Monday, 7/27

Contractarianism and Case Analysis

Readings

Texts

Notes

Cases

Synopsis

We began today examining 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 or prescriptive 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 ethical theory. Recall that prescriptive 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, for the most part.

The fact that people tend towards Ethical Egoism in justifying their actions was an important starting point for the philosopher Thomas Hobbes' ideas.

Hobbes, of Leviathan fame, realized that there are four important facts of the human condition, one of which is that people behave according to a limited altruistic (= limited Ethical Egoist) perspective. What this means is that people will generally act so as to promote their own interests, and perhaps the interests of just a few other people as well.

A second fact of the human condition is that there is a scarcity of resources. There simply isn't enough food or energy to go around, and the problem is getting worse.

A third fact of the human condition is that there is an equality of need. Each person has basically the same needs as the person next to them.

Finally, there is an equality of ability. Even though one person may be stronger or smarter than another, weaknesses like having to sleep and eat even out abilities in such a way that even the smartest and strongest have roughly the same abilities and liabilities as everyone else.

These four facts jointly entail the famous hobbesian state of nature; our challenge is to understand how to avoid the state of nature.

Recall that among the four important facts of the human condition, one is that people behave according to a limited altruistic (= limited Ethical Egoist) perspective. What this means is that people will generally act so as to promote their own interests, and perhaps the interests of just a few other people as well.

Now, all four facts put together imply the State of Nature, according to Hobbes. The State of Nature is not a happy state to be in. In fact it is a terrible, each man/woman for him/her self sort of state. It is something to be avoided at all costs.

Indeed, today we went on to show, using the People-Kibble example, how all these facts put together imply the State of Nature. The State of Nature, we found, is the opposite of one for all and all for one; it is each against each, each against all, and all against each.

Once we understand how the Four Hobbesian Facts of the Human Condition jointly entail the State of Nature, we recognize that eliminating any one of them allows us to avoid the State of Nature. That is, given sufficient resources, or different needs, or different abilities, or an altruistic nature, we halt our decent into the grim world Hobbes envisions.

Why, though, is being mostly egoistic so problematic? Isn't the point of ethical egoism to pursue our best interests, individually? Further, how do we avoid the state of nature?

The upshot of our discussion today is that we can avoid the state of nature provided we form a social contract with one another for our mutual benefit. This social contract, which is ordinarily implicit, consists of all the rules necessary for social living.

To see why ethical egoism is ultimately self-defeating and to help us grasp the concept of mutual benefit, we drew upon the classic Prisoner's Dilemma. The Prisoner's Dilemma was Hobbes' way of understanding how acting in our individual best interests as the Ethical Egoist would have it actually, and paradoxically, works against our individual best interests. We find that we are individually better off if we do what is not in our individual best interests and instead do what is in our mutual interests.

According to Hobbes, this is the fundamental reason for the existence of the state. The state exists to make sure that everyone cooperates so that we can avoid the State of Nature. (Please note that this is a very simplistic summary of Hobbes' Leviathan.) At root the state is founded on principles which are necessary for social living. By considering principles necessary for social living, we construct the moral theory known as Social Contract Theory (SCT).

Having specified SCT we turned to the difficult task of its application, appealing in particular to the famous Veil of Ignorance strategy proposed by John Rawls.

To see the strategy employed on a case study, consider the following case, which you might find helpful in thinking about how Social Contract Theory can be brought to bear on ethical dilemmas generally.

Case C

Lecture Video

We covered a lot of material today in about two hours of sustained lecture. Hopefully most of it comes through on the video so you can keep up at home if you're unable to make it to class. I'll upload the video as soon as it finishes rendering, so if nothing appears below, it will soon. I hope. Rendering and uploading is frustratingly slow. No wonder CGI films use render-farms, banks-upon-banks of computers churning away on the video.