Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Ethics thoughts on utilitarianism, contractualism, deontology, Kant and Rawls

This overview of theories of ethics by Massimo Pigliucci, followed by this particular one on contractarian versions of ethics, and this specific one on John Rawls' veil of ignorance, reminded me of a few things, some of which I've specifically articulated either here or on Massimo's blog, but others that have ben just wandering in my head.

They are, in no particular order after No. 1 —

1. John Rawls is overrated;
2. Rawls is, if not a classical utilitarian, some sort of consequentialist;
3. The veil of ignorance is really just a specialized view of the utilitarian "view from nowhere";
4. Though I'm not a system builder, ethics in my philosophical mindset depends much more on a correspondence theory of truth, contra Massimo, who allows more room for the coherence theory of truth to guide ethics. (As I posted on his blog recently, that may be part of what explains his love for virtue ethics.)

I'm going to unpack 1-3 more, with the unpacking of 2 and 3 explicating No. 1, which means I'll unpack them first.

No. 2 comes from Rawls' own famous "justice = fairness" phrase. What is that if not some sort of consequentialist? Now, he may put that in a contractarian background, but I believe that if push had ever come to shove (assuming Rawls accepted either one of the labels as applying to himself) he would have called himself a consequentialist first.

Now, some people will criticize me for this, the same who criticize the a few of my book reviews, but I came to hold that Rawls was overrated by reading about him more and before actually reading him.

The linchpin? Walter Kaufmann's "Without Guilt and Justice," which simply blows Rawls' "justice = fairness" ideas out of the water. 

Kaufmann starts with the obvious, which I will slightly rephrase to fit into terms of the current discussion.

That is that the "veil of ignorance," or the more general "view from nowhere," is an idealized abstraction which isn't even close to achievable in reality.

Oh, sure, we strive for it, and sometimes obtain it in some special issues that have at least a degree of ethical freight. An obvious example is the practice of major symphony orchestras to give tryouts to new players by having them play from behind a screen. This is designed to screen out, pun intended in some way, any female bias from the conductor, the principal chair in the section with the opening, and others involved. (And, yes, such bias was real, and huge, before the screens were raised.)

But, that's not what the likes of Rawls are getting at. He, and followers, act under the idea that we can take this veiled view out into situations outside the original setting, including settings where, Kaufmann charges, it's not only impossible to remain veiled, but where some people will demand we become unveiled.

Ergo, it's a thought experiment with little relation to reality. (Short of some Brave New World future which would entail some overseers controlling the veils.)

Or, to put it more pithily, there are always oxen being gored — and sometimes, their owners' complaints are rightfully made.

Or, even more to Kaufmann's point, there are always oxen being gored — and sometimes, some people think with good reason their owners' complaints are rightfully made, and other people think with good reason these complaints are out of bounds.

So, contra Pigliucci, no, Rawls' idea doesn't grow on me. The Platonic cave and the Theory of Ideas once did grow on me, but I was less than half the age then that I am now, and still a conservative evangelical Christian.

To me, Rawls' thought experiment only grows on people who, in terms of political philosophy, do not  put "skeptical" in front of "liberal" or "left-liberal." (Unlike yours truly.)

Now, to the degree a view from nowhere might seem to be an unveiled, but theoretically detached, utilitarianism. However, this is where consequentialism in general fails.

Human life, like space-time, has four dimensions. Humans are, of course, not temporally omniscient. Therefore, we can never say that our utilitarian judgments are correct. For all we know, maybe we should have let Hitler kill more people, if one wants to stake out a deliberately Godwin-like position.

Beyond that, utilitarianism fails in other ways. The hedonic calculus does so even without the view from nowhere falling short. On matters of taste, and hedonic benefit, it runs smack into the old Latin maxim: "De gustibus non disputandum." On this account, shouldn't the National Endowment for the Arts give more money to punk rock bands and less to symphony orchestras?

And, no, the arts aren't the same as ethics. The above question is in part rhetorical, but not entirely so.

On ethical issues, we have a certain natural compass from biology. The arts? Not so much. Let's stay within fine arts. A lot of people don't call what Picasso does "art," or what Schoenberg does "music." So, somebody else might say, no, we shouldn't give NEA money to punk rock, but, we shouldn't give it to a symphony orchestra, either, unless it pledges itself to not play any post-1900 music. 

And, not in terms of NEA money, but in terms of ticket sales, exactly that happens. Blue-haired ladies around the country refuse to plunk down money for classical concerts that have serial music on the program. A few of the largest cities in our country have orchestras that specialize in modern music, but they struggle.


As a sidebar note, this is a good example of why I identify myself as a skeptical left-liberal on this blog, and elsewhere. I'd love it if Rawls were right, but I just don't see that.

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