Ethical theory 101
September 8, 2016 8:28 AM   Subscribe

Um....anonymous because I teach and I guess I'm supposed to know this. Can someone explain why it's not okay to use one ethical theory for some situations but a different one for other situations? Why are ethicists always trying to defend their particular line of reasoning and never admit that certain aspects are better dealt with by another kind of theory?

It seems like philosophers are always pointing out the problems with other philosophers' positions even though it looks to me like no one's approach is flawless and fits every situation. Then once someone identifies a flaw, the conclusion is that the whole theory is no good, not just that it is no good for this particular set of circumstances.

I never see anyone say "yes, well, consequentialism is good for x,y and z, but doesn't deal well with feelings so maybe we should look to virtue ethics for how to treat friends..."

This is not my area of expertise but it's coming up in one of the classes I teach. From what I've read, it doesn't seem like anyone ever uses a combo or different reasoning for different circumstances. It's all very all or nothing, so like, a consequentialist will always take the consequentialist position, in any and every thing, even if they end up defending some stupid/ridiculous/outrageous (to me) conclusion. It seems like being consistent with your one and only position is of utmost importance.

I did ask a philosopher, he said it was a bit like having rules for languages. Ethical principles are the rules and you learn to speak the language according to those rules...

This didn't work for me. The rules for French are different to the rules for Chinese. Why would the rules for French be expected to fit all languages?

Have I got this right? I feel like I am missing something fundamental.
If there some reading you think might help, please suggest. I have access to journals.
I'm also interested in any reading where an ethicist has admitted their theory is no good for __________ and maybe we should look to [other theory] instead.
posted by anonymous to Religion & Philosophy (17 answers total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
I never see anyone say "yes, well, consequentialism is good for x,y and z, but doesn't deal well with feelings so maybe we should look to virtue ethics for how to treat friends..."

Personally I think we are all collections of organic materials and our ethics are imperfectly evolved cooperation mechanisms rather than the word of god, so maybe I'm being too flippant here, but - by saying this, or something like this, aren't you taking both of those ethical frameworks and fitting them in under an overarching ethical framework? Like - why, in your opinion, is one set of ethical rules good for one situation and another set for another situation? You have a reason for thinking so.

The people who look to define rules for this stuff are looking for such a framework, something that CAN apply to everything.
posted by showbiz_liz at 8:34 AM on September 8, 2016 [3 favorites]

You can find articles on this topic under the phrase "moral hedging." This blog post summarizes.
posted by Wobbuffet at 8:38 AM on September 8, 2016 [1 favorite]

I asked something similar to this to a guy I was taking a moral philosophy seminar from once; he said that there isn't any point to having principles if you abandon them as soon as they seem uncomfortable, and that you may as well just live by doing whatever seems right moment to moment if that's what you want to do.
posted by thelonius at 8:44 AM on September 8, 2016 [4 favorites]

Look into intuitionism, like Ross. It's exactly the view you're looking for.
posted by meese at 8:56 AM on September 8, 2016

Maybe Virtue ethics would interest you. It's not quite pick one system one day, another the next, but more 'how would a good person act in this situation', to put it crudely.

Check the Stanford page
posted by jonrob at 8:58 AM on September 8, 2016 [2 favorites]

I guess it comes down to the nature of moral justification. One way to justify a moral rule is inductively- 'this rule seems to work for all these cases, so we infer that it's a general moral law'. Another way is a priori- this moral rule reflects the singular objective nature of moral goodness. Either case seems to allow for no exceptions and maintaining justification.

There is a moral position, pluralism (W. D. Ross mentioned above) or particularism (e.g. Jonathan Dancy), which rejects that we can have moral principles that fit all situations. Instead, we feel the pull of different mutually incommensurate values. Bernard Williams was also famous for expressing views like this when he talked about dilemmas that always leave a 'moral remainder' an important value left unsatisfied (e.g. the Jim and the Indians dilemma).
posted by leibniz at 9:03 AM on September 8, 2016 [5 favorites]

Another interesting sophistication is 'two level utilitarianism' which allows you to act on deontological principles day to day, so long as what ultimately justifies doing so is that it has better consequences than following a different principle.
posted by leibniz at 9:05 AM on September 8, 2016

Yes, Bernard Williams is your guy for the kind of value pluralism you are taking about. I recommend his Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy. But I think there can be good reasons why, for example, moral philosophers insist on being holding their line in all cases, beyond sheer bloody-mindedness - often to do with their meta-ethical positions. Bentham couldn't have admitted the idea of virtue as a supplement to the idea of utility because that would have ruined his whole claim that he had invented a morality with a firm basis in empirical reality. Conversely, if a Kantian lets a consequentialist fragment into his morality, how is he supposed to support his claim that reason is autonomous? Suddenly it becomes depend on contingent sensations or events in the world that are valued for some reason (pleasure or utility or whatever) and there goes the whole foundation of the system.
posted by Aravis76 at 9:15 AM on September 8, 2016 [6 favorites]

I am not a philosopher (as will become evident) so apologies for my very 101 answer.

Your question reminds me of having to read Tom Stoppard's Professional Foul at school. It's about academic philosophers gathering for a conference at a hotel in 1970s Czechoslovakia. (You can imagine it went down like a screeeeam with a bunch of bored suburban English teenagers in the early 90s. How we loved it.)

Anyway. One thing that has stuck with me is that of the characters talks about whether or not morals are absolute. That you could almost plot people's morals on a graph where one axis is the strength of the moral and the other is the extremity of the situation. Should you always try to preserve human life? Yes. Would you save a child from a sinking boat if you could? Yes. Would you do that if the cost of it was one very elderly person dying, because they were sitting on a rowing boat with you and would drift out to sea if you left it? Mmm maybe. What if 500 other people would die when you saved the child, because the only way to save her was to abandon a huge ship that you were captain of? No. Every moral, the argument went, has a tipping point, a point at which it ceases to apply, and the moral reverses.

I no longer have a copy of the play to remember the details of the discussion, but a little googling suggests this is basically a discussion of Moral Absolutism, which sounds like it might be what you're asking about. So - despite the fact I fear this is a very basic philosophical idea and I might be embarrassing myself by finding it novel, I'll post this anyway. That page I just linked to suggests Moral Absolutism is "the opposite of Moral Relativism, the position that moral propositions do not reflect objective and/or universal moral truths, but instead make claims relative to social, cultural, historical or personal circumstances," which sounds similar to what you're suggesting.

So, in case those terms are useful to you in more googling, I'll post!
posted by penguin pie at 9:33 AM on September 8, 2016 [2 favorites]

You may find this reductive, but science and philosophy, way back in Greek times, were part of the same thing. In physics, say, it's almost self-evident that a theory that covers a wider range of behaviors in the natural world is better. For instance, Ptolemy explained the motion of the planets with epicycles which were reasonably accurate, but you couldn't use them to describe the flight of a cannonball on earth. Newton's laws of motion, though, describe the rotation of the planets and cannonballs equally well. So it's broader and therefore better. I mean, who wouldn't want a philosophy that described all situations?
posted by wnissen at 9:55 AM on September 8, 2016

I like the answer by thelonius. To put it a different way, the whole point of being a philosopher and promulgating a system of ethics is to answer all the questions, not not just some of the questions. You don't have to be a philosopher to know right from wrong in 98% of day-to-day decisions. You need help from the philosopher in the 2% that are difficult, and in that case, having Philosopher A and Philosopher B offer different advice based on different systems just the begs the question. Choosing between A and B is just as difficult as finding the answer to the original question. In fact, its the same thing as finding the answer to the original question.

Think of it in political terms. Assume, contrary to fact, that the leaders of political parties made policy in terms of a consistent application of their particular political theory. Then deciding which side to support in a particular dispute (say, the Keystone pipeline) would be the same as choosing a party.
posted by SemiSalt at 11:21 AM on September 8, 2016 [1 favorite]

The analogy to physics is interesting in the sense that philosophy, like physics, is a collection of models that attempt to represent reality (whatever that means, in context).

Newton is perfectly adequate for most human-scale things, but useless for modelling the behaviour of sub-atomic particles, etc. Newton wasn't wrong, but we've found that the applicability of his models is limited. Still, it's more useful than general relativity for most use-cases that a human is likely to encounter.

Philosophy can operate in similar ways.
posted by klanawa at 11:53 AM on September 8, 2016 [1 favorite]

Suppose you are aware of two moral theories, A and B. Situation X arises, and A and B prescribe different actions. How will you choose which moral theory to follow in this situation? The method you use to choose is itself a moral decision, and so a philosopher would want a moral theory to explain the choice.
posted by the antecedent of that pronoun at 2:34 PM on September 8, 2016 [3 favorites]

For instance, one theory of criminal justice holds that punishment acts as a deterrent; another holds that the punishment should serve to rehabilitate the criminal so that they do not reoffend. If it turned out that someone thought it was appropriate to apply one moral theory to people of one race, and the other theory to people of another race, that is something that most people would recognize as immoral or unjust, even though both of those theories of criminal justice have some proponents.

On the other hand, if someone else proposed that which theory of criminal justice should be applied depended on the age of the criminal, or on the type of criminal act, or so on, you might feel that some of these positions are more defensible than others and certainly more than basing the decision on race.
posted by the antecedent of that pronoun at 2:38 PM on September 8, 2016

I think I agree with showbizliz in that you yourself are creating your own framework. Maybe something along the lines of pluralism. I remember in our ethics class we were told to pick an ethical theory and argue why that theory is right in a particular moral dilemna. It was really difficult, because what is right and wrong has to do with so many things. I guess it can be hard to be left in that uncertainty, so it's easier to pick a general framework and stick with it to feel more confidence in your decisions. But yes, I remember leaving that class feeling like after looking at all these different theories, things were more complex than I even thought and there really are flaws to every theory. I think they serve better as a general framework to help you reach your own reasoning, or come to some deduction that you can feel good about.
posted by oracleia at 9:23 PM on September 8, 2016

Philosophy prof here. (Though not an ethicist.) I don't think claims like *x is morally wrong iff* are open to reductive analysis. While it's interesting to think of what a consequentialist or deontologist would say about a situation, that it maximizes the good or is done out of duty or could be universalized isn't what makes it obligatory or permissible. They are at best guides, to be tested along with other moral intuitions.
posted by persona au gratin at 1:17 AM on September 9, 2016

The physics analogy of Newton/Einstein is not really the best one as it represents a useful (and under normal circumstances, very good) approximation vs. a more complete model that works for both the simple cases of non relativistic speeds and low gravitational fields and for the more complex high speed high gravity cases.

A much better analogy would be relativity vs. quantum theory. They are both great theories in their respective realms: highly predictive and well tested. It’s just that they are incompatible, so one or the other or both is incomplete. How do you know which to use? It’s mostly fairly straight forward deciding which to use: one operates at large scale the other at very small scale, so while it would obviously be very desirable to reconcile them it’s not really a practical necessity for most uses. There are places where the conflict causes problems (at the event horizon of black holes being one example, if I remember correctly) and there things break down, but such cases are rare, so life goes on.

So, if the analogy holds, and philosophy and science are operating in the same way you don’t really need an overarching theory to reconcile conflicting theories for most situations if it’s clear which domain you are operating in, it’s only where the conflicting theories cause problems that you have to worry. So you’re far better off using useful, domain specific solutions than waiting around for some perfect theory to provide a unified solution.

I suspect that such an approach would displease some philosophers, but it’s not contrary to getting good results most of the time.
posted by Quinbus Flestrin at 10:37 AM on September 9, 2016

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