Saturday, January 28, 2006

Fetishizing Moral Purity

(Or: What do deontologists value?)

I just fell across some confused remarks from KBJ:
One can value human life intrinsically and nonabsolutely. That is, one can value it for its own sake (because of the kind of thing it is), but be willing to trade it for some greater good. Since valuation is a matter of degree, one can value human life very much without valuing it absolutely. For example, I might be unwilling to kill an innocent human being in order to save 10 innocent human beings but willing to kill an innocent human being in order to save 1,000 or 1,000,000 innocent human beings. Being willing to sacrifice an innocent human being does not make my valuation of innocent human beings extrinsic; it makes it nonabsolute.

In the example discussed, the value of human life is not being outweighed by some other value. Rather, it is being outweighed by a greater quantity of the same value, namely, the welfare of innocent people. For a crass analogy: if an investor is willing to spend some money now in order to earn more tomorrow, this plainly is no indication of his placing less weight on the value of money. Indeed, such behaviour is precisely what we would expect from one who places supreme value on money. Likewise, a willingness for utilitarian exchanges like those described in the quote is precisely what one would expect to see in someone who places supreme value on human life.

Insofar as deontologists are unwilling to make such exchanges, they show themselves to not value human life "absolutely".* On the contrary, they appear to barely value human life at all, since they care less about the million lives than they do about getting their hands dirty. It seems that what the deontologist really values absolutely is his own performance or avoidance of certain act-types (e.g. killing).
* = That is, if "absolutely" in this context means "above all other values", as suggested by KBJ's framing of it as a matter of "weight" rather than "structure". Or perhaps it means that lives have infinite value. But, at best, that would simply make the various scenarios incommensurable. It couldn't provide a basis for prefering the death of millions to the killing of one.

Alternatively, I wonder whether "absolute value" might involve a category error. The 'absolute' in moral absolutism typically refers to inviolable side-constraints on action. As explained in the linked post, these are not aimed at realizing some value; they are simply constraints on what any moral agent may do. I have doubts about whether this is a coherent picture, though, so I will stick with value-talk throughout this post.

It's not as if the deontologist even values the general prevention of evil acts like killing. He wouldn't get his hands dirty in order to prevent a million other killing-acts performed by others. No. His values are quirkier than that. It's only the value of his own actions that looms large in his moral evaluations. (Incidentally, this leads to standard deontology being collectively self-defeating, as Parfit has shown.)

As you might be able to tell, such priorities strike me as kind of moral fetishism. We should recognize that what matters is human welfare. Sanctimonious "moral absolutists" don't. They instead think that what matters is to keep their own hands clean, no matter the suffering of others. (Moderate deontologists, such as KBJ, are not so bad. They think their moral purity is more important than the death or suffering of a few others, but if the stakes were high enough they would eventually relent and commit terrible acts in order to prevent much worse.)

Having said all that, my indirect utilitarianism would probably lead me to largely agree with them in practice. It's just as a matter of theory that the values of non-consequentialists are warped.

19 comments:

  1. I will say that I don't completely agree with all the stuff Jackson (KBJ) says in reference to intrinsic value, but I also think your particular comments, Richard, might be a bit off (but, of course, that is up for debate). I'm not quite sure what you mean when you imply that deontologists' mistake might be that they prefer to avoid "getting their hands dirty." What exactly does getting one's hands dirty mean?

    From a deontological standpoint, if taking life (innocent life) is wrong, then it is wrong, period. It's not okay after 3pm or on Saturdays or if one's in a bad mood or if one is feeling a lot of pressure (even if that pressure is caused by the threat that 10 million other innocent lives will be taken if he or she doesn't take 1 innocent life). It's never okay; it's never right. Why the threat of loosing 10 million other innocent lives makes it right to take 1 innocent life is still unclear; whether it justifies it or not is another issue. (What if the threat was merely a bluff, would the reaction to the death of the 1 innocent life be, "Well that's okay. At least you thought that they were going to kill the others"? And what if the 10 million others were killed anyways? Would we say, "Well it's okay that you killed innocent little Bobby. You didn't know the others were going to die too.") It seems like morality is being influenced by practicality, which in that case it ceases to be purely morality. Right is right. Wrong is wrong. What's to add? Utilitarianism might be a great position on how to unite morality and practicality in the world in which we live (which, unfortunately, is full of evils), but as a response to doing what's right, it just misses the mark. The avoidance of greater evils might justify, in some sense, one's doing of smaller evils, but it doesn't make those smaller evils right.

    Also, I think it's a little unfair or misleading to say that the deontologist is concerned only with her own actions, which might imply that she has a sort of self-centered, "holier-than-thou" outlook. Rather, the deontologist is concerned with right actions.

    Lastly, claiming that one is taking life for the sake of life or because one values life seems rather odd to say the least, maybe a bit like jumping in the mud to get clean (and if that doesn't make sense, then good, that just supports my point).

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  2. Richard,

    I think the problem is your assumption that your question ("What do deontologists value?") is the right one to ask. A principled deontologist will want to resist even a consequentialism that identifies something like 'avoidance of rights violations by me' as a value to be maximized.
    If it were that, there would be no dispute between deontologists and consequentialists - there would only be disputes among groups of consequentialists - in this case between those that index the value-to-be-maximized to individual moral agents and those who don't.
    But why should we think there is only one kind of moral attitude to take toward anything, namely value/disvalue (where that is understood in a way friendly to maximizing functions)? At least one kind of deontologist thinks there can also be an attitude of respect/disrespect, and that the importance of this attitude is morally prior to valuing.
    Another way of putting the difference, which may not ammount to the same thing, is that the deontologist holds that 'the right is prior to the good,' while the consequentialist holds that 'the good is prior to the right.'
    Whatever there is to be said for or against deontological moral theories, they're to be found in these sorts of disputes about the structure of moral theory or the basic categories of moral psychology. They aren't to be found in disputes over what things are of value.

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  3. Don jr,

    I'm at a loss to know what you mean, when you say of killing one person to save 10 million, that (under the right circumstances) it is both wrong and justified. What sort of justification is this, and what is its relationship to right and wrong?

    As to the jumping in the mud: What if by jumping into the mud, you draw everyone's attention to it, thus preventing five other people from falling into the mud. If your goal is to keep clothes clean in general, isn't this your best option for doing so?

    Or what about Richard's example with money? Suppose I have a ten dollar bill, but I need a one dollar bill to get a snack from the vending machine. You don't have change for a ten, but you do have a one dollar bill, so I offer to sell you $10 for $1. If your goal is to get the most money possible, is there anything at all strange about your giving up the $1 in order to get $10? Does such an exchange show that you don't really value money at all?

    If there is anything wrong with making similar tradeoffs with other values (like human life), it will be because of special features (like separateness of persons) of those objects of value. In general there is nothing odd about sacrificing some ammount of X in order to get more X.

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  4. Derek: "I think the problem is your assumption that your question ("What do deontologists value?") is the right one to ask."

    You're probably right, and I more or less conceded that point in my asterisked aside (and further in the linked post on side-constraints). But I was responding to KBJ who had been talking (from a deontologist's perspective) about "valuing" human life. So my criticisms should at least apply to his position, even if more careful deontologists would reject the whole framework of this discussion.

    Don Jr.: "What exactly does getting one's hands dirty mean?"

    As I explained in bold type, "It seems that what the deontologist really values absolutely is his own performance or avoidance of certain act-types (e.g. killing)". He would sooner allow a million murders to occur than to perform one killing himself. This suggests that he values "keeping his hands clean" (i.e. not performing an act of type 'killing') more than he values the lives of a million innocent people.

    "What if the threat was merely a bluff"

    Then you're talking about a different scenario. Since the killing no longer has beneficial consequences, it would no longer be 'right' on consequentialist grounds.

    Of course, we could talk about what someone faced with such an uncertain situation ought to think and do about it. In which case we're discussing our 'practical-level morality', and I'll agree with you that people shouldn't go around prepared to kill each other whenever it looks like doing so might maximize utility. (Recall, I'm an indirect utilitarian.) But that's changing the subject, so let's discuss that another day, or on another post.

    "Rather, the deontologist is concerned with right actions."

    I've already refuted that claim in my post. The deontologist would not commit one killing herself in order to prevent a million other wrongful killings by others. That shows that she does not value 'right actions' generally. She is only concerned about her own.

    "It seems like morality is being influenced by practicality, which in that case it ceases to be purely morality."

    That makes no sense to me. If you're suggesting that "pure morality" has nothing to do with real human welfare, then "pure morality" can go screw itself. I can't see why anyone should give a toss about something so utterly irrelevant. What matters, matters. Promoting human welfare matters. Any morality worth its salt must promote what matters, namely, human welfare. Otherwise, it's just arbitrary nonsense. (At least, so thinks this consequentialist.)

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  5. "From a deontological standpoint, if taking life (innocent life) is wrong, then it is wrong, period. It's not okay after 3pm or on Saturdays or if one's in a bad mood or if one is feeling a lot of pressure (even if that pressure is caused by the threat that 10 million other innocent lives will be taken if he or she doesn't take 1 innocent life)."

    It's more than a little disturbing that you don't see any relevant difference between being in a "bad mood", or having "10 million other innocent lives" at stake. It's not as if the latter consideration is some arbitary factor that leads one to act differently on a whim (unlike your other example of "oh, it's after 3pm, I can kill people now!").

    Such insensitivity to context makes moral absolutism really quite absurd. Consider the act-type of lying. Tell me, Don, is lying "right, period" or "wrong, period"? What if the proverbial Nazi turns up on your doorstep, asking about the Jew hidden in your attic? Surely we must agree that it would be right to lie here. But in other cases it is just as plainly wrong. What this shows, of course, is that context can make a difference. Any moral theory which is blind to this difference, or which cannot tell the difference between lying because it's "after 3pm" or because doing so would save lives, has pretty well just reduced itself to absurdity.

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  6. Derek, if external circumstances that have nothing to do with an actual act can make that act right then what about other things, such as time of day or day of the week? The fact that 10 million others might be killed otherwise, while tragic, says nothing about the rightness of killing an innocent person. (I emphasis "might" because I still wonder what your response to the "bluffed" and "killed anyways" scenarios I mentioned would be.) What if the innocent person in question had nothing to do with the unfortunate external circumstance (of the 10 million other innocent persons maybe being killed)? Of course the act of killing that innocent person would be wrong. So it seems, if that's the case, as though external circumstances can have a causal affect on right and wrong. But that is, I think, a very questionable position.

    In part of your post you ask, "[I]sn't this your best option for doing so?" Given the scenario you laid out, I'd agree. But again, practicality, as far as I can tell, has nothing to do with morality. Something may very well be the best option, but whether it is right or not seems to be a separate issue altogether. (And please don't think that I am saying jumping into the mud is morally wrong. That would just be drastically missing my point. But I do still think claiming that it is morally right to take a particular innocent life because one thinks taking innocent lives is wrong is like jumping in the mud to get clean—which doesn't work.)

    You say, "In general there is nothing odd about sacrificing some ammount of X in order to get more X." And since your speaking practically here, I'd agree. But when you get into morality, practicality is irrelevant.

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  7. Richard, saying that the deontologist values "keeping his hands clean" over saving millions of innocent people is a gross misrepresentation of the deontologist's take on the issue. Not only would the deontologist not kill the 1 innocent person himself but he also wouldn't want anyone else to do it either! So your statements in that area seem to be, even if unintentionally, just a rhetorical ploy for making the deontologist look like a self-centered prick.

    I wouldn't cast my "bluff" scenario so easily to the side as you do (so if one is being bluffed then killing the 1 innocent person is wrong but if one is not being bluffed then it is right?) but since I don't think it's necessary to make my case I'll agree not to discuss it (at least not now anyways).

    You say, "I've already refuted that claim [that the deontologist is concerned with right actions] in my post. The deontologist would not commit one killing herself in order to prevent a million other wrongful killings by others. That shows that she does not value 'right actions' generally." This response is blatantly question begging.

    Note the sort of tilted scale you're working off of here too. If what you (and it seems Derek as well) are suggesting is true then it works not only on a large, "10 million innocent people" ratio; it also works for just two people. So if Sue's only way to keep her children alive is to kill Betty's one child, then not only is Sue justified in doing so, but she's right to do so and would be wrong not to do so. (Please pause for consideration.)

    The last paragraph in your last post seems to make what is right and what is wrong or what is good and what is evil practical matters, which is a questionable position (at least to me). "Is killing innocent people wrong?" "It depends." I think that opens up a door that should remain shut.

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  8. Don seems to be arguing a sort of skeptics position where you dont really know anythign except that you are performing a certain act. I.e. lets say you lie - in this sort of logic you cant consider the concequences of the lie because they are unknowable.
    Also arguing that if one performed a utilitarian act like kiling an innocent to save mroe innocents then one would be performing a regret worthy evil act even if one did it anyway for concequentialist reasons - ie tha the good can't cancel the evil.

    > "Is killing innocent people wrong?" "It depends." I think that opens up a door that should remain shut.

    I think it is imporatant to realise that this is part of the utilitarian equasion. You can assume it to be a unchalangable rule like a dentologist, you can briefly consider it when making a guess at initial rules like an indirect utilitarian or you can consider it wholistically.

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  9. Sorry Richard; I did not see your second post. I only saw your first one. (I don't know how I missed it.) In my last post, where I responded to your first post, I referred to the "last paragraph in your last post." Since I missed your second post, at that time, that should read as the "last paragraph in your first post."

    To answer your question: Lying is wrong, period. In regards to your "Nazi at the doorstep" scenario, we mustn't surely agree that it must be right to lie here at all. I'd agree that I would lie in that scenario, and I might even agree that lying would be justified (from a practical standpoint) in that scenario, but neither of those things makes it morally right. If the Nazi weren't planning on committing some atrocious evil I wouldn't even have to worry about lying in the first place. But the existence of evil people in the world doesn't make my evil (or wrong) actions right. That just a non sequitur. You're still mixing practicality and morality and acting as if you've just got morality, when in fact it's been diluted.

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  10. Don, thanks for the clarification. Let me be blunt: your position is insane. Most of us recognize that it is not "evil" to mislead murderers, and in fact one is very well morally justified in doing so -- and even obligated, I should think. To cause innocent people to die because you can't bear to sully your "moral purity" by telling a fib is precisely the sort of inhumane moral fetishism I attack in my main post. It's just completely twisted to care more about arbitrary rules and principles than about helping real people. The absolutist's conception of "moral rightness" is entirely disconnected from what anyone with a half a heart recognizes they ought to do.

    Also, like Derek, I'm not sure that I understand what you think the relation between 'justification' and 'rightness' is, or how you can pull them apart like that. As I use the term, an act is morally justified if and only if it is morally right. The two terms mean the same thing. I assume the distinction you mean to make is not between 'justification' and 'rightness', but rather, between 'moral' and 'practical' standards of evaluation -- where the 'practical' standard concerns everything that really matters, and what I think morality is all about, and your use of the term 'moral' refers to something completely arbitrary and unworthy of our concern. Does that sound about right? ;-)

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  11. So in being consistent with your position you concede that it would be morally right for Sue, the mother of 2 children, to kill Betty's 1 child if someone threatened to kill her 2 children unless she acted accordingly? And, also, that it would be morally wrong if Sue opted not to kill Betty's child?

    (In reaction to the "my position being insane" claim I, maybe later, will have to revive my "bluffed" and "killed anyway" scenarios and ask for a feasible—and sane—response to them.)

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  12. No, nothing I've said here applies to uncertain threats, as I explained above. But if we imagine a highly-contrived and unrealistic "trolley"-type scenario where the only possible way for Sue to save her two children would be to kill one other, and all else is equal (there won't be any unforeseen consequences, etc.), then yes, that's precisely what she ought to do and it would be wrong to do otherwise. But don't lose sight of all those "if"s, or you'll be liable to misconstrue my position.

    Of course, there are all sorts of intermediate positions between radical consequentialism and absolutist deontology, so (attempts at) casting doubt on the former does nothing to lessen the insanity of the latter :-)

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  13. You say that none of what you are saying applies to "uncertain threats." Okay. Never mind the fact that, given your position, one could never know if they were indeed acting morally or not, unless he or she happened to be a psychic, and never mind the fact that that leads to an infinite regress (or I guess progress in this case) of moral "evaluating," where we would have to continually and endlessly (unless you want to assign some arbitrary cut off point) wait to see the results of a certain act in order to know if that act was right or wrong. (What if the killing of the 1 person and saving of the 10 million innocent persons resulted in the killing of 10 billion other innocent persons? And what if, and what if, and what if . . .) And never mind that due to all these unknowables—which you say we cannot loose sight of—your theory, though it professes to be a practical theory, ironically, is entirely unworkable. Never mind all those never minds.

    You give the qualification of "uncertain threats" to your entire theory thus implying that some act can be right if a particular threat is real (or certain) and yet that very same act, even under identical situations in all manners (minus the certainty of one particular threat) can be wrong only because a particular threat was not real (or uncertain).

    So back to my bluff scenario. Say a person, Jane, in situation R (for "real") is threatened that 10 million innocent children will be killed if she doesn't kill 1 innocent child. You argue that her killing of that 1 innocent child would be right. Let's give an almost identical situation B (for "bluff") that is the same except that the person doing the threatening is really bluffing; that is, he never intends to actually kill 10 million innocent children whether his threat works or not. Jane in situation R is morally right in her killing of the 1 innocent person, so you say. But Jane's action in situation B is morally wrong simply because she was being bluffed. This sounds almost like a joke—that right and wrong can actually be causally based on whether someone was bluffing or not. (If I have misrepresented your interpretation of these scenarios then please correct me. I would hope that this would not be how you see if, but as far as I can tell this seems to be accurate. And I still would like to see your answer to the "killed anyway" scenario. I'll ask about that soon.)

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  14. Yes, yes, it's a straightforward consequence of standard consequentialism that whether an act of sacrifice is right or wrong will depend on whether it really succeeded in saving the 10 million lives or not. (This could only sound like a "joke" if you focused on the superficialities of the 'bluff' and forgot about all the lives at stake.) The "killed anyway" scenario is just the same. It's plainly bad to kill an extra innocent person to no avail.

    Your middle paragraph is... !?. You seem surprised that two actions could have a different moral status when the "only" difference between them is whether the action saved 10 million lives or not. I'm lost for words.

    Regarding all your "never minds", they're all answered easily enough indirect (or "two-level") utilitarianism. I gave you the link: do follow it. The point is that people should not base their everyday moral decision-making on utilitarian considerations. (It simply wouldn't work, for all the obvious reasons you point out, and more discussed in the linked post.) But though it may not be our practical moral theory, it is the true one (i.e. it tells us how the natural facts determine the moral facts).

    But I don't want to get too off-track here. The topic I meant to discuss was deontology, and the extent to which it values human life.

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  15. Okay. I didn't mean to get this far off track. I apologize. I think we just have a fundamental disagreement here. (And I did follow the link; I just didn't find it very useful. Don't get me wrong though; I find it—i.e., your theory or any utilitarian theory—very useful to a certain extent as a practical guide for action; but, as I said before, I just think it misses the point when it starts to present its practical solutions as being some representation of right and wrong.)

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  16. Oh, no need to apologize, I've enjoyed the argument! (But I suspect you're right about the "fundamental disagreement", so there's probably little further progress can be made.)

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  17. It seems as usual with fundimental differences you are just trying to answer different questions and being confused when the other person answers their own question diferently from how you answer yours.

    Anyway,
    I think dentology seems to exclude information from rational decision making - one has to use some information otherwise one wouldn't even know what one was doing so to include enough to do that but not enough to make reasonably sophisticated analysis seems silly (same objection to a lesser degree to indirect utilitarianism I guess). At some marginal point you must be willfully ignoring relevant information...

    What it does do is provide a set of rules you could tell some one else to live by over a dinner, and expect them to be able to follow through on. And in a sense that is what some people want from a moral theory.

    Richards implied concequentialist morals on the other hand tell you what you REALLY should do - but doesn't give you any guide since decisions are made baised on available (in fact internalized) information not infinite information.

    Counter intuitive results are things like - "hurricane katrina is immoral" because it caused negitive effects.

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  18. Derek said:

    I think the problem is your assumption that your question ("What do deontologists value?") is the right one to ask. […] But why should we think there is only one kind of moral attitude to take toward anything, namely value/disvalue (where that is understood in a way friendly to maximizing functions)? At least one kind of deontologist thinks there can also be an attitude of respect/disrespect, and that the importance of this attitude is morally prior to valuing.

    The distinction between valuing and respecting does seem to capture the fundamental difference in moral outlook that divides consequentialists and deontologists. But a distinction is not an argument. Suppose that I consider whether I ought to violate A's rights to prevent you from violating B and C's rights. I really don't see why, by choosing to violate A's rights, I wouldn't be showing B and C the kind of respect that I would have shown to A if I had chosen otherwise. The only relevant difference appears to be that in the first case I would be respecting two people, while in the second case I would respect only one. And that is a difference that tilts the balance of reasons against the deontologist.

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  19. It's pretty clear that people's actual moral sentiments *do* fetishize moral purity, if one is to describe them simply, though they have a great deal of structure, e.g. there is a lot to say about how they fetishize moral purity.

    However, a Utilitarian perspective can be very clear that charitable giving *is* ethically obligatory, and in fact that all spending is ethically either obligatory or forbidden, though not that one should advocate a legal regime where all spending is either mandatory or illegal.

    That said, it's important to note that while you called Don's position "insane", in actuality philosophical ethics is all, probably insane in the sense that it always advocates actions that differ enough from ordinary non-reflective ethics, whether by mandating total charity or the morality typically caused by brain lesions
    http://rightreason.ektopos.com/archives/2007/03/brain_damage_co.html
    or by letting everyone die rather than lie.

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