Thursday, April 8, 2010

More Useful Distinctions

There are grounds for condemning a man who intended to kill a bunny but accidentally killed a monster (consequentalist fail), and equally, there are grounds for condemning a man who intended to kill a monster but wrecklessly killed a bunny (deontological fail). Bunny haters and/or monster lovers may quibble with my illustrations, but even they would agree that a balanced ethical breakfast includes both consequentialist and deontological helpings.

I also agree with Ophelia Benson, Russell Blackford, and LarryNiven that Sam Harris has not succeeded in deriving an "ought" from an "is," so I hope David Hume will stop spinning in his grave and get back to his torments in hell's hottest keeps.

A few posts back, what I found worth salvaging in Sam Harris's presentation was his claim that ethics, properly understood, is anchored in the well-being of conscious organisms. To RMJ, this claim betrays a palsied understanding of various brand-name philosophers, a point he illustrated by talking about morals on an island:

It might be fair to say morality relates to ones intentions to affect one's well-being. The same, of course, can be said of "ethics;" but here the confusion begins, and Harris only makes it worse. First, morality should be understood as something transcendent of ethics in the metaphysical sense: that is, it is impossible for me to be ethical if I find myself alone on a desert island, but it is still possible for me to be moral. One is a relationship to a community, the other a relationship to an ideal, even to a deity. This is not a common distinction but it is a useful one.
It is, I say again, not a useful one -- not, that is, a distinction that tells against Sam Harris's claim that ethics relates to the well-being of conscious creatures. As stated, it accuses Harris of ignorance of the distinction between deontological and consequentialist ethics, which strikes me as so far-fetched as to suggest nothing more than a case of New Atheist Derangement Syndrome.

Whether amid a large community or alone on an island, the well-being of conscious creatures remains the sine qua non of ethics: in either case, there will be thus-and-so actions with thus-and-so consequences, and there will be good will or its absence; and none of it will matter, in ethical terms, without reference to the well-being of the conscious creatures in those settings.

Rocks, pine trees, red giants, and spiders don't possess "a relationship to an ideal, even a deity." Conscious creatures do, and thus they alone belong in conversations about ethics. Harris not only agrees with this -- well, not the "deity" part -- but begins with it.

I would be genuinely interested to hear the alternative, but as I hinted in my earlier post, I suspect we're a few large conceptual and argumentative leaps from that -- namely, it begins with something more foundational, a settling of whether god exists or not, after which the real terms of this disagreement stand a chance of being sorted out.

3 comments:

larryniven said...

"It is, I say again, not a useful one -- not, that is, a distinction that tells against Sam Harris's claim that ethics relates to the well-being of conscious creatures."

Oh oh oh - I get it now. Yeah, agreed.

Dale said...

This post began its long and fascinating life as a comment on your post, but then I realized, hey! I can totally bore people with it on my own blog! I was right.

larryniven said...

"...then I realized, hey! I can totally bore people with it on my own blog! I was right."

Oh, for sure - if they ever find a way to generate (clean) electricity from boredom, bloggers will suddenly become very, very valuable. Luckily, that won't be for a long time (if ever) and I can therefore continue trying to set the world record for "most number of ways this person is useless."