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

My Own Brand of Ethics

Jim B.
user 4260314
Arlington, TX
Post #: 407
Sorry if I'm not following, but are you saying that for an event to fall under the m/e rubric, it has to involve a moral agent who performs the event, even if the party or parties receiving the event are not moral agents? I would agree with that.

But then it seems as if you're saying that the distinction between those harm-causing events involving an agent and those not involving one is not a crucial distinction; the important consideration is "prevention of harm," whether the harm occurs due to someone tripping, intentionally punching you, or a tumor. So then the distinction between moral and non-moral harm is not an important distinction for you(?) Correct me if I got this wrong, which I probably did. You write that what matters is the goal, e.g. getting to the meetup (preventing future harm), and the way you get there (whether by means of moral or non-moral prevention of harm) is secondary. If that's what you're saying, then is there no qualitative distinction between the different kinds of harm-causing events? If so, then m/e would not seem to pick out a different kind of event. The difference between the punch caused by a trip and the intentional punch would be the same in kind as the difference between the punch caused by a trip and that caused by a tumor. Why would understanding ethics then be a philosophical concern and not a practical, prudential one? No different in kind from building levees, weather-proofing your house or deciding on the easiest way to get to the meetup?

Actions which cause harm, yet lack the intent to do so, are not wrong.
It's possible I can cause harm due to something I ought to have done which I failed to do. I'd be morally responsible for the harm even without any intent to have caused any harm.

It's also possible I can be responsible for a morally bad action and outcome without any harm occurring at all.

Why is the intent to cause harm wrong but to cause harm isn't necessarily wrong? Why would wrongness correlate with this distinction if the distinction isn't an important one?

Actions behind which are the telos "prevent future harm" need only concern themselves with the "wrongs" of others if such consideration is necessary to satisfy that aim. Basically, inside my head is deontology, outside my head is consequentialist.
But I think that an inescapable assumption of moral reasoning is that what I believe is morally wrong 'for me' is only so insofar as I am the one recognizing its categorical and universal validity. Of course, I may be wrong in this assumption but I think it's inevitable nonetheless.
Nathaniel
user 10963465
Group Organizer
Mesquite, TX
Post #: 193
Sorry if I'm not following, but are you saying that for an event to fall under the m/e rubric, it has to involve a moral agent who performs the event, even if the party or parties receiving the event are not moral agents? I would agree with that.
Yes, that's about what I'm getting at. We need at least one party capable of moral reasoning in order for said moral reasoning to be happening at all.

If that's what you're saying, then is there no qualitative distinction between the different kinds of harm-causing events?
That's about right. In all three of those examples, the harm caused is identical. The only reason I have to treat each differently is because what is necessary and sufficient to prevent similar future harms in each is also different.

...Why would understanding ethics then be a philosophical concern and not a practical, prudential one? No different in kind from building levees, weather-proofing your house or deciding on the easiest way to get to the meetup?
Because I still have to temper my actions through that same principle (intend to prevent future harm, do not intend to cause harm). Ethics may be grounded in something like prudence, but the reason why it's not just about prudence is that I could choose, as a course of action, to beat the tar out of the person who tripped and punched me. This may actually have the desired result (their being unlikely to harm me due to their clumsiness in the future). However, I would make the claim that it is not ethically justifiable precisely because it moves beyond what is necessary and sufficient to prevent future harm and moves squarely into the realm of intent to cause harm.

It's possible I can cause harm due to something I ought to have done which I failed to do. I'd be morally responsible for the harm even without any intent to have caused any harm.
Watching someone drown would be one. You know you could easily save them, and yet do not. To me, that demonstrates a clear intent. While you're not the direct cause of their death, such (in)action is aimed at the resulting drowning. It "feels" different, however, from someone being the cause of another person's drowning. I'm not sure I would make such a distinction though. There's not much of a difference between action and inaction. The strange part is what we do afterwards. What would be necessary and sufficient to prevent this person, and others, from simply watching people drown when they could be easily saved?

Allowing a young child to play unsupervised in a backyard with an unsecured pool which they then drown in would be another example. This would be an example of harm caused without intent, yet moral intuition suggests confers moral responsibility. One who is caring for a child should know that this is a bad idea, and could result in death or injury to the child. They should, in their intent to prevent future harm, seek to learn what that constitutes in the context of both their child's needs as well as the environment they currently find themselves in. They should also take as many steps towards that goal as is reasonably possible. In this scenario, the "wrong" is in the carelessness. Their actions and inaction still have a telos. There is still something they're reaching for. However, that reach is somehow lacking in either distance or goal. In effect, the intent is still there, it's just a bit distant from the result. Now, how to we move forward from such an event? What is necessary and sufficient to prevent something similar from happening again, either by this person or by others?

You see, there's two different considerations being made in each of these situations. The first happens in the minds of the person who does the wrong prior to or during the resulting harm. The second happens in the minds of others in how they should react to said wrong. Both happen before the actions in question. I suggest that morality demands of both that they not intend to cause harm, and ideally intend to prevent future harm.

It's also possible I can be responsible for a morally bad action and outcome without any harm occurring at all.
I'm having a hard time thinking of an example of this.

Why is the intent to cause harm wrong but to cause harm isn't necessarily wrong? Why would wrongness correlate with this distinction if the distinction isn't an important one?
Now I see what you're getting at. That's a very good point. The distinction would seem important then. I should concern myself with my own intention. I should intend to prevent future harm. When trying to prevent future harm in light of past/present harms caused by others, I consider their intent only in as much as that intent (or lack thereof) contributes to what is necessary and sufficient to prevent future harm. Essentially, it's important only in as much as it helps temper my actions. I should consider intent because it would help me choose a course of action which would result in the least possible harm in my aim of preventing future harm. At the same time, however, it's just as important to consider intent as it is to consider any of the other factors contributing to the harm. Imagine three worlds. In the first a boulder falls on a car due to erosion. In the second, a boulder falls a car due to a person pushing it over with the intent of crushing a car. In the third, an insane person pushes the boulder because the think it's current position is causing their condition. The intent of the people in the last two worlds is just as important a factor as erosion in the first. The harm (car crushed by boulder) is the same in each. The factors which contributed to that harm are different. In only one world did someone do something "wrong". In all worlds, we still must ask ourselves what we should to to prevent future harm, and in each that answer will be different.

But I think that an inescapable assumption of moral reasoning is that what I believe is morally wrong 'for me' is only so insofar as I am the one recognizing its categorical and universal validity. Of course, I may be wrong in this assumption but I think it's inevitable nonetheless.
Let me try to dissect that a bit:
1. I have beliefs about what is morally wrong.
2. I can only have such beliefs if I recognize that they are wrong.
3. Things are recognized as wrong through the recognition of categorical and universally valid principles.

#3 seems like it could use some further justification, but the first two are givens. At the very least, it seems like what we're trying to do is figure out what #3 is all about. It it true/false? Is it complete/incomplete? What are the natural results of any of those being the case?
Jim B.
user 4260314
Arlington, TX
Post #: 408
I think we're attempting to answer two slightly different questions. I would say that you're asking "What is ethics?" to mean something like: "What is the function of ethics and morality?" or, "What ends or outcomes does morality serve?" Those are legitimate questions and I think you do a good job in answering them. The answer may be something like: "To promote flourishing or at least to minimize harm through our (intentional) actions." I would agree with everything you say so far, but I'm asking, "Is that all there is to morality and ethics? Doesn't that leave out some essential features?"

If I ask "What is art?" you can interpret that question as asking "What is the purpose or function of art?" or "What ends does it serve?" You can answer, "Pleasure, social cohesion, knowledge about the world and oneself, protection from harmful forces," etc., and those would all be correct answers. But is that the only way to interpret the question "What is art?" This is probably not the best analogy since morality may have more to do with pragmatic ends, such as promoting/preventing certain kinds of behavior, but I think the difference is a matter of degree. Couldn't one look at art the same way, as solely a means to produce certain outcomes? So they both have prudential reasons for existing, but those reasons, I would argue, don't exhaust what are essential about them. No other analogy between the two is intended.

Ethics may be grounded in something like prudence, but the reason why it's not just about prudence is that I could choose, as a course of action, to beat the tar out of the person who tripped and punched me. This may actually have the desired result (their being unlikely to harm me due to their clumsiness in the future)
You're beating the tar out of the clumsy person would be far less likely to lead to the long-range outcome of preventing harm than other given choices, so it could still be a prudential choice not to beat them up. If you knew for sure that beating the person up would prevent far more future, overall harm than not beating them up, wouldn't you do it? And if you wouldn't, then preventing future harm isn't really all there is to morality. If you wouldn't beat them up, it seems that there would be something intrinsically valuable about your principle of not intentionally initiating harm. And if it would be intrinsically valuable for you, why wouldn't it be so for me as well, in case you trip and punch me in the mouth?

Watching someone drown would be one. You know you could easily save them, and yet do not. To me, that demonstrates a clear intent.
If I go get drunk and then kill someone driving home, I haven't necessarily intended to do any harm. My intent was to have a good time. Yes, I should have taken a cab or gone with a designated driver or gotten drunk at home, or not gotten drunk at all (duh!), but my not doing so did not have the intent of causing harm. It had to do with my desire to get drunk, and maybe my impulsiveness, laziness, alcoholism, or whatever. My not doing something doesn't have to include my intent to cause any likely consequence of my inaction. My driving home drunk could result in 10,000 likely results, but how could all of those outcomes, other than arriving home, be part of my intent, unless I intend to do what I do, such as run over someone I don't like, for instance?

Their actions and inaction still have a telos. There is still something they're reaching for.
It's hard for me to see inaction as having a telos. If I do some action, there are a billion and one other actions that my action is precluding, so how could my action have as its telos all of the possibly infinite consequences of all the actions I'm forgoing?

I'm having a hard time thinking of an example of this.
Let's say I can press a button and make the world disappear. It would all happen in a millisecond so there'd be no harm or suffering. No one would know what happened. Assuming death is the permanent end to existence, I haven't harmed anything, because there's nothing there to have harmed, but would it be right? There are other examples I could use that are less science fiction-y but I'll go with this one for now.

3. Things are recognized as wrong through the recognition of categorical and universally valid principles.

#3 seems like it could use some further justification, but the first two are givens. At the very least, it seems like what we're trying to do is figure out what #3 is all about. It it true/false? Is it complete/incomplete? What are the natural results of any of those being the case?
Those are good questions. I would say that the universal and categorical aspects of moral judgments are essential parts of morality, and that these aspects are self-justifying as being essential to morality because they're part of the analytical meaning of morality, even if the particular judgments happen to be wrong.
Nathaniel
user 10963465
Group Organizer
Mesquite, TX
Post #: 194
I like to start from a firm base and work my way up. I can't make any claims to knowing "all there is" about any topic, let alone one as seemingly complex as ethics.

Let me posit something. What if harm had nothing to do with pain? What if it didn't need bruises, cuts, or even things like lost wages? What if harm was a function of things running counter to one's will?

Think about it. If you're unaware that you've been harmed, have you been harmed? Sometimes people who are shot or stabbed go into shock, making them unable to tell that they've been wounded. Are they only harmed once they realize the damage that's be dealt them? If I steal a car, is the victim only harmed once they discover the theft? What if the harm wasn't in the stabbing? What if it was in the denial of the victims will to not be stabbed? I need only imagine the possibility that one might want to be caused injury to realize that consent is what we're talking about. One might consent to being tied up and beaten for sexual purposes, and never once consider it harm. Yet if someone were to perform the same actions without consent, even to a person who would normally consent to such treatment, it would be considered harm. To me, this pretty obviously divorces the concept of harm from any kind of consequences one's actions might result it. Instead, it seems like harm and the will are pretty well connected. The fun part is figuring out what that connection is.

The thing is, if the harm is in the denial of the will, then pushing a button that causes everyone to cease existing would still have caused them harm. Even though they aren't able to experience the harm, their wills have been denied in the act of pushing the button.

This is where things start to get a bit fuzzy for me. What can I reasonably claim to have a right to? Under what circumstances? Where does it start? Where does it end?
Jim B.
user 4260314
Arlington, TX
Post #: 409
Those are all very good points about harm. I've had this debate with a friend that's gone on for almost a year about whether or not death is a harm. His point was that someone or something has to 'sustain' the harm in order for there to be a harm, so that a person who has died is not harmed if that person no longer exists. So I conceded that point for the sake of argument and tweaked the question to "Is death a bad thing for the person who dies?" Death may or may not be a harm, depending on how you define 'harm,' but I think it's uncontroversially a bad thing, in most circumstances, so that to cause someone's death, even if they're never aware of it, is still (usually) a morally bad action. This remains a very murky issue for me. For instance, if after your death I convince the world that you didn't write the essays and books you claimed to have written but that I in fact wrote them all, have you been harmed? Again, it goes back to one's definition of 'harm,' but I would say that what I've done is definitely a moral evil and that you've had a morally bad thing happen to you even if you no longer exist to know about or even sustain the evil.

Will does play a part in all this, as you point out. If I end a person's life, to know whether that action was immoral or not, we have to know the will of the person who died. If I end the life of a person who didn't want to die, that's probably a moral evil but if I end the life of a person who wanted to die, that's probably morally permissible. Notice I said "probably," because I think we'd need to know more before really being able to form a judgment. I wonder if will alone is enough to enable us to say whether an action is moral, immoral or non-moral. I think it depends on the content of one's will. My will may be informed by beliefs that are incomplete or mistaken. A 14 year-old may will to end his life because his first girlfriend just dumped him. I may will to end my life because I believe Thor is commanding me to join him in Valhalla. Imagine that my greatest desire in life is to erect a 500 foot statue to my god. I work on this statue to the point of neglecting to eat and sleep. In fact, I lost my job because of my obsession and now have no money to buy food. If my continuing to pursue my project will almost certainly lead to my death, is it more morally incumbent upon you to interfere with my will than not to interfere with it? Would it be wrong for you to stand by and do nothing as opposed to calling for someone to intervene? I don't know the answers. All I'm suggesting is that one's will has to be considered in a broader context before we can begin to know how that will relates to morality and ethics. What if there's something like a basic human need structure that we all implicitly know about, so that it's more incumbent on us to feed a hungry person than it is to make sure she practices the piano? And more incumbent on us not to interfere with someone's will if no one is being harmed than it is to not interfere with a person who wills to harm herself? Maybe it all has something to do with some kind of basic human needs, with promoting and not interfering with the promoting of one's opportunities of fulfilling these basic interests. But deciding on what those interests are is another thing.
Nathaniel
user 10963465
Group Organizer
Mesquite, TX
Post #: 195
Even if death weren't a bad thing, if someone intentionally kills another against their will (without their consent), then I suggest it is wrong. This is not because death is a bad thing, it is because denial of the other's will, breaking of their consent, is wrong. In such a case, I can make a reasonable claim to control over my own life and death. As such, if another wants to affect my life/death, they can only do so ethically with my consent.

We can round around in circles about the specifics of what is and isn't a "bad thing" but it seems to me like consent is where this is at. We might both agree that being punched in the face is a bad thing, but I can still consent to being punched in the face. If I were to ask a friend to punch me in the face, then nobody would fault my friend for doing so. If a friend were to ask if they could punch me in the face, and I gave them permission to do so, nobody would fault them for punching me for the simple fact that I agreed to it. Of course, there are reasonable limits we must place on this. For instance, if I were under the influence of drugs, then my ability to make a reasoned and informed decision on the matter may be compromised. So long as my friend could recognize my impairment, they would do best to NOT punch me in the face if for no other reason than that I would be less put out if they didn't hit me when I wanted them to, than I would be if they did hit me while I didn't.

I'm not sure if I agree with the idea of having basic interests and not being able to override them. Assisted suicide aside, how would the masochist get their kicks?

I do like the idea of basic interests which we can assume until overridden. I can imagine a simple list of "it's safe to assume that if you have trait x, you by default would not consent to y" and then go from there. In the absence of clearly informed and reasoned consent, one with trait x shouldn't have behavior y committed against them. By my estimation, two such examples would be (the capacity to suffer / being caused suffering) and (self awareness / being killed).

As far as our duty to stop others from doing what we see as destructive, even if it is against their will, I would say that's pretty complicated. If the telos behind their action is well reasonsed and informed, then that's on them. If we suspect that they are doing what they're doing through ill-informed or ill-reasoned means, and we wish to prevent them from being harmed by their own actions, then we can indeed intervene. Heck, even if they're perfectly reasonable, we can intervene so long as we intend to prevent future harm. The fun part is that our best bet for preventing future harm is understanding what is necessary and sufficient to do so, which might not include drastic intervention at all. For example, if we recognize that it is their own will which is causing them harm (they have counterproductive desires and/or beliefs) then we can address that harm best by trying to help them shift their desires/beliefs. Nothing wrong with that at all.
Jim B.
user 4260314
Arlington, TX
Post #: 410
Thanks. I think I understand where you're coming from.

To know whether or not intentionally ending your life against your will is or is not a bad thing, I would say that we have to know more than these facts. The act has to be justified. I didn't mean to suggest that death is a bad thing in all cases, only that it can be a bad thing, and even when it is bad, this badness doesn't by itself justify killing or refraining from killing.

Willings and desires can't be entirely where it's at as far as morality because I can will or desire well or badly, rightly or wrongly. They stand in need of justification before we can say with any confidence how they relate to morality. Willings and desires are, for me, indicators, not justifiers, or what is morally right, wrong, permissible, amoral, etc.

If you ask me to punch you in the mouth, it's up to me to try to be reasonably sure that your desire is not unjustified. Maybe I can never be certain that your desire is fully justified (unless it's some bizarre situation where you're going to win a big pile of money or keep from getting killed or injured far worse than a punch in the mouth), but I can be pretty sure if it's unjustified, such as if it's based on clearly mistaken or incomplete beliefs. And if I'm really unsure about the justification, then it's still probably morally suspect (at least) for me to go ahead and punch you. Refraining would be morally preferable, I think. So my knowing that you will x is not enough for me to know about the moral implications of that willing. I'd have to know what x is and how it is justified.

It's that old dilemma: As far as things that are good, are they good only because they are willed or desired, or are they willed or desired because they are good? This may seem like splitting hairs, or drawing too fine a point on things, but it goes directly to how we justify beliefs about our actions. The two things (desires and the good) may ultimately converge or coincide in fact but there still may be a conceptual distinction to be made that has everything to do with how we justify things, since when we think morally, we're using conceptual categories (principles) and applying them to action. So wills and desires happen to line up, for the most part, with what's morally justified, but that alignment alone doesn't explain the why. Iron filings line up with the movements of a magnet but that lining up alone doesn't explain the process that's going on.

I'm not really sure what that process entails, only suggesting that will and harm alone may not be the entire explanation. Will and harm have to be justified, and it's in that context, I think, that an answer might lie.

Nathaniel
user 10963465
Group Organizer
Mesquite, TX
Post #: 196
I agree, things can be pretty complicated. It's possible that depression (a temporary condition) might cause someone to want to end their life. It might be said that their capacity for making an informed decision on the matter is hampered by their mental state. It is for this reason, that I tend to err on the side of inaction in the face of ethical uncertainty.

My basic thought process for this ethic goes like this:
P1) Individual B has the capacity to recognize x.
P2) B can store memories of experiences of x.
P3) B seeks/avoids x in light of that recognition.
C1) B possesses the natural will to seek/avoid x.

This is a simple logical progression from an individual's basic nature to their natural will. Essentially this is their default state which can only be overridden by their explicit consent. Another obvious component of this logic is that not every individual will meet those criteria, which means that with the diversity of life also comes a diversity of natural wills.

I then go on to suggest a few thing about ethics, but I haven't quite formulated the logical structure to that argument yet. I know that the will is important, I know that consent is important. It seems like ethics is concerning itself with the resolution of conflicts of will, but I'm not sure under what circumstances that is doing so. I'm not sure how to prove through the application of reason what a given individual would have a reasonable claim to the application of their will. Intuitively, I can say that my will trumps yours in regards to my own body and perhaps my own property. But why?

I think you're onto something when you say that will and harm need to be justified. I can possess the will for world domination, could I justify that? Probably not. I could have the will to commit assault for my amusement, but could I justify that will? Could I justify that harm? I could have the will to protect my home, and prevent the harming of my loved ones. In the execution of that will, I may need to shoot an intruder, causing them harm. Can I justify that will? Can I justify that harm?

The way I see it, will itself is something we need to apply our ethic to. We can ask ourselves "is it good that I will x?" That is, we can temper our own desires to move them in a direction which would make us better able to fulfill the ethical goal of preventing future harm. If we run into a situation where we're about to cause harm, we can ask ourselves in that harm is necessary. If so, what is it necessary for? Is that necessary? At the root telos of the action, is it to prevent future harm? Is that course of action the one which you believe would prevent the most harm while causing the least? That seems to be the basic logic to me.

So for example. Lets say I want harm someone. They're standing in front of me and I have two items within my reach. One is a knife, one is a feather. The knife in this instance is necessary to fulfill that desire to cause harm. I would say that the question of whether to use the knife or the feather is not an ethical one. The ethical question arises when we ask "but is harming this person necessary and what would it be necessary for?" So perhaps that person is rushing me with a knife of their own. In that case, the use of the knife for self defense is rooted in the will to prevent future harm to myself. The assailant has the same duty, and actually has more power of the situation because they can choose to back off and walk away. In fact, they are ethically required to do so because such an action would prevent the most harm. That is, there are different conditions for satisfying what is necessary and sufficient to prevent future harm in both the victim and the assailant. Now, if the other person is not doing anything, and I simply want to see what color their insides are, then my will is not aimed at the prevention of future harm. It has moved past that arena and onto the realm of intent to cause harm. Furthermore, it's simply not necessary either pragmatically or ethically. It being an unnecessary harm further cements the concept that this is backed by the intent to cause harm.

I don't know. I feel like this could be simpler.
A former member
Post #: 1
I don't know. I feel like this could be simpler.
Hi. I was enjoying reading your respectful exchange and thought you might be interested in a definition of the term 'moral' that I've been repeating for about a decade.

I claim that the phenomenon of Morality is a part of the human experience for one simple reason: it arises from the Mind's recognition that superior response alternatives can be pursued that would spare all of us the damage that would otherwise be wrought if we were all to follow our biological instincts.

Accordingly, we have sought agreement amongst ourselves to eschew certain types of instinctive responses or 'urges.' How do we determine if a particular action [or failure to act] is Moral? We simply need to ask,

Would everyone be better off if everyone were to act [or not act] in the same way?

If so, then the action or decision to not act is moral. If we would all be worse off, then the action or failure to act is immoral. If we would be neither better off nor worse off, then the action or failure to act is neither moral nor immoral.

Killing a person who angers you is immoral because we would all be worse off if we were all to kill the people who anger us. Stealing is also immoral in most situations for the same reason.

Lying is immoral in some circumstances because we would not all be better off if everyone also lied when facing the same circumstances. But lying would be moral in other circumstances because everyone would be better off if everyone were to lie for the same reasons.

It is a definition of moral/ethical behavior which captures, I believe, what people really mean when they say, "you shouldn't have done that; that was wrong."

It is comparable to Kant's categorical imperative but it is ultimately consequentialist in its prescriptive rationale.

If I find that you are interested, I'll provide more of my extended arguments on this topic.

It's nice to find this kind of community in the DFW area.
:)
Nathaniel
user 10963465
Group Organizer
Mesquite, TX
Post #: 197
My first response to your suggestion is a question: is it moral or immoral to be exclusively homosexual? Sure we can frame the question in terms of the freedom to choose one's partner, but that doesn't address the issue of whether or not it is moral or immoral to BE exclusively homosexual or for all of one's sexual activity to be exclusively with members of the same sex. I would say that if we were all exclusively homosexual, we would be worse off if for no other reason than that it would spell the end of humanity. As you said, it's very similar to Kant's categorical imperative. Unfortunately, it still suffers from some of the same flaws.

Also, as with most systems of ethics, is not robust enough to handle animal rights in a way that is satisfying to me. We could essentially enslave and torture every single living non-human thing on the planet and as long as humanity were better off for it, everything is groovy. If animals are factored in when considering if we're all "better or worse off" then we end up bleeding out from our collective hearts as we try to save the world from its own natural injustice. This particular flaw is actually far too common in ethical frameworks. It's all over the place and as far as I'm concerned it's fatal.

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", but to me it is very important to understand that not all living things have identical wills and thus not every living thing needs to be treated as the same type of moral subject nor must every living thing be treated as a moral agent. This is all my own attempt to patch what I see as the single largest hole in humanities collective efforts towards developing an ethic that works. It's also my attempt to do so without appeals to gods.
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