Sunday, March 13, 2011

Ethics: Midterm Review

The Midterm Exam will consist of at least 20 multiple choice questions, three short answer questions covering central concepts, and an essay.

Principle, Moral & Law: Kant
Kant is a positivist with regard to principle, morals and laws. Kant believes that reason should rule over desire (like the early cosmology above) and principles that are figured out by reason should always be followed regardless of the consequences (note that the opposite position can be found in the Utilitarian/consequentialist position below). Kant believes that one starts with good will (good in itself without question) and reasoned principles follow, and one should use this good beginning regardless of what consequences follow (though he says this naturally aims at and leads to good consequences even if this is secondary). Kant calls this “the categorical imperative” and “unconditional universal law”. The example of this is the guy with the knife who asks you “Where did your friend go?”, to whom one should not lie regardless of how easy a good end can come from lying. One must “Do one’s Duty” even if one goes down with the ship.

Virtue & Merit: Aristotle
Virtue is like principle in being a good beginning, but it is also a state or end to obtain. Also, virtue can be individual in a way that principle is collective and for the group. The idea is that one gains virtue, merit or “goodness”, and one can then use this ability/capacity to do good. A virtue-ethicist believes that becoming good or virtuous is more important than following principles or simply having good consequences. One should be virtuous even if it means breaking principles or bad results in a particular situation. The upside of this is a virtue centered ethic is not slave to principle or always seeking the best consequences. The downside is that one could believe that oneself or one’s group is “the virtuous” and ignore principles and consequences to the degree that it becomes a problem for oneself or others.

Consequence, Utility & End: Mill
Consequentialism or Utilitarianism argues that one should focus completely on the ends or results to determine if an act or person is good or bad. Specifically, one should try to maximize pleasure/happiness and minimize pain/suffering for everyone, taking a long view (not a short, 15 minute view). Epicurus was an early Greek consequentialist, and he is followed by the Utilitarian school of Bentham and Mill. While Bentham leaned towards the positive side of the ‘pleasure principle’, maximizing happiness, Mill leaned towards the negative, minimizing harm. Mill is the best known, and has had an important impact on modern thought and theory of law.
Mill’s Utilitarianism is opposite yet similar in many ways to Kant. Both see their side as fundamental and the other side as a secondary consequence. Kant says always follow principle and you will likely be happy, and Mill says always try for happiness and you will likely be principled. Both see their own primary focus as good in itself without the possibility of proof or question.
Attacks on Utilitarianism include: Paradox of the bad as good example, Marx’s guess who gets to use who for whose happiness (the rich and elite), Happiness as unobtainable ideal, Environmental challenge to using the world for human purposes.

Balance & The Mean: Egyptian Wisdom & Confucius
Meaning and value work through pairs of opposites (good/evil, open/closed, individual/collective). A reoccurring theme of the world’s wisdom is that seeking the mean or middle between opposites is better than clinging to either side of an opposition. We can see some beautiful examples of this thinking in the Egyptian wisdom and Confucius passages. In the Egyptian wisdom, moderation of eating and drinking, luxury, and balancing one’s own interest with others are the clearest examples. Confucius offers particularly insightful sayings that call for a balance of one’s self with others for the cultivation of self and society.

Self Interest, Self Esteem and Drive: Nietzsche & Rand
Self is very much an end, though like Mill it can be phrased as a principle (focus on the ends).
While early ethics (in accord with ancient cosmology above) focused on the collective good, modern society has taken a turn towards the individual good. These two have always been complimentary, but devices and media have allowed us to be more enabled as individuals than ever before. Nietzsche and Rand both focus on individual achievement as the central end of life, but they are completely different as far as trusting judgment and truth. Nietzsche trusts no truth at all, calling all collectivism “slave morality” and performing his own misogyny as “Philosophy is always the personal confession of the author”. Rand believes her opinions to be objective, and calls her school the “Objectivists”. Rand’s idea of believing in yourself was repackaged as “self esteem” in the 1980s. While it is important to have self esteem, problems can arise when one trusts one’s own judgment and rejects all opposing judgments entirely.

Perspective & Intersubjectivity: Heraclitus & Zhuang Zi
A balance between thinking our views are completely right or wrong, truth or illusion, is the concept of perspective. The “objective” is very much the intersubjective, the similarity and difference of a group of subjective perspectives. Heraclitus and Chuang Tzu are both excellent thinkers to read to get good examples of this sort of thought. Both use perspectives of animals to show that collective human opinion is just that (pigs sleep in mud, birds sleep in trees). The concept of perspective is good for showing us that all views count, but they are also each limited and capable of progress and expansion.