1. Ethics: Compare utilitarianism and Kantian ethics on the problem of famine. Based on our Aristotelian and virtue theory readings, how would a virtue theorist approach the problem of famine?
Utilitarianism and Kantian ethics both take very different approaches to the problem of famine, as well as to the problems of suffering and general unhappiness. Philosophers Bentham, Mill and Singer accept utilitarianism as a rational response to the wide variety of suffering that occurs, and suggest different ways in which to handle the suffering so that the greatest happiness or possible outcome is reached. Bentham claims we are governed by pain and pleasure. His utilitarian justification of right action is based on the principle of greatest shared pleasure—in other words, whatever action precipitates the greatest pleasure for the greatest amount of individuals is considered ‘best.’ Mill takes this idea a step further by distinguishing basic happiness from happiness of a higher faculty. Some pleasures are greater than others, arguably those that benefit the individual or group with a greater quality satisfaction than simple or “dumb” happiness. He acknowledges the variation of things included in measuring pain and pleasure, and that there may be a spectrum of perception regarding the concepts of ‘pain’ and ‘pleasure’ (Perry, Bratman, and Fischer 461). However, the Greatest Happiness Principle does its best to accommodate this possible spectrum of perception, and states, “the ultimate end…is an existence exempt as far as possible from pain, and as rich as possible in enjoyments, both in point of quantity and quality… This being…the end of human action is necessarily also the standard of morality.” It is precisely this standard with which so many philosophers take issue when it comes to debating Kantian ethics and Utilitarianism. Mill defines this standard as the basis for the “rules and precepts for human conduct, by the observance of which an existence such as has been described might be, to the greatest extent possible, secured to all mankind; and not to them only, but…to the whole sentient creation,” (Perry, Bratman, and Fischer 464). This might sound lofty, but Mill does his best to define utilitarianism as a means to a good end than which none greater can be experienced. By his definition and this moral standard that he describes, a utilitarian agent considers every aspect of “sentient creation” before determining what action to take. Velleman and O’neill criticize this all-encompassing theory. Velleman claims that such an approach to suffering is too broad to escape the shadowy gray area of human subjectivity. He argues that any reason for action must be valid not only from an individual perspective, but also all other perspectives. Otherwise, it cannot be for the ‘greater good.’ Velleman suggests these valid reasons are rooted in common moral knowledge, or a slightly more objective realm of reason for taking action. O’neill does a better job of contrasting utilitarianism from Kantian ethics, and sheds some light on the topic of beneficence. She seems to agree that a utilitarian approach to famine (or suffering) is too much responsibility for an individual. Kantian ethics would suggest people take on a responsibility to themselves as individuals without using others as means to their own ends. O’neill enhances this idea by introducing beneficence—justice and then some—in hopes that people would foster the well-being and happiness of others by taking on some of the others’ means as their own. The difference between a Kantian approach and a utilitarian one is the amount of responsibility individuals are willing to assume. According to O’neill, Kantian ethics seems more feasible. Even if its scope is more limited, it allows individuals to focus on intention and good will. Do no injustice, and benefit those around you with your will and actions. In my opinion, if we all followed Kantian ethics, the end would be perceivably utilitarian in scope; but this is not the case. Enter SINGER. His argument for utilitarianism is one that is difficult to refute: that as long as an individual or group has the capacity to prevent suffering without suffering equally or sacrificing anything of comparable moral importance, one should do everything to the point of marginal utility to prevent it. Singer’s argument, for me, silences all others in support of a Kantian approach. Although it is staunchly utilitarian, it dissolves the large-scale responsibility into one that is instead intensely personal; he dispels any doubt or criticism in regards to the subjectivity of a utilitarian response, as well. He admits he is not morally neutral, but it doesn’t matter. He takes a utilitarian approach because he acknowledges the subjectivity inherent in discussions of ‘just’ or ‘right action,’ in addition to the fact that not every human being practices Kantian ethics. Singer’s is an objective response to the simple fact that individuals cannot always count on each other to ‘do the right thing.’ Instead of bickering about it and getting bogged down in the definition of duty, charity, obligation, or responsibility, Singer says all of us should be doing everything we can to prevent the experience of suffering—it’s as simple and personal a responsibility as that. Perhaps many individuals see themselves as separate from each other, and from suffering; if this is the case, then Kantian ethics are for you. But Singer puts forth the idea of a global village, in which we are all a part of the greater whole, not one of us any different or less deserving than another. Therefore, his argument is one illustrating utilitarian responsibility on the part of an individual for the sake of all other individuals—“all for one, one for all.”
Having thoroughly examined Kantian and Utilitarian responses to famine and suffering, I would like to address how a practitioner of virtue ethics might respond to this problem. Hursthouse provides some insight into how virtue ethics might better accommodate the subjectivity that Kantian ethicists and opponents of utilitarianism are concerned with. Virtue ethics is agent-centered instead of act-centered, so we can do away with some of the ‘what-to-do’ and ‘how-to-do-it’ concerns. Virtue ethics does provide action guidance, but more in relation to living well (Perry, Bratman, and Fischer 562). The concept of living well is open to the same subjectivity, but is no longer the kind that cripples the ideology behind the argument. Hursthouse argues that while virtue can be subjective, a virtuous agent would be willing to acknowledge the subjectivity and act according to his or her own willingness to assume a state of being and thinking that honors ‘what is right,’ useful and agreeable to both parties involved. Hursthouse suggests we may have to accept that all we can know is ‘what is right’ according to our own experiences and ourselves. Does this moral relativism and spectrum of subjectivity mean that virtue ethics doesn’t do any better than utilitarianism or Kantian ethics? I don’t think so: virtue ethics is a way of thought and action that allows us as individuals to assess how to best align with others and ourselves while responding to a situation like famine or suffering. Kantian ethics takes a slightly removed, less involved, ‘far away’ kind of approach to suffering. Utilitarianism assumes a larger portion of the responsibility for a larger number of people—like Kantian ethics on a grand scale, with the awareness that not everyone practices Kantian ethics. Virtue ethics is a nice blend of assuming Kantian-style (or more personal) responsibility while acknowledging the need for a sometimes-utilitarian (or big-picture) approach. A Kantian ethicist would probably have good intentions and hopes for those suffering, but help mostly those around him for as long as he felt comfortable; the utilitarian would reduce herself to the equal of those in suffering to prevent the most suffering possible without suffering worse circumstances herself; all the while, the virtue theorist would probably be the one coordinating the efforts of the other two to make sure that the best possible outcome was reached with respect to each party involved. I like to think of them in relation to how separate they feel from one another: the Kantian ethicist would say, “I am separate from their suffering, but wish them well and will do what I can comfortably, because it is also the duty of others to offer support.” The utilitarian would say, “I am not separate from them or their suffering, so I will do everything in my power to help them as long as I do not therefore harm myself.” The virtue theorist would say something like, “I am lucky to be in a position that is not suffering, but I recognize that it is important to help those suffering if I can; because of who I am and how I want to be as a person, I will do what I feel is right and just to alleviate the suffering of my fellow human beings, and therefore myself.”
2. Challenges to Morality: Both Mackie and Harman seem to cast doubt on the claim that morality is a body of objective knowledge or that it is about objective reality. What are some of those arguments (one from each philosopher)? How does Sturgeon counter Harman’s argument? Plato also seems to side with the objectivist view. Why? Or, if you disagree, explain.
Mackie argues that there are no such objective values as would constitute a basis for morality or a moral code; therefore there is no such thing as objective morality. An individual’s values are subject to his or her moral perceptions and individual experience. Outside of this individual experience, no freestanding moral guidelines or standards exist. Instead, morality is relative to social and cultural traditions, our perceptions of which are perpetually changing to accommodate evolving sociocultural trends. He defines this phenomenon in his argument from relativity, and continues to explain why even “very generic principles which are recognized at least implicitly to some extent in all society” do not provide sufficient basis for universal moral agreement or even common ground (Perry, Bratman, and Fischer 714-715). Harman makes some similar arguments in regards to observation and its moral implication for the observer. First of all, there is no such thing as ‘pure observation.’ What we observe is subject to our own mental filter and capacity to interpret observation stimuli into patterns of understanding; we make judgments of our observations based on prior experience and contextual beliefs. If what we observe conflicts with these prior moral theories or beliefs, we either act based on theory and uphold it, or use the observation as the basis for modifying that theory to make better sense of the observation. Science works the same way! However, theories in science are not only proven by observation, but also explain the observation itself. This is not the case with morality, and Harman is keen to delineate this. He asserts that moral principles cannot be tested by observation because the observation provides no direct evidence of a moral principle. Because the moral principle cannot explain the observation itself, he concludes morals are unnecessary to explain a response to an observation. In other words, there is no evidence for a moral code outside of any observation stimuli. This echoes Mackie’s argument that there is no objective morality. Did someone say ‘subjectivity?’ That’s right—according to Harman, our observations and our moral responses to them are based purely upon our prior experience and individual construction of our own moral reality. Right or wrong has no bearing on why people act and how others observe; there is absolutely no purely moral assumption. Sturgeon counters Harman’s argument by upholding the value of making assumptions about observations. He explains that observations have no intrinsic value; without making some assumption or educated guess in regards to what is being observed, the observation is meaningless. There would be no conscious thought about the observation, and nothing to learn from it or understand. Earlier, Harman explained that moral responses to observations stem from individual psychology and social circumstance. Sturgeon calls this moral nihilism, and pushes us to be morally realistic and ethically natural without clinging to a reductive definition for ethical terms. It seems like Sturgeon is a little bit fed up with the subjectivity. He seems to be at peace with not trying to reach a simplistic view or definition of morality, and doing his best to be sociologically and morally mindful. He says as long as we are willing to “hold the right sorts of other moral assumptions fixed in answering counterfactual questions,” we should regard moral facts as “relevant to the explanation of non-moral facts, and in particular of our having the moral beliefs we do,” (Perry, Bratman, and Fischer 735). He compares morality to quantum physics in this way, citing the fixed theoretical assumptions physicists make in order to better explain microphysical observations. He concludes by acknowledging Harman’s illustration of moral skepticism, but that the only real evidence for it is the “difficulty of settling disputed moral questions,” (Perry, Bratman, and Fischer 736).
I don’t think it’s necessary to side with moral objectivity. Clearly, we have seen how morality and moral observations are subject to individual experience and moral background. That being said, the next-best thing to objectivity would be to at least acknowledge the subjectivity of morality, like Sturgeon does. If one were able to ponder the other possible moral perspectives in response to an observation, he or she would perhaps approximate objectivity from a moral standpoint. Even though he or she would not be separate or detached from his or her own moral opinion and subjective experience, as Harman and Mackie suggest, the response to the observation would take into larger consideration the vast array of possible moral reactions. It isn’t perfect moral objectivity or omniscience, but it is an attempt at such a thing. That is worth siding with, and I do.
3. Existential Issues: What are some bad arguments for the absurdity of life (according to Nagel)? What is a good argument (for Nagel)? Camus seems to argue that life is absurd. Is his argument a good one (according to what Nagel would say)?
Nagel enumerates several bad arguments for the absurdity of life. The first is the argument that nothing we do will matter one million years from now. Nagel poses the question, “how do we know what we do will matter at all?” He also refers to the brevity of our lives compared to the infinity of the universe. In the grand scheme of things, it would seem that our lives are too short to have any measurable impact. Nagel argues that our lives would be just as absurd no matter the length of time we were subject to life. Lastly, it is argued that our lives are absurd because no matter what we do, all lives come to an end, therefore rendering the lives themselves and their purposes utterly meaningless. Nagel casually explains that all justification ends in life, and whether or not the process can be justified has no bearing on its end. “No further justification is needed to make it reasonable to take aspirin for a headache,” (Perry, Bratman, and Fischer 756). Even though these arguments are not sound illustrations of the nature of the absurdity of life, Nagel thinks they hint at its essence. In an attempt to clarify the arguments, Nagel defines the absurdity of life as a “conspicuous discrepancy between pretension or aspiration and reality,” (Perry, Bratman, and Fischer 756). However, this discrepancy is not present in our world or universe; rather it is connected to our consciousness and our own self-awareness. This “collision between the seriousness with which we take our lives and the perpetual possibility of regarding everything about which we are serious as arbitrary, or open to doubt,” is a collision that takes place within ourselves (Perry, Bratman, and Fischer 757-758). This is precisely the absurdity that Nagel is attempting to better clarify. Even though we build and experience our lives, we sense a detachment from them—Nagel describes this point of view as one “from which the seriousness appears gratuitous,” (Perry, Bratman, and Fischer 757). When we reflect on our lives, we seem to do so from a separate point of view. We don’t worry as much about the meaning of our lives while actively living them, but when we stop to ponder, we’re left with the overwhelming thought “Why? What does it mean? For what?” It is in this way that Nagel agrees that our lives are absurd. Camus’ argument is not a good one, either, according to Nagel. Camus argued that the absurdity of life stems from the world’s (or the universe’s) failure to meet human demands for meaning; but Nagel says this is not the case (Perry, Bratman, and Fischer 758). Camus’ argument seems to suppose that if the world were different, our struggle for meaning might be less. Nagel corrects Camus’ argument by saying the absurdity derives from the clash between expectation and experience, not expectation and the universe’s manifestation of our world; he makes this distinction because the clash or struggle is internal, not external. Our lives are most certainly absurd, but only so because of the disparity we create between the inherent and perceived meaning in our lives and the universe. If I may add my own philosophical opinion, I would say that Nagel articulates the nature of this struggle quite well. Our lives have no apparent meaning; instead we create it for ourselves and share it with others. Perhaps the life we expect is so different from the one we experience because our expectation is based on the idea that there is some greater purpose than the one we choose for our time in this realm of experience. I will echo what Nagel said about the need for justification: there is no justification needed (for a single action or an entire life) beyond wanting to experience something for the sake of having experienced it. This life in which we are suspended is one of choice, experience and sharing; beyond that, our lives are whatever we choose for them to be, and for ourselves to experience. In the comforting words of Pink Floyd, “all you touch and all you see is all your life will ever be.”
4. Let’s go back to Russell’s characterization of philosophy as a discipline that cannot escape the uncertainty of its conclusions, and yet this very feature is what gives philosophy its value. Can you make a case for that view based on what we have learned since midterm? Let’s have it, or if not, explain why. Don't speak in generalities here. We want to know specifically what in our readings since midterm has stimulated in the way that Russell says philosophy can stimulate a student of the subject. Say what specific readings have had an effect on you, what kind of effect, and whether the effect has been valuable, and how.
The uncertainty of philosophy as described by Russell is absolutely the core reason philosophy has value and will always have value. Philosophy is not studied or written for the sake of arriving at concrete, calculated conclusions, nor is it useful for determining exactly how to live or what to believe. What then is it good for? Evolution of thought, consciousness and understanding. Philosophy is a discipline predicated on the incapacity of human intellect to answer all of life’s pressing questions. Science does its best, but is limited to what we can physically prove and measure by observation. Philosophy concerns itself with the abstract, the infinite. It is the necessary platform for discussing and pondering our own curiosities, while attempting to make sense of the nature of our experience. We are both participants and spectators in our lives; it’s as though we are watching ourselves on television, but don’t understand the point of the program, how long it will last, why the program exists in the first place, and how it is that we are able to be a part of the show while we watch. Our consciousness and our experience of it are most curious indeed. Philosophy is the science dedicated to better understanding these phenomena, or at least trying. Even though philosophy is not always exact, it is a thorough attempt at ‘thinking in the right direction.’ There are several readings that have had a profound impact on my philosophical experience, the first of which was Singer’s discussion of utilitarianism and duty to charity. I cannot tell you how long I had waited to read something exactly like this. In my own philosophical dabbling over the last several years, I wrote several times about the willingness of society to ignore and separate ourselves from suffering. Singer says as long as we have the capacity to end suffering, that’s exactly what we should do. I don’t see how anyone could possibly disagree. I find myself under the impression that none of us are separate from each other, nor from any other part of the universe. To quote Singer, the least we could do is facilitate the “prevention of the starvation of millions outside our society,” which must be “at least as pressing as the upholding of property norms within our society.” If we all took on a utilitarian role, the amount of sacrifice required of each human being would be minimal—even if the role we took on were one based on Kantian ethics! Singer states plainly that this way of life we take for granted has to change… He concludes that charity is synonymous with duty; the distinction people make between moral duty and charity “cannot be supported.” Even if we adopted this approach to ending suffering in a moderate form, the world would change drastically. Singer talked about a life of theory and practice intertwined… We are proud of our theories, but there is a lot more we could be doing. Those with the greatest capacity have the greatest responsibility; but none of us is without responsibility, whether it be to others or ourselves. For me, this utilitarian response to suffering is the most virtuous. Singer is willing to accept the responsibility to ease the suffering of others if he has the capacity to do so. The Kantian approach (in addition to the lazy, ignorant approach) seems to work if you can distance yourself from the problem. If you think you are different from those suffering, and that it is not your duty to alleviate it, then you don’t have to. This is a theory based on privilege and the ability to ignore something so grievous as the suffering of another people. I liked Singer’s thoughts because he directly challenges us to see how off base this is. No one can claim ignorance; people simply refuse to change. After reading Singer, I felt established in the way I give back and choose to spend my time and money. I would argue that I am certainly utilitarian in terms of philosophy and theory, but am still learning (and trying!) to affect the change I wish to be a part of in the world. Even if there is some uncertainty surrounding the subjectivity of utilitarianism, Singer is at least ‘thinking in the right direction,’ and I hope the rest of the world starts to catch on.
The other topic shrouded in uncertainty is the nature of death, which Nagel discusses. This is more the type of philosophical uncertainty that I prefer: not dealing with how to act or live, but the abstract phenomena present in our lives that humanity has spent thousands of years trying to understand. Nagel wonders in his writing if death is a moral evil. Is it bad to die? For years, I would have thought, “Yes!” because death is something we know very little about. We fear what we do not understand, so it’s easy to conclude that death is ‘bad’ or ‘evil.’ Recently, I find that I am fascinated by death, near death experience and what happens to one’s consciousness when the physical body is no longer able to support the life force that once animated it. Nagel describes death as undesirable because the loss of life is regrettable, not because the state of being dead is evil or negative. For the sake of his discussion, he defines death as permanent, after which there is no conscious survival. More so than the rest of his conclusions, it was this assumption that most intrigued me. He said that if death were just a temporary suspension of conscious experience, which resumed later, we wouldn’t really mind. It wouldn’t be much different from going to sleep and then waking up not knowing how long you’ve been ‘out.’ I can see why he would define death as permanent for his discussion, but it is interesting that he mentions this concept. For me, it is conceivable that death is a transition into another state of consciousness separate from physicality in which we ‘remember’ or revert to the ‘form’ of our true nature or essence (whatever that is). For Nagel to present death as permanent, yet neither fortunate nor unfortunate was particularly interesting. One would not experience death—he or she would be alive, and then his or her life would cease. Beyond that, it is difficult to infer what would happen to his or her consciousness or will because it ceases to have function and meaning in our realm of physical experience. Death is probably the most notorious of the vast array of uncertainties in our experience because it is the furthest thing from what we spend our time doing—living our lives. Nagel is willing to entertain the nature of this uncertainty, and offer a conclusion that is not typically reached in regards to death. He does not describe death as unfortunate or evil; instead he offers reasons to believe death may be positive in some cases, and at the very least not unpleasant to the individual that experiences it. I find great solace in this exploration of death because Nagel acknowledges that the nature of death may be nothing like what we anticipate. And if the absurdity of life has taught us anything, it’s that what we anticipate is rarely what we experience. The uncertainty inherent in most philosophy is for me the greatest truth. I have spent my life looking for answers, what is ‘real,’ and trying to master the science of what I can trust and expect. Philosophy provides the ‘answer’ that I have been looking for, which is that there is uncertainty surrounding all things. We live in realm of becoming, in which all substance is in a perpetual state of change. This uncertainty is the only truth, the only thing we can expect and count on. This brings me peace. Uncertainty is philosophy’s way of self-preservation and evolution, and I much prefer it to the dogmatic, dualistic tendencies of most ways of thought. Acknowledging the uncertainties in philosophy and in life is the easiest way to let go, to be at peace with the perceived ‘absurdity’ of life. I think when we admit this fact, it is ourselves that we see as absurd, and not life. We cling to knowledge that isn’t even real! I am confident in my ability to analyze, think critically, and reach my own conclusions, but I definitely won’t be taking life so seriously in the future. In this brief exploration of philosophy, I did not expect to learn as much as I did about my experience and myself; and I am learning to accept and appreciate uncertainty as the very essence of life itself.