Ethics: June 2007 Archives

I've had two encounters recently that have led me to want to put together a post on a basic ethical distinction that I wanted to use in my responses to those two different issues. In this discussion, Brian Trapp looks at two different approaches to what conservative pro-lifers should do if Rudy Giuliani gets the GOP nomination for president. James Dobson says he couldn't vote for Rudy against Hillary, and I argued that someone with Dobson's moral views has a moral obligation to vote for Rudy against Hillary. Brian's presentation classified Dobson's view as emphasizing duty and principles and mine as emphasizing consequences and utility. There's a sense in which that's true, but I don't think it's quite right.

Second, in a comment on this post, Alan gave an argument in favor of Ron Paul's candidacy for the GOP nomination for president. His portrayal of Paul is that he is principled rather than pragmatist, that he doesn't allow the ends to justify the means the way all the other candidates do. Again, I think there's a way to look at Paul that way, but I also think it's inaccurate to what's going on, particular to how other candidates would think about what they're up to. I think I can show that the kinds of views the other candidates hold in contrast to Paul are not, in fact, merely pragmatist as opposed to principled, and I think the reason is the same reason that I don't think my argument for supporting a Rudy Giuliani presidency over a Hillary Clinton presidency (should Giuliani get the GOP nod) is purely pragmatist or consequence-based. But my reasoning in both cases depends on an important ethical distinction that I want to spend some time developing first. I'll develop the ethical background in this post, and then I'll look at the two issues that brought me to this in separate posts.

The distinction raised by both Brian and Alan is between two kinds of ethical theories. Consequentialist views consider consequences to be the only thing of moral importance. The right action is the one that leads to the best consequences or that leads to good enough consequences, depending on how the view fleshes itself out. Deontological views are probably best captured as saying that there are moral constraints that go beyond consequences. Sometimes another factor can play a role to make an action wrong even if it leads to the best consequences or right even if it leads to less good consequences. Now if you follow the arguments of Alan or Brian, you might think that the views I would defend depend on consequentialism, and the views of Ron Paul and James Dobson rely on deontological considerations. But I am no consequentialist, and I don't think you need consequentialism to argue against either of the two views I would resist (i.e. Dobson's and Paul's).

Deontology is often thought of as having to do with absolute principles or duties. What I mean by that is that there are moral principles that are always wrong to violate. In Immanuel Kant's presentation, lying and breaking promises are always wrong, no matter what. I've written about the particular issue of lying before, defending the view that the prohibition on lying is not a moral absolute. There are some times when lying is in fact morally obligatory. It's just that there's normally a presumption against lying. I would say further that there are times when lying leads to the best consequences, and yet it's not the right thing to do. This means that I'm neither a moral absolutist nor a consequentialist. So what I am I? I would say that I'm still a deontologist but not of the absolutist sort. At least not every moral principle is an absolute.

Stem Cell Rhetoric

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From Hillary Clinton's statement on the Bush veto of the stem cell funding bill
You know, later today, apparently, the president will veto a bill passed by Congress to support stem cell research.
Now, this is research that...holds such promise for devastating diseases. Yesterday, I met with a group of children suffering from juvenile diabetes. I co-chair the Alzheimer's caucus in the Senate. I've worked on helping to boost funding for research to look for cures and a way to prevent so many devastating diseases. And we know that stem cell research holds the key to our understanding more about what we can do. So let me be very clear: When I am president, I will lift the ban on stem cell research.
This is just one example of how the President puts ideology before science, politics before the needs of our families, just one more example of how out of touch with reality he and his party have become. And it's just one more example as to why we're going to send them packing in January 2009, and return progressive leadership to the White House. 

No mention of the president's actual reasons for vetoing the bill. No mention that a large percentage of U.S. voters have strong moral objections to their tax dollars funding the deaths of human embryos. The way she tells the story, there are the people who want to help look for cures for diseases, and there are those who are just mean and prefer that sick people to get better.

Further, she gives a very clear implicature that there is a ban on stem cell research by talking about lifting it. But there is no such ban. Period. There is a ban on federal funding for such research, but no one has ever banned the research itself, at least in this country, and several states are now funding the research. So she misrepresents the position of the president and much of the opposing party, and then she says something about the current policy that's pretty much the moral equivalent of a lie.

Next, she makes it sound as if this is ideology and politics on one side and science and the needs of families on the other side. Yet there's no need to deny anything that scientific study has shown on the issue in order to argue against federal funding for embryonic stem cell research. There is information that each side of the debate downplays (e.g. the successes of adult stem cells, the potential for other methods of getting stem cells, and so on). Both sides want to tilt the evidence a little in their direction, but there's no way she can make the argument that her side is always on the side of science, while the other side is always against it. Neither case is based on science, in fact, since both views can admit the same scientific information. The real issue is about whether certain kinds of scientific research are immoral, and a lot of people do think this particular kind is thoroughly immoral, while others think there's absolutely nothing wrong with it.

Civil libertarianism is a general emphasis on individual rights as opposed to government interference in how people choose to live their lives. Some people hold to civil libertarianism purely as a political philosophy, and others base it in a kind of moral libertarianism about there being nothing morally wrong with most of the things they favor allowing people to do legally. Someone like Larry Flynt, publisher of Hustler magazine, had better take the latter view when it comes to sex-related acts that he wants legal, at least unless he's going to admit to being a thoroughly immoral person. So I suspect that what's grounding his advocacy of first-amendment free-speech rights for the porngraphy industry that he's part of is a moral libertarianism. There's nothing wrong with what his magazine publishes, so there should be no laws against it.

What he doesn't like is social conservatives who speak out against sex-related acts of certain sorts and then commit acts privately that many of their constituents would disapprove of. This is what's called hypocrisy, provided that it's not just a moment of weakness but a regular pattern of saying one thing and doing another, with full realization that their words apply to themselves and just no willingness to let that affect their life. We just heard Flynt on the radio talking about his campaign to catch politicians doing this sort of thing by paying anyone a million dollars if they can come up with photographs of politicians in the act.

Something seems funny about the position Flynt is taking. He denies that this is revenge against those who have caused him legal trouble in the past. So what is his motivation? Would you expect a civil libertarian who thinks people should pretty much be able to do what they want to be concerned about what these politicians are up to? It's not as if he thinks those acts are immoral or anything. So it's not the acts that he has a problem with. The only things left that he could complain about are (1) their public stance and (2) the disconnect between their public stance and their private behavior. I'm not sure either justifies what Flynt is doing, at least not unless you add some additional moral premise that might move in the opposite direction of the moral libertarianism that often undergirds civil libertarianism.

Flynt has a legitimate complaint against the policy recommendations of social conservatives, given his civil libertarianism. On his view those policies are terrible. He objects to restrictions that prevent people from getting married to other people of the same sex, mutilating their fetuses to death, using chemicals (i.e. drugs) to destroy themselves and the kids in their neighborhood that they deal them to, taking advantage of desperate people in order to have sex with them (i.e. hiring prostitutes), taking advantage of desperate people in order to photgraph them nude (i.e. running a porn magazine), and so on. He wants people to be free to do those things, and he thinks he has a moral objection to stopping people from doing such things. So the views of social conservatives are, on his view, wrong.

Pejman Yousefzadeh has been posting at Right Reason about his reconciliation of Nietsche with conservatism. His latest post looks at Nietzsche and Nihilism, and he asks for others' thoughts on this issue that divides Nietzsche scholars. I haven't spent a lot of time reading Nietzche, but I did spend some time reading him recently to prepare for two hours devoted to him in a Human Nature course I just taught, and I do have some thoughts on the different ways to take him. My understanding is that there are Nietzsche scholars who take all three approaches I'm about to outline, and I have no view on which is correct. I'm not even going to find textual support for any of them. I just want to outline the three ways of taking him in response to Pejman's request for how people might take him on this issue.

Nietzsche does state in several places that there are no moral truths independent of which things people happen to call good and bad, right and wrong. This is the position that philosophers usually mean by the term 'nihilism'. Nietzsche speaks of the master morality, which involves the strong and noble arbitrarily assigning their own characteristics the category Good and slaves' characteristics the category Bad. In response, the slave morality responds by doing the reverse. In his initial discussions, it sounds as if he thinks both master and slave morality are these artificial constructions that society has arbitrarily assigned value to, with no inherent moral value in anything.

But then in other places he talks about how bad Christianity is, and certain characteristics of both master and slave morality get negative evaluations from him. He speaks of how good certain characteristics he likes are, e.g. being strong and not submitting to others' wishes, setting one's own path and defining one's life autonomously, and so on. He then speaks of a position he calls nihilism as bad and worth avoiding, and he sometimes sounds like he's condemning the position that there is no good and bad when he does that. But he does this while saying Christianity and slave morality are versions of nihilism, which makes me wonder if nihilism for him isn't not valuing anything but just not valuing what's really good as good. But if that's right, then there is something good in itself.

The question, then, is how to fit these two together. I'm not going to put it past him just to be inconsistent. He eschewed systematizing, and saying contradictory things might fulfill his desire not to allow people to put him into systematized categories. But there are two other ways to deal with this. One is to take him less seriously in his nihilist claims, and the other is to take him less seriously in his denials of nihilism.

If we take him less seriously in his nihilist claims, then he is perhaps saying that <i>moral</i> notions like right and wrong are arbitrary, and <i>some</i> claims to good and bad are also arbitrary and artificial, but there are some things that are good and bad in other, non-moral senses. Some Nietzsche scholars take him to hold that there is aesthetic value but no moral value.

If we take him less seriously in his denial of nihilism, then he really does think nothing is good or bad in itself. When he denies nihilism, he denies claims that something is bad or wrong, and he sees that as negative thinking, while really anything can be positive or good. Nothing is good in itself. We just assign such values. If this is right, then Nietzsche really is a nihilist, and his denial of things he calls nihilism is just a denial of particular views about which things are bad and wrong. If nothing is good or bad in itself, then anything can be treated as good if we want to, and there's nothing inappropriate about that.

According to this story, James Dobson is on the pragmatist side of the pro-life camp, favoring the incrementalist approach to restricting abortion and thus earning the ire of those who think it is immoral to endorse any law or judicial decision that allows any abortion. His praise for the recent Supreme Court decision upholding the partial-birth abortion bad, and his endorsement of that ban to begin with, count as such pragmatist incrementalisms. After all, the ban only bans some abortions, and Justice Kennedy's opinion upholds the legality of abortion in most cases.

Dobson's difficulty is that he was treating what he saw as pragmatism among those who could vote for Rudy Giuliani against Hillary Clinton as thoroughly immoral, something he could never see himself doing. His reason seems to me to be parallel to the reasoning of those who are currently critizing him for being too pragmatist on these other issues. So is he consistent in taking these very different attitudes to things that some will treat both as pragmatist compromise.

I criticized Dobson's stance on the first issue, and for exactly the same reasons I want to say that he's taking the better approach on this second issue. But because I think the same reasons matter n both cases, I'm wondering if he can consistently treat the two cases as different in a way that justifies his vastly different language about each. Is there some principled reason why he could take what many would see as a pragmatist line on abortion laws and judicial decisions while calling someone immoral for taking a similar stance on which candidates to vote for? I'm not sure what such a principle might be. I can't think of any crucial difference between the two issues that helps distinguish them in the way he needs.

Mark Goodacre points to the attention Deirdre Good's new book Jesus' Family Values is getting. Her argument is basically that Jesus had no family values, on the following ground:

1. Jesus challenged some of the societal expectations people in his cultural context had about families.
2. Jesus doesn't spend a lot of time on some of the moral perspectives assumed by all first-century Jews because of the background of the Hebrew scriptures, i.e. he focuses on where the people of his time were misinterpreting or violating the spirit of the Hebrew scriptures.
3. Jesus predicts that families will divide over him, without ever saying that those who reject his followers in this way and put them to death are right to cause such division.
4. We see no sign of Jesus calling his foster father Joseph by the name he reserved for his heavenly Father.

She also says (falsely) that the word 'family' never appears in the New Testament. Now the English word never appears in the Greek, but a simple online search would have shown her that many English translations use the word regularly (see the ESV, NIV, HCSB, TNIV, NLT). Maybe she got some not quite true information about the KJV not having the word in the NT (it does have it once), but that has nothing to do with the content of the Greek NT itself but more to do with the English language at the time the KJV was translated (or rather the English language of a couple centuries earlier, which is what the KJV translators were translating the Bible into). [Update: see the comments for a more careful presentation of her view, why it's a little better than this, and why I still disagree with it.]

Now maybe the bulk of her argumentation is good, and maybe her conclusions aren't as radical as this presentation makes it look, but the impression of what I'm getting is that she's trying to send a message that pretty much everything those who speak of "family values" consider to fall under that would have been foreign to Jesus, and he'd in fact take the opposite views on many of those issues. The implicature is that those who say they derive their moral and political views from the Bible on these issues are in fact making them up whole cloth.

As I said in the comments on Mark's post, this is a very strange argument. For one thing, Jesus did speak about family values. He lambasted the Pharisees for taking the money they should have been using to care for their parents and dedicating it to God with a vow so they could use it now and not have to support their parents. He gives his mother to John to take care of her. He treats the love of the father for the prodigal son as an image of perfect, divine love, which affirms such love for wayward children.



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