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.


  1. 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.)

  2. "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.

  3. 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.

  4. 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? ;-)

  5. 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 :-)

  6. 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.

  7. 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.)

  8. 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.

    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.

  9. 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.

  10. 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
    or by letting everyone die rather than lie.


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