Thursday, April 30, 2009

Thought for the Day

"If my husband sacrificed our child to save thousands of people, I might recognize, at some abstract level, that he had done the right thing. But we wouldn't stay married." -- Megan McArdle

7 comments:

PeterW said...

I'm unsure about the implication that this proves that women are more moral particularists than men. I mean, it's probably true, but this seems like weak proof of it; just imagining asking men the same question, with infidelity instead of sacrificing the child.

Φ said...

Honestly, when I saw the quote I didn't read it in the context of particularlism vs utilitarianism or anything else. It was just one of those things that grabbed me in its poignancy.

I'm not sure how to address the adultery issue directly. But your question made me realize that in all the Ethics classes I have taken, I have never had both of these tradeoffs presented together in the same context.

For instance, in the ethics class at my Christian high school, the instruction material asked us whether it would be okay for a female prisoner to have sex with a guard in return for freedom, which would allow her to rejoin her family. (Textbook answer: no.) In contrast, courses in more secular settings have asked us to evaluate various tradeoffs regarding human life, for instance, would you throw someone onto the train tracks to stop a runaway train. Or something along these lines. But I can't recall a forum where both questions were put together side by side in the manner you suggest.

Parenthetically, I think a lot of these kinds of exercises are pretty stoopid since they don't address situations any American is likely to ever face. But I wonder what kind of fault lines might appear if we constructed your scenario.

trumwill said...

Did I join this mid-conversation?

Φ said...

Internet Telepathy v1.0!

Seriously, what you see is pretty much how the conversation started.

trumwill said...

Parenthetically, I think a lot of these kinds of exercises are pretty stoopid since they don't address situations any American is likely to ever face. But I wonder what kind of fault lines might appear if we constructed your scenario.I don't know, I think a lot of these questions are good at peeling away false objections and getting the root of their belief. People make a lot of absolutist comments "It's never right to take a human life" or "The government should never legislate private actions" and behave as if it really is just that simple. Hypothetical questions are really good at gauging whether they seriously view this as an absolute or whether they don't view it absolutely but view whatever you're talking about in that context.

The reason that hypothetical situations can be better than actual situations is that they can hide behind the "facts" of the situation (all of which shockingly dovetail with their philosophy) as a way that they don't have to make tough choices between freedom and security, short-term and long-term gains, and morality and utilitarianism.

Φ said...

Mmmm . . . okay, but do people come out of these exercises with a greater commitment to truth, justice, freedom, or what-have-you? That's an empirical question I don't know the answer to, but the fact is that, in almost all circumstances, individuals are not required to make tradeoffs between two competing moral principles. Rather we must choose between a moral principle and our own private gain (or our effort to avoid harm). My concern is that once the instructor contrives a scenario that leads a student to the conclusion, "Gosh, I guess it really is okay to lie sometimes," he proceeds to apply that lesson in all the wrong ways.

trumwill said...

I agree that these "lessons" can be used in negative ways so as to justify immorality or whatnot, but I have to take exception to this:

"individuals are not required to make tradeoffs between two competing moral principle"I think that we live in two different worlds here. Or maybe we're just approaching things differently.

It's true that in your life specifically and mine that cases of stark moral choices to take one life and save a dozen later are rare. However, they are of grand importance when it comes to how we as a society approach issues. Do we execute people now if it is known to reduce murder in the future? Do we go to war and kill people to save lives in the long run?

This is particularly true when trading off between utilitarianism and moral principle. Sometimes doing what we perceive to be as the moral right thing leads to worse results than doing the wrong thing.

The reason that we make these choices personal is that it deprives us of the ability to blame the opposition for the bad results. "Free welfare for all would be more utilitarian if it wasn't for Republicans that do x" or "Nationalized health care would be cheaper and if it wasn't it would be because of those evil insurance companies and their Republican cronies" and since it's speculative it's hard to disprove.

Creating scenarios that limit the scope in which the person you're talking to cannot latch on to any externalities to justify their preferred position on all grounds moral and practical is genuinely helpful.