Thursday, December 3, 2009

Ethics and Objective Reality: Kant and the Utilitarians

My most recent essay for philosophy class. The assignment was to explain the views of Kant and the utilitarians in regards to morality and explain our preference.

Kant basically believed that ethics and morality were completely objective
and categorical imperatives. He believed that the facts of a given situation and the consequences of a given action were irrelevant to morality. The only imperative was the notion that using people, including oneself was immoral. That if an action is immoral or wrong in any given situation, no matter who might be involved in a given situation, then that action is universally and always immoral. He also believed that the intent was the thing. If your intention is to commit an immoral or unethical act, then the outcome is irrelevant – you have acted unethically.

The utilitarians, on the other hand, believed that the consequences of an action are all that matters. In their case, the intent is irrelevant, it is the outcome that atters. They also believe that morality is that which produces the greatest good, or the greatest number of people. Quantitative and qualitative pleasures, whether they are physical or intellectual are a moral good. Denying people those pleasures is immoral. Ensuring that as many people as possible have those pleasures is a moral good.

If forced to choose between just these two models for morality, I would have to say that the utilitarians make the most sense. Kant was just too rigid and stolid. The notion that one can ignore the consequences of a given action, in determining whether it is moral or not is absurd. While the utilitarian conception is rather rigid as well, it doesn't completely ignore the facts of a given situation. There is room to try to determine what the most positive outcome for the most people might be, when determining a course of action in a given situation. If one must ignore the facts, ignore the outcome, then there is truly nothing moral about a given decision.

Of course the problem with the utilitarian model is that it to is too rigid. If a conception of morality is to have any value whatever, then it must be as an arbitrator for competing factions of the mind. A personal moral frame, developed by ones experience of life, the influence of their culture and constantly being questioned and reexamined at every turn, is the only conception of morality that can have any value. If morality is not the ultimate intrapersonal governor of one's actions, then it is nothing more than dogma with external enforcement. If, on the other hand, morality is internalized and owned by the individual, questioned by the individual and reexamined with every internal conflict, then morality becomes a profoundly powerful governor of an individual's actions and decisions.

Dogma simply doesn't provide the force of will that is necessary to reasonably force one to do what it right. Dogma cannot force someone to make the right decision, when no external enforcement mechanisms can be applied. For example, if one wants to enjoy a particular food item and they are certain they can get away with stealing it from the home of someone they know is away from home, but they cannot afford to buy it themselves, dogma is far less likely to cause them to decide that it would be wrong to steal it. A moral frame that they have absolute ownership of, on the other hand, is far more able to force them to refrain from stealing that item. If they believe it is wrong, because that is what they have determined to be true through due consideration of their experience in life and of their culture, then they simply cannot steal that food – even without any external enforcement mechanism to keep their behavior in check.

The only moral absolute that makes any sense at all, that creates an outcome of any value, is that morality must be determined by the individual through due consideration of their life experience and their cultural experience.


ZDENNY said...

You said, "Kant was just too rigid and stolid"

You atheist always make me laugh. Of course Kant was too rigid. Atheist would not be able to mold their own subjective morality if they held to Kant.

Abortion goes out the door. Adultery goes out the door. Homosexuality goes out the door. When you universalize all these things, you discover these activites are harming humanity.

Ethics has to take place prior to experience if it is really right or wrong; however, Atheist don't believe in right or wrong.

Atheist only believe in what is beneficial primarily to them and their interest. They have no interest in knowing that their activities will harm humanity itself. Atheism is about self-interest, not about what is right and wrong.

Fun post and thanks for the break!

Jason Thibeault said...

Zdenny, I contend that of the three things you've mentioned, and your professed religion, the only one of the four that's objectively harming society is your god-bothering holier-than-thou attitude, you smug little prick.

Humanity has evolved to understand that which reduces pain amongst its members and ensures the survival of the species to be objectively good. Those things that increase pain and encourage hatred, like religion, are objectively bad. Abortion is necessary both to prevent the unnecessary death of both child and mother, allowing the mother to survive; and to prevent the birth of a child that would be born into a life that would contain nothing but pain. And homosexuality allows two people who were born gay to find love and meaning within the scope of their lives, and possibly take care of children that otherwise would not have a loving stable home. Thus, reducing pain felt by the couple, and reducing the pain felt by the children. Adultery is generally detrimental to social structure, and therefore generally wrong, and so despite being a temporary pleasure for two people, since the destruction to the fabric of the society overwhelms that temporary pleasure.

Considering we have 7 billion people on this planet and we have been overwhelming our planet's support system for a few hundred years, reducing the amount of unnecessary births also has the advantage of preventing us from destroying our planet and thus ending humanity as a whole. Note that I did not say reducing births entirely -- just reducing unnecessary ones.

Your canard about universalizing abortion, homosexuality or adultery is a canard. And you already know how much damage I (and others) believe your hate-preaching -- stemming as it does from your pernicious and dogmatic beliefs -- does to humanity. Especially since you seem to worship the concept of armageddon and want to hasten it. And you seem to take pleasure in retarding and co-opting the scientific advances of the secular folks that do not want armageddon.

Return to your dogmatic practices and your worship of death renamed as "love". Leave the thinking to those of us that do not have the major short-circuits you've exposed yourself to have.

A at R B said...

zdenny, you crack me up...once again we find you at another blog discussing your oh so knowledgeable views on atheists, as if you know us all inside and out.

Atheist do not know right from wrong? Why then is the U.S. prison population roughly 83% christian but only 0.21% atheist? Just because we choose to follow civil laws instead of biblical ones doesn't mean we do not know right from wrong.

Atheism is about self-interest? And your fellow christians are so philanthropic? Is not your religion based on saving yourselves for a much more exciting afterlife?

It's strange though; most fundamentalists (especially the christian ones) usually show up on our blogs to try and "convert" us to your religion. You just seem to want to spread your hatred of atheists. Were you stood up by one once or something? You have this deep seeded need to tell the world that atheists have no concept of love. I wonder where that comes from.

Actually I really don't care. You won't answer that anyway, it's not one of your talking points.

Nice blog post, DuWayne

Cary said...

For what it's worth, I'd take Kantian morality over Utilitarian. If I attempt to kill someone and fail, I'm still of a moral character of murderer (even if legally my punishment would be significantly less for having failed).

That said, completely ignoring the situation is ridiculous too. If my choice are killing a suicide bomber to save a busload of people versus not, I'll take out the bomber. (And certainly zdenny's God has His one peculiar calculus of killing, as evidenced by reading the bible.)

As far as non-believers not believing in right or wrong goes, that's so patently ridiculous and demonstrably wrong that anyone who actually believes such a state is either willfully ignorant and dishonest or an idiot of the highest order. (And frankly I find Ayn Rand's moral philosophy to be despicable, which is what zdenny seems to think all atheists follow.)

Moral behavior is informed by both innate characteristics (and there's some very exciting research going on on the evolutionary development of morality) as well as experience.

People who misunderstand the morals of non-believers would do well to look at the various efforts by these non-believers to formulate moral systems. For example this effort at The Brights web site.

DuWayne Brayton said...

Thanks all, I have been busy with a bathroom and appreciate you all stopping by. I had to replace a vanity and shuttoffs after class this morning and deal with a few other asundry plumbing issues.

Zdenny -

Good fucking grief you are absurd.

Abortion goes out the door. Adultery goes out the door. Homosexuality goes out the door. When you universalize all these things, you discover these activites are harming humanity.

Why would you assume that a universal moral frame would necessarily consider these things immoral? Unless someone accepts your specific dogmatic assumptions, their universal moral frame may be consider these perfectly acceptable.

Ethics has to take place prior to experience if it is really right or wrong; however, Atheist don't believe in right or wrong.

Which is neither here nor there, that is not the same as universal. I am not even arguing against that, if you were bothering to pay attention. I have values that are the foundation for my moral and ethical framework. I can say with absolute certainty, that I go into every experience and every decision I make, with a great deal more consideration for the right and wrong of it, than you ever could.

I don't have a ready made magical moral frame to govern my actions. Nor do I have the option of making immoral choices. I can't commit sins and ask a god to forgive me for them. Nor do I live in a black and white world. Sometimes my values come into conflict. Sometimes I have to choose to either do something I think is wrong, or I have to choose something else I think it wrong.

Because I spend a great deal of time considering my values, considering what I believe is right and wrong - because I approach life with the understanding that it isn't always simple, I can make those kinds of choices without being paralyzed by the conflict and without committing sin.

Atheist only believe in what is beneficial primarily to them and their interest.

Bullshit. You have had this shit explained to you repeatedly and still you make these claims. Who exactly is being immoral here? I accept that your moral frame may allow you to engage in dishonesty. Mine does not. And if you actually do follow any common sort of Christian dogmatic moral framework, dishonesty is not acceptable within your moral frame either.

The difference between our moral frames, is that I own mine. My moral frame is not something I read in a book, it is something that exists because of constant examination of who and what I am. I can't just sit here and lie to people or commit other immoral acts and then run to a god to beg for forgiveness. When I lie, when I commit immoral acts, there are very real consequences - it damages me.

They have no interest in knowing that their activities will harm humanity itself.

Funny thing that, most of the atheists I know have a keen interest in making this world a better place. Because we don't buy into the notion that after this world, we get something even better, most atheists are rather keen on making this life, in this world, the best that it can be. And in the interest of that goal, we are generally rather keen on making the world better for our fellow humans.

Atheism is about self-interest, not about what is right and wrong.

I am not the one of us who belittles others, lies about them and tries to make them feel worthless, secure in the knowledge that I am going to get mine someday. Only I really have to wonder about that...Do you really and truly believe that popping around the internet, lying about what others actually think, actually believe is the path to heaven? Do you really believe that dropping little turds of hatred is going to get you to the right hand of your god?

Abby Normal said...

Zdenny is not describing atheists. He’s describing how he imagines he’d be without his faith to guide him. There are things he wants, but denies himself because of his religion. He imagines that without religion he’d feel no qualms about hurting people, or lying, or stealing, or whatever it is his religion is suppressing. Any evidence of atheists behaving ethically will therefore be ignored or explained away because he "knows" how bad atheists really are by looking internally. And because his views aren’t based on observed reality and reason it’s nearly impossible to use them to change his mind.

DuWayne Brayton said...

I have little doubt that is the case Abby. But I also have little doubt that ZDenny is chock full of a whole lot of hate because of that.