Monday 10/22

Contractarianism I






We began today considering the gulf, if you will, between the theoretical perspectives offered by utilitarianism, on the one hand, and deontology, on the other. In particular, we considered some of the decidedly grim history of human experimentation and read the exchanges between critics and researchers in the Willowbrook Hepatitis experiments. What we found, of course, were in some respects radically different ways of thinking about moral normative issues. It is clear from this discussion that such debates are extremely important in terms of both the judgments being made and in terms of the theoretical divide grounding those judgments.

Our question, then, is whether an intermediate position exists between utilitarianism and deontology. That is to say, is there a position which captures both intuitions about the consequences of actions for individuals and respect for those individuals' autonomy and personhood.

Accordingly, next today we took up a brief discussion of the view that ethics is just a matter of self-interest. The resulting theory, Ethical Egoism, is popular among those in business and economics.

Interestingly, Ethical Egoism passes clarity. It is important to realize, though, that it passes clarity only if the theory can piggy-back on a theory of best interests. Presumably, a theory of best interests should be provided by psychologists, biologists, and sociologists.

It is also important to understand that Ethical Egoism is not a subjectivist theory like Simple Ethical Subjectivism. It is possible, for example, to be completely mistaken about what is in one's own best interests; children often are, and adults are sometimes mistaken as well. Indeed, for some what it means to be an adult, morally speaking, is that one has learned what is in one's best interests and thus is able to take charge of the direction of their own lives. This is crucial: the truth conditions on the implications of Simple Ethical Subjectivism are subjective, but the truth conditions on the implications of Ethical Egoism are objective a posteriori. Simple Ethical Subjectivism should never be confused with Ethical Egoism.

In some respects Ethical Egoism appears to have a good shot at being true. It does not make the the dramatic errors found with Simple Ethical Subjectivism. It is possible to be mistaken about one's best interests, so it is possible to be mistaken about what is morally right. It is possible to have moral disagreement in the sense that it is possible to have debates about what is in one's best interests.

Despite Ethical Egoism's promise, it founders on Reflective Equilibrium. First, Ethical Egoism implies that there can be conflicting moral judgments since there can be genuine conflicts of interest. The Ethical Egoist, then, must be committed to the view that there are true statements of the form "X is morally right and X is not morally right".

Yet if there is a moral fact of the matter, then a single action will either be morally right or not, but not both. The intuition is that there is simply a fact of the matter about, say, whether killing for sport is morally wrong or morally right. Of course, we might have disagreements about whether killing for sport is morally wrong or morally right. But having disagreements is a problem having to do with our not knowing whether killing for sport is morally wrong or morally right. Ethical Egoism commits us to the view that not only can we disagree, in such cases where we disagree there is a fact of the matter such that killing for sport is morally wrong and, paradoxically, there is a fact of the matter that killing for sport is morally right.

Even more problematic than the Conflict Argument, the Discrimination Argument points out that Ethical Egoism requires that we arbitrarily--i.e., without good reason--distinguish between people. That is to say, Ethical Egoism requires that one discriminate morally between oneself and everyone else. Discrimination is fine if there is good reason for it--e.g., blind air traffic controllers or deaf telephone operators--but it must be rejected if there is no good reason for it--e.g., sex, race, religion, sexual orientation, or what have you. Ethical Egoism requires that we discriminate between people without good reason, which is an intolerable result.

Thus Ethical Egoism, understood as a moral normative theory, can be rejected for want of any good reasons for it and two very good (reflective equilibrium) reasons against it--viz., the Conflict Argument and the Discrimination Argument. So far as descriptive ethical theories go, though, Ethical Egoism fairs pretty well despite having failed miserably as a prescriptive, or normative, ethical theory. Note that normative ethical theories tell us how we ought to behave, while descriptive ethical theories tell us how we actually behave, whether or not we should so behave. Psychologists and anthropologists develop descriptive ethical theories. Philosophers worry about normative ethical theories. At any rate, it just seems to be the case that most people in fact decide what is the right or best thing to do on the basis of what will be in their (perceived) best interests. It is in noticing this fact, and the problems that arise from it, that brought Thomas Hobbes to grasping an entirely different approach to moral normative theory, so-called contractarianism. We begin there next time.