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Why does secular humanism have to imply consequentialist ethics?
Posted: 20 August 2010 11:33 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 16 ]
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By not being sure if the answer was satisfactory, what I meant was that I wasn’t sure if Kant’s justification for military service or throwing the guy overboard was satisfactory.  If we think for other reasons (e.g. intuition) that military service and throwing the guy overboard are justified and Kant’s answer is NOT satisfactory, then it’s obvious that we need another answer.  Your mind seems to be made up on this, but mine isn’t yet.

Sorry, I wasn’t sure if I read you right about your classmate saying that his view was that freedom is important because it’s the most conducive to human welfare.  Did you mean that your classmate was saying that that was Kant’s opinion or your classmate’s opinion?  It’s definitely not Kant’s opinion, but I don’t want to get into why not unless that’s actually what you meant.  Regardless, I agree with you that, if your friend were to base his adherence to freedom on some form of utility, welfare would be his first principle.  You’re definitely right about that.

Where you might go wrong, though, is associating the good with the right.  To be honest, I have never seen an argument that succeeds at this association.  Consequentialists usually assume it (i.e. the right just is maximizing the good which, for them, is utility) but never really argue for it, except in the way that you are doing.  I don’t think we should look at contingent features of human existence in order to get our morals: even if they are universal, they are still contingent.  (Examples are the ones you brought up, such as preferring life to death, health to illness, pleasure to pain, etc.)

There is one large problem with doing this: if we are basing our ethics on contingent features, then at another point we might be forced to base our ethics on other contingent features.  For instance, if people were to suddenly start striving for pain rather than pleasure, we would have to change our ethics to associate pain with the good.  This also raises difficult questions, such as: What if half the people on the Earth strove for pain whereas the other half strove for pleasure?  Which one would be correctly associated with the good?  My point isn’t that this will ever happen, because there are probably evolutionary reasons for why it would never happen.  My point only is that it is completely conceivable that our most fundamental ethical principles would be different under different circumstances, and this is something that I think most people would find somewhat objectionable; after all, it ultimately reduces to relativism.

If we were not to associate the right action with contingent features then it would be impossible to run into this problem.  That’s why basing political philosophy on freedom is so appealing to me: regardless of what we prefer or pursue, we will always have the normative right to freedom.  Remember that I’m not talking about specific policies such as the gun registry (here in Canada it’s a bit of an issue right now), since laws both for and against a gun registry might be consistent with freedom.  If this were true, it would be rightfully up to the state to decide.  Thus, I don’t require a mathematically precise answer, since there is good deal of leway in what is consistent with freedom.

Also, not associating the right with the good allows me to address your thought experiment of throwing the guy overboard.  The calculation you make is correct: the most GOOD exists if he is thrown overboard.  However, this does not make that action RIGHT.  And this is where I pose you the question: (why) does there have to be a right act in every given circumstance?  Maybe an acceptable maxim would be that, if there is no right answer, maximize the good.  I don’t know, but I think you have the burden of proof.  What do you think?

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Posted: 20 August 2010 09:14 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 17 ]
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MillKant - 20 August 2010 11:33 AM

The calculation you make is correct: the most GOOD exists if he is thrown overboard.  However, this does not make that action RIGHT. 

I think it does. Everyone is innocent, so there are no equities to weigh. All that matters is how many lives you can save.

MillKant - 20 August 2010 11:33 AM

And this is where I pose you the question: (why) does there have to be a right act in every given circumstance? 

I don’t think I said that. However, we have to choose how to respond in every given circumstance, even if we choose to do nothing, which is also a choice. The best choice is the right act, even though reasonable people may disagree what is best.

MillKant - 20 August 2010 11:33 AM

Maybe an acceptable maxim would be that, if there is no right answer, maximize the good.  I don’t know, but I think you have the burden of proof.  What do you think?

Why do I have the burden of proof as opposed to you? I propose one way of looking at it, you propose another. If you wish to persuade me to adopt your way of thinking, then you have the burden of proof, and you must prove it to my satisfaction. The opposite is also true: If I wish to persuade you, then I must persuade you to your satisfaction. Or you could think it over and change your mind on your own. Who has the burden of proof then?

Can you explain what you mean by a “right answer?”

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Posted: 21 August 2010 12:59 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 18 ]
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Quoting PLaClair:

For me and I think many others, consequentialism does not imply an either-or choice between principle and utility; instead, it recognizes that principles are what they are because certain things work for human beings while other things do not.

I agree, and for me there is no ethical difference between principle and utility.

Quoting MillKant:

I realize that you’re basing things on “what works,” but this just pushes the question back, since you still have to define what “works” means.

Sorry, in my quest for succinctness I sometimes lose precision as I did here.  Rather than “what works” I should have said I base my judgement of and behavior towards others on my observation of their actions, the consequences following, and to some extent my guesses as to their intention.  I don’t use abstract principles by one or another philosopher, which almost always have a flaw in them.  E.g., Kant(approx. paraphrase): “Morality requires that one always tells the truth.”  If you know telling the truth will get an innocent person killed but lying will save him/her, which is the more ethical, telling the truth or lying?

Quoting MillKant:

A utilitarian doesn’t have to justify an action on the basis that it maximally benefits every single person; instead they can justify it by the fact that it, on the whole, benefits society. This is potentially a problem with it.

I think this is a problem with any set of ethics.  Different people have different and often conflicting needs.  It can be impossible to satisfy everyone’s needs equally.  I see this as a fact of our complex lives, not a problem unique to consequentialism.

Quoting MillKant:

(there was no 6……)

I was responding paragraph by paragraph and had no comment on your paragraph 6.

Quoting MillKant:

. . .I lie to you and say that I have work with someone else already. This is morally wrong because it’s a lie, . .

Like hell it’s immoral.  This is precisely what I was talking about above.  Kant came up with this “wonderful sounding” rule that’s dumb.  To expand my example: an innocent frightened man runs by you and turns right.  He is followed by another who you know to be violent and evil.  He’s carrying a gun and says “Which way did that guy go; I’m going to kill him because he’s an atheist.”  You have the choice of being “Kantian truthful”, answering “right” and be responsible for a murder, or being “Kantian immoral”, answering “left” and saving an innocent life.  Would you claim that you were being immoral but merely politically correct by answering “left”?

Quoting MillKant:

8: Don’t dismiss it offhand like that.

Why the devil, not?  I’ve already said I found some of Kant’s ideas superficial and lacking in precision.  I’m not going to discuss based on premises I can’t accept. I’m not sure where politics fits here, so you may have to give your definition and purpose of politics so I can understand how you are relating that to ethics.  As far as I’m concerned, Kant has set up a false dichotomy: duty/morality versus politics/law.  I believe morality and politics can be merged quite reasonably.  If I have complete freedom, I have NO duty or responsibility; only when I become part of a society do I trade my freedom for liberty and the duty to promote the general welfare by behaving morally both through political actions and in general.

Occam

[ Edited: 21 August 2010 01:04 PM by Occam. ]
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Posted: 22 August 2010 07:39 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 19 ]
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PlaClair: The reason you would have the burden of proof is if you asserted that there had to be a right act in every circumstance.  Like in every case, we should start with asserting as little as possible until some proposition can be shown to be plausible.  If that’s not what you were proposing then I guess you don’t have the burden of proof wink .  I shouldn’t have to show that your proposition is implausible (i.e. we shouldn’t just assume that your proposition is plausible)...

By “right answer” I mean an action that would not violate anyone’s rights.  I don’t mean the best answer.  I think there is always a best answer (perhaps there can be more than one) because “best” refers to the good.  Right does not necessarily refer to the good.

Both: What do you mean when you say something like “principle vs. utility?”  The principle of utility is the utilitarians’ main principle… Do you mean something like “doing something that does not maximize utility but might be right for another reason?”  I’m just wondering.

Occam: I don’t want to get to deep into Kant’s ethics because I don’t know enough about them.  However, given what I wrote above, it might make sense for a pseudo-Kantian (but definitely not a pure one) to claim that, in your example, lying is the best but wrong action and telling the truth is the worst but right action.  I don’t think there’s any inconsistency in saying that.

Quoting MillKant:

A utilitarian doesn’t have to justify an action on the basis that it maximally benefits every single person; instead they can justify it by the fact that it, on the whole, benefits society. This is potentially a problem with it.

I think this is a problem with any set of ethics.  Different people have different and often conflicting needs.  It can be impossible to satisfy everyone’s needs equally.  I see this as a fact of our complex lives, not a problem unique to consequentialism.

This isn’t a problem with any set of ethics - it’s only a problem with consequentialist ethics!  If the right action is not about maximizing the good then it doesn’t matter what other people’s needs are.  If their needs can’t be met, then there is nothing “wrong” about not trying to meet them, even though this could cause a “bad” situation.

Quoting MillKant:

. . .I lie to you and say that I have work with someone else already. This is morally wrong because it’s a lie, . .

Like hell it’s immoral.  This is precisely what I was talking about above.  Kant came up with this “wonderful sounding” rule that’s dumb.  To expand my example: an innocent frightened man runs by you and turns right.  He is followed by another who you know to be violent and evil.  He’s carrying a gun and says “Which way did that guy go; I’m going to kill him because he’s an atheist.”  You have the choice of being “Kantian truthful”, answering “right” and be responsible for a murder, or being “Kantian immoral”, answering “left” and saving an innocent life.  Would you claim that you were being immoral but merely politically correct by answering “left”?

If I were to lie, then I would be making the wrong choice but creating the best state of affairs.  If the opposite, I would be acting rightfully but would be creating the worst state of affairs.  I don’t know if I actually believe in Kantian ethics though - the politics are much more appealing to me.

If I have complete freedom, I have NO duty or responsibility; only when I become part of a society do I trade my freedom for liberty and the duty to promote the general welfare by behaving morally both through political actions and in general.

When I talk of freedom as independence from the choice of others, it SPECIFICALLY excludes this.  You’re defining freedom as some sort of negative liberty it seems to me: freedom is the lack of constraints, meaning that total freedom allows you to do everything.  This is not Kant’s view of freedom.  Freedom means not being subject to another’s choice.  If everyone has the innate right of freedom, then it’s not the case that you have no constraints on your actions: you are constrained from all and only those actions which interfere with someone else’s ability to set and pursue their own ends.  This is kind of why the ethics and politics are separate.  Ethics concerns virtue, politics concerns right/duty.  You can be free to lie to me about your business because you’re not depriving me of my ability to choose, but this still goes contrary to virtue.

Furthermore, politically you have the right to lie about where the guy went if a murderer’s chasing after him.  He’s not subject to your choice, therefore you do him no wrong by lying to him.  I just don’t see why law and morality have to be connected.  Once again, I don’t have the burden of proof because I’m asserting a negative proposition.  Innocent until proven guilty.  Please prove me wrong.

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Posted: 23 August 2010 05:50 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 20 ]
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Rather than quoting and filling up space, I’ll refer back by paragraph, MK.
¶ 3. I don’t think PlaiClair used “principle vs. utility,” and I certainly didn’t, so I don’t know what you’re referring to.

¶ 4. Wait a minute, you can’t play word games and differentiate between moral/immoral and right/wrong.  They are essentially synonyms.  It still comes out that if lying is always immoral (Kant’s premise) then participating in the murder of an innocent is moral and saving an innocent from being murdered is immoral by his standards.  “Best” and “worst” don’t make sense here because we are discussing morality, not efficiency.

Your ¶ 5.
Sorry, but I don’t understand your reasoning here.  Try to stick with moral/immoral rather than right/wrong, and “good” is so subjective that it’s hard to fit into the argument.  I tried clarify it by substituting moral/immoral and benefit/no-benefit for good/bad in your above statement and came out with: {If the moral action is not about maximizing benefits then it doesn’t matter what other people’s needed benefits are. If benefits cannot be supplied to them, then there is nothing immoral about not trying to meet them, even though this could cause a situation in which benefits are not supplied.} I have no idea what that means, which probably indicates that I have no idea what your unmodified statement means, either.

¶s 7 & 8.  As soon as you define constraints and interpersonal behavior you are no longer talking about freedom.  And interpersonal behavior that involves the constraints you describe is precisely what morality is.  Just because you use “don’ts” doesn’t make your proposition negative.  As far as I can see you have just as much burden of proof as anyone else in this discussion. 

I define morality as the rules of interpersonal behavior defined by a society.  And laws are just one of the means of enforcing that behavior.  As such, they are certainly connected.

Occam

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Posted: 24 August 2010 05:45 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 21 ]
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MillKant - 22 August 2010 07:39 AM

PlaClair: The reason you would have the burden of proof is if you asserted that there had to be a right act in every circumstance.  Like in every case, we should start with asserting as little as possible until some proposition can be shown to be plausible.  If that’s not what you were proposing then I guess you don’t have the burden of proof wink .  I shouldn’t have to show that your proposition is implausible (i.e. we shouldn’t just assume that your proposition is plausible)...

By “right answer” I mean an action that would not violate anyone’s rights.  I don’t mean the best answer.  I think there is always a best answer (perhaps there can be more than one) because “best” refers to the good.  Right does not necessarily refer to the good.

Reading your first paragraph, I thought “I never said that.” Reading your second paragraph, I thought “I definitely never said that!”

What I said was that we have to choose how to respond to every situation that life presents to us, even if the response is to do nothing. Some choices are more conducive to the good than others. I never said that everyone will agree on every point. I said essentially what you said: there is always a best answer because “best” refers to the good. I disagree, however, that right does not refer to the good: right always refers to the good.

MillKant - 22 August 2010 07:39 AM

What do you mean when you say something like “principle vs. utility?”  The principle of utility is the utilitarians’ main principle… Do you mean something like “doing something that does not maximize utility but might be right for another reason?”  I’m just wondering.

Sometimes people get so wrapped up in their ideas about what’s right and wrong that they lose sight of the reasons for the laws, rules and principles. An excellent example is the common Western concept of justice: a wrong must be punished. In this view, punishment is an end in itself. To punish is to inflict of suffering deliberately. Somewhere along the way, people forgot that the only justification for punishment is to do some greater good, and even then we have to be very careful because to the extent that our goal is to reform the individual so that he can return safely to society, we’re presuming to reform someone else’s character.

MillKant - 22 August 2010 07:39 AM

If I have complete freedom, I have NO duty or responsibility; only when I become part of a society do I trade my freedom for liberty and the duty to promote the general welfare by behaving morally both through political actions and in general.

When I talk of freedom as independence from the choice of others, it SPECIFICALLY excludes this.  You’re defining freedom as some sort of negative liberty it seems to me: freedom is the lack of constraints, meaning that total freedom allows you to do everything.  This is not Kant’s view of freedom.  Freedom means not being subject to another’s choice. If everyone has the innate right of freedom, then it’s not the case that you have no constraints on your actions: you are constrained from all and only those actions which interfere with someone else’s ability to set and pursue their own ends.  This is kind of why the ethics and politics are separate.  Ethics concerns virtue, politics concerns right/duty.  You can be free to lie to me about your business because you’re not depriving me of my ability to choose, but this still goes contrary to virtue.

Furthermore, politically you have the right to lie about where the guy went if a murderer’s chasing after him.  He’s not subject to your choice, therefore you do him no wrong by lying to him.  I just don’t see why law and morality have to be connected.  Once again, I don’t have the burden of proof because I’m asserting a negative proposition.  Innocent until proven guilty.  Please prove me wrong.

To the bolded sentence: That’s what you say it means. I think it’s important in these discussions to acknowledge that each of us addresses these questions from within his own framework. I don’t always see you doing that.

I second Occam’s remarks, I believe on all points.

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Posted: 03 December 2010 03:59 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 22 ]
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steveg144: I’m wondering what you think about cases of helpless accidents.  Like, say I’m a very careful driver but I just randomly hit an icy patch on the road and ram into someone else’s car.  Even if there has to be some kind of punishment for this, shouldn’t it be different from, say, a drunk driver who causes exactly the same results?

The short, snarky answer would be: they’re called “accidents” for a reason.wink

Non-snarkily, I’d probably say that hitting an icy patch and crashing into a school bus is not an action that you “own”, it’s simply, well, an “accident”.

I hope you don’t mind me interrupting this conversation, but it seems that one can also apply the same logic to the sort of situations you indicated you judge.  For example, being born an underprivileged person in a poor society predisposes a person to certain behavior patterns. The social forces that socially construct that person’s life create predictable patterns. Couldn’t being born into such circumstances be considered “an accident?” Of course, if you believe in predestination that selectively places people in different conditions according to inherent worth, then you might not consider such circumstances “an accident”.  However, predestination aligns you with Calvinist philosophy which may or may not be true.

What I’m wondering about is your definition of “an accident” because it seems to be something that would be selectively employed to forgive those whom one likes, or more succinctly, those who have more social power of whatever type (for whatever reasons). I think that in relative judgments about people there tends to be a bias that promotes those whom most resemble oneself. It must be a universal that humans do this since it strengthens the position of one’s own “type”.  But as Robert K. Merton says, not all people have equal opportunities to achieve culturally approved goals which creates a strain, and leads to “alternative modes of adjustment or adaptation”.  If all this is considered, it may lead one to postulate that it is “intention” that determines one’s culpability, rather than circumstances that one may have little control over. Personally, I can’t think of anything worse in a human than to have bad intentions, which in my definition, means not following the golden rule to the best of one’s abilities.

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Posted: 03 December 2010 08:55 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 23 ]
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MillKant - 16 August 2010 09:04 AM

I don’t want to argue about whether consequentialism is actually correct or whether we should accept a political model based on freedom.  I just want to know why secular humanism has to entail consequentialism.

I guess it doesn’t. I’m sure there are humanists who are not consequentialists.

I can’t see how you avoid consequentialism though.

Could one maintain that freedom is the most important goal if it turns out that freedom leads to the greatest suffering?

Isn’t it the idea that we suffer more when our freedom is restricted too much, that makes freedom something we want?

I think freedom is sometimes good and sometimes bad. I think a persons freedom to eat themselves to 40 stone is a bad thing, for instance.

Stephen

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Posted: 04 December 2010 03:54 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 24 ]
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StephenLawrence - 03 December 2010 08:55 PM

. . . . I think freedom is sometimes good and sometimes bad. I think a persons freedom to eat themselves to 40 stone is a bad thing, for instance.

Stephen

To put it more practically, I do not wish for my country or culture to be built on the unchecked freedom to accumulate wealth. Formally, someone else’s accumulation of wealth does not restrict my freedom or my opportunities but practically, it does. People should not be free to corner markets, for example, or to accumulate so much wealth that they have others under their control. I am not a radical egalitarian, but I do favor a Huey-Long approach to wealth. Every time this country allows people to accumulate obscene fortunes, the entire country suffers. Occasionally we get lucky and get a Bill Gates or a Warren Buffet who use their wealth to help others but too often we get jerks like the Koch brothers who use their vast wealth to rig the system even further than it is already.

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Posted: 04 December 2010 01:02 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 25 ]
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PLaClair - 04 December 2010 03:54 AM
StephenLawrence - 03 December 2010 08:55 PM

. . . . I think freedom is sometimes good and sometimes bad. I think a persons freedom to eat themselves to 40 stone is a bad thing, for instance.

Stephen

To put it more practically, I do not wish for my country or culture to be built on the unchecked freedom to accumulate wealth. Formally, someone else’s accumulation of wealth does not restrict my freedom or my opportunities but practically, it does. People should not be free to corner markets, for example, or to accumulate so much wealth that they have others under their control. I am not a radical egalitarian, but I do favor a Huey-Long approach to wealth. Every time this country allows people to accumulate obscene fortunes, the entire country suffers. Occasionally we get lucky and get a Bill Gates or a Warren Buffet who use their wealth to help others but too often we get jerks like the Koch brothers who use their vast wealth to rig the system even further than it is already.

Hi PLaClair,

Yep I agree although I wonder if I wasn’t being practical.

Defending the freedom of people to harm themselves by eating far too much (I eat too much b.t.w) whilst that food could be used to feed people who are being harmed by eating far too little, strikes me as more than a little crazy.

Stephen

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Posted: 04 December 2010 02:22 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 26 ]
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Hi PLaClair,

Yep I agree although I wonder if I wasn’t being practical.

Defending the freedom of people to harm themselves by eating far too much (I eat too much b.t.w) whilst that food could be used to feed people who are being harmed by eating far too little, strikes me as more than a little crazy.

Stephen

sometimes it’s difficult to find the balance : )

[ Edited: 04 December 2010 06:32 PM by Eagle ]
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Posted: 10 December 2010 08:10 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 27 ]
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Eagle - 04 December 2010 02:22 PM

Hi PLaClair,

Yep I agree although I wonder if I wasn’t being practical.

Defending the freedom of people to harm themselves by eating far too much (I eat too much b.t.w) whilst that food could be used to feed people who are being harmed by eating far too little, strikes me as more than a little crazy.

Stephen

sometimes it’s difficult to find the balance : )

Yes, there’s the rub. But what if I eat and throw away the rest of the food, rather than donating it to a soup kitchen? IMO, it is the wasteful practices of those who have too much that does not seem “right” to me.

[ Edited: 10 December 2010 08:15 PM by Write4U ]
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