Thursday, October 19, 2006

Metric, Not Imperial

This post is part of an ongoing dialog between my friend Ernie and me about the validity of Christian belief.

For the past couple of weeks, Ernie and I have been looking at the subject of ethics, more or less begun when Ernie posed his Ethical Trilemma. After a bit of a false start, it appears we may now be making progress. At least Ernie thinks so. In Metric [vs] System?, he describes what he sees as a bit of misunderstanding that needs to be cleared away, as well as posing some additional questions for further clarification.

Ernie listed three ways that the definition of Universal Utilitarianism (as given by the Ebon Muse) could be interpreted:

  1. Metric to a posteori evaluate either actions or alternative ethical systems
  2. Heuristic to rationally deduce potentially ethical actions
  3. Dogmatic a priori statement of the sole "true" definition of virtue

Ernie guesses that I have been defending (I) while he has been critiquing (III). I imagine he knows best what he was critiquing. I think UU addresses both (I) and (II), but regarding (I) I was envisioning that it evaluates actions, not ethical systems, at least not directly. As a metric, it is useful both before and after action. Before because it provides a basis for judging the expected outcomes of our actions, and after because (of course) it can be used to judge the actual outcomes. Actually measuring the total effect of our actions is difficult, and estimating them before hand even more so; as I have said several times, other ethical theories (like preference utilitarianism) can be used as heuristics within the framework of UU.

That appears to be cleared up, then. Ernie then suggests three additional statements for consideration here. (I'll skip the commentary between them and just list the statements here.)

  1. In practice, we need some system of ethics to make effective decisions
  2. Most ethical systems would claim to optimally fulfill UU as a metric
  3. UU can itself also be formulated (and critiqued) as just such a system

Under (A), Ernie lists seven questions to illustrate what a system of ethics should address. I will return to those in a moment. As far as (B) is concerned, that may be true, given (as Ernie notes) various assumptions about reality. We would agree, then, that getting our assumptions right is instrumental to making ethical decisions. Belief in truth formed one leg of Ernie's trilemma, and we can see here why alignment between that leg and the others (self-interest and other-interest, both included in UU) is not surprising. Further, (B) is compatible with the "universal" part of Universal Utilitarianism. Part of the point of introducing UU was to establish a universal, objective basis for morality that is not grounded in theism. Finally, I agree with (C) as well.

Since I pretty much agree with all three statements, then, Ernie wants to know how I would address the seven questions that he believes a system of ethics must address:

  1. Why should we act ethically?
  2. Why don't we act ethically?
  3. How can we know what is ethical?
  4. What are the consequences of unethical behavior?
  5. What is our overriding ethical obligation at any point in time?
  6. What is the role (if any) for reason, emotion, and duty in ethical behavior?
  7. How ought I to balance/tradeoff my personal happiness with the good of others and a commitment to truth?

We should act ethically because (under UU) that provides the greatest overall benefits to everyone, and usually to the individual. A sustainable system of ethics will scale: the more people that comply, the better everyone will be. We do not always act ethically because it is difficult to know what actions will produce the desired results, even when we want to make good choices, and especially because our natures have a selfish component that emphasizes self-interest over other-interest. That is, while perfectly rational and knowledgeable individuals might understand that cooperation provides better results than self-interested competition (over the long term), defection can result in better self-results at the expense of other-results, especially over smaller time scales and as transparency is reduced.

How can we know what is ethical? By learning how our actions affect ourselves and others. That is basically true by definition, since UU is primarily a consequentialist theory of ethics. Similarly, since ethical behavior under UU is defined as that which decreases potential and actual suffering and increases potential and actual happiness, unethical behavior increases sufferering and decreasing happiness. Nothing surprising there.

The question of ethical obligation is more interesting. In my view, obligations are incurred only by agreement or contract. So, UU by itself can impose no true obligations. However, some obligations may derive from more or less implicit agreements bound up in the fabric of society: caring for one's children comes to mind.

Reason plays its role both in determining the actual contribution of our (past) actions to ethically interesting outcomes, as well as helping us to predict the likely future consequences of choices we make now. Reason is also useful for understanding what is real, a vital component of looking at both past and future consequences. For instance, reason is crucial for determining whether or not eternal consequences of the nature described by Christian theology (in addition to the normal temporal consequences) are likely.

Emotion has its place too. Both suffering and happiness have emotional aspects, so emotional consequences are ethically interesting. In addition, the human capacity of empathy has an emotional component, and this capacity is useful in considering the likely consequences of our actions on others. Likewise, fear serves as a powerful indication of likely personal consequences. Of course, these faculties are imperfect (phobias) or sometimes absent (sociopaths).

Duty is a sort of obligation. Its role in ethical behavior is determined by what obligations we accept.

Regarding balance between personal happiness and others' happiness, the Ebon Muse addressed this via some more or less axiomatic assertions, which are reasonable but as far as I can tell unproveable. His suggestion to prevent suffering before increasing happiness, while helpful for situations involving people choosing to act ethically, does not reflect our intuitions about how to treat those who mistreat others. That is, causing some amount of suffering to those that act unethically (whether as punishment, deterrent or simply protection from future harm) is not allowed under the simplest reading of the definition of UU, and I do not recall this being addressed in anything that Ebon Muse has written (that I have read). In this respect, UU as formulated may be incomplete.

Is Universal Utilitarianism dogmatic? I can see where Ernie might get that impression from The Ineffable Carrot and the Infinite Stick. Mostly due to what I wrote in the previous paragraph, my own view is perhaps less dogmatic than that of the Ebon Muse, if in fact his view is dogmatic. In practice, there is enough uncertainty about the actual effects of our actions (or at least some of them) that I am not too worried about the precise balance.

Hopefully those answers do not throw Ernie for a loop, because I would really like him to tell us a little more about his solution to his trilemma. Over to you, Ernie.

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