Necessary Responses

Yesterday’s post on necessary evils drew two responses, one from Rust Belt Philosophy, one from Alex Knapp, whose post I was originally commenting on.  I plan to respond to at least one of them today but not until I do some studying for my epidemiology exam tomorrow morning, so use the morning to check out their thoughts and browse their blogs. Here’s one quote from each:

Alex Knapp:

And here’s where Ms. Libresco loses me. It appears that she thinks that there is a problem in overcoming one’s “moral instincts” that is, in itself, immoral. I have to problems with this. First — what the hell are moral instincts? While it’s true that human beings appear to have, in some preliminary experiments, a certain sense of fairness and other ethical principles that at the current time appears to be inborn, the fact that one has those feelings does not make them moral per se. After all, humans also appear to have an instinctive distrust of other humans who aren’t members of the same tribe, race, etc. By what standard does Ms. Libresco apply the label “moral” to some instincts, but not to others?

Furthermore, Ms. Libresco also describes herself as believing in virtue ethics — which runs absolutely counter to the idea of inborn moral instincts! In virtue ethics, the virtues have to be cultivated. More to the point, assuming that Ms. Libresco follows the traditional Aristotelian virtues, this seems to be a textbook case for the need to develop the virtue of Fortitude, right? The ability to do the right thing in the face of shame, public disparagement, personal feeling, etc. is central to virtue ethics. Indeed, I believe that Thomas Aquinas named it one of the four cardinal virtues.

Rust Belt Philosophy:

For Knapp, the issue is that he apparently ignores the possibility that a person might have only (very) bad choices. In his thinking, necessary evils always end up producing “a greater good” – that is, they produce a good. But this is not the only kind of necessary evil: sometimes it’s also the case that a person has to do something very wrong (that is, on consequentialism, something that produces very bad consequences) because all of the other available options will be still more wrong (that is, produce still worse consequences). This seems to have occurred to Libresco – she does reference the concept of a “least bad choice,” at least – but then she goes and conflates adverbial morality (how one acts) with, and I can’t believe that this isn’t a real word,* verbial morality (what one does). An evil, I think it makes the most sense to say, is something that we do – murder, for instance, or showing a Carrot Top stand-up special to one’s relatives. One can act evilly as well, of course, but acting evilly needn’t produce an evil: you could try to show your relatives a stand-up special of Carrot Top’s but accidentally put in the wrong DVD, say. Plus, the phrase isn’t “a necessary evilly” and so I find this response to be less than compelling. Whatever the connections between immoral actions and acting immorally, the two are at least conceptually different.

The discussion seems to be headed towards Isn’t deontology or virtue ethics really consequentialism with a particular consequence chosen as the good?  Excellent for me, since I’ve been having that argument offline a lot frequently, and I’ve noticed it bubbling up in some of the comments threads.  Looking forward to addressing it after a study break.

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  • Patrick

    Deontology isn't necessarily consequentialism with a chosen good as the end. It can just be deontology.But if it is, its incommunicable. And if part of your goal in having a moral system is to convince others of it, that makes it useless for that goal.So deontologists can't really help themselves from citing consequentialist arguments.

  • I wouldn't take the whole "your deontological or virtue ethics are just a different type of consequentialist ethics" argument very seriously. Because historically everything goes the other way around, and history is actually really important for philosophy. All ancient and medieval ethical thought was virtue ethics (though obviously this doesn't mean that their weren't different radically different approaches to ethical questions). This doesn't mean that there were no rules, as against deontology, a later development by Kant, or that consequences of actions meant absolutely nothing, as against consequentialism, a much later development by Mill/Bentham etc. So any notion of consequentialist thought being the real grand-daddy of them all is pretty ridiculous from the outset. It's pretty clear to me at least that taking actual history into account, deontological ethics and consequentialism both are bastardized portions of an older virtue ethics tradition that at some point were severed off and made into their own thing up and against older notions. Thus consequentialism was developed because some philosophers thought deontology and virtue ethics fatally flawed. So to then turn around and say that really those other systems were consequentialist all along is shooting yourself in the foot (from a consequentialist perspective).