Sunday, Oct 03, 2010: “Questions of Value: Session 3”

St. Mark’s Adult Education Meeting Summary
“Questions of Value, Session 3”
An In-Depth Discussion Led by Wayne Harper
Sunday, October 3, 2010


* NOTE:  The materials offered were borrowed and adapted for our use from two primary sources: ‘Questions of Value’ taught by Patrick Grim and ‘The Quest for Meaning: Value, Ethics, and the Modern Experience’ taught by Robert Kane. Both are courses produced by The Teaching Company.


                                                      Questions of Value*

Right and Wrong

What kind of knowledge is ethical knowledge? How do we know right from wrong? The working assumption is that we do know things about ethics: that people have rights, for example, and that it is wrong to violate those rights. We know that we have obligations to family, friends and humanity at large.

Skeptics, on the other hand, deny the possibility of ethical knowledge. Skepticism generally relies on raising the possibility that one might be wrong, followed by ‘So you don’t really know, do you?’ The skeptic maintains that if there is any possibility of being wrong about something, we cannot claim to know it. None of our knowledge is infallible in that sense. But what the skeptic fails to concede is this; what knowledge demands is simply that we have hit on the truth – perhaps not the whole truth – and have reasons to think so.

If we do have ethical knowledge, what’s its nature and origins? 

· Some argue rights and wrongs are self-evident as in ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident…’ from our Declaration of Independence. Intuitive, for example.
· Perhaps ethical knowledge is somehow analogous to empirical knowledge; i.e., gleaned from observation and experience over a long span of time. Consider the book of Proverbs.
· We know right from wrong by consulting our conscience. The problem with conscience is in believing it offers and infallible guide. One’s conscience may simply reflect one’s acculturation.
· Perhaps ethical knowledge is like mathematical knowledge in that it involves a special kind of perception into a special kind of realm. Does this imply math professors are pillars of virtue? Seriously, I’m unsure just what this means. The notion of an ethical, axiomatic algorithm comes to mind. Derived, for example.

Question: Trace the origins of your personal understanding of right and wrong. Were you taught right from wrong, or did you learn ‘the hard way’?

Ethical knowledge is a matter of evaluation. We work toward ethical knowledge by evaluating our forms of evaluation themselves. We test our modes of evaluation in terms of consistency. We also test our modes of evaluation on the basis of moral experience. We employ empathy; putting ourselves in another’s position. We judge specific cases on general principles but also judge general principles in terms of specific cases.

Question: What method(s) do you use to distinguish right from wrong?

Good vs. Right

Ethical evaluation is more complicated than simple judgments of right and wrong. We evaluate certain consequences as good and, thus, evaluate actions as good in their outcome. But we also evaluate actions as being right in terms of their motivations, and evaluate agents as acting rightly. Thus there are, among others, two pure theories of the foundations of ethics: theories of the Good and theories of the Right.

The structure of good-based theories is simple. There are things of positive value in the world. Actions that produce them are good actions. Actions motivated to produce them are ethically right. One must account for complexity. For example, there are cases in which people do the right things for the wrong reasons. There are cases in which people do the wrong thing despite pure motives. Good-based theories have a long history but appear in modern guise as Utilitarianism. Utilitarianism can be summed up as followed: That action is right which produces the greatest good for the greatest number.

The structure of right-based theories is more complicated. Here the foundation is not good results but right actions; the core concept is motive. The purest development of a right-based theory can be found in Immanuel Kant’s Categorical Imperative. Kant’s Categorical Imperative is intended as a litmus test for moral action. In considering an action, we are to ask ourselves whether we can ‘will that the maxim of our action become a universal law’, applying everywhere to everyone. If we can, the act is permissible; if not, it is morally wrong. Confused? It’s understandable. However, one example Kant gives may help some. Ask yourself this: May I make a promise with the intention not to keep it? Kant says no. For if you universalize the action of promise breaking, the institution of promising would no longer make sense, and thus the action is wrong. Kant provides other examples such as lying and suicide.

Question: Both theories are flawed. Do you see how? 

Good-based theories are often blind to issues of justice. Might an innocent person be involuntarily sacrificed for the greatest good for the greatest number? Would utilitarianism justify social arrangements where say 90% were happy and prosperous at the expense of a 10% oppressed minority? Would it be OK to break a promise simply because some slightly greater good could be produced for someone else (me, perhaps) by breaking it? In addition, self-sacrifice runs counter to pleasure-seeking utility. 

Some cases seem to pass Kant’s test but are morally wrong. For Kant, lying is always wrong. But what about lying in order to save an innocent life? Would you lie to the Nazis in an attempt to spare Anne Frank’s life? What if you simply remained silent?

Question: Both theories of the Good and Right are flawed an inadequate. But are they compatible? Complementary?

For Kant, the core of ethics is the good will. The value of the good will is independent of its consequences. The core of morality, then, is immune to luck. Or is it?
Moral Luck

The concepts of chance or luck and morality do not seem to go together; it seems that morality cannot be a mere matter of luck. But consider an example where we assign greater blame in one case than another, but the difference between them is a mere matter of luck.

Our legal system treats the crime of murder much more stringently then the crime of attempted murder. Two people may have precisely the same motives and intentions: to kill an innocent human being. One succeeds, is found guilty of murder, and receive the death penalty. The other fails because the gun jams or he slips on a banana peel and fires into the air, is found guilty of only attempted murder, and receives a five-year prison sentence.

Question: Can that be just? 

The law is a cumbersome and costly institution. It may, therefore, make sense to handle murder and attempted murder in different ways. Error is all too easy in our effort to distinguish murder attempts that fail because of wavering intent from those that fail due to mere happenstance.

The concept of moral luck crops up in our daily lives; in the ethical evaluations of our own actions. Maybe this has happened to you. Consider the case of a parent who leaves their infant child in the bath in order to answer the phone. Perhaps the parent is expecting an urgent call. Now the parent is clearly negligent in leaving the baby alone in the tub with the water running. The parent realizes this as he or she bounds up the stairs toward the bathroom. If the baby has drowned, the parent has done something horrible, whereas if the baby is content and well, the parent has merely been careless.

Here’s another example. Suppose you’ve put off installing new brakes on your car. You know you need new brakes; your brake pedal is soft, and it’s been years since your last brake job. It’s on your list of things to do – although not yet at the top. You’re driving along minding your own business when suddenly, 20 feet ahead, a small child darts out from behind a parked car right into the path of your car. You slam on your brakes! 

Question: Now, you have no control over whether or not a child will run into your path. So, if you run over this child, who’s to blame? Same scenario except you just had new brakes installed on your car that very day. Again, who’s to blame? 

Question: Are there cases for which you blame yourself that have turned on issues of moral luck? Are there cases that you would have blamed yourself if they had turned out badly?