wrong re: their perception of all the risks they would be taking on (that may not be immediately obvious). Such details can be very important in determining if a given rescue attempt would be a moral act, or precisely the opposite, an immoral act (where everyone would be worse off, if everyone acted the same way).

Now, if a man with limited swimming experience dies in an attempt to save a drowning person, we could say that his intention to save was morally virtuous, but also that his action was ultimately immoral in that (1) he acted when he had good reason to believe that he could very well drown, himself, and (2) if everyone acted in the same way, we would all be worse off. It is therefore moral for such individuals to refrain from taking that particular action in those circumstances.

What I am ultimately arguing is that if we knew all of the pertinent variables re: an anticipated action (or decision to not act), we would be able to determine if it is or is not the moral thing to do. I readily admit that sometimes we can only offer conditional judgments, based only on the facts we are aware of, which is precisely what we pay judges to do.

Also, as with most systems of ethics, is not robust enough to handle animal rights in a way that is satisfying to me.
Yes, it is true that the test I recommend gives little support to those who believe that animals have rights. But the other foundational assumption upon which my ethic is based, that I have not yet mentioned, does. I think I’m going to go ahead and introduce that in a separate thread.
Jim B.
user 4260314
Arlington, TX
Post #: 412
I have been accused by some (none here) of trying to just use fancy logic to justify eating meat when I say things like "if it's not self aware then it has no will to live"...
It doubt that knowledge about awareness or consciousness or self-awareness is anywhere near secure enough, at least now, to provide a basis for an ethic. And even if it were to be secure someday, which is a big "if" imo, self-awareness may very well be like consciousness, with no clear demarcation between things that are self-aware and things that are not. And even if there were such a demarcation, sorting out such knotty epistemic problems, especially as they impinge on "will" might pose huge conceptual hurdles to the formulation of an ethic.

If we just don't know enough, and may never know enough, why not err on the side of reasonable caution, based on inferences to the best explanation? What is a belief? What's a desire? Does my cat have glimmers of self-awareness? he probably does. Is that glimmer enough to assign to him a "will to live"? he doesn't have a sentence in his head that says "I will to live," or "I will not to die." But are inner sentences required in order to have beliefs/desires? Under the right circumstances, he would seem to have a desire not to die. neither an elephant nor a bonobo have sentences in their heads either. And even if they have greater self-awareness than my cat, there's no evidence to suggest that they can model the concept of "death" or "life." But are all these capacities necessary for a thing to exhibit before we can say that it has a right to its life? Even if my cat has no, or a very thin, self-awareness, would it be morally permissible for me to euthanize him because I'm tired of him? He wouldn't suffer at all, so the wrongness would not hinge on suffering but would have something to do with the fact that he has a right to his life (even if he can't model the concept "Life").

Maybe it's because he can experience his life and experience is an intrinsic good. And he can experience pleasure, which I think is also an intrinsic good.

I don't know. This is a very complicated question. I seriously doubt that it resolves itself into one formula. In fact, I doubt that it's even one question, but several.

It's also my attempt to do so without appeals to gods.
I don't think that gods help with meta-ethics that much. At most, a god would necessarily exemplify the good but could not cause the something to be the good.
Jim B.
user 4260314
Arlington, TX
Post #: 413
Hi James,
Welcome to the group and thanks for your thoughts. From what I've read so far, I have to say that I have the same reservations about your ethical theory as I do with most forms of consequentialism. (Just for the record, I have problems with strict deontic theories too though I tend a little more to that side). I think it may fall prey to some of the same problems as utilitarianism as well. Would you say that it's a form of utilitarianism? It is about maximizing some form of utility (bestness or what is most desired by the most numbers). But I'll wait to comment until I read your new thread :)
Nathaniel
user 10963465
Group Organizer
Mesquite, TX
Post #: 198
We can then simply shift the question over a bit and ask the following: Is it moral or immoral to abstain from reproducing? Must we have children if able? An ethic which would demand of us that we reproduce once again falls short of the moral intuition test. The suggestion that being a homosexual is only acceptable if said homosexuals also reproduce is absurd. Suggesting that people are somehow doing something wrong by refusing to reproduce seems similarly absurd.

See how this exposes the foolishness of simplistic deontological rules?
Nope, I don't see that at all. At the very least, I could see a potential problem with "simplistic" rules, but not if the rules are robust enough and strike at the heart of the issue. I like to start from a firm base and advance from there. I use rabid deconstructionism to tear everything apart down to the ground so that I can understand the whole from the base up. We're not there yet. That's why I'm exploring this concept through discourse to see if I can find that base. Once found, I can build properly from there. I've got a hunch about that base, consider this discourse my testing my footing to determine if it's actually grounded.

Now, if a man with limited swimming experience dies in an attempt to save a drowning person, we could say that his intention to save was morally virtuous, but also that his action was ultimately immoral in that (1) he acted when he had good reason to believe that he could very well drown, himself, and (2) if everyone acted in the same way, we would all be worse off. It is therefore moral for such individuals to refrain from taking that particular action in those circumstances.
I'm not sure I could disagree with you more on this point. Let me give you a counter example. I'm a thin person, I wouldn't stop very many bullets with my body. However, if I were in a situation where I were without a weapon of my own and presented with two options: shield a child from being shot or dodge and save my own skin, would you claim that choosing the former course of action was immoral? Sure, it's likely that I would simply succeed in getting myself killed and the child might get shot anyway, but did I do something wrong? Am I now a transgressor? Am I now a bad person? Am I the villain?

Furthermore, how are we supposed to know the future? That's a big issue with consequentialist philosophies. We're supposed to maximize future good... but can only judge said good in retrospect. In this moment, right now, I don't know what the consequences of my actions will be, I only know what I intend those consequences to be. When I'm trying to make a decision, and in so doing I consult my personal ethic, I do concern myself with what I want to happen, but I can't know what will happen. The only way to ensure that I'll hit the mark more often than not is to temper my intent. Wanting to save the child is a good thing, even if I fail to succeed in saving anyone.

Also, and I addressed this before, without considering intent then there's no room for accidents. If I get punched in the mouth because someone tripped, because someone has a tumor that makes them violent, or because someone was just mad at me and tends towards violence it's all the same in the consequentialist's book. All three of these people have done something equally "bad".

Then again, I say all of that even though I claim that responsibility isn't a big deal because it's not a necessary component of addressing what is necessary and sufficient to prevent future harm.
A former member
Post #: 3
...if I were in a situation where I were without a weapon of my own and presented with two options: shield a child from being shot or dodge and save my own skin, would you claim that choosing the former course of action was immoral?
It would certainly depend on the specific variables that comprise the situation, wouldn’t it, Nathaniel?

If the shooter was a friend of yours who thought there was a killer on the premises and because he saw something move, he began to shoot in the direction of the child, then yes, it would be morally virtuous of you to try to take the bullet if it appeared to be the only option available.

(In the lifeboat scenario and also this one, if someone must die and it is an either/or choice, I’ve always thought that those who’ve already lived a reasonably full life ought to be willing to sacrifice themselves if it would enable the youngest members to have their opportunity.)

If, on the other hand, the shooter was a mad killer who was clearly determined to kill everyone he came upon AND in your estimate either (1) you and the child are both going to be killed, or (2) you might be able to escape and---if successful---use the opportunity to help save the lives of others, then it would actually be immoral for you to take an action that you honestly believed would be futile.

And no, you would not be deserving of the tribe’s contempt for effecting immoral actions that appeared to be moral to you at the time, but which were later revealed to be not moral (by my definition) when all of the pertinent facts came to light.

(More often than ethical philosophers seem to want to admit, moral decision-making is frequently little more than guesswork based on imperfect information and strongly influenced by time constraints.)

Mine is not an ethic that is eager to heap derision on those who end up acting immorally because they guessed wrong re: their options. It is, rather, one that seeks to identify those courses of action that will optimize the well-being of all the members of the tribe.

From my moral perspective, there aren’t many villains around, only a lot of ignorant people who don’t know any better. Like Socrates, I believe that no one does wrong willingly (i.e., if people knew the ultimate consequences of their actions and the alternatives that were available, they would never choose to be bad).

I do not hesitate to acknowledge that it is possible to construct scenarios where I am happy to concede that the intentions of the protagonists do matter more than other considerations, but I reject Kant’s suggestion that intentions are the only thing that ever matters.

There happens to be a good reason why I am not especially impressed with the ‘good will’ argument.

A review of history tells us that nearly all of the examples of Great Evil that are mentioned in textbooks---e.g., the Inquisition, Hitler’s Holocaust, Stalin’s forced collectivization of agriculture, ‘strategic bombing’ during WWII, the Rwandan genocide---were all carried out by individuals who believed that they were the good guys who were nobly standing up to what they perceived to be a very threatening Evil.

Which is another way of saying that they believed their intentions were good, that they were acting on what they believed was a good will.

It is a sad truth re: our history that humans have shown themselves to be quite capable of carrying out incredibly evil acts when they have been reassured by their leaders that those actions serve to protect The Good from the great threat posed by The Un-Good.

That is the single biggest reason why I find the ‘good will’ deontological argument specious.

I find it amusing when I hear critics of consequentialism claim that it is a moral perspective which makes people more receptive to The-End-Justifies-The-Means arguments. I say the emphasis that deontologists place on the supreme importance of a good will makes them far more receptive to T-E-J-T-M arguments than consequentialists.

Indeed, the very reason why I am a consistent critic of TEJTM is because I can see that we are all too often worse off (consequences) when we embrace what I perceive to be a very simplistic rationale. It is a rationale that can all too easily be corrupted by false information and wishful thinking re: outcomes.

That is why I believe it is wise for us to automatically reject TEJTM reasoning whenever it is invoked by our leaders and insist that immoral means not be used to pursue ends that they insist are moral.
Nathaniel
user 10963465
Group Organizer
Mesquite, TX
Post #: 199
Moral dilemma's are ways of illuminating key aspects of a moral philosophy. They are intentionally simple to make the situations clearly understood. They lack all the complexity of real world situations for a reason. Complicating the dilemma does not solve it, it only dodges the question the dilemma was aimed at. Would trying to save a child from a shooter in that simple situation be a bad thing considering that I probably have very little chance of actually saving anyone? Would I be in the wrong? Assume all possible omitted variables are inconsequential to the dilemma. I am unarmed, the shooter is a crazed stranger. Am I in the wrong for wanting to save the child's life? Would I only be right if I succeeded?

Interestingly enough, for as much as I disagree with you I actually think we agree on quite a bit more. Let's see if we can find the point of contention, the sticking point that puts us on either side of this imaginary fence.

For me, I do think about consequences. The mantra "intend to prevent future harm" would tend towards making everyone better off (assuming "harm" is properly defined). Even your own ethic deals with this intent. If we should aim to act in such a way that were everyone to do so everyone would be better off then there is a suggestion (should) that we intend (aim) to reduce future harm (everyone would be better off).

As far as others using deontological arguments to justify atrocious and "End Justifies Means" behaviors, they may have also thought that what they were doing was in the best interest of those they were harming. In the case of the inquisition, for instance, all manner of finite worldly suffering could be justified within the context of potentially infinite heavenly bliss. Infinite reward and punishment favors the consequentialist very much here. It's also worth pointing out that Adolf Hitler was a vegetarian, and that says nothing about the nature of vegetarianism. Just because some in the past have used "rule based ethical systems" poorly, does not mean that all such systems are necessarily bad/wrong.

That is why I believe it is wise for us to automatically reject TEJTM reasoning whenever it is invoked by our leaders and insist that immoral means not be used to pursue ends that they insist are moral.
How are there "immoral means" in a consequentialist paradigm? I can understand there being good/bad ends but not means. By its very nature, consequentialism is all about the end justifying the means. Shifting the blame to deontology does not address the claim that consequentialism has this problem. Saying "people fair better under this rather than that" is actually a bit of an admission that the ends does indeed justify the means.
A former member
Post #: 4
...your ethical theory...Would you say that it's a form of utilitarianism?
Hi Jim,

While I describe my moral perspective as consequentialist, I wouldn't describe it as Utilitarian. This is primarily because I find the term 'utility' utterly unhelpful, and usually very misleading. I prefer the term 'need-satisfaction' to describe that which ought to be maximized.

And neither do I like the "greatest good for the greatest number" construction, for it would seem to allow for the enslavement of a minority, as long as the majority would benefit.

My dictum, however, invalidates such interpretations since everyone would not be better off if a minority is sacrificed for the benefit of a majority.

I actually think that I embrace a bit of a synthesis of two different moral perspectives that are commonly thought to be in opposition to each other. That may be somewhat apparent from my response to Nathaniel, above.

It should be even more apparent soon enough, for I am almost finished with the thread-starter I've been planning: "Selfish vs. Unselfish Motivation (Kant)" :)
Jim B.
user 4260314
Arlington, TX
Post #: 414
If, on the other hand, the shooter was a mad killer who was clearly determined to kill everyone he came upon AND in your estimate either (1) you and the child are both going to be killed, or (2) you might be able to escape and---if successful---use the opportunity to help save the lives of others, then it would actually be immoral for you to take an action that you honestly believed would be futile.
Such an action might be considered foolhardy or imprudent, but very, very few people (especially among those who are not ethicists) would consider it to be immoral. So it seems like you are proposing a reformative ethical theory, not a descriptive one. Would you say that this is true?

It takes a very compelling argument to justify getting rid of large parts of current, commonly held moral intuitions. But a reformist theory would still have to rely on large parts of current intuitions to avoid arguing by stipulation. And even then there's the risk that the reformist is saying to get rid of only those parts of intuition that don't support the proposed definition while keeping only those parts that do.

So anyone proposing a definist theory of ethics ("Ethics is (or ought to be) defined as x") needs to justify the definition by appeal to an underlying principle, but the underlying principle often turns out to be either a disguised ethical principle or a factual (non-moral) principle. You either have a regress or (arguably) a category error.

That is the single biggest reason why I find the ‘good will’ deontological argument specious.
But one's beliefs about one's will can be mistaken. I'm not the final arbiter about the moral nature of my own will. Some people believe the earth is flat with as much conviction as those who believe it's not flat.

I find it amusing when I hear critics of consequentialism claim that it is a moral perspective which makes people more receptive to The-End-Justifies-The-Means arguments. I say the emphasis that deontologists place on the supreme importance of a good will makes them far more receptive to T-E-J-T-M arguments than consequentialists.
That would be true for deontologists who think that a good will is the only thing that's good in itself. Most deontologists think that a good will is an intrinsic moral good but that there are many other intrinsic goods.

Isn't "everyone's desire-satisfaction" an E-that-J-T-M?

Who or what is "everyone"? Everyone who will ever be and who has ever been? Those who could possibly be? Other species? Is it an actual consensus or an ideal consensus, what everyone would desire if they were optimally informed, rational, etc.? It's not only conceivable but possible that everyone's desire could be wrong, especially if those desires are based on incomplete/mistaken non-moral beliefs. You could argue that most of the moral atrocities have had such mistaken beliefs as essential elements. Desires are not self-justifying.

Jim B.
user 4260314
Arlington, TX
Post #: 415
I use rabid deconstructionism to tear everything apart down to the ground so that I can understand the whole from the base up. We're not there yet. That's why I'm exploring this concept through discourse to see if I can find that base. Once found, I can build properly from there. I've got a hunch about that base, consider this discourse my testing my footing to determine if it's actually grounded.
What you're calling 'deconstructionism' is often crucial to understanding something, but sometimes it's not helpful at all. It depends on what the subject is. And it depends on what presuppositions you're operating under. What would count as a 'base level' of analysis can depend on what you've already decided is the kind of thing you're looking for.
Nathaniel
user 10963465
Group Organizer
Mesquite, TX
Post #: 200
My dictum, however, invalidates such interpretations since everyone would not be better off if a minority is sacrificed for the benefit of a majority.
Alright, I think we may be having misunderstandings about how you mean "everyone is better off", lets clear those up because there are several ways of interpreting this one.

1) Everyone, on average, is better off (Some may be worse off, but the average well-being has is higher).
2) The well-being of everyone in total is maximized (some may be worse off but on the whole, there is a greater sum of well-being).
3) Each individual person is better off (not a one is worse off, some may be no better off, or only trivially better off, but the well being of every individual is at least no worse than it would be otherwise with most actually seeing an increase in their well-being).

Based on what you've written so far, I would imagine you aim for #3. I also think #3 is almost unattainable. If someone brutally assaults me, everyone is not better off if they are locked up. At least one person has had their well-being reduced through their incarceration.


What you're calling 'deconstructionism' is often crucial to understanding something, but sometimes it's not helpful at all. It depends on what the subject is. And it depends on what presuppositions you're operating under. What would count as a 'base level' of analysis can depend on what you've already decided is the kind of thing you're looking for.
The way I see it, every piece of knowledge relies on other pieces of knowledge for support. That is, every field of study must eventually make an appeal to a field of study other than itself or else it is circular. On top of that, our entire body of knowledge might be considered circular due to this structure, with all the whole springing from and resting upon our instincts.

Being a biology nerd, I tend to think in terms of reproductive utility. Our instincts exist because they got our ancestors laid. They got us this far, so they're probably at least useful even if they're not accurate. That is part of the reason why I demand of an ethical framework to satisfy our moral intuitions. The other part of that demand is that without satisfying moral intuitions an ethic is useless because nobody will practice it. Even if it were correct, it would be irrelevant.

Furthermore, this biological utilitarianism of mine has also led me to believe that the root of ethics is prudence. A lot of other ethicist have come to a similar conclusion. It is intuitively satisfying to suggest "we are all better off when we act in an ethical way".
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