Reacting to a philosophy podcast

Foggy morning drive, and foggy thinking. Today on Philosophy Bites, "consequentialism," which is the same (to my limited powers of discernment) as utilitarianism, namely a judgement that you should do that which creates the best net outcome. Greatest good for the greatest number, ends justify the means, that sort of thing. Now at the other extreme, there's also "primum non nocere," (first, do no harm) and all the way over, "fiat justitia ruat caelum" (let justice be done though the heavens fall). So, what's right?

Illustrative thought experiments include torturing a man who's certain to know where the bomb is, scapegoating an innocent to protect the many, high value human vivisection, pushing the fat guy on the trolley tracks, and Kant's truthfulness to a murderer looking for your friend.

The basic question is truth at all costs or ends justify the means?

The darn guest Philip Pettit took the utilitarian approach, generally, but with exceptions to cover special cases which turned out to be a complete cop-out in my view.  It allows him to decide whatever he wanted. whenever "a red light goes off in my head."  That's rationale I could get behind, that everything could be a special case, except that's really just a smoke screen covering up a fundamental rule of "my (personal) judgement shall prevail." Of course, such a philosophy is no help at all: can we or can we not propose some general principles of behavior to guide us? That's the business we need to be in here as "philosophers" if we have any business being in business at all.  Some of you will stop there (ahh, my friends, I know you write off philosophy as so much mental self stimulation, and this podcast certainly skirts that territory) but I hate to just Give Up!

So, I think this: We are individuals, not ants, and the solitary difference there is that we should each have some meaning as entities. Inalienable rights, if you want.

This leads me towards the chivalrous side of the spectrum wherein you might do something glorious and stupid, like charge an overwhelming force to succor one captive knight. This sounds silly to say, but it's basic military ethos and, if unlikely to be implemented in big serious confrontations, nevertheless a powerful idea. Another example would be NOT torturing the bomber as a matter of principle, though many will die. The rationale would be "if we are unprincipled, we have saved nothing." Typing this, I feel a childish shame at how it pulls at my heart. I just want this to be true.  Ants meanwhile are pragmatic utilitarians, "true believers" who will die for their hive, but not each other.

That is my weak rebuttal to rigorous utilitarianism. If I understand Pettit correctly, all that's been thought of and bundled under the aegis "respect." Pettit would say "respect unless a red light starts flashing" which seems too big a loophole to me.


  1. From Southern Home Journal, 1869, here is a romanticized version of rightrous goodness. It's my example of anti-utilitarianism.

    "The great want of this age is men. Men who are not for sale. Men who are honest, sound from center to circumference, true to the heart's core. Men who will condemn wrong in friend or foe, in themselves as well as others. Men whose consciences are as steady as the needle to the pole. Men who will stand for the right if the heavens totter and the earth reels. Men who can tell the truth and look the world and the devil right in the eye. Men that13 neither brag nor run. Men that13 neither flag nor flinch. Men who can have courage without shouting to it. Men in whom the courage of everlasting life runs still, deep, and strong."

    Probably, I could as easily have picked from Burroughs' A Fighting Man of Mars. what do you say: the read deal, or an antiquated fantasy?

  2. You might want to pick up the Sept. 5 issue of The New Yorker. There's an article about Derek Parfit, a prominent moral philosopher, who is dealing with the exact question that you have posed. I may be able to send you a pdf copy. I'll look into it.

    Anyway, the article briefly describes his "Triple Theory:"

    "An act is wrong just when such acts are disallowed by some principle that is optimific, uniquely universally willable, and not reasonably rejectable."

    Yeah, whatever that means!

  3. Holy Smokes! Panjandrum is the coolest nick, EVER. Who ARE you????

    ...and it was designed by the Admirality's Directorate of Miscellaneous Weapons Development?!

    That's maybe cooler than the nefarious military complex, Yoyodyne.

  4. Pajamarama, the triple theory is pretty close to just a (typical?) philosopher's helpless obfuscation of something much simpler to say: "do unto others..." -eh? Which is also basically Kant's "universally willable" absolute.

    Am I being too simple?

    Side note: Sidgewick's maddening thoroughness evokes Peter Singer.

  5. Over a beer, we discussed the trolley problem a bit, feeling action vs inaction was a discriminant: perhaps you may not *push* him, but if the fat guy is already on the tracks, you can leave him in ignorance. Somehow, choosing a different outcome is not as morally painful as causing one through an act.

    I think this is baloney, the outcome seems to matter to me, and I think the difference highlights supremacy of the lizard brain over the cerebellum ~ as though what you only think of somehow doesn't COUNT. I wonder, would it stand up in a court of law if (and there need be no innocents down-track at stake here) you did not call out as you watched the guy get train-splatted. I bet you'd be judged innocent though certainly not if you'd pushed him!

    Just a bit more on the same topic: I notice that I'm looking for a moral code with poor scientific protocol: I am dry-labbing it, actively seeking rules that support my preconceptions of the right answers in various cases. The observations I'm trying to fit with ethical theory are not calculated rights, but instead automatic "from the gut" judgments! Apparently my hindbrain quietly asserted incontrovertible authority in such matters and the supposedly dominant conscious kowtowed without even a fight. Even now, with the lizard's magesterium blithely asserted, I remain submissive. WTF, self?!

  6. A few comments:
    --You said: "The observations I'm trying to fit with ethical theory are not calculated rights, but instead automatic "from the gut" judgments!". That was one of the major themes of Zen & the Art wasn't it? That those 'from the gut' feelings are actually worthwhile listening to in scientific AND non-scientific areas of though. Pirsig's second book, Lila, is subtitled 'an inquiry into morals. You might like it, but as you didn't like ZATAOMM maybe not...

    --I think the easiest way to see what you're saying above is that you instantly said 'smother the child' in the 'hiding from Nazis' gendankenexperiment. Now replace that with 1 year old Giselle in your arms...

    Which brings me to *my* peeve about morality/ethics. It's all fine and good to argue in the abstract and set up rules/guidelines/etc, but it's a *totally* other thing to implement in real life.

    --Separate point: Law-wise all you'd need to say is that you felt your life was at risk by pushing the guy out of the way. (Just yelling is no risk to you, so maybe you'd be legally obligated at that point). E.g if you're trained in CPR/first aid, you're legally mandated to help someone, but ONLY if it is safe for you to do so. And that is solely based on how safe you *feel*.