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Ethics Meta [Aug. 28th, 2012|12:45 pm]
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I ran across an interesting essay that says all ethical systems can be put into three categories: deontology, virtue ethics, and consequentialism.

A deontological system judges actions as good or bad according to whether or not they adhere to a set of rules or laws. The rules themselves are givens; they are axiomatic, not derived from within the system.

A virtue ethics system is concerned with the character of the actor. If somebody intends to do good, then the action is morally good, and vice-versa. The characteristics of a good person are again axiomatic.

Consequentialism judges actions based on their outcomes. Did the action result in a net increase in some metric of goodness (generally taken as human happiness)? Then it was good.

There are also hybrids, like voluntarism, which says that actions are good if they are good under both a deontological and a virtue ethics system: you have to follow the rules AND mean well to do good. And you can nest virtue and deontology within consequentialism by regarding them as guidelines that generally (but not universally) lead to good outcomes; caching the results of your ethical calculus, as it were.

Which is well and good if you only ever contend with a single ethical system. But the nagging question is: how do you choose between competing systems? If I'm presented with two deontologies, one of which has rules that say that X is good and Y is bad, and the other of which says the opposite, how do I decide which one is right?

Obviously, you can just say "oh, this is the one I grew up with, so I'm going to stick with that". Or pick an authority figure to delegate your agency to. But if you honestly want to give each one a fair shake, to say "what if?" and sort through the implications and weigh the systems using some method that isn't just pure subjectivity, to use some kind of consistent framework that you might expect other people to use to come to a similar conclusion -- or to come to a different conclusion, but in such a way that you'd at least be able to understand where your differences are coming from...

It seems like the only way to do that intercomparison is using something that's basically consequentialism. In which case, it seems like you can take a very handy shortcut and just skip straight to the only self-consistent solution. Happily, it's also the one with axioms that are the closest to universality we can get, being rooted in the commonality of human experience, which makes it a lot easier to bridge the gap between people with major differences. Maybe this is why it's so pervasive in the modern world.
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[User Picture]From: tdjohnsn
2012-08-28 07:38 pm (UTC)

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What a seriously cool essay.
[User Picture]From: dr_tectonic
2012-08-28 08:30 pm (UTC)

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Innit? I'm all excited to read more about Machiavelli!
[User Picture]From: navrins
2012-08-28 07:39 pm (UTC)

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What are you asserting to be "the only self-consistent solution?"
[User Picture]From: drdeleto
2012-08-28 07:48 pm (UTC)

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I assume that his self-consistent solution is consequentialism from top to bottom.
[User Picture]From: dr_tectonic
2012-08-28 08:01 pm (UTC)

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Well, -ish. I haven't thought much about different ways of hybridizing the three families, and wouldn't be surprised if there was something interesting there I'm overlooking.

Basically, I haven't been able to think of a way to do an intercomparison of ethics within a deontological or virtue ethics framework that doesn't end up begging the question, but I'd be delighted to be proven wrong, because that promises to be really interesting.
[User Picture]From: drdeleto
2012-08-28 08:28 pm (UTC)

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It's definitely possible to make the case that the different forms of ethics are each good within different smaller contexts. Etiquette can be a kind of deontology, although maybe one that gets its imprimatur from a higher consequentialism (standards of behavior make it easier for people to coexist without awkwardness or confusion).
[User Picture]From: dr_tectonic
2012-08-28 07:55 pm (UTC)

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Some flavor of consequentialism. "Self-consistent" may not be the best term to express what I mean; certainly I don't mean to imply that deontologies and virtue ethics are not internally consistent or anything like that. I'm just thinking about how to select an ethical system in a way that's consistent with the system itself.
[User Picture]From: navrins
2012-08-28 08:38 pm (UTC)

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Hm. The big problem with consequentialism is you have to decide what to do before you get to find out what the consequences are. Virtue ethics may provide a reasonable assurance that you're *trying* to guess the consequences ahead of time and make decisions accordingly, but it gives you no guidance, as a well-intentioned person, as to what act you should take. It just makes you feel better and/or defensive after screwing up: "Okay, I get that you're upset, but it wasn't my fault because I had good intentions."
[User Picture]From: dr_tectonic
2012-08-28 09:03 pm (UTC)

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I don't view uncertainty as all that big a problem. It complicates things, sure, but it's also something we deal with every day of our lives. Life is uncertain, and therefore sometimes your judgment will be wrong. Choose accordingly.

I think you're selling virtue a little short. If you think kindness is a virtue, then it prompts you to act in a way that is kind. There are plenty of situations where that's useful guidance. Right?
[User Picture]From: navrins
2012-08-28 09:39 pm (UTC)

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If you know what acts are kind, then yes. But how do you know that? Don't you need some form of rule to know what is a kind act?

As for uncertainty, no, it's not a big problem. But if the goal of an ethics system is... well, maybe I should back up and ask what, in your argument, the goal of an ethics system is? If it is (as I am inclined to think of it) to provide guidance about how to act, then it should... well, provide guidance on how to act. Rules are straightforward that way: they *tell* you how to act. Virtue ethics and consequentialism (as you've defined them) give general principles on how to decide what to do. That makes them more flexible and adaptable to new or unexpected situations, which is great. But it also means you have to do a lot more work in the moment to decide what to do - you have to figure out how to apply those principles to the situation you're in. Sometimes that's really hard, and it can be helpful to have a rule to fall back on.
[User Picture]From: dr_tectonic
2012-08-28 10:12 pm (UTC)

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Ah! I would say the goal of an ethics system is to resolve questions of right and wrong. Particularly contentious questions where there is disagreement and edge cases where the answer is not obvious.
[User Picture]From: navrins
2012-08-30 01:01 am (UTC)

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Hmm... but what is the purpose of resolving questions of right and wrong? If it's simply a theoretical exercise, then it doesn't matter if it provides practical guidance. And if it's about looking back in retrospect to see whether (for example) someone deserves to be punished or praised for their actions, then it isn't a problem if you need to wait for consequences to be known before making a judgement. But I prefer to try to resolve the question before taking action, whenever possible, so I can avoid doing wrong in the first place. Thus, I'm going to prefer a system that helps me make such judgements before knowing the consequences, with reasonable confidence, quickly enough that I can actually make a judgement before acting, over one that doesn't. No such system can be perfect - even a rules-based system with a finite number of rules requires a judgement call as to what rules apply in any given situation - but one system can certainly be better than another.
[User Picture]From: dr_tectonic
2012-08-30 04:03 am (UTC)

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I feel like I can get reasonable confidence on consequences in pretty short order, but maybe my brain is overclocked.

I figure for time-critical decision-making, we mostly make judgments in advance and cache them as rules / virtues / principles / heuristics / whatever to be invoked on the fly. But if you have to make complex ethical judgments quickly, I think they'll frequently end up wrong no matter what system you're using, and there's probably no way around that.
[User Picture]From: drdeleto
2012-08-28 08:08 pm (UTC)

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Nice observations. I definitely think you're right that one of the reasons consequentialism is so compelling in the modern age is that we are always trying to weigh the interests or concerns of diverse groups and external consequences are the easiest (though not always easy) agreeable standard.

I'm going to read the whole linked essay later, but I wanted to say that I'm not sure how he describes virtue ethics is quite correct, at least by my understanding. I don't think virtue ethics is about intention. It's about character, in the sense that it posits traits that good people have. Unlike the others, it doesn't focus so much (or so directly, anyway) on what people DO, but what they are. An interesting effect of this for ethics is that actions are measured by any number of measuring sticks at the same time and there must be a fairly organic method of assessing things. For instance, in a given situation we might say someone comported themselves in a very honest way, but not a very compassionate one. There are no rules for weighing two virtues against each other, really. You just must apply each of them as best you can in any given situation. And because (according to the ancients anyway) virtues are habits, not structures of reasoning, they are applied differently and in different admixtures by different people and that's okay.

The problem with finding the "meta-ethics" for various systems is that ultimately you come down to some kind of unsupported axioms. It's harder than it sounds, I believe, to determine and agree on what human happiness is in consequentialism, for example. An interesting element of virtue ethics, I think, is that it doesn't really try to formulate a universal vision or outline every rule to follow. New virtues can essentially be discovered or revealed as culture and society change.
[User Picture]From: dr_tectonic
2012-08-28 08:26 pm (UTC)

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That's more my summary of virtue ethics than his; he's got some nice examples that are more consistent with your description of virtue than what I wrote here.

Agreeing on happiness is indeed tricky; I think it vastly simplifies the problem to decompose it into something like Maslowe's hierarchy of needs, rather than treating it as a unitary measure.

I like idea that when virtues come into conflict, the system just punts and says "do the best you can". That's a very mature way of dealing with it. My own leaning is to say that consequentialism is what you have to have underlying whatever system you use, but that virtues are a very useful tool for summarizing the results of a consequentialist analysis. They're macros, basically, and 99% of the time, they'll do the job. (Just remember to keep track of the assumed context for them...)
From: tirinian
2012-08-28 08:32 pm (UTC)

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Mmm. I certainly agree that judging meta-ethics results in circular "reasoning" - logic is meaningless until you have *some* axioms to work with. But I think saying "the consequentialist way of judging is the one you'd use to decide between systems" is just saying "I am most comfortable with consequentialism." Sure, you *might* say "I will pick the system that results in the best consequences," but it seems equally plausible that you could say "I will pick the system that good people would pick" or "I will pick the system that my rules for judging rules likes."

Personally, I think we actually pick by having some results that we are willing to say "this is good" and "this is bad" about before we start reasoning about ethics, and we pick a system that results in most of our pre-made good/bad judgments being supported. After all, if you don't have *some* idea what the words mean, you can pick any system you want, and it doesn't matter. My complicated system for telling the difference between Blurgle and Farb can be whatever I want, and no one will care.
[User Picture]From: dr_tectonic
2012-08-28 08:49 pm (UTC)

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Ooo, very good counter-examples! I'm glad I used the word "seems" in the last paragraph.

I think you're definitely right about what we actually do. I want to say that this bootstrapping from intuition maps in a fairly clean way to a consequentialist analysis with axioms based on human psychology. I want to, but I won't, because I think it'll take a fair bit of thought to determine whether (or rather, how much) that's actually true.

Thanks!
[User Picture]From: goddessdster
2012-08-28 09:23 pm (UTC)

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In the counseling profession, we are constantly dealing with dueling ethical systems and the ambiguity of knowing what is right, and doing what is required by the Code that guides our practice. I think debating and discussing Ethics is interesting (it was one of my favorite classes), but overly philosophically masturbatory when looking at real-life situations. I use an ethical decision making model that includes checking my own value system, consulting with others, reading the Code, looking for precedence, and trusting my gut. Sometimes the outcome is good. Sometimes it involves calling the cops.
[User Picture]From: dr_tectonic
2012-08-28 11:05 pm (UTC)

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Cross-checking is good!

I guess I think about this stuff because when I was coming out, I found myself with a conflict between the rules of Mormonism and the values of myself and other people I cared about, and I had to reason myself to a resolution. And I feel like it would be good to develop that experience into something of general use, rather than everyone having to make it up on their own...
[User Picture]From: goddessdster
2012-08-28 11:20 pm (UTC)

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We actually undergo a similar process, especially when one considers the ethical code of counseling, which is firmly nondiscriminatory, and religious views of different counselors. I am in a position of privilege because I have a code of principle that makes religion moot, so my struggle is to understand and empathize with those counselors who feel this conflict in the first place, especially in the case of sexual or gender identity.
[User Picture]From: dpolicar
2012-08-29 04:17 am (UTC)

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Consequentialism doesn't really support intercomparison, either.

That is, a consequentialist moral system says that the moral value of an act derives from the expected change in X from that act, where X is whatever we value.
But what do we value?
Reducing suffering? Increasing joy? Increasing choice? Increasing distinct lives? Increasing total tonnage of life? Increasing amount of blue things? Increasing God's appreciation for humanity? Some combination?

Different values => different consequentialist moral systems, and they're incommensurable.

So if we want intercomparability, we need to ask how to compare values.

Well, either that, or hope that really deep down all life forms that matter value the same thing. (I find that unlikely, but I know people who believe it.)



Edited at 2012-08-29 04:18 am (UTC)
[User Picture]From: dr_tectonic
2012-08-29 11:19 pm (UTC)

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This is a good and interesting comment, and I have some responses half-formed, and now I have run out of brain-availability to continue the conversation this week. Boo! But you have made me think. Thank you.