Pat Gunn (dachte) wrote,
Pat Gunn

Foundations of Ethics

A bit more about that virtue-ethics versus utilitarian and rule-based ethics foundations thing I mentioned recently:As I've described in another post, I see morals and ethics as being essentially the same thing; morals are stronger versions of ethics, and particular moral and ethical frameworks and conclusions are attempts to reason about values in a way that precomputes the right way to navigate our actual morals/ethics/values-in-general. Unlike a rule-based system, the value-conclusions are not the point of having the system, they're pragmatically there because in the heat of the moment we don't usually have time (or perspective) to adequately explore all angles of our values and how they conflict from basic foundations, and were we to try to do so we would both likely lack coherency between such conclusions and lack the ability to talk about them (or work on consensus on them) with other people.

We discard rule-based ethics as being either insufficient (if someone were to try to pregenerate a complete moral code, it would not be complex enough to deal with the real world) or inadequate (not matching intuitions for how to deal with tricky situations). While some codification may be necessary (so the markers of this style won't disappear from practice), it fits into desirable practice as described above.

The distinction between utilitarian and rule-based ethics remains interesting; is the point of morals in its results or in virtue, and in justifying one's choice between the two, do the nuances of both styles converge? For example, a classic criticism of utilitarianism would be to note that if the (classic but not only) standard utility function, of the greatest good for the greatest number is to be optimised, would we sacrifice a healthy person so their organs would be harvested to heal a number of sick people? An elegant way to say "no", to protect the congruence of most moral intuitions to utilitarianism, would be to note that the harm of feelings of vulnerability to sacrifice of that sort yields a lack of an ability to plan one's life and a body horror that's more harmful to society than the sacrifice of the person involved, because that vulnerability/feeling of insecurity is applied to literally everyone in society who would face an applied utilitarian ethics. This kind of argument is sufficient to build a significant softening of the utilitarian position in ways that are in practice similar to virtue ethics; the utilitarian-society-member recognises that they depend on seeing virtue in each other for psychological comfort, and the effects of that lack constitute a harm. Going the other way, virtue is necessarily situational; while the focus in virtue ethics on the features of the actor is irreducibile, the notions of right-action are also necessarily tied to the situation (otherwise it would be a rule-based ethics), and the utility function choosing the utilitarian response is parallel to that of a utility function that might describe the ethics that come into play in that same situation where the content of applied utility maps to the content of the components of virtue.

Unfortunately, this destroys our easiest tools to distinguish the foundations; if either foundation is adequate to justify traditional morality in ways that sterilise part of the foundation's most-easily-concluded distictive ends, we are left with other means to distinguish them. My argument here is that the damage to virtue ethics is less severe than that to utilitarian ethics; we reject the utilitarian-foundationed position we describe because its utility function imports enough about the expectations we have of each other that it becomes a theory that's *about* human expectations; the foundation is not impossible for that end, but it is so different from mainstream utilitarianism that it demands a separate analysis; like myths of lycanthropy, it has been "infected" by communitarianism ethics and effectively changed its nature.

Building of notions of virtue is necessarily a social process; while as individuals we may reach our notions of what virtue is initially through inculturation (parents, schooling, civics, books), and possibly in later life through attempts to work over our value foundations and conclusions to make them more consistent and applicable to new situations, values are both significantly about how people interact with each other and developed through a web of pressures people apply on each other's value system. This ranges from the personal (arguments with a preacher or an activist or possibly disapporiving parents) to the large-scale (political rhetoric, social movements). It can be polite or impolite, aimed to convince, embolden allies, or useless. Highbrow or lowbrow, intellectual or satirical. The world has a number of separate systems of morality, each reasonably internally consistent, each conflicting with others, each built on its own axioms and difficult to uproot, and each capable of making sense of the world. The ability to laugh at alternatives, or look down on them, or argue against them, is essential for each system to compete in the battlefield of ideas.

To use the least-friendly-to-my-position description of the difference, why do I prefer a system aimed towards good people rather than a system with good results? I have a few separate arguments for virtue ethics:

  • It is more generalisable to new situations
  • Virtue is a stronger focus in society than good results - In order to actually achieve good results in society, the people in it need to be nurtured to have certain traits
  • The number of dimensions of virtue are smaller than the number of potential dimensions of goodness - It is far harder to elaborate what goodness is in the broad case than it is to elaborate what a virtuous person is, because a subset of virtue is typically powerful enough to handle many ideas of goodness
  • A focus on virtue, as an explicit topic, is easier to balance against human nature by not demanding so much that the quest for virtue limits happiness. It is harder to see this tension or resolve it when virtue is not so explicit in the system. While a "virtue over everything" attitude would be worse for humanity than a utilitarian focus in ethics (because its notion of the good would cease to be pluralist at the levels where it really should be), virtue ethics that are designed to be balanced against human nature are better than either an unbalanced-virtue ethics or a utilitarian core because they allow for the debate about the balance to happen at the right place; at the core of discussions on values.
  • A fully coherent virtuous person is possible; a fully coherent perspective that always produces good results is not. In navigating this, the virtue ethics perspective heads right towards the difficulties in a way that leaves them ready to sacrifice the coherencies that cannot be saved using the person as a locus; the utilitarian needs to reconstruct humanity in order to navigate this and is left both alienated from humanity and with a compromise unintelligible to its foundations (by necessity).
Most basically, I believe that virtuous people and good results are necessarily two sides of the same coin; just that virtue is the better side of the equation to focus on in foundations.

(apologies if some of my terminology-use is awkward here; I am trying to explain both the term "ethics" as broadly used by philosophers and the specific meaning it has in my metaframework of values)

Tags: philosophy

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