Myself or Others?
I f there has ever been a moment when you have found yourself engaged in discuss- ing a philosophical theory, your topic may well have been psychological egoism. Per- haps late at night, after a party, the die-hards were gathered out on the patio or in the kitchen, and somebody brought up the subject of selfi shness, claiming that all acts are selfi sh, or as a character put it in a sitcom, “There are no self-less good deeds.” (You’ll fi nd the sitcom episode at the end of this chapter.) Perhaps you wanted to argue against that view but found yourself at a loss for words because the theory seemed to be disturbingly right. All of a sudden, everything seemed selfi sh! Psycho- logical egoism is a theory that haunts us from time to time—most of us don’t want to believe that everything we do is always selfi sh. And, as you’ll see in the course of the chapter, we need not buy into the theory, because it has severe fl aws. Nevertheless, it has been a seductive and persuasive theory since the days of Socrates, and in this chapter we’ll take a closer look at what it entails. We usually assume that moral behavior, or “being ethical,” has to do with not being overly concerned with oneself. In other words, selfi shness is assumed to be an unacceptable attitude. Even among scholars, though, there is disagreement about what constitutes ethical behavior. Since very early in Western intellectual history, the viewpoint that humans aren’t built to look out for other people’s interests has surfaced regularly. Some scholars even hold that proper moral conduct consists of “looking out for number one,” period. Those viewpoints are known as psychological egoism and ethical egoism, respectively. Both psychological egoism and ethical egoism are examples of absolutist theories; they hold that only one code is the norm for ethi- cal behavior. (See Box 4.1 for an explanation of the difference between egoism and egotism. )
Psychological Egoism: What About the Heroes?
You’ll remember our discussion in Chapter 1 about good and evil. On the day of the massacre on the Virginia Tech campus—April 16, 2007—thirty-two students were killed and twenty-one wounded by Seung-Hui Cho, who then killed himself—to date, the worst mass murder in U.S. history. Apparently, Cho, a resident alien stu- dent with noticeable mental health problems, had chosen his victims at random; he had apparently had no particular grudges against or confrontations with any particu- lar person but took out his self-absorbed anger on professors and students who, in his mind, led a more satisfying life than he did, according to the videos he sent to the media in between two shooting sprees. Many more students would have died had it
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172 CHAPTER 4 MYSELF OR OTHERS?
not been for the heroic efforts of their fellow students who barricaded doors to class- rooms with desks and even with their own bodies. But perhaps the story that most of us remember is that of Liviu Librescu, a professor of aeronautical engineering. Originally from Romania, Librescu was a Holocaust survivor who had immigrated to Israel, and then to the United States, and was still teaching at age 76. When Cho tried to force his way into Librescu’s classroom, Librescu blocked the door with his body so that all the students in his class could escape out the window; the last stu- dent leaving saw Librescu shot and killed by the shooter. He gave his life to save his students, knowing full well the scope of evil that human beings can infl ict on one another—and the day of his death, April 16, was Holocaust Remembrance Day in Israel. And as many have observed, during times of great need there will often be ordinary people standing up and doing extraordinary things to help others. Some- times they live through it, sometimes they perish. During the terrorist attacks of 9/11 police offi cers and fi refi ghters died, going far beyond their professional duties to help others survive. At Ft. Hood in 2010, Army civilian police offi cers Kimberly Munley and Mark Todd managed to shoot and disable the gunman Nidal Hasan before more people were killed, and Munley herself was seriously wounded, but recovered. (What hasn’t been extensively publicized is that neither of them had their four-year contracts with the Army renewed.) And on the other side of the world (from an American perspective), in Japan in 2011 more than 300 workers at the Fukushima nuclear plant, admiringly known as the Fukushima 50, elected to stay in the damaged plant, working nonstop in shifts, sometimes standing in radioactive water, trying to prevent an even greater disaster of a meltdown of all three reactors after the earthquake and tsunami, with a near certainty of sooner or later developing health problems related to excess radiation. The news media have used the term “heroes” about such people, and most of us would agree: Risking, and in some cases giving one’s life to save others, especially when one is aware of the danger, is something we generally consider to be heroic and admirable. And that is why the theory of psychological egoism is disturbing for many of us, since it calmly dismisses the act of someone such as Librescu as an expression
The terms egoism and egotism are part of our ev- eryday speech, and people often use them inter- changeably, but do they really mean the same thing? No: Egoists are people who think in terms of their own advantage, generally by disregard- ing the interests of others. Egotists are people who have a very high self-opinion and whose
language often consists of self-praise; praise an egotist for a good result on a test or for looking nice, and you might receive responses such as “Of course I did well—I always do, because I’m very smart” or “Nice? I look great!” An egoist need not fall into this pattern, although he or she might, of course, be an egotist as well.
Box 4.1 E G O I S M O R E G O T I S M ?
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PSYCHOLOGICAL EGOISM: WHAT ABOUT THE HEROES? 173
of fundamentally selfi sh human nature. This means that even the person with the most stellar reputation for unselfi shness must be reevaluated. From Mother Teresa to Martin Luther King, Jr., from Librescu and the students at Virginia Tech, to Offi cers Todd and Munley, the Fukushima workers, and countless other brave people in- cluding local heroes that the world generally will never hear of, all of them are now reclassifi ed as selfi sh, including ourselves, of course. But what could possibly be selfi sh about acts of self-sacrifi ce? Well, says the psychological egoist, since we are all selfi sh, then the motivation might be any one of a number of things: A person who sacrifi ces himself or herself for others might have a wish to become famous, or might want to atone for something he or she had left undone in a previous situation, or might simply want to feel good about himself or herself. Or perhaps it is simply an unconscious urge. Stories about people who have risked and even lost their lives to save others, stories that seem to exemplify selfl essness, are precious to most people, because they show us what we might be capable of. We like to believe that humans have a built- in measure of courage that allows us to rise to the occasion and give up our lives, or at least our comfort, for others. Of course, few people perform heroic deeds with the intent of getting killed, but if they lose their lives in the process, we only seem to admire them more. (There are those who feel that losing one’s life for someone else
At the Ft. Hood massacre in 2010, military psychiatrist Nidal Hasan man- aged to kill thirteen people and wound thirty-two others before he was shot and disabled by Army civilian police offi cers Kimberly Munley and Mark Todd. Munley herself was seriously wounded, but she recovered.
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174 CHAPTER 4 MYSELF OR OTHERS?
is stupid, useless, or even morally wrong. Such people may feel more comfortable with the theory of ethical egoism. ) If we ask a person who has performed (and survived) a heroic deed why he or she did it, the answer is almost predictable: “I just had to do it” or, perhaps, “I didn’t think about it, I just did it.” We take such comments as a sign that we are in the presence of a person with extraordinary moral character. But there are other ways of interpreting the words and actions of heroes. The theory of psychological egoism states that whatever it may look like and whatever we may think it is, no human ac- tion is done for any reason other than for the sake of the agent. In short, we are all selfi sh, or at least we are all self-interested. The term psychological egoism is applied to the theory because it is a psycho- logical theory, a theory about how humans behave. A psychological egoist be- lieves that humans are always looking out for themselves in some way or other, and it is impossible for them to behave any other way. As such, psychological egoism is a descriptive theory; it doesn’t make any statements about whether this is a good way to behave. What does it take for a person to be labeled a psycho- logical egoist? It’s not necessary that he or she be a selfi sh person, only that he or she hold to the theory that all people look after themselves. As we see later, it is entirely possible for someone to be kind and caring and still be a psychologi- cal egoist. (See Box 4.2 for an explanation of the difference between selfi sh and self-interested. ) Suppose, though, that someone insists that all people ought to look after themselves. Then he or she is an ethical egoist. We discuss the theory of ethical egoism later in this chapter.
Psychological Egoism: From Glaucon to Hobbes
Chapter 2 featured a section of Plato’s famous book The Republic. The section quoted there is a less well-known discussion about whether going to the theater is a morally worthwhile pastime (and Socrates says it isn’t). In this chapter you’ll encounter a far more famous part of Plato’s Republic, the discussion of what makes a good person and whether all people are, or should be, selfi sh. In Chapter 8 you’ll fi nd a more complete exploration of who Socrates was and what role he played in Plato’s life, but for now we’ll focus on the issue of selfi shness. Socrates is known to us today primarily through Plato’s books, the Dialogues; Socrates never wrote anything himself, and had it not been for Plato’s wanting to keep his teacher’s name alive after Socrates’ death (at the hands of an Athenian jury, found guilty of crimes against the state, literally “corrupting the young and offending the gods”), we might never have known the name Socrates at all. In most of Plato’s books, Socrates has a conversation—a dialogue—with somebody, a friend, a stu- dent, or perhaps an enemy. In The Republic, Socrates and his young followers have been invited to a dinner party at the house of some old friends, and they are engaged in a discussion about morality, selfi shness, and the ideal state, branching off into art theory, gender theory, the nature of reality, and even life after death. In the Primary Readings section you will fi nd an excerpt of that discussion. Plato’s brother Glaucon is trying to make Socrates give some good reasons why it is better to be just than to be unjust. Glaucon insists that all people by nature look after themselves, and whenever
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PSYCHOLOGICAL EGOISM: FROM GLAUCON TO HOBBES 175
we can get away with something, we will do it, regardless of how unjust it may be to others. Unfortunately, we may receive the same treatment from others, which is highly unpleasant, so for the sake of peace and security we agree to treat one another decently—not because we want to, but because we are playing it safe. Morality is just a result of our looking out for ourselves. (See Box 4.3 for an explanation of psycho- logical egoism in terms of “ought implies can.”) What Glaucon is suggesting here about the origin of society is a fi rst in Western thought. His theory is an example of what has become known as a social contract theory, a type of theory that became particularly infl uential much later, in the eigh- teenth century. A social contract theory assumes that humans used to live in a pre social setting (without rules, regulations, or cooperation) and then, for various reasons, got together and agreed on setting up a society. Generally, social contract theories assume that humans decide to build a society with rules (1) for the sake of the common good or (2) for the sake of self-protection. Glaucon’s theory belongs
Psychological egoism is generally described as a theory which states that everyone is selfi sh at all times. But what does the word selfi sh mean? Some psychological egoists (people who believe everyone is selfi sh) sometimes emphasize that there is nothing bad or morally defi cient about being selfi sh; all it means, they say, is that we are “self-ish,” we are focused on our own survival, which doesn’t necessarily imply that we are dis- regarding other people’s interests. However, we use the word in a different sense in our every- day language. According to Webster’s dictionary, selfi sh means “devoted unduly to self; infl uenced by a view to private advantage,” so if we con- cede that Webster’s refl ects the common use of the word, we can’t deny that selfi sh is a morally disparaging term; it isn’t value-neutral, and it certainly isn’t a compliment. Sometimes psychological egoists use the term selfi sh, and sometimes the term used is self- interested. There is no consensus among psycho- logical egoists about which term to use. It makes quite a difference which term you choose, but in the end, it may not make the theory of psy- chological egoism any more plausible. If you say (1), “All acts are selfi sh,” you imply that all of us are always looking for self-gratifi cation and have
no feeling for the interests of others. However, if you say (2), “All acts are self-interested,” you imply that all of us are always thinking about what is best for us. Is statement 1 true? It may be true that we are always looking out for our- selves in some way, but it is certainly not true that we are always looking for self-gratifi cation; many a moment in a lifetime is spent agoniz- ing over doing what we want versus doing what we ought to do, and often we end up choosing duty over desire. So what if the psychological egoist says, “Doing my duty is better in the long run for me, even if I don’t feel like doing it, so I guess I’m self- interested” (statement 2)? But is statement 2 true? Many philosophers over the years have gleefully pointed out that it isn’t—we are hardly concerned with what is good for us, at least not all the time. Many people smoke, drink to excess, and take drugs even though they know it is not in their own best interest. So couldn’t psychological egoism state that “all acts are either selfi sh or self-interested”? It could, but it generally doesn’t; part of the ap- peal of psychological egoism is that it is a very simple theory, and putting a dichotomy (an either-or) into the theory makes it much more complicated.
Box 4.2 S E L F I S H V E R S U S S E L F - I N T E R E S T E D
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176 CHAPTER 4 MYSELF OR OTHERS?
to the second category because he claims (for the sake of argument) that humans primarily look after themselves. To illustrate his point, Glaucon tells the story of a man called Gyges, a shepherd in ancient Lydia. Gyges was caught in a storm and an earthquake, which left a large hole in the ground. He explored the chasm and found a hollow bronze horse with the corpse of a giant inside. The giant was wearing only a gold ring on his fi nger. Gyges took the ring and left and later, wearing the ring, attended a meeting of shepherds. During the meeting Gyges happened to twist the ring, and he realized from the reac- tion of the other shepherds that he had become invisible. Twisting the ring back, he reappeared. Realizing the advantages gained by being invisible, Gyges arranged to be one of the elected messengers who report to the king about his sheep. Gyges went to town, seduced the queen, and conspired with her to kill the king. He then took over the kingdom, sired a dynasty, and became the ancestor of King Croesus. Glaucon’s question is, Suppose we had two such rings? Let us imagine giving one to a decent person and one to a scoundrel. We know that the scoundrel will abuse the ring for personal gain, but how about the decent person? To Glaucon it is the same thing; their human natures are identical. Decent persons will do “unjust” things just as quickly as scoundrels if they know they can get away with it; furthermore, if they don’t take advantage of such situations, they are just stupid. In the end, who will be happier, the unjust person who schemes and gets away with everything or the just person who never tries to get away with anything but is so good that people think there must be something wrong with him? Why, the unjust person, of course. This little story may be the fi rst in the literary tradition to explore a theme that has remained popular to this day—and that may be one reason it seems timeless, but it could also be that the moral problem it represents hasn’t changed, either. Ara- bian Nights is full of stories about invisibility cloaks, magic rings, and owners making
Sometimes a philosophical text will state that “ought implies can.” In the civil code of the Roman Empire (27B.C.E.–395C.E.), this principle was clearly stated, and Roman citi- zens knew that impossibilium nulla est obligatio ( nobody has a duty to do what is not possi- ble). Many philosophical and legal schools of thought today are still based on that idea, and one of these is psychological egoism. “Ought implies can” means that we can’t have an ob- ligation (ought) to do something unless it is actually possible for us to do it (can). I can’t make it a moral obligation for you to go out and help disaster victims yourself if you don’t
have the time or the money to travel, but I might try to make you feel morally obligated to help by donating a buck or two. I can’t make it a moral obligation for you to take home a pet from the pound if you are allergic to animals (but I might insist that you have an obligation to help in other ways). You can’t tell me that I ought to be unselfi sh if in fact I was born self- ish and can’t be any other way because it is part of my human nature. This is the point that psychological egoism wants to make: It is irra- tional to keep wanting humans to look out for one another when, as a matter of fact, we aren’t built that way.
Box 4.3 “ O U G H T I M P L I E S C A N ”
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PSYCHOLOGICAL EGOISM: FROM GLAUCON TO HOBBES 177
creative uses of them, sometimes to gain a personal advantage and sometimes to spy on and vanquish the bad guys; in 1897 H. G. Wells wrote The Invisible Man, which has been made into a movie numerous times and inspired other movies. J. R. R. Tolkien’s trilogy The Lord of the Rings (1954–6) features an invisibility ring. Usually the moral problem stated is, If you could become invisible, what would you do? Would you still be a morally decent or even halfway decent person? Or would you use your power selfi shly if you knew you could get away with it? Harry Potter may have his magic cloak, but most of us don’t. Interestingly, in cases where people have been under the impression that they enjoy total anonymity, such as in the days of extensive illegal downloading of music from the Internet, few of those people seemed to have any qualms about breaking the law—which plays right into Glaucon’s hands. But does that mean that everyone would react the same way, with a cloak of anonymity? Let us return to Lord of the Rings for a while. Here we have an invisibility ring, like Gyges’— and yet there are important differences: Gyges fi nds a ring that gives him powers; he uses them to his own advantage and ends up becoming the ancestor of an illustrious royal family. Many people would say, Good for him! But Sauron’s ring in Tolkien’s trilogy is of a different make: The people (of all species) who are tempted by the ring are marked for life, and the purpose of the entire quest of the ring is to destroy it, rather than use it. The invisibility given by Tolkien’s ring is not one that allows much
If an invisibility ring can provide a per- fect outlet for selfi shness, will we all grab the chance, as Plato’s brother Glaucon speculates, or will we fi ght temptation? Will we even all be tempted? In The Lord of the Rings (trilogy, 2001–3), Frodo volunteers to take the Ring of power to Mount Doom and destroy it; but even Frodo, goodhearted as he is, is tempted by the Ring’s power, and within his small person a great battle is being fought.
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178 CHAPTER 4 MYSELF OR OTHERS?
anonymity, either, because the bearer is visible to Sauron’s forces and Sauron him- self. Frodo does his utmost to fi ght the temptation to use the ring and see the quest through, having seen what happens to one’s soul if one allows oneself to be absorbed by the ring’s evil: One becomes like Gollum, who used to be a hobbit-like creature, a halfl ing (see the illustration in Chapter 1). Interestingly, the person who is the least tempted to use the ring is Frodo’s friend and helper, Samwise Gamgee. With few exceptions, the invisible person in books and fi lms succumbs to temp- tation and meets a terrible end, as punishment for having a weak or evil character. So most invisible-person stories are didactic stories (see Chapter 2), designed to teach a moral lesson: If you let your selfi sh nature rule, you will surely be punished—if not by others, then by fate. But, as my students have pointed out on several occasions, there is a category of stories that serve as an exception: stories in which invisibility is used not for evil or for gain but for good. Superheroes who have invisibility powers (such as Fantastic Four and Mystery Men ) are not in the same category as the human whose soul is corrupted by being invisible—they suffer no doubt, they are not cor- rupted by power, and they are fi xated on their goal, to do good for humanity. But then again, that’s what makes them superheroes and what separates them from us. And as such, they’re simply not as interesting, morally, as the hero who has his or her moments of weakness and doubt. So what is the lesson of Glaucon’s story? Is he seriously implying that it is foolish and unnatural to be good if you can get away with being bad? No; he is acting as the devil’s advocate to make Socrates defend justice as something that is good in itself. However, Glaucon does imply that what he is de- scribing is, in fact, the opinion of most people. He may have been right; a good two thousand years later Thomas Hobbes (1588–1679) agreed with Glaucon’s theory of self-interest on all three counts: (1) Humans choose to live in a society with rules be- cause they are concerned with their own safety and for no other reason; (2) humans are by nature self-interested, and any show of concern for others hides a true concern for ourselves; (3) we would be fools if we didn’t look after ourselves. (We return to this point in the next section; you will fi nd Hobbes’s theory in the Primary Readings at the end of this chapter and his view of the selfi sh basis for pity in Box 4.4.) Surely we all can remember events in our lives that show that we don’t always act out of self-interest. You may remember the time you helped your best friend move across town. The time you sat up all night preparing your brother’s taxes. The
The English philosopher Thomas Hobbes was one of the fi rst modern materialists, claiming that all of human psychology con- sists of the attraction and repulsion of physical particles. As such, the natural human approach to life is one of self-preservation, and the natural life of humans outside the regulations of society (the state of nature) is for Hobbes a fi lthy and frightening war of everyone against everyone.
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PSYCHOLOGICAL EGOISM: FROM GLAUCON TO HOBBES 179
Hobbes believed humans feel pity for others in distress because they fear the same may hap- pen to themselves. We identify with the pain of others, and that makes us afraid for ourselves. Therefore, helping others may be a way to ward off bad events. In actual fact we have no pity for others for their sake—only for our own. (He is not the fi rst thinker to have expressed that opinion; Aristotle said approximately the same thing but without implying that we are selfi sh to the bone.) Hobbes was one of the fi rst mod- ern Western philosophers to ponder human psychology, and we might say that he put his fi nger on a sore spot. Sometimes we do sympa- thize with others because we imagine how awful it would be if the same thing were to happen to us. What exactly does Hobbes mean when he says we identify with others? It seems that we ask ourselves, If this happened to me, how would I feel? That does not necessarily lead to concern for ourselves but, rather, leads to a concern for others, precisely because we know how they feel. Furthermore, isn’t it possible to feel pity for someone or something with which you don’t identify so easily? We certainly can feel pity for someone of the other gender or someone of an- other race or culture, even if what happens to them wouldn’t happen to us. But how about feeling pity for dolphins caught in gill nets? for animals caught in traps? for pets used in lab experiments? In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in 2005, rescue parties consisting of locals as well as vol- unteers from all over the nation (including some of my students from San Diego) ventured into the contaminated areas of New Orleans to help not only stranded humans but also their pets. Some people were critical of the effort, pointing out that when resources are limited, we must help our fellow human beings fi rst and let the pets fend for themselves. But the pet rescuers responded with the following arguments: First, the humans were also being rescued; second,
it would matter greatly to most refugees who thought their pets were lost to be reunited with them, and thus the rescue effort would raise their morale and improve their well-being; and, last, whether the pets had been lost or deliberately left behind, they, too, experience fear and suf- fering, and are worthy of moral consideration. In effect, a huge effort was mounted to rescue pets whose owners didn’t come forward, and these pets were shipped around the country to rescue shelters, where many found new homes. Did the pet rescuers wish to save these pets because they didn’t want to be stranded in fi lthy fl oodwaters themselves, facing a death by drowning or star- vation, as Hobbes would say? Maybe so, but it is also likely that it was a simple case of empathy extending beyond human feelings, toward non- human creatures. When the pictures and videos of the tsunami in Japan 2011 became available, one video in particular went “viral”: a dog lead- ing rescuers to another severely injured dog. Many were gratifi ed to read in a blog message that likewise became known all over the world that a pet store owner and animal welfare activist had rescued both dogs. The story tells us that, for one thing, it seems possible that a dog would care about another dog, and for another, that we have no problem extending our empathy to both dogs. And it hardly speaks for a fundamentally selfi sh human nature, anymore than the upcoming story of Abraham Lincoln saving the piglets does. In a broad sense, perhaps we do identify with other creatures when their lives are in danger and feel that we ward off our own demise by saving their lives. In the fi nal analysis, though, that idea is rather far-fetched, because if Hobbes is right and we fear “contamination” from the misery of others, wouldn’t we rather turn our backs on them and fl ee rather than expose our- selves to their suffering? Given that we don’t, perhaps there are forces at work other than self- ishness. An easier explanation is that we simply, on occasion, care for the well-being of others.
Box 4.4 H O B B E S A N D T H E F E E L I N G O F P I T Y
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180 CHAPTER 4 MYSELF OR OTHERS?
time you donated toys to the annual Christmas toy drive. The time you washed your parents’ car. Did the dishes at Thanksgiving. Or perhaps even helped a stranger on the road or saved the life of an accident victim. Were all those good deeds really done for selfi sh reasons? The psychological egoist would say yes—you may not have been aware of your true motives, but selfi sh they were, somehow. You may have wanted to borrow your parents’ car: hence, the car wash and the dishes. You helped your friend move because you were afraid of losing her friendship. You may have felt guilty for not helping with your brother’s taxes the year before, so you did them this year. The toys? You wanted to feel good about yourself. The stranger on the road? You wanted to rack up a few points in the Big Book of Heaven. Helping the accident victim? You wanted to get your name in the paper. So what is it that has proved so appealing about psychological egoism? After all, it removes the halo from the head of every hero and every unselfi sh person in the history of humankind. In fact, that may be part of its appeal: We like to think, in this day and age, that we are honest about ourselves, and we don’t want to be tricked into thinking that we are better than we are or that anyone else is either. (1) One reason, then, for this theory’s popularity is its presumed honesty. Later in this section you’ll fi nd an example of this phenomenon in the story of Lincoln and the pigs. Closely related to the notion of honesty is (2) our modern tendency toward cyni- cism. Somehow, we have a hard time believing good things about people, including ourselves. Refusing to take things at face value may be the mature thing to do, but it may also close our minds to the possibility that not all acts are selfi sh and not ev- erybody is rotten at heart. (See Box 4.5 for a discussion of modern cynicism.) This
CALVIN AND HOBBES © 1995 Watterson. Dist. by UNIVERSAL UCLICK. Reprinted with permission. All rights reserved.
One of the reasons psychological egoism has attained such popularity is that it appeals to a modern person’s sense of honesty: In order not to fool ourselves into thinking we are better than we are, we should be honest and admit that we are selfi sh. Calvin, being a smart kid, not only uses that argument but also turns it to his advantage; in other words, he uses it as an excuse, which is one of the other reasons psychological egoism is popular. And let’s face it: It is a very cynical slice of life!
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PSYCHOLOGICAL EGOISM: FROM GLAUCON TO HOBBES 181
There is much speculation about how cynicism began. It’s not a new phenomenon. The ancient Greeks invented it: The Cynics (literally, the “doglike ones”), headed by Diogenes, did their best to undermine convention in order to break its hold on people’s minds—one of the original “Question authority” movements. In later years, cynicism has questioned authority to the point that misanthropy—automatically believing the worst about everybody—has become a form of authority in itself. Modern cynicism has a precursor—or even a founder—in French philosopher and au- thor Voltaire (1694–1778), whose sharp re- marks about his contemporary France before the Revolution set the tone for the intellectual who rails against double standards and big- otry, trusts no one, including his or her gov- ernment, and has a never-ending skepticism as far as human nature is concerned. Satire was one of the political weapons of choice in the Age of Reason. But in the last part of the nine- teenth century, the Western world experienced a surge of optimism because many believed we were very close to solving all technological, scientifi c, and medical riddles. It was even as- sumed that we were too civilized to ever go to war again. You may remember from the sec- tion in Chapter 2 on war movies that enthu- siasm for war by and large ended with World War I. Often our modern cynicism is regarded as having been born in the trenches of World War I, but there is an interesting precursor: the sinking of the Titanic in 1912. The 1997 award- sweeping fi lm Titanic reminded us not only of the human tragedies involved but also of the hubris, the cocky assurance that human tech- nology could conquer all obstacles. A ship so well built that it was unsinkable! As we know, it wasn’t, and the optimistic belief that now humans were the masters of the universe went
to the bottom of the ocean with the great ship. It may not have been the very fi rst blow to human self- assurance in the twentieth century, but it became the fi rst serious crack in the hull of modern belief in technology. Cynicism became a way of life in the twen- tieth century, fueled by the two world wars, the Great Depression, and the revelation of the horrors of the Holocaust. Children who lived through the tragedies and disappointments of the 1960s and 1970s, as well as their chil- dren, were all affected by the assassinations of John F. Kennedy, Robert Kennedy, and Martin Luther King, Jr., by the Korean and Vietnam wars, by fuel shortages, and by the Watergate and Iran-Contra scandals. And then there are the revelations from past decades such as the now infamous Tuskegee syphilis study, in which close to four hundred African Ameri- can men from 1932 to 1972 unwittingly were reduced to the status of lab rats for govern- ment medical experiments. In 2010 it became known that American doctors also conducted syphilis experiments on citizens in Guatemala 1945–1948, for which the Obama admin- istration apologized. Other examples of the use of citizens for some larger purpose with- out their consent include the nuclear tests of the 1950s, which often involved soldiers and civilians who were given the impression that their lives were not in danger. Inuit people in Alaska were given radioactive medication as part of an experiment. In 1996, the Los Angeles Times revealed that in the 1950s the U.S. Army had sprayed chemicals and bacteria over large populations in New York and Washington and even over a school in Minneapolis. Years after the Vietnam War, it became apparent that soldiers had been exposed to a toxic ex- foliant, Agent Orange. Gulf War Syndrome is still an unsolved riddle, attributed by some to
Box 4.5 M O D E R N C Y N I C I S M
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182 CHAPTER 4 MYSELF OR OTHERS?
chemical weapons in the area that the soldiers had not been warned about. So perhaps it is understandable that conspiracy rumors appear on a regular basis in response to important news stories; we just have to remind ourselves that although conspiracies do exist, there is a fi ne line between being a skeptical cynic and a paranoid cynic. Such revelations by the media are particu- larly good at refl ecting, and often creating, cyni- cism, but sometimes the scandal erupts within the media world itself: In 2011 the British tab- loid News of the World closed down within a day because of reports of unethical journalistic be- havior. The paper had increasingly been follow- ing a pattern of chasing down, through hacking, wiretapping, and bribery, news items about celebrities that increased the readers’ feelings of cynicism toward these famous people (we take a closer look at the scandal in Chapter 13
under “Media Ethics”). In the end the behavior backfi red, and the sense of cynicism was now directed toward the paper. Also feeding our sense of cynicism are periodically surfacing scandals surrounding politicians caught in sex scandals and/or fi nancial irregularities, and the still developing story—global, at this point—of Catholic priests in past decades having molested children and then being reassigned to new areas by the Church as a cover-up. So is cynicism an appropriate reaction to events and people that disappoint us? Appro- priate or not, it is a sign of our times. But per- haps cynicism isn’t altogether a bad thing—as it is sometimes said, a cynic is a disappointed idealist. You have a vision of how things ought to be, but you also have a considerable amount of skepticism. So somewhere between hope and skepticism you may be able to deal with the real world.
possibility doesn’t mean we shouldn’t view the world with a healthy dose of skepti- cism and suspicion. Often, we really are taken advantage of, people are truly selfi sh and devious, and things aren’t what they seem. But there is a difference between that kind of prudent skepticism and a universal cynicism that borders on paranoia. Such radical cynicism doesn’t allow for the possibility of the existence of goodness and kindness. One more reason that psychological egoism is so popular has to do with (3) mak- ing excuses. When psychological egoists say, “I can’t help myself—it’s my nature,” they’re saying they don’t have to worry about remembering Aunt Molly’s birthday or calling in on the cellphone to the radio station about the mattress they saw blocking the number-two lane on the freeway because humans are selfi sh by nature, and we are not capable of worrying about others—unless, of course, there is something in it for ourselves. But that is nothing but a bad excuse. Psychological egoists who take their own theory seriously never say we can’t help being selfi sh to the bone—they just say there is some hidden selfi sh motive for whatever we do that we may not even be aware of. Box 4.6 explores the question of whether we, according to the psycho- logical egoist, have freedom of the will to make choices, or whether our actions are determined by nature or nurture.
Box 4.5 M O D E R N C Y N I C I S M (continued)
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THREE MAJOR PROBLEMS WITH PSYCHOLOGICAL EGOISM 183
It is time to take one step backward and reas- sess one of the claims of psychological egoism: that we can’t help what we’re doing. When psychological egoists claim that we can’t help being selfi sh because it is in our human nature, they are of course also saying that we shouldn’t be blamed for the selfi sh things we do (or be praised for the seemingly unselfi sh deeds ei- ther). That lines psychological egoism up with a famous—some would say, infamous—theory in philosophy: hard determinism. A hard deter- minist believes that since everything is an effect of a previous cause, then we should, in prin- ciple if not in reality, be able to predict events with complete accuracy—not only in nature but even in human lives and human decisions. That means that according to hard determinism, we have no free will because everything we de- cide is a result of either our genetic heritage (“Nature”) or our experience and environment (“Nurture”). In other words, it may feel as if we make free choices, but we really don’t; ev- erything is part of the great chain of cause and effect, even our thought processes and moral decisions. That means that when people de- cide to break a moral rule or even the law, they can’t help it and shouldn’t be blamed, accord- ing to hard determinism. This line of thinking has spawned numerous discussions in ethics as well as in philosophy of law—because (1) we
normally assume that people can be held mor- ally accountable for what they do intention- ally, and (2) our entire judicial system rests on the assumption that, in most cases, people should be held accountable if they break the law on purpose. Nevertheless, there are in- dividual cases where people truly can’t help doing what they’re doing, morally and legally. You may want to think of a few such cases and discuss them. In the sense that psychological egoism traces all human behavior back to self-preservation or self-love as the fundamental cause of all our de- cisions (such as Hobbes does)—in holding that we can’t act otherwise and that we shouldn’t be held accountable for being selfi sh—it can be called a deterministic theory. However, psy- chological egoism generally assumes that we can choose between several possible courses of action—but all are selfi sh actions nonetheless. And most psychological egoists would claim that we can be held accountable for choosing wrongly—because it would be in our selfi sh in- terest to avoid getting in trouble with the law, just as much as it might be selfi shly gratifying to break it. This would speak against classify- ing psychological egoism as a hard determinist theory. In Chapter 10 we explore further the concept of having a free will in the philosophy of Jean-Paul Sartre
Box 4.6 P S Y C H O L O G I C A L E G O I S M A N D T H E C O N C E P T O F F R E E W I L L
Three Major Problems With Psychological Egoism
There is something beguiling about psychological egoism; once you begin to look at the world through the eyes of a psychological egoist, it is hard to see it any other way. In fact, no matter how hard we try to come up with an example that seems to run counter to the theory, the psychological egoist has a ready answer. This is due to several factors.
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184 CHAPTER 4 MYSELF OR OTHERS?
1. Falsifi cation Is Not Possible
Psychological egoism always looks for selfi sh motives and refuses to recognize any other kind. For any nonselfi sh motivation you can think of for doing what you did, the theory will tell you that there was another ulterior motive behind it. It is incon- ceivable, according to the theory, that other motives might exist. This is in fact a fl aw in the theory. A good theory is not one that can’t be proven wrong but one that allows for the possibility of counterexamples. The inability of a theory to allow for cases in which it doesn’t apply is consid- ered bad science and bad thinking. The principle of falsifi cation was advanced by the philosopher Karl Popper (1902–1994) as a hallmark of a viable theory. It states that a good scientifi c theory must allow for the possibility that it might be wrong. If it declares itself right under any and all circumstances, it cannot be “falsifi ed.” So “falsifi cation” doesn’t mean that a theory has to be proven wrong but that it has to be engaged in rigorously testing itself—in other words, it has to consider the possibil- ity that it is wrong and test itself in any way possible. Popper says in his book The Poverty of Historicism (1957), “Just because it is our aim to establish theories as well as we can, we must test them as severely as we can; that is, we must try to fi nd fault with them, we must try to falsify them. Only if we cannot falsify them in spite of our best efforts can we say that they have stood up to severe tests.” Science itself doesn’t always follow the principle of falsifi cation; an example is the eighteenth-century de- bate about meteorites in which most scientists chose to side with their own theory that rocks couldn’t fall from the sky, since outer space, they said, consists of a vac- uum. The statements of reliable private citizens who claimed to have seen meteorites fall and land on the ground were consistently brushed aside by scientists as being lies or delusions because most scientists did not question their own theory: It was nonfalsifi able since it didn’t allow for the possibility that it might be wrong. As we know, science later had to revise its notion of outer space (the theory was falsifi ed): In 1803, scientists at l’Aigle, France, actually observed a large number of meteorites falling. A similar and more recent story illustrating the same reluctance to accept new data was the dismissal of the existence of “rogue waves” until recent years when the phenomenon has been amply corroborated. Is the theory of evolution a good theory in the sense that it is falsifi able? Scientists today would say yes: The theory is based on empirical research that can be verifi ed objectively (the fossil record), but it doesn’t claim that it is correct no matter what happens; it claims that it is the most plausible theory of biology so far, but if new and different evidence should surface, then it is (presumably) open to revision. Psychological egoism is not a good theory, according to Popper’s principle, because it doesn’t allow for the possibility that it is wrong but reinterprets all acts and motives so they fi t the theory instead. That is not a theory, strictly speak- ing; it is a prejudice. It comes across as a strong theory precisely because there seems to be nothing that can defeat it; however, that is not a strength, scientifi - cally speaking. A strong theory recognizes the reality of the problem of induction (see Chapter 3): Any empirical theory (that is, one based on evidence) can’t be 100 per cent certain.
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THREE MAJOR PROBLEMS WITH PSYCHOLOGICAL EGOISM 185
In addition, the unfalsifi ability of psychological egoism demonstrates the logi- cal fallacy of begging the question. When an argument begs the question, it assumes that what it is supposed to prove is already true, so the “proof” does nothing but repeat the assumption (such as “your mother is right because your mother is never wrong!”). Psychological egoism works in the same way: It assumes that all acts are selfi sh and therefore interprets all acts as selfi sh. So psychological egoism is not the scientifi c theory it claims to be.
2. Doing What We Want Isn’t Always Selfi sh
Biologically, psychological egoists have a forceful argument: the survival instinct. It seems a fact that all animals, including humans, are equipped with some sort of in- stinct for self-preservation. We might ask ourselves, though, whether that instinct is always the strongest instinct in all relationships, animal as well as human. There are cases in which animals seem to sacrifi ce themselves for others, yet surely they don’t have any underlying motives, such as the desire to be on TV or go to heaven. Nor is it likely that they would suffer from a guilt complex if they did not perform such deeds. There is, then, at least the possibility that some actions are not performed for the reason of self-preservation. Is it true that we always do things for selfi sh reasons? Let us assume, for the sake of argument, that we do actually do what we want so that we may benefi t from some long-term consequences. But is doing what we want to benefi t ourselves always a “selfi sh” act? Abraham Lincoln seems to have agreed that it is. A famous story tells of him riding on a mud coach (a type of stagecoach) with a friend. Just as he is explain- ing that he believes everybody has selfi sh reasons for his or her actions, they pass by a mudhole where several piglets are drowning. The mother sow is making an awful noise, but she can’t help them. Lincoln asks the driver to stop the coach, gets off, wades into the mudhole, brings the pigs out, and returns to the coach. His friend, remembering what Lincoln had just said, asks him, “Now, Abe, where does selfi sh- ness come into this little episode?” Lincoln answers, “Why, bless your soul, Ed, that was the very essence of selfi shness. I should have had no peace of mind all day had I gone on and left that suffering old sow worrying over those pigs. I did it to get peace of mind, don’t you see?” So Lincoln saved the pigs to benefi t himself (and here we thought he was just a nice man). That is, of course, the irony of the story: Lincoln is not known to us as a selfi sh person. But was his theory right? He may have been lying in claiming that he did his good deed for himself—or he may have been joking—but let us assume that he spoke the truth as he saw it—that he saved the pigs to gain peace of mind for himself. Was it still a “selfi sh” act? That depends on what you call selfi sh. Is doing things to benefi t yourself always selfi sh, or does it perhaps depend on what it is you want to gain? Would there be a difference between saving a pig for its own sake and saving it because you want to eat it for dinner? Most people would say there is a sub- stantial difference between the two. In other words, it is what you want that matters, not just the fact that you want something. If what you want is to save someone, that
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186 CHAPTER 4 MYSELF OR OTHERS?
is surely different from wanting to hurt someone. Lincoln might, of course, interject that saving the pigs was still in his own self-interest, so it wasn’t done for them but for himself—but is that true? Why would it have been in his self-interest to know that the pigs were safe if self-gratifi cation was all he cared about? A selfi sh person hardly loses sleep over the misery of other human beings, let alone that of a sow. Let us suppose, then, that he did it just to feel “warm and fuzzy” inside, and let us conclude that people who help others because they enjoy it are as selfi sh as can be. Nevertheless, a person who enjoys helping others is not our usual image of a selfi sh person; rather, as James Rachels points out, that is exactly how we picture an unselfi sh person. (See Box 4.7 for further discussion of Lincoln’s motivation.) So if we assume that it is the objective rather than the mere fact of our wanting something that makes our want selfi sh or unselfi sh, we have an answer to psychological egoism right there: If what made Lincoln feel good was the thought of the pigs being safe—for their own sake, not his—then his deed of saving them was not a selfi sh deed. If what made him feel good was that now he would somehow benefi t from saving them other than by just feeling good, then it was selfi sh. And how about if it was both? Suppose he saw a certain advantage in people knowing that he was a good guy who cared about pigs (although that’s certainly not part of the original story) but he also liked the thought of the pigs being safe. Then it is still a refutation of psychological egoism because there was an unselfi sh element in an otherwise selfi sh act. And here we have reached the level of common sense: Some acts are unselfi sh, some are selfi sh, and some are a mixed bag. In the Narratives section you will fi nd a contemporary story about a woman who is accused of being selfi sh because she feels good about helping others, Phoebe from the television sitcom Friends.
3. The Fallacy of the Suppressed Correlative
As we have seen, psychological egoism presents certain problems because it does not always describe the world in a way that allows us to recognize it. One of its fl aws may
We might ask how Lincoln could have been unaware of the distinction between caring and not caring that becomes apparent when we con- sider different kinds of behavior. For an intelli- gent man, his remarks seem unusually dim. It’s possible, of course, that the pig story illustrates Lincoln’s true nature: that of a very humble and honest man who does not wish to take credit for having done something good. The story makes him all the more endearing, if that is the case, for indeed we know him as Honest Abe. But
there is another possibility—that he was joking. Lincoln had a fondness for jokes, and this may have been one of them. Knowing full well that he was doing a nice thing, he made use of irony by claiming that rescuing the piglets was noth- ing but a selfi sh act. Lincoln scholars may have to decide which version they like better. In any event, Lincoln was speaking as a psychological egoist, regardless of how unselfi shly he acted, because he expressed the theory that everyone acts selfi shly.
Box 4.7 L I N C O L N : H U M B L E M A N O R C L E V E R J O K E S T E R ?
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THREE MAJOR PROBLEMS WITH PSYCHOLOGICAL EGOISM 187
actually be a problem of language: If Lincoln’s act of saving the pigs is selfi sh, what do we then call acts that are really selfi sh? The British philosopher Mary Midgley is ex- tremely critical of the theory of psychological egoism and points out that since there is such a difference between what psychological egoists call normal selfi sh behavior (doing something nice for others so you can gain an advantage) and really selfi sh behavior (doing something hurtful to others so you can gain an advantage), it would be illogical to call both selfi sh. We should reserve “selfi sh” for genuine self-absorbed behavior, says Midgley. If psychological egoism insists that regardless of whether we want to help others or hurt them for our own gain, our desire to help or hurt them is a selfi sh want. In that case, we may respond that we consider it less selfi sh to help others than to hurt them, and we may want to introduce some new terms: less self- ish and more selfi sh, terms that distinguish between acts done for yourself and acts done for others. That, however, is just another way of trying to distinguish selfi sh behavior from unselfi sh behavior. Psychological egoism seems to have overlooked the fact that we already have a concept for “less-selfi sh” behavior that is perfectly well understood: unselfi sh. Changing language to the extent that it goes against our com- mon sense (by claiming that there is no such thing as unselfi sh but that it is acceptable to use the term less selfi sh ) does not make psychological egoism correct. So, if the psychological egoist admits that there can be degrees of selfi shness, we might reply that the least degree of selfi shness is what the rest of us call unselfi sh; if the psycho- logical egoist insists that all acts are self-serving in some way, critics of psychological egoism point to the linguistic phenomenon known as the fallacy of the suppressed correlative. The correlative of the word selfi sh is unselfi sh, just as the correlative of light is dark; other pairs are hot/cold, tall/short, and so on. It is a psychological as well as a linguistic fact that we understand one term because we understand the other: If everything were dark, we wouldn’t understand the meaning of light, and neither would we understand the meaning of dark, because it is defi ned by its contrast to light; without the contrast there is no understanding. In other words, a concept with- out a correlative becomes meaningless. If all acts are selfi sh, selfi sh has no correlative, and the statement “All acts are selfi sh” has no meaning. In fact, we could not make
Mary Midgley (b. 1919) is a British philosopher specializing in ethics. For years she taught philosophy at the University of New- castle, and she is known for her vigorous critique of scientifi c theories attempting to reduce the human spirit to sociobiological elements. She is one of Richard Dawkins’s most vocal critics. Her books include Beast and Man: The Roots of Human Nature (1978), Heart and Mind: The Varieties of Moral Experience (1981), Animals and Why They Matter (1983), Wickedness (1984), and The Ethical Primate: Humans, Freedom and Morality (1994). In 2005 her autobiography, The Owl of Minerva, was published. and The Soli- tary Self: Darwin and the Selfi sh Gene came out in 2010. Despite her advanced age, Midgley is anything but a retired scholar.
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188 CHAPTER 4 MYSELF OR OTHERS?
such a statement at all if psychological egoism were correct; the concept of selfi sh- ness would not exist, since any nonselfi sh behavior would be unthinkable. So not only does psychological egoism go against common sense and preclude a complete understanding of the full range of human behavior; it also goes against the rules of language. (We return to Midgley below in the section The Selfi sh Gene. ) That may sound like a complex argument, but we actually use it frequently in everyday situations. Here are a few examples of suppressed correlatives, situations in which something becomes meaningless if it doesn’t have any opposite: (1) If you use a highlighter in your textbook, you may have found yourself studying a diffi cult text and highlighting many sentences. After a while, when you look at the pages, you fi nd that you’ve actually highlighted just about everything. The task of highlighting all of a sudden has become meaningless; now everything is highlighted (the highlighted areas have lost their contrast), and that is just the same as not having anything high- lighted. (2) At Starbucks a small cup of coffee is called “tall,” a medium is called “grande,” and a large is called “venti” (Italian for “twenty”—ounces, presumably). Does the designation “tall” really mean anything anymore when it comes to coffees? (3) Sometimes I hear students plead (as a joke, I hope), “Why can’t you just give us all A’s?” (whether they are deserved or not). The answer is that (aside from the fact that it wouldn’t be right) if everybody in the class or the school or the country got A’s, the A would become meaningless, since there would be no lower grade to serve as a contrast. If instructors bowed to the pressure to give only A’s or B’s, the whole idea of grading would be undermined. (4) There are situations that are supposed to have signifi cance but are so common that the impact is nullifi ed: Car alarms go off all the time, so the “alarm” effect is gone; people who curse all the time drain their words of any impact, so there is no way to emphasize a really bad situation; parents who yell at their children constantly have no voice impact left when the time comes for a yell to be effective; kids who “cry wolf” won’t be believed in the end. And the psychological egoist who claims that everyone is selfi sh can’t explain what selfi sh means if no behavior is recognized as unselfi sh. Proponents of psychological egoism have responded that unselfi shness doesn’t actually exist, but you can still have the concept of unselfi shness, which serves as the correlative of selfi shness, even if it is imaginary; but critics of psychological egoism reply that the theory still does not make much sense. If it states that everybody is selfi sh to the bone, then it is a downright false theory. If it just says everybody has a selfi sh streak, then it is so trivial that it is not even interesting.
The Selfi sh-Gene Theory and Its Critics
While psychological egoism is generally considered a psychological as well as a phil- osophical theory, the notion of selfi shness has had its own success within the social sciences. The selfi sh-gene theory arose in the 1970s and became popular to the extent that, for decades, many people have taken its viewpoint as an established truth. This theory was introduced by Richard Dawkins in his book The Selfi sh Gene (1976) and at the time supported by the famous sociobiologist Edward O. Wilson as a way of explaining, scientifi cally, why some animals as well as humans behave in an altruistic
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THE SELFISH-GENE THEORY AND ITS CRITICS 189
way. In the spirit of psychological egoism, it is not that humans and animals actually behave selfl essly, but that such behavior is an instinctive way to promote the survival not of the individual but of his or her genes. Why would a baboon apparently sacri- fi ce herself to leopards so that her “troop” can make a getaway? Because she is closely related to the troop, and her sacrifi ce ensures that her genes will survive. Why do dogs wake their owners up in the middle of the night to make sure they get out of the house that’s on fi re? Because they think their owners are the alpha dogs of their pack, and alpha dogs are related to the lower-status dogs, so their genes will survive. In October 2004 off the coast of New Zealand, a group of one adult lifeguard and three teens were herded together in a tight circle by a pod of dolphins—and they didn’t understand why, until they saw a ten-foot white shark trying to approach them. The dolphins circled the humans for forty minutes until the shark got tired and swam off. The whole event was witnessed by another lifeguard in a boat and by people on the beach a hundred yards away. In the terrible aftermath of the Japanese tsunami the world was treated to a video from the stricken area of a dog apparently trying to catch the attention of the photographer. Eventually the dog led him toward some debris where there was another dog, severely hurt. (On p. 179 you read that both dogs were, supposedly, rescued.) Can we assume that the dog was trying to help its friend? That wouldn’t be the fi rst time—dogs have (also on video) dragged other injured dogs out of the way of traffi c, and protected wayward children not even of their own family. In addition, getting back to dolphins, some dolphins were mak- ing a ruckus along the beach after high tide in Australia a few years ago, and people noticed they were circling a certain area. Stranded in the water was a dog, who sub- sequently was rescued, thanks to the loud dolphins. Did the dolphins deliberately help the dog, or were they attacking him? In the past, particularly in the twentieth century, such speculations were dismissed as romantic notions. Now animal behav- iorists are beginning to suspect that there can be a variety of motives behind animal behavior, including some form of selfl essness. What would the selfi sh-gene theorists say to that? That the dolphins rescuing the swimmers use the same maneuvers to protect their own young, and they can’t tell the difference between a human in a wetsuit and dolphin babies. And the dogs? Mistaking the children and the other dog for their relatives. But few animal behavior- ists would claim that dolphins, or any animal for that matter, can’t tell the difference between humans and their own species, especially since they’re excellent at telling the difference between their own babies and other dolphins’ babies. (Male dolphins will often try to kill the offspring of other male dolphins.) So could we really be wit- nessing animals making moral choices? We will return to that question later. As far as humans go, does the selfi sh-gene theory offer any kind of insight? For the originator of the theory, Richard Dawkins, it explains why people sometimes act unselfi shly toward strangers: We make a mistake. We are preprogrammed through our evolution to help our genes survive, either in our own person or through our nearest relatives, and in ancient times we used to have close contact only with such relatives, and our altruism would benefi t only them. But times have changed, and we are now in a complex world of strangers, but our genetic programming makes us act altruistically as if we’re still living with a small group of relatives. In his book The God
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190 CHAPTER 4 MYSELF OR OTHERS?
Delusion (2006), Dawkins says, “We can no more help ourselves feeling pity when we see a weeping unfortunate (who is unrelated and unable to reciprocate) than we can help ourselves feeling lust for a member of the opposite sex (who may be infertile or otherwise unable to reproduce). Both are misfi rings, Darwinian mistakes: blessed, precious mistakes.” So Dawkins isn’t saying that we shouldn’t be altruistic toward strangers—he thinks it is rather wonderful that we are capable of doing such a thing. But he says that, biologically, it makes no sense—it is a misdirection of an original biological purpose. Many philosophers believe the selfi sh-gene theory creates more problems than it solves, and even Edward O. Wilson has changed his mind: in an article in the journal Nature he explains that he no longer sees the driving force as kin selection (a” selfi sh gene”), but rather a battle between individual selection (selfi shness) and group selection (altruism), regardless of whether the group contains any relatives. This enables Wilson to get beyond the sticky question of why we (and other ani- mals) would choose to help individuals in our group which we’re not related to if all we try to do is promote our genes into the next generation. Dawkins, however, continues to maintain that it is a built-in urge to promote one’s genes that is the basic explanation of all behavior whether it looks altruistic or not. However, when humans behave altruistically toward strangers, it is often because of the very fact that they are strangers—we don’t confuse them with relatives. On the contrary, we may de- liberately choose to treat them as if they are relatives, which is something completely different. The British philosopher Mary Midgley, whom you’ll remember from the previous section in this chapter, has been a vocal critic of the selfi sh-gene theory as well as a critic of psychological egoism. Advocating the old principle of parsimony, or Occam’s razor (choosing the simpler explanation over a more complex one if the simpler explanation works as well or better), Midgley suggests that a much simpler explanation exists for our altruistic behavior than some selfi sh gene: It’s the fact that we’ve all grown up in groups with other people, and in most cases the people who raised us loved us and cared about our well-being. And when we raise children, we care about them for their sake too. So we have a built-in capacity for caring for our family—and in our human society we just extend that capacity to strangers, who become honorary relatives for a time. What makes this different from a version of the selfi sh-gene theory is that we extend our caring capacity to strangers not for our sake (to perpetuate our genes) but for theirs (because we care about how they feel). Dawkins himself has said that Midgley misunderstood his theory: it isn’t about people or animals making mistakes about relatives, but a biological hardwiring being misdirected. But here we should remember the argument against psychological ego- ism that you read earlier in the chapter, that if a concept becomes so broad that it has no opposite (the fallacy of the suppressed correlative), then the concept has become useless. So if all behavior is selfi sh (instinctually), but some selfi sh behavior involves altruism, then haven’t we watered down the meaning of selfi shness? Here a brief conceptual analysis may be helpful—something that apparently both Dawkins and Midgley have missed, or deliberately disregarded. Dawkins is a biologist, while Midgley is a philosopher, and as such they don’t necessarily have the same associations to the same words. For Dawkins, “selfi sh” is not a moral, but a
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THE SELFISH-GENE THEORY AND ITS CRITICS 191
biological term, simply meaning a hard-wired instinct for preservation of the organ- ism or its genetic material—a descriptive term. However, for Midgley the word “selfi sh” is a moral term, and comes burdened with the entire philosophical and social tradi- tion of normative judgment, above all the assumption that if you are being selfi sh, it is a moral choice and you can be blamed for it, because you could choose to be less selfi sh or unselfi sh instead. As such, there is no way Dawkins and Midgley are going to agree, because their vocabularies are fundamentally different. So Dawkins could be right in his way, that we have a preservation instinct which we share with other animals, and since we are still in our brains the tribal people who are by and large related to everyone in our immediate group, we reach out and help strangers (which is nice) because we’re hard-wired to help our relatives. But Midgley could also be right in that we also make moral choices; sometimes we choose not to help anyone, stranger or relative, and sometimes we engage in elaborate acts of compassion to- ward total strangers, because we choose to do so, making them as if they were part of our own family for a while. Cases known well through the media involving kidnapped and murdered young people and children may illustrate this “honorary relative” bestowment: From the national concern for disappeared (and to date never found) Natalee Holloway to the near-obsession with the duct-taped body of little Caylee Anthony, and all the other young women and girls who have been spirited away and mostly later turned up dead (one exception being Elizabeth Smart in Utah who, after having been abducted for a year was reunited with her family, and provided powerful testimony in court against her abductors). In my own general area of San Diego we have experienced some heart-breaking stories in the past decade, from the abduction and murder of 7-year old Danielle van Dam, to the murders of Amber Dubois and Chelsea King (murdered by the same man, with one year in-between), and the community truly took those girls to heart as if they were everyone’s daughter. Or perhaps not exactly. Chelsea was apparently generating more media focus than Amber—perhaps because she, in the eyes of some, was slightly prettier, and much blonder? Most of the women generating such media attention have been blond. Almost all of them white. When Danielle went missing, a small African American boy, Jahi Turner, disappeared and was never found, despite an intense search by locals, and local media coverage. But this lost toddler’s fate never reached the level of national attention. Was it because he was not a white little girl? Most of us would hate to think that could be a factor, and most people (as was the case with the two search groups in San Diego) would put their hearts into fi nding a lost child regardless of race and gender, but what the media will choose as the leading story is another matter. Here we may see a built-in bias, maybe not as an example of knee-jerk media racism, but as a matter of calcu- lated business projections: Whose face is likely to sell the most products when the commercials start rolling? That may be a cynical viewpoint, and it may not even be accurate, but it gives food for thought. Still, Mary Midgley may have a point: Oc- casionally that curiosity becomes one of the fi ner emotions we are capable of, when a story touches our hearts more deeply than an ordinary news story, and we “adopt” the missing young person as an honorary relative, caring about the welfare of a total stranger, if only for a while.
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192 CHAPTER 4 MYSELF OR OTHERS?
Ethical Egoism and Ayn Rand’s Objectivism
We have already heard amazing stories about heroic acts in this chapter. However, the ethical egoist would say that, in effect, these people we call heroes did the wrong thing. For the ethical egoist there is only one rule: Look after yourself. The ethical ego- ist would say you are throwing your life away. Here we should make sure that we have our terms straight. This theory is called ethical egoism simply because it is an ethical theory, a normative theory about how we ought to behave (in contrast to psychological egoism, which claims to know how we actually do behave). The theory implies that we ought to be selfi sh. Or, to put it more gently, we ought to be self-interested. Calling the theory “ethical” does not sug- gest there might be a decent way to be selfi sh; it just means ethical egoism is a theory that advocates egoism as a moral rule.
You Should Look After Yourself
Glaucon insisted that if you don’t take advantage of a situation, you are foolish. Hobbes claimed that it makes good sense to look after yourself, and morality is a result of that self-interest: If I mistreat others, they may mistreat me, so I resolve to behave myself. That is a rather twisted version of the Golden Rule (Do unto others as you would have them do unto you; see Box 4.8). It is twisted because it is peculiarly slanted toward our own self-interest. The reason we should treat others the way we would like to be treated is that it gives us a good chance of receiving just such treat- ment; we do it for ourselves, not for others. So the ethical egoist may certainly decide
CALVIN AND HOBBES © 1990 Watterson. Dist. by UNIVERSAL UCLICK. Reprinted with permis- sion. All rights reserved.
For many readers the idea that egoism might be a legitimate moral theory is surprising, but indeed Calvin is right: “You ought to look out for number one” is, in fact, a moral principle. However, critics of ethical egoism point out that it is hardly an acceptable moral principle. (Since the philoso- pher Thomas Hobbes is mentioned in this chapter, you might like to know that Hobbes the tiger is named after Thomas Hobbes.)
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to help another human being in need—not for the sake of the other, but to ensure that “what goes around, comes around.” The Golden Rule usually emphasizes others, but for the ethical egoist it emphasizes the self. With ethical egoism we encounter a certain phenomenon for the fi rst time in this book: an ethical theory that focuses on the consequences of one’s actions. Any theory that looks solely to consequences of actions is known as a consequentialist theory; the consequences that ethical egoism
Most people know the Golden Rule: Do unto oth- ers as you would have them do unto you, or treat others as you would like to be treated. It is often attributed to Jesus Christ; the Gospel of Matthew cites him as saying, “Therefore all things whatso- ever ye would that men should do to you, do ye even so to them: for this is the law and the proph- ets” (7:12). The law referred to is in Leviticus 19:18 in the Bible (the Old Testament): “. . . thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.” In the later Talmud, we read that “what is hateful to you, do not to your fellow man. This is the law: all the rest is commentary” (Shabbat 31a). And other tradi- tions have similar sayings. Brahmanism teaches, “This is the sum of Dharma [duty]: Do naught unto others which would cause you pain if done to you” ( Mahabharata 5:1517). In Buddhism it reads like this: “Hurt not others in ways that you yourself would fi nd hurtful” ( Udànavarga 5:18). Islam teaches that “none of you [truly] believes until he wishes for his brother what he wishes for himself” (number 13 of Imam “Al-Nawawi’s Forty Hadiths”). In the American Indian tradition, the great leader Black Elk extended the rule to all liv- ing beings: “All things are our relatives; what we do to everything, we do to ourselves. All is really One.” 1 And the Chinese philosopher Confucius (551–479 B.C.E.) is known to have taught his students this version, taken from The Doctrine of the Mean, The Four Books: “What you do not like when done to yourself, do not do to others.” This is sometimes called the “Silver Rule.” The rule teaches that to fi nd a blueprint for treating others, we should imagine how we
would or would not like to be treated. Ethical egoists don’t read it that way, however; they read it as a rule for protecting yourself and being as comfortable as possible. The way to avoid trou- ble with others is to treat them as you’d want to be treated—the path of least resistance. The emphasis on others is not a given within the rule. This is the aspect of prudence connected with the Golden Rule. But as we see in Chapter 5, the Golden Rule is also used as a blueprint for gen- eral happiness, one’s own as well as others’. In this case, it is concern for the other person that underlies the rule. Recognizing the wisdom of the Golden Rule is perhaps the most important early stage in civi- lization because it implies that we see others as similar to ourselves and that we see ourselves as deserving no treatment that is better than what others get (although we would generally prefer it—we’re not saints). However, the Golden Rule may not be the ultimate rule to live by because (as we discuss further in Chapter 11) others may not want to be treated as you’d like to be treated. Then, according to some thinkers, the “Platinum Rule” ought to kick in: Treat others as they want to be treated! Proponents of the Golden Rule say that this takes the universal ap- peal out of the rule. The spark of moral genius in the rule is precisely that we are similar in our human nature—not that we would all like to have things our way.
1 These quotes can be found on the website Religious Tolerance.org.
Box 4.8 T H E G O L D E N R U L E W I T H V A R I A T I O N S
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194 CHAPTER 4 MYSELF OR OTHERS?
stipulates are good consequences for the person taking the action. However, we can imagine other kinds of consequentialist theories, such as one that advocates good consequences for as many people as possible. Such a theory is discussed in Chapter 5. Ethical egoists are themselves quite divided about whether the theory tells you to do what you want without regard for others or what is good for you without regard for others. The latter version seems to appeal to common sense because, in the long run, just looking for instant gratifi cation is hardly going to make you happy or live longer. Saying that one ought to look after oneself need not, of course, mean that one should annoy others whenever possible, step on their toes, or deliberately ne- glect their interests. It simply suggests that one should do what will be of long-term benefi t to oneself, such as exercising, eating healthy food, avoiding repetitive argu- mentative situations, and so forth. Even paying one’s taxes might be added to the list. In addition, it suggests that other people’s interests are of no importance. If you might advance your own interests by helping others, then by all means help others, but only if you are the main benefi ciary. It is fi ne to help your children get ahead in school, because you love them and that love is a gratifying emotion for you. But there is no reason to lend a hand to your neighbor’s children unless you like them or you achieve gratifi cation through your actions. This interpretation—that the theory tells us to do whatever will benefi t ourselves— results in a rewriting of the Golden Rule because, obviously, it is not always the case that you will get the same treatment from others that you give to them. Occasionally you might get away with not treating others decently, because they may never know that you are the source of the bad treatment they are receiving. Ethical egoism tells you that it is perfectly all right to treat others in a way that is to your advantage and not to theirs as long as you can be certain that you will get away with it.
Ayn Rand and the Virtue of Selfi shness
It is sometimes the case among philosophers that if someone subscribes to a theory that is not shared by most colleagues, politically or religiously, then that thinker risks losing credibility in the philosophical community. So is that why the Russian- born American philosopher and novelist Ayn Rand (1905–1982) has such a low standing among philosophers in this country, or is it simply because her philosophy is untenable or confused? Ayn Rand was born in Russia as Alyssa Rosenbaum and immigrated to the United States at the age of twenty-one because she was deeply dis- satisfi ed with the new Communist regime and its Marxist philosophy, the October Revolution having happened in 1917. Why the United States? Because she consid- ered it the most moral and least Marxist country in the world. Her viewpoints were controversial from the beginning of her career which, other than being a novelist, also included being a playwright. Ayn Rand is a good example of a philosopher who channels her thoughts into a work of fi ction—or a novelist who uses philosophical arguments within the plot of her novels, and as such she is a fi ne candidate for inclusion in this book where we oc- casionally look at stories expressing moral viewpoints and debates. But that in itself
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may actually have been a point in her disfavor among other writers and philoso- phers: In the mid-twentieth century there were very few American thinkers (contrary to Europe) who also wrote novels, or novelists who wrote philosophical thoughts (in Chapters 1 and 3 you met one of them—John Steinbeck). Being a novelist was considered a disqualifying element if one wanted to be considered a philosopher. Also, she was a woman writer, and at the time that was a second problem. And to top it off, she neither had an advanced philosophy degree (although she had been an undergraduate philosophy student in Russia), nor was she a liberal like most other philosophers (which per se shouldn’t have counted against her standing as a thinker—there are excellent non-liberal thinkers in the world). So what was her thinking that so many found unacceptable? She chose to label her primary philosophy Objectivism, and it fl ows through her nonfi ctional writings as well as in her novels such as the two most famous ones, Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead. She published numerous non-fi ction works, including an anthology, The Virtue of Selfi shness, in which she had authored the primary piece, “The Ethics of Emergencies” (see the Primary Readings section for an excerpt). In that text she de- fends the concept of self-interest, and claims that people have a right, even a duty, to look after themselves and seek their own happiness, and that it is “moral cannibal- ism” to advocate selfl essness as an ideal where people are supposed to feel obliged to help those who have no wish to help themselves—in Rand’s words, “moochers and leeches.” The duty of the government is to be reduced to a fi scally (fi nancially) conservative laissez-faire (hands-off) policy where all it should be engaged in is pro- tecting citizens from dangers coming from other nations, and upholding law and order; in the private world of business, the government should stay away, and taxes be reduced to merely cover the basic duties of the government. Any social programs should be fi nanced through charity. Individually, people should feel free to engage in whatever behavior they see fi t that will enhance their lives, including helping
Ayn Rand (1905–1982), the Russian-born American philosopher and writer, developed the theory of objectivism, which stresses the right of the individual to keep the fruits of his or her labors and not be held responsible for the welfare of others. She is today best known for her novels, although her philosophy is also gaining recognition as an original twentieth-century contribution.
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196 CHAPTER 4 MYSELF OR OTHERS?
strangers if that is a joy to them, but it would be far better to spend one’s efforts and money helping those one loves, because that will surely mean more to oneself in the long run—in other words, the very core of the philosophy of ethical egoism. Today some members of the Libertarian Party claim intellectual kinship with Ayn Rand, and former Chairman of the Federal Reserve Alan Greenspan, once one of the most powerful men in the nation, is reported to respect and admire her philosophy, as do many other conservative culture personalities. Critics in her own time and in subsequent decades have been quick to point out that (1) Objectivism is nothing but a blatant defense of capitalism and stark selfi sh- ness. Rand would have agreed to the fi rst part which she saw nothing wrong with, but would have refused to call selfi shness “stark”—in her view the world will be better off with everyone minding their own business. Another objection is that (2) Objectivism/ ethical egoism simply doesn’t create a better world—on the contrary, it promotes a ruthless world of Haves and Have-nots, where the Haves prey on the Have-nots and each other to the extent that they can (you may want to compare that to Hobbes’s view of life in the State of Nature before the Social Contract). Rand herself would have denied this, pointing to the failed experiments of socialist nations where the mandated shared wealth created nothing but (in her view) lazy, dissatisfi ed, dishonest people. But (3) if we look at her basic argument (see Primary Readings) that you must either accept fundamental altruism where your only moral duty is to give everything away and lay down your life for others, or accept Objectivism with its liberating right to keep what you earn, take care of yourself and your own and work for your own happiness without feeling guilty, then we see that she is falling into a common logical fallacy (see Chapter 1), the fallacy of bifurcation/false dilemma/false dichotomy: the “Either-Or” which excludes any third option. Many otherwise good thinkers have in their enthusi- asm committed the same error, but that is no excuse: There are other alternatives than believing your life is worthless unless you donate it to others, and seeing your own right to your own happiness as the only moral duty. Rand’s philosophy which she deemed so clear and incontrovertible that it de- served the name Objectivism was enormously popular some decades ago, especially among college students. Then it faded away. But after the fi nancial crisis in 2008 Ayn Rand’s thoughts and books were in vogue again in a major revival with much activity in the blogosphere, her novels shooting to the top of the best-seller charts, and in 2011 the fi rst part of a planned trilogy of movies based on her mammoth novel Atlas Shrugged came out, in limited release. The movie had been in the planning stages under different directors since 1975, and Rand herself had been involved in writ- ing a screenplay. Some philosophers bemoan the fact that Rand’s theories are once again in circulation, resulting in nothing but muddled thinking. Others welcome the opportunity to have some good discussions and perhaps see things from a different perspective.
Problems With Ethical Egoism
Let us return now to Glaucon and his rings. He assumes that not only will the scoun- drel take advantage of a ring that can make him invisible, but so will the decent man,
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and, furthermore, we would call them both fools if they didn’t. A theory of psy- chological egoism, therefore, can also contain a normative element: ethical egoism (which tells us how we ought to behave). Of course, it is hard to see what the point is if we can’t stop ourselves from doing what we do. At the end of Glaucon’s speech, the reader expects Socrates to dispatch the the- ory of egoism with a quick blow. The answer, however, is a long time coming; as a matter of fact, Plato designed the rest of his Republic as a roundabout answer to Glaucon. In the end, Socrates’ answer is, The unjust person can’t be happy because happiness consists of a good harmony, a balance between the three parts of the soul: reason, willpower (spirit), and desire. Reason is supposed to dominate willpower, and willpower, desire. If desire or willpower dominates the other two, we have a sick person, and a sick person can’t be happy by defi nition, says Socrates. We will return to this theory in the Primary Readings of this chapter, with an excerpt from Plato’s Republic. In considering the question, Why be just? we must consider justice in terms of the whole society, not just the individual. We can’t argue for justice on the basis of individual situations but only in general terms. That makes the question, Why be just? more reasonable because we don’t look at individual cases but at an overall picture in which justice and well-being are interrelated. For Socrates and Plato, being just is part of “the good life,” and true happiness cannot be attained without justice. To the modern reader there is something curiously bland and evasive about those answers. Surely unjust persons can be disgustingly happy—they may seem to us to have sick souls, but they certainly don’t act as if they are aware of it or suffer any ill effects from it. The answer to this—that being selfi sh is just plain wrong in it- self —is not emphasized by Socrates. For a modern person it seems reasonable to be “just” out of respect for the law or perhaps because that is the right thing to do, but Socrates mentions this only briefl y; it is a concern that belongs to a much later time period than the one in which he lived. The highest virtue for the ancient Greeks was, on the whole, ensuring the well-being of the community, and that well-being remained the bottom line more than any abstract moral issue of right and wrong. Today we know this social theory as communitarianism. Because justice was best for the state in the fi nal evaluation, justice was a value in itself. In the end, Socrates’ answer evokes self-interest and urges us to discern truth from appearance: If you are unjust, your soul will suffer, and so will your community. Furthermore, your community may shun you, ostracize you, banish you (which was common practice in ancient Greece), and if you are nothing without your community, then what will become of you? The interesting implication is that Socrates is saying to Glaucon that the unjust man is out of balance, thus unhealthy, and thus unhappy, because he will be excluded from his network of friends and associates. That attitude, ironically, may have cost Socrates his life, because he refused to leave his community and fl ee Athens when he was accused of crimes against the state. Today communitarianism is alive and well in the United States—it is a political theory best illustrated by the African proverb “It takes a village to raise a child.” In other words, individuals are part of the community and derive their identity from
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198 CHAPTER 4 MYSELF OR OTHERS?
that community—and the community members share a responsibility toward one another. A professed contemporary communitarian is (at the time of this writing) Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Socrates’ attitude may not impress people seeking self-gratifi cation (who are unlikely to be concerned about the effects of their actions on their souls or on the people around them), but it may have some impact on people seeking long-term self-interest. It still rests on an empirical assumption, however, that sooner or later you must pay the piper—that is, atone for your wrongdoing. History, though, is full of “bad guys” who have gone to their graves rich and happy. The religious argument that you will go to hell or suffer a miserable next incarnation if you are concerned only with yourself is not really an argument against egoism because it still asks you to look after yourself, even to the point of using others for the purpose of ensuring a pleasant afterlife (treat others decently and you shall be saved). The one type of argument against ethical egoism that has most appealed to scholars insists that ethical egoism is self-contradictory. If you are supposed to look after yourself and your colleague is supposed to look after herself, and if looking after yourself will mean stealing her fi les, then you and she will be working at cross- purposes: Your duty will be to steal her fi les from her, and her duty will be to protect her fi les. We can’t have a moral theory that says one’s duty should be something that confl icts with someone else’s duty, so ethical egoism is therefore inconsistent. Few ethical egoists fi nd that argument convincing, because they don’t agree that we can’t have a moral theory that gives a green light to different concepts of duty. Such a view assumes that ethical egoism benefi ts everyone, even when each person does only what is in his or her best interest. Occasionally, ethical egoism assumes just that: We should look after ourselves and mind our own business, because med- dling in other people’s affairs is a violation of privacy; they will not like our charity, they will hate our superiority, and we won’t know what is best for them anyway. So, along those lines, we should stay out of other people’s affairs because it is best for everybody. The political theory resulting from this point of view is known as laissez-faire, the hands-off policy. Political theorists, however, are quick to point out that laissez-faire is by no means an egoistic theory, because it has everybody’s best interests at heart. That is precisely what is wrong with the idea that we should adopt ethical egoism for the reason that it will be good for everybody: It may be true that if we all look after ourselves, we’ll all be happier—but who is the benefi ciary of that idea? Not “I,” but “everybody,” so this version is, in fact, no longer a moral theory of egoism but something else. Another argument against ethical egoism is that it carries no weight as a solver of moral confl icts: If you and I disagree about the correct course of action, who is to say who is right? If you favor the course of action that is to your advantage and I favor the course of action that is to my advantage, then there is no common ground. But the ethical egoist generally answers in the same way as to the charge that ethical egoism is self-contradictory: It never claimed to be a theory of consensus in all approaches, merely in the basic approach—that everyone ought to look after himself or herself. A better argument against the conceptual consistency of ethical egoism is this: Ethical egoism doesn’t work in practice. Remember that the theory says all people
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ETHICAL EGOISM AND AYN RAND’S OBJECTIVISM 199
ought to look out for themselves—not merely that I should look out for myself. But suppose you set out to look after your own self-interests and advocate that others do the same; within a short while you will realize that your rule is not going to be to your advantage, because others will be out there grabbing for themselves, and you will have fi erce competition. You might decide that the smart thing to do is to advocate not that all people look out for themselves but that all people look after one another while keeping quiet about your own intention of breaking the rule whenever pos- sible. That would be the prudent thing to do, and it probably would work quite well. The only problem is that this is not a moral theory because, for one thing, it carries a contradiction. It means you must claim to support one principle and act according to another one—in other words, it requires you to be dishonest. Also, a moral theory, in this day and age, has to be able to be extended to everybody; we can’t uphold a theory that says it is okay for me to do something because I’m me, but not for you just because you’re not me —that would be assuming that I should have privileges based on the mere fact that I’m me. Logical attacks on ethical egoism have a persuasive power for some—as logi- cal arguments rightly should have. However, perhaps the most forceful argument against ethical egoism involves an emotional component. Often, philosophers have been afraid to appeal to emotions because emotions have been considered irrelevant. But as philosophers such as Martha Nussbaum, Philippa Foot, Philip Hallie, and James Rachels point out, what is a moral sense without the involvement of our feel- ings? Feelings need not be irrational—they are often quite rational responses to our experiences (see Chapter 1). And what seems such an affront to most people is the apparent callousness of an ethical egoist: Other people’s pain simply doesn’t matter as a moral imperative. One example may speak louder than theoretical speculations: the murder in 1998 of seven-year-old Sherrice Iverson by Jeremy Strohmeyer in a Nevada casino restroom. Strohmeyer’s friend David Cash knew about the crime taking place, heard the screams, and may even have witnessed it. He never tried to stop his friend, nor did he alert casino security, nor did he turn in his friend afterward. Psychologically, both Strohmeyer and Cash may have been warped and dam- aged, but Cash had quite a rational grasp of the situation and a straightforward
Socrates’ answer to Glaucon’s suggestion that the unjust man is happier than the just man rests on his notion that a happy person is in balance, and without moral virtue (see Chapter 8): you can’t be happy, so the unjust man is out of balance, hence sick, and therefore unhappy. Socrates’ concept of a morally good, “just” person involves having the right relationship between one’s reason, one’s willpower, and one’s desires. As this illustration shows, reason should control willpower, and together, reason and willpower should control one’s desires. In Chapter 8 you will see this concept of justice and moral good- ness expanded to cover Plato’s political theory as well as his idea of virtue.
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200 CHAPTER 4 MYSELF OR OTHERS?
explanation for why he didn’t step in. It is debatable whether Cash was an ethical egoist or a moral subjectivist. In an interview he said, “I’m not going to get upset over somebody else’s life. I just worry about myself fi rst. I’m not going to lose sleep over somebody else’s problems.” He seemed to be recommending selfi shness, not the tolerance of moral subjectivism’s “to each his or her own.” If so, is that the kind of practical expression of a moral theory that we should think is legitimate, just because it allows everyone else to be selfi sh too? Isn’t this a case in which we are allowed to feel moral outrage over someone’s inhumanity? Why, indeed, should we lose sleep over someone else’s problems? Because they are fellow human beings. Perhaps this is a good time to revisit Socrates’ argument that the unjust person can’t be happy because he (or she) will be socially unacceptable. According to an- ecdotal reports from Berkeley students, David Cash was given the cold shoulder by other students on campus, although he was not indicted for any crimes. And who is to say whether Socrates might not be right—that being shunned by one’s commu- nity isn’t, in fact, a cause of imbalance and regret in the heart of the person who has transgressed against the moral standards because of selfi shness?
Being Selfl ess: Levinas’s Ideal Altruism Versus Singer’s Reciprocal Altruism
On September 11, 2001, the United States was attacked on our own soil, for the fi rst time since Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941. As most of you know, al- though some of you may be too young to remember, nineteen terrorists with direct ties to the terror group al Qaeda, carrying out plans created by Khalid Sheikh Mo- hammed and al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, hijacked four commercial airliners and forced two of them to fl y into the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center in New York City, resulting in the collapse of the towers and adjacent buildings and the loss of approximately 2,600 people—businessmen and women, vendors, main- tenance workers, tourists, police offi cers and fi refi ghters. A third plane was fl own into the Pentagon, resulting in severe structural damage and the loss of 125 people. But the fourth plane, the legendary Flight 93, which the hijackers directed toward
Offi cer Walwyn Stuart (1973–2001) was one of more than three hundred police offi cers and fi refi ghters who lost their lives during the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001. He was a Port Authority police offi cer who had transferred from the NYPD, where he was an undercover narcotics detective, to the Port Authority when his wife got pregnant; he wanted a safer assignment so he could be there for his wife and baby. After the planes hit the towers, Offi cer Stuart got everyone out from the subway under the World Trade Center before the towers collapsed, and then he went into one of the towers to assist in the rescue effort. He never made it out.
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BEING SELFLESS: LEVINAS’S IDEAL ALTRUISM V. SINGER’S RECIPROCAL ALTRUISM 201
Washington, D.C., with the most likely goal being the White House or the Capitol, never reached its intended target, because a group of passengers fought back and made their way into the cockpit. As a result the plane crashed into a fi eld in Pennsyl- vania, and a catastrophe of potentially even more enormous proportions than what had already occurred was averted. But all passengers on the four planes lost their lives, 246 in all. Altogether almost 3000 people perished. As it happens, I was writing this section for the new edition on the 10th an- niversary of 9/11, 2001, and for many, the memories of that day are as raw and painful as if it had been a recent event. The horror of that day will remain with every person who was an adult or a young adult in 2001, not only in this country, but resonating around the world. But as we commemorated the suffering and death of fellow Americans and foreigners from more than seventy countries who died in New York, Washington D.C. and Pennsylvania, it was also meaningful to remember that an estimated twenty thousand people survived, many rescued by civilian strangers, fi refi ghters, and police. As we see in Chapter 11, the fi lm Schindler’s List makes the point, familiar to anyone raised in the Jewish tradition, that whoever saves a life saves a world. Many thousands of worlds were saved that day, some of them through ex- traordinarily heroic actions. But other worlds perished in the rescue attempts: Three hundred New York fi refi ghters and police offi cers were among the dead, having rushed into the Trade Center towers before they fell. While everyone else was head- ing down the stairs, they were running up. You know by now how the psychological egoist would evaluate such heroic acts, whether we focus on the resolute passengers of Flight 93, or the civilians, po- lice offi cers and fi refi ghters as well as the military men and women at the Pentagon who helped others survive: One way or another, those heroic acts should be viewed as acts of selfi shness. And now you can also supply a response: Going back to our Lincoln discussion, we can say they were selfi sh only if they did what they did for purely self-serving reasons. Judging from the remarks of rescuers who survived, their own self-interests seemed to be very far from their minds. And how about the sui- cidal terrorists? Were they selfi sh or unselfi sh, or both? Judging from letters and statements from other terrorists and sympathizers from the same groups, their moti- vation was mixed: They believed the Koran promised them direct, immediate access to heaven, where they would live in bliss for eternity, attended by beautiful virgins— but they also believed they were doing a heroic deed for their people. The Western mind-set considers self-sacrifi ce to be noble. Then why do most of us not consider terrorist acts noble? Because self-sacrifi ce is usually regarded as an act wherein a person dies trying to help others, not one that involves deliberately killing innocent people. To discuss this issue further you may want to go directly to Chapter 13, where we address the question of terrorism—but you may also want to consider the concept of group egoism: extending your self-interest to the group you belong to, so that if you could help the group survive by giving up an advantage or even sacrifi cing yourself, then (theoretically) you’d be willing to do that. A group egoist would not consider members of other groups valuable, or as having claims as legitimate as those of one’s own group. Suicide bombers do not have the interest of all at heart—just the interests of their own group—at the cost of others.
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202 CHAPTER 4 MYSELF OR OTHERS?
As an alternative to ethical egoism, altruism hardly seems preferable if we view it in its ideal, normative sense: Everybody ought to give up his or her own self-interest for others. In that case we might want to complain (as Ayn Rand did) that we have only one life to live, and why should we let the “moochers and leeches” drain our life away? If we let them take advantage of us, they surely will. Our lives are not things to be thrown away. Only a few philosophers and a few religions have ever held such an extreme altruistic theory. One person in the late twentieth century who did was the Lithuanian-French philosopher Emmanuel Levinas, whom you will meet in Chapter 10. For Levinas, the Other (another human being, the stranger) is always more important than you yourself are (which also means that you are important, as a stranger and an Other, to everyone else), and you should always put the needs of the Other ahead of your own. But Levinas is an exception among modern thinkers; usually there is a realistic recognition of the fact that humans are apt to ask what’s in it for them. (See Box 4.9 for a discussion of psychological and ethical altruism.) Ideal altruism seems to imply that there is something inherently wrong with acting to benefi t oneself, and if that is the case, it will never become a widely ac- cepted moral theory because it will work only for saints. According to the Australian
The term altruism comes from the Latin alter, meaning “other.” The version of altruism that we are discussing in this chapter is sometimes known as ethical altruism—not because there is a form of altruism that is un ethical, but simply because philosophers have seen a parallel to ethi- cal egoism: “Everyone ought to disregard his or her own interests for the sake of others.” In other words, ethical altruism is a normative theory, like its opposite, ethical egoism. But is there also a counterpart to psychological egoism, psycho- logical altruism ? I’ll let you be the judge of that. As psychological egoism, a descriptive theory, claims that everyone is selfi sh at heart, psycho- logical altruism would claim that everyone is un- selfi sh at heart: “Everyone always disregards his or her own interests for the sake of others.” Now who would hold such a theory? Not many, since it seems to fl y in the face of the facts: We know very well that not everyone in this world is caring and unselfi sh. As a matter of fact, one might spec- ulate that psychological altruism was invented by a philosopher with a sense of symmetry, just to
have a matching pair of altruisms to compare the two forms of egoism with. But if psychological altruism is redefi ned in the following way, “There is something good and caring deep down in every human being,” then the theory sounds quite fa- miliar and plausible to many people. You may remember the phrase “ought implies can” used as an excuse by psychological egoism: “Don’t tell me I ought to be unselfi sh, because I can’t.” The same idea works for psychological altruism: The person who is caring by nature might say to the ethical egoist, “Don’t tell me I ought to be selfi sh, because I can’t!” The concoction of psychological altruism may not refl ect any actual moral theory, but it does teach an interesting lesson in ethics: If we think psychological altruism is unrealistic and makes no sense, then we also have to criticize psycho- logical egoism for the same reason, because the theories are based on the same logic and are vul- nerable to the same criticisms! My astute students at Mesa College pointed this little tidbit out, and I’m happy to share it with you.
Box 4.9 P S Y C H O L O G I C A L A N D E T H I C A L A L T R U I S M
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BEING SELFLESS: LEVINAS’S IDEAL ALTRUISM V. SINGER’S RECIPROCAL ALTRUISM 203
philosopher Peter Singer, there is another way of viewing altruism, a much more realistic and rational way: Looking after the interests of others makes sense because, overall, everyone benefi ts from it. This moderate, limited version of altruism is some- times called reciprocal altruism (or Golden Rule altruism): You are ready to place others’ interests ahead of your own, especially in emergencies, and you expect them to do the same for you. Philosophers are in disagreement over whether this position actually deserves the name of altruism. In The Expanding Circle (1981), Singer suggests that egoism is, in fact, more costly than altruism. He presents a new version of a classic example, known as the prisoner’s dilemma. Two early hunters are attacked by a saber-toothed cat. They obviously both want to fl ee, but (let us suppose) they also care for each other. If they both fl ee, one will be picked off and eaten. If one fl ees and one stays and fi ghts, the fl eeing one will live but the fi ghting one will die. If both stay and fi ght, there is a chance that they can fi ght off the cat. So it is actually in the interest of both of them to stay together, and all the more so if they care for each other. Singer’s point is that evolution would favor such an arrangement, because trustworthy partners would be viewed as better than ones who leave you behind to get eaten, and they would be selected in future partnerships—so this would also involve a social advantage. If you are an egoist and you manage to get picked as a partner by an altruist, you will be the one who benefi ts from the situation (the altruist is sure to stay, and you’ll be able to get away). This will work only a few times, however; after a while the altruist will be wise to you and your kind. In the end, then, it is in your own self-interest not to be too self-interested. This argument actively defeats not only the everyday variety of ethical egoism that says you ought to do what you want—because in the end that will not improve your survival odds—but also the more sophisticated rational ethical egoism that re- quires us to think of what is to our advantage in the long run. If we look toward our own advantage exclusively, we may not be optimizing our chances, as the example of the hunters shows. Being capable of taking others’ interests into consideration actu- ally improves our own survival odds. Why is this viewpoint not just another version of the ethical egoist’s credo of looking after yourself? Because it involves someone else’s interests too. It says that there is nothing wrong with keeping an eye out for yourself, so long as it doesn’t happen at the expense of someone else’s interests. In other words, the solution may not be myself or others, but myself and others. This idea, incorporated in the moral theory of utilitarianism, will be explored in the next chapter. The fi lm Return to Para- dise, featured in the Narratives section, explores the concept of how far altruism and egoism can take a person when it boils down to friendship obligations. So what do biologists, neuroscientists, and psychologists at the cutting edge today think about the idea that humans are born selfi sh and become moral beings only through reluctant acculturation? It is not nearly as much in fashion as it used to be. The possibility that human evolution has favored the less selfi sh individuals, as Singer’s example claims, has found support in the research of Antonio Damasio and V.S. Ramachandran, among others. We can now assume that humans not only have a capacity for caring about other people’s welfare, but even have a natural feeling of empathy.
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204 CHAPTER 4 MYSELF OR OTHERS?
A Natural Fellow-Feeling? Hume and de Waal
At this point it may be appropriate to address a question that we have side-stepped until now, except for a brief discussion in Chapter 1: Where does our sense of values come from? It is clear that humans living in society have a sense of values, of things that matter to us above and beyond the everyday grind of staying safe and putting food on the table. (And, as Hobbes would say, even staying safe and putting food on the table are values we cherish.) We have a sense of moral right and wrong, of “dos and don’ts,” even if they may differ from culture to culture, and even if we may pre- fer to just look after number one. But where do these internal rules originate? Three major schools of thought have manifested themselves in modern times. (1) Values are a result of socialization, a necessary “veneer” over a fundamentally feral and self- oriented human nature. This theory is often referred to as the Veneer Theory. You’ll recognize Hobbes’s philosophy as an early example of this theory. (2) Values are an outcome of the human capacity for rational thought : Our reason is capable of see- ing through the murk of instincts and emotions to reach impartial, fair solutions, and must be the tool we use to make moral decisions. In Chapters 5 and 6 you’ll encounter the two most famous examples of this approach, in themselves very dif- ferent: utilitarianism and Kantian deontology. (3) Values are naturally embedded in our human capacity for emotions: First we experience strong feelings, then we act on them—and afterward we try to rationalize what we did. And the strong feelings most people have include a natural reluctance to harm other human beings. This theory is generally known as emotionalism.
David Hume’s Emotionalism
Mary Midgley sees human compassion toward fellow human beings as something fundamental, but primarily a love and compassion for extended family. For a more sweeping view of emotion as the fundamental moral characteristic, we turn to David
David Hume, Scottish philosopher and historian. Hume believed that human beings are born with a fellow-feeling, a sense of compassion and empathy for others.
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A NATURAL FELLOW-FEELING? HUME AND DE WAAL 205
Hume (1711–1776), the Scottish philosopher. Hume believed that compassion is the one natural human feeling that holds us together in a society. For Hume, all of ethics can be reduced to the idea that reason acts as the handmaiden to our feelings; there is no such thing as an objectively moral act—nothing is good or bad in itself, not even murder. The good and the bad lie in our feelings toward the act. For Hume, all morality rests ultimately on our emotional responses, and there are no “moral facts” outside our own personal sensitivity. This theory says that whatever we would like to see happen we think of as morally good, and whatever we would hate to see happen we think of as morally evil. And what is it we would like to see happen? For Hume the answer is, whatever corresponds to our natural feeling of concern for others. Con- trary to Hobbes, Hume believes that humans are equipped not only with self-love but also with love for others, and this emotion gives us our moral values. We simply react with sympathy to others through a built-in instinct—at least, most people do. Even persons who are generally selfi sh will feel compassion toward others if there is nothing in the situation that directly concerns them personally. Having the virtues of compassion and benevolence is a natural thing to Hume, and if we are a little short on such virtues, it simply means that we lack a natural ability, as when we are near- sighted. Such people are an exception to the rule. That means that Hume’s theory, far from being merely a focus on how we feel about things, is actually an example of soft universalism: We may have many different ideas and feelings about right and wrong, good and bad, but as human beings, most of us share a bottom-line criterion for morality: a fellow-feeling, a natural concern for others. In Hume’s words, from A Treatise of Human Nature, Book I, Part 1:
If morality had naturally no infl uence on human passions and actions, ’twere in vain to take such pains to inculcate it; and nothing wou’d be more fruitless than that multitude of rules and precepts, with which all moralists abound. Philosophy is commonly divided into speculative and practical; and as morality is always comprehended under the latter divi- sion, ’tis supposed to infl uence our passions and actions, and to go beyond the calm and indolent judgments of the understanding. And this is confi rm’d by common experience, which informs us, that men are often govern’d by their duties, and are deter’d from some actions by the opinion of injustice, and impell’d to others by that of obligation. Since morals, therefore, have an infl uence on the actions and affections, it follows, that they cannot be deriv’d from reason; and that because reason alone, as we have already prov’d, can never have any such infl uence. Morals excite passions, and produce or prevent actions. Reason of itself is utterly impotent in this particular. The rules of morality, there- fore, are not conclusions of our reason. No one, I believe, will deny the justness of this inference; nor is there any other means of evading it, than by denying that principle, on which it is founded. As long as it is allow’d, that reason has no infl uence on our passions and action, ’tis in vain to pretend, that morality is discover’d only by a deduction of reason. An active principle can never be founded on an inactive; and if reason be inactive in itself, it must remain so in all its shapes and appearances, whether it exerts itself in natural or moral subjects, whether it considers the powers of external bodies, or the actions of rational beings. . . .
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206 CHAPTER 4 MYSELF OR OTHERS?
Thus upon the whole, ’tis impossible, that the distinction betwixt moral good and evil, can be made to reason; since that distinction has an infl uence upon our actions, of which reason alone is incapable. Reason and judgment may, indeed, be the mediate cause of an action, by prompting, or by directing a passion: But it is not pretended, that a judg- ment of this kind, either in its truth or falsehood, is attended with virtue or vice. And as to the judgments, which are caused by our judgments, they can still less bestow those moral qualities on the actions, which are their causes.
You’ll remember from Chapter 1 that neuroscience has recently weighed in on the origin of the moral sense, and the spotlight has been turned toward Hume once again, because Hume’s theory that we are endowed with a natural empa- thy for other human beings has now found support in neuroscientifi c fi ndings. Antonio Damasio and other scientists believe they have found a natural tendency in humans to feel empathy toward others—one that can be overridden by rational- ity as well as pressure from others, and one that may be stronger toward those we feel close to, but a natural tendency nevertheless, and this research has lent sup- port to a new interest in moral naturalism (see Chapter 1). In Chapter 11 you’ll fi nd a twentieth-century example of emotionalism in the philosophy of Richard Taylor.
Can Animals Have Morals?
But that leads us back to this question: If humans can truly behave in a somewhat/ sometimes selfl ess manner, what about the higher animals? What about those dol- phins saving the group of four swimmers in New Zealand? And the tsunami dog you read about earlier in this chapter, trying to get help for another, injured dog? Throughout history there have been numerous similar examples. Is the most plau- sible explanation that they simply don’t know what they’re doing, or do they make what we would call a moral choice? Consider this story: Some years ago a small boy fell into the Western Lowland gorilla pit at the Brookfi eld Zoo in Chicago. The female gorilla Binti Jua, herself a new mother, picked up the unconscious child and shielded him from the other gorillas. Then she carried him over to the doorway, where she was used to zoo personnel going in and out, and a rescue crew came and got the boy. The story received nationwide attention. Why did Binti Jua show such seem- ingly “human” concern for the child? Many people were astonished to hear that a gorilla could show signs of compassion, let alone for someone not of her own spe- cies. A curator explained that she had been trained to bring her own baby to cura- tors, and she was accustomed to being in close proximity with humans. So some concluded that Binti Jua did not act out of any rational or compassionate decision but simply on the basis of her training. Perhaps she was used to getting a reward for bringing her own baby and expected a reward for bringing the child. Other animal behaviorists who work with great apes didn’t fi nd Binti’s action very remarkable: Gorillas and chimpanzees have a great capacity for compassion, they said, and will shield and defend an infant ape against aggressive adult apes. But Binti showed not just a compassion that went beyond her own species but also good common sense in
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A NATURAL FELLOW-FEELING? HUME AND DE WAAL 207
carrying the boy over to the place where humans would be most likely to come and get him. So is it possible for a great ape to act unselfi shly? Binti may certainly have been expecting a reward, but she also exhibited a gentle concern for the boy himself, so in one gesture this gorilla demonstrated transspecies compassion and foresight that seem to go beyond instinct and training. Science and philosophy have generally assumed that nonhuman animals live in a nonmoral universe of innocence, where what seems cruel to humans is just the natu- ral response of self-preservation: They are beyond the categories of good and evil. But now comes thought-provoking new research, gathering results from years of observ- ing monkeys, apes, dolphins, whales, elephants, and wolves. Contrary to what people have told one another for so long about nonmoral animals, it turns out that some form of moral code seems to prevail in all these groups of social animals, and “moral code” here doesn’t just mean that each animal has an instinct for behaving within the group, because often an individual (usually a young animal) will mis behave and then be punished by the group (with beating or ostracism, but usually not death). After the punishment, there is usually a kiss-and-make-up phase. According to Frans de Waal of Emory University’s Yerkes Primate Center, chimps share food with one an- other and are indignant when an individual who seldom shares his or her own food expects a share of someone else’s. At the Arnhem Zoo Chimpanzee compound where de Waal used to do research, two young female apes came home late one day and held up dinner for all the other apes in the research group; the scientists kept them separate overnight for their safety, but the next day they were beaten up by the rest of the colony. That night they were the fi rst to come home. So the origin of moral rules may have to be sought much farther back in time than the Pleistocene, when Singer’s hunters decided whether to run or to fi ght the saber-toothed cat. This also means that the psychological egoist’s theory that we are “born” self- ish needs to be rewritten because it is too vague a statement in light of new research. It is not impossible that each child (and each chimpanzee) is born com- pletely selfi sh, and that we begin to modify our selfi sh behavior only when we realize we can’t get away with it constantly. But (1) new research has shown that even toddlers seem to display empathy, and (2) even if children act selfi shly, the child is not the same as the adult, and some thinkers claim that what I’ve outlined here is the genetic fallacy: confusing the origin of something with what it has be- come at a later stage. We don’t ordinarily claim that children are moral agents, be- cause psychologists tell us that children really don’t know the difference between right and wrong before they are about seven or eight years old. So why should the amoral demeanor of a small child be held up as the natural morality of an adult? We don’t claim that the talent of a gifted ballplayer, a star chef, a good parent, or a great teacher can be reduced to their skills and knowledge when they were four years old. Children experience socialization, and since humans are social beings by nature, the effects on the individual of living in society are part of what we are as human beings. With the right training, we develop intellectually and technically as we grow older; therefore, it should be apparent that we also develop morally. We may start out in life as selfi sh, but with socialization, most people end up being capable of taking other people’s interests into account—not merely because
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208 CHAPTER 4 MYSELF OR OTHERS?
it is the prudent thing to do, but also because they develop an interest in other people’s well-being. And that may be the secret behind the immense evolutionary success of human beings. In his book Good Natured: The Origins of Right and Wrong in Humans and Other Animals (1996), Frans de Waal speculates that although humans are the only animals that can take delight in cruel treatment of others, both humans and great apes have the capacity for selfl ess caring for others. Echoing the thoughts of David Hume as well as Peter Singer and Charles Darwin himself, he writes:
Human sympathy is not unlimited. It is offered most readily to one’s own family and clan, less readily to other members of the community, and most reluctantly, if at all, to outsid- ers. The same is true of the succorant behavior of animals. The two share not only a cogni- tive and emotional basis, but similar constraints in their expression. Despite its fragility and selectivity, the capacity to care for others is the bedrock of our moral system. It is the only capacity that does not snugly fi t the hedonic cage in which philosophers, psychologists, and biologists have tried to lock the human spirit. One of the principal functions of morality seems to be to protect and nurture this caring capacity, to guide its growth and expand its reach, so that it can effectively balance other human ten- dencies that need little encouragement.
In the Primary Readings you’ll fi nd an excerpt from Frans de Waal’s book Primates and Philosophers: How Morality Evolved (2006), in which he argues that Hume was right, after all: Moral intuition, not reason, is at the core of human ethics, even in the minds of small children, and it had to come from somewhere: the world of primates and their rich emotional life. In 2011 a study was published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, in which Frans de Waal and colleagues Victoria Horner, J. Devyn Carter, and Malini Suchak concluded that, contrary to what was previously assumed, chimpanzees turn out not to be essentially self-centered animals, but display a high level of empathy- based altruistic behavior. In an interview with Discovery News, Christophe Boesch, director of the Department of Primatology at the Max Planck Institute for Evolution- ary Anthropology, said that “All studies with wild chimpanzees have amply docu- mented that they share meat and other food abundantly, that they help one another in highly risky situations, like when facing predators or neighboring communities, and adopt needing orphans.” De Waal has already gone on record as saying that em- pathy appears to be so basic for mammals that we can expect to fi nd it even in dogs and rats. Primatologists seem convinced now that it has at least been established that humans and chimpanzees share the capacity for empathy. The question is, does that mean the chimpanzees—and other mammals who may share the same neurologi- cal structures—have morals? Is fellow-feeling the same as having morals (knowing rules of behavior), or even ethics (being aware of the rules, and evaluating them)? De Waal does not commit to a straightforward confi rmation, but another scholar does: ecologist Marc Bekoff. In his book Wild Justice (2009), co-authored by philosopher Jessica Pierce, he argues that not only do apes show a sense of fairness, and are dis- turbed by unfairness, but so do wolves, dogs, whales, elephants, and just about any highly social mammal all the way to bats and rats. Bekoff’s ideas are still considered
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PRIMARY READINGS AND NARRATIVES 209
speculative, but there is far more willingness to consider their merit today than even a decade ago. So it appears that not only aren’t we humans as selfi sh as we used to think; if our brains have developed within the general realm of normalcy, we have a natural sense of empathy toward other humans, an ability to understand their pain and their joy—and it even appears that we share some of the ability with other highly social mammals. Perhaps the special human trait is that under the right circum- stances (see Chapter 1 on Hannah Arendt, Stanley Milgram and Philip Zimbardo) we are very good at overriding those feelings with rational arguments. And while that can create a million bad excuses for causing harm to others, perhaps overriding one’s empathy is not always a bad thing—an immediate feeling of sympathy with- out rational thinking may prevent us from seeing the greater picture where harm will be caused to the many if we protect the few. And that takes us into the next chapter on the moral philosophy of Utilitarianism. We will also look more closely at the relationship between empathy and reason in Chapter 11 when we examine the virtue of compassion.
1. What “other human tendencies” is Frans de Waal talking about? Do you agree with him that humans and some apes share the capacity for caring? Why or why not?
2. What are the most powerful arguments in favor of psychological egoism? What are the most damaging arguments against it?
3. Discuss the theory of the selfi sh gene: Do you fi nd it to be a suffi cient ex- planation for altruistic behavior among humans and animals? Why or why not? Do you think Midgley’s counterargument is persuasive? Explain.
4. Discuss the concept of ethical egoism in its most rational form: We ought to treat others the way we want to be treated to ensure our own safety and prosper- ity. What can be said for this approach? What can be said against it?
5. Outline the most attractive and most problematic points associated with reciprocal and ideal altruism.
Primary Readings and Narratives
The Primary Readings are a discussion about selfi shness and justice from Pla- to’s Republic, an excerpt from Thomas Hobbes’s Leviathan, an excerpt from Ayn Rand’s philosophical essay “The Ethics of Emergencies,” and an excerpt from Frans de Waal’s Primates and Philosophers. The fi rst Narrative is a summary and excerpt from an episode of the TV show Friends about whether an unselfi sh act is possible. The second Narrative is a summary of the fi lm Return to Paradise, whose plot is a variation on the prisoner’s dilemma. The third Narrative is an excerpt from Atlas Shrugged, about the rights of creative people to maintain their high standards and look out for themselves, plus an excerpt from the famous speech by John Galt.
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210 CHAPTER 4 MYSELF OR OTHERS?
P L A T O
Book II. Excerpts.
You have already read a section of Plato’s most famous Dialogue, The Republic, in Chap- ter 2. Here Socrates and Glaucon discuss the issue of justice and selfi shness, illustrated by Glaucon’s story of the Ring of Gyges. Glaucon is playing the devil’s advocate, provoking Socrates into defending the concept of justice. Socrates is talking about the conversa- tion to friends, so the narrator (the “I”) is supposed to be Socrates himself (as written by Plato). After Glaucon’s lengthy argument in favor of selfi shness we get Socrates’ response. The rest of The Republic is in a sense dedicated to proving Glaucon wrong.
Good, said Glaucon. Listen then, and I will begin with my fi rst point: the nature and origin of justice.
What people say is that to do wrong is, in itself, a desirable thing; on the other hand, it is not at all desirable to suffer wrong, and the harm to the sufferer outweighs the advan- tage to the doer. Consequently, when men have had a taste of both, those who have not the power to seize the advantage and escape the harm decide that they would be better off if they made a compact neither to do wrong nor to suffer it. Hence they begin to make laws and covenants with one another; and whatever the law prescribed they called lawful and right. That is what right or justice is and how it came into existence; it stands half- way between the best thing of all—to do wrong with impunity—and the worst, which is to suffer wrong without the power to retaliate. So justice is accepted as a compromise, and valued, not as good in itself, but for lack of power to do wrong; no man worthy of the name, who had that power, would ever enter into such a compact with anyone; he would be mad if he did. That, Socrates, is the nature of justice according to this account, and such the circumstances in which it arose.
The next point is that men practise it against the grain, for lack of power to do wrong. How true that is, we shall best see if we imagine two men, one just, the other unjust, given full license to do whatever they like, and then follow them to observe where each will be led by his desires. We shall catch the just man taking the same road as the unjust; he will be moved by self-interest, the end which it is natural to every creature to pursue as good, until forcibly turned aside by law and custom to respect the principle of equality.
Now, the easiest way to give them that complete liberty of action would be to imagine them possessed of the talisman found by Gyges, the ancestor of the famous Lydian Croesus. The story tells how he was a shepherd in the King’s service. One day there was a great storm, and the ground where his fl ock was feeding was rent by an earthquake. Astonished at the sight, he went down into the chasm and saw, among other wonders of which the story tells, a brazen horse, hollow, with windows in its sides. Peering in, he saw a dead body, which seemed to be of more than human size. It was naked save for a gold ring, which he took from the fi nger and made his way out. When the shepherds met, as they did every month, to send an account to the King of the state of his fl ocks, Gyges came wearing the ring. As he was sitting with the others, he happened to turn the bezel of the ring inside his hand. At
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once he became invisible, and his companions, to his surprise, began to speak of him as if he had left them. Then, as he was fi ngering the ring, he turned the bezel outwards and became visible again. With that, he set about testing the ring to see if it really had this power, and always with the same result: according as he turned the bezel inside or out he vanished and reappeared. After this discovery he contrived to be one of the messengers sent to the court. There he seduced the Queen, and with her help murdered the King and seized the throne.
Now suppose there were two such magic rings, and one were given to the just man, the other to the unjust. No one, it is commonly believed, would have such iron strength of mind as to stand fast in doing right or keep his hands off other men’s goods, when he could go to the market-place and fearlessly help himself to anything he wanted, enter houses and sleep with any woman he chose, set prisoners free and kill men at his plea- sure, and in a word go about among men with the powers of a god. He would behave no better than the other; both would take the same course. Surely this would be strong proof that men do right only under compulsion; no individual thinks of it as good for him personally, since he does wrong whenever he fi nds he has the power. Every man be- lieves that wrong-doing pays him personally much better, and, according to this theory, that is the truth. Granted full license to do as he liked, people would think him a miser- able fool if they found him refusing to wrong his neighbours or to touch their belongings, though in public they would keep up a pretence of praising his conduct, for fear of being wronged themselves. So much for that.
Finally, if we are really to judge between the two lives, the only way is to contrast the extremes of justice and injustice. We can best do that by imagining our two men to be perfect types, and crediting both to the full with the qualities they need for their respective ways of life. To begin with the unjust man: he must be like any consummate master of a craft, a physician or a captain, who, knowing just what his art can do, never tries to do more, and can always retrieve a false step. The unjust man, if he is to reach perfection, must be equally discreet in his criminal attempts, and he must not be found out, or we shall think him a bungler; for the highest pitch of injustice is to seem just when you are not. So we must endow our man with the full complement of injustice; we must allow him to have secured a spotless reputation for virtue while committing the blackest crimes; he must be able to retrieve any mistake, to defend himself with convinc- ing eloquence if his misdeeds are denounced, and, when force is required, to bear down all opposition by his courage and strength and by his command of friends and money.
Now set beside this paragon the just man in his simplicity and nobleness, one who, in Aeschylus’ words, “would be, not seem, the best.” There must, indeed, be no such seeming; for if his character were apparent, his reputation would bring him honours and rewards, and then we should not know whether it was for their sake that he was just or for justice’s sake alone. He must be stripped of everything but justice, and denied every advantage the other enjoyed. Doing no wrong, he must have the worst reputation for wrong-doing, to test whether his virtue is proof against all that comes of having a bad name; and under this lifelong imputation of wickedness, let him hold on his course of justice unwavering to the point of death. And so, when the two men have carried their justice and injustice to the last extreme, we may judge which is the happier.
My dear Glaucon, I exclaimed, how vigorously you scour these two characters clean for inspection, as if you were burnishing a couple of statues!
I am doing my best, he answered. Well, given two such characters, it is not hard, I fancy, to describe the sort of life that each of them may expect; and if the description
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212 CHAPTER 4 MYSELF OR OTHERS?
sounds rather coarse, take it as coming from those who cry up the merits of injustice rather than from me. They will tell you that our just man will be thrown into prison, scourged and racked, will have his eyes burnt out, and, after every kind of torment, be impaled. That will teach him how much better it is to seem virtuous than to be so. [. . .]
With his reputation for virtue, [the unjust man] will hold offi ces of state, ally himself by marriage to any family he may choose, become a partner in any business, and, having no scruples about being dishonest, turn all these advantages to profi t. If he is involved in a lawsuit, public or private, he will get the better of his opponents, grow rich on the proceeds, and be able to help his friends and harm his enemies. Finally, he can make sacrifi ces to the gods and dedicate offerings with due magnifi cence, and, being in a much better position than the just man to serve the gods as well as his chosen friends, he may reasonably hope to stand higher in the favour of heaven. So much better, they say, Socrates, is the life prepared for the unjust by gods and men.
Here Glaucon ended, and I was meditating a reply, when his brother Adeimantus exclaimed:
Surely, Socrates, you cannot suppose that that is all there is to be said. Why, isn’t it? said I.
This reply of Socrates displays his famous sense of irony. There is much more to be said, and for the rest of the evening, Socrates discusses why the just man is a happier person than the unjust man. He does that by way of imagining an ideal state, governed by justice rather than injustice.
Glaucon and the others begged me to step into the breach and carry through our inquiry into the real nature of justice and injustice, and the truth about their respective advan- tages. So I told them what I thought. This is a very obscure question, I said, and we shall need keen sight to see our way. Now, as we are not remarkably clever, I will make a suggestion as to how we should proceed. Imagine a rather short-sighted person told to read an inscription in small letters from some way off. He would think it a godsend if someone pointed out that the same inscription was written up elsewhere on a bigger scale, so that he could fi rst read the larger characters and then make out whether the smaller ones were the same.
No doubt, said Adeimantus; but what analogy do you see in that to our inquiry? I will tell you. We think of justice as a quality that may exist in a whole community
as well as in an individual, and the community is the bigger of the two. Possibly, then, we may fi nd justice there in larger proportions, easier to make out. So I suggest that we should begin by inquiring what justice means in a state. Then we can go on to look for its counterpart on a smaller scale in the individual.
That seems a good plan, he agreed.
After having reached the conclusion (to which we will return in Chapter 8) that the just state is similar to the just person, and that a just person’s soul consists of three parts— reason, willpower, and desire —which must all be in balance and governed by reason, Socrates explains to Glaucon and the others the imbalance of the unjust man compared with the well-being of the just man.
Next, I suppose, we have to consider injustice. Evidently.
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This must surely be a sort of civil strife among the three elements, whereby they usurp and encroach upon one another’s functions and some one part of the soul rises up in rebellion against the whole, claiming a supremacy to which it has no right because its nature fi ts it only to be the servant of the ruling principle. Such turmoil and aberration we shall, I think, identify with injustice, intemperance, cowardice, ignorance, and in a word with all wickedness.
Exactly. And now that we know the nature of justice and injustice, we can be equally clear
about what is meant by acting justly and again by unjust action and wrongdoing. How do you mean? Plainly, they are exactly analogous to those wholesome and unwholesome activities
which respectively produce a healthy or unhealthy condition in the body; in the same way just and unjust conduct produce a just or unjust character. Justice is produced in the soul, like health in the body, by establishing the elements concerned in their natural relations of control and subordination, whereas injustice is like disease and means that this natural order is inverted.
Quite so. It appears, then, that virtue is as it were the health and comeliness and well-being of
the soul, as wickedness is disease, deformity, and weakness. True. And also that virtue and wickedness are brought about by one’s way of life, honour-
able or disgraceful. That follows. So now it only remains to consider which is the more profi table course: to do right
and live honourably and be just, whether or not anyone knows what manner of man you are, or to do wrong and be unjust, provided that you can escape the chastisement which might make you a better man.
But really, Socrates, it seems to me ridiculous to ask that question now that the nature of justice and injustice has been brought to light. People think that all the luxury and wealth and power in the world cannot make life worth living when the bodily con- stitution is going to rack and ruin; and are we to believe that, when the very principle whereby we live is deranged and corrupted, life will be worth living so long as a man can do as he will, and wills to do anything rather than to free himself from vice and wrong- doing and to win justice and virtue?
Yes, I replied, it is a ridiculous question.
1. How does Glaucon use the story of Gyges to express a theory of human nature?
2. Is Glaucon right? Why or why not?
3. Plato has Glaucon speculate about the terrible fate of the truly good man. How might Plato’s readers interpret that? (Remember that this dialogue was written years after Socrates’ death at the hands of the Athenian court.)
4. Has Socrates now proved to you that it is better to be a “just” person than an “unjust” person? Explain.
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214 CHAPTER 4 MYSELF OR OTHERS?
T H O M A S H O B B E S
Whereas Glaucon’s arguments were the result of playing the devil’s advocate, Thomas Hobbes came to the same conclusion in all seriousness some two thousand years later: Humans are selfi sh by nature, and society is our best way to protect ourselves from one another. Justice is a concept that is to be found in a society only once the rules have been laid down. Before the creation of society, in the “state of nature,” where people live in a perpetual state of war against one another, life is “nasty, brutish, and short,” and no rules apply except that of self-preservation. To improve our personal condition and for no other reason, we choose to live by the rules of society. Justice is indeed to Thomas Hobbes an invention based on self-preservation, nothing more.
Hereby it is manifest, that during the time men live without a common Power to keep them all in awe, they are in that condition which is called Warre; and such a warre, as is of every man against every man. For WARRE, consisteth not in Battell onely, or the act of fi ghting; but in a tract of time, wherein the Will to contend by Battell is suffi ciently known: and therefore the notion of Time, is to be considered in the nature of Warre; as it is in the nature of Weather. For as the nature of Foule weather, lyeth not in a showre or two of rain; but in an inclination thereto of many dayes together; So the nature of War, consisteth not in actuall fi ghting; but in the known disposition thereto, during all the time there is no assurance to the contrary. All other time is PEACE.
Whatsoever therefore is consequent to a time of Warre, where every man is Enemy to every man; the same is consequent to the time, wherein men live without other secu- rity, than what their own strength, and their own invention shall furnish them withall. In such condition, there is no place for Industry; because the fruit thereof is uncertain: and consequently no Culture of the Earth, no Navigation, nor use of the commodities that may be imported by Sea; no commodious Building; no Instruments of moving, and removing such things as require much force; no Knowledge of the face of the Earth; no account of Time; no Arts; no Letters; no Society; and which is worst of all, continuall feare, and danger of violent death; And the life of man, solitary, poore, nasty, brutish, and short. . . .
To this warre of every man against every man, this also is consequent; that noth- ing can be Unjust. The notions of Right and Wrong, Justice and Injustice have there no place. Where there is no common Power, there is no Law: where no Law, no Injustice. Force, and Fraud, are in warre the two Cardinall vertues. Justice, and Injustice are none of the Faculties neither of the Body, nor Mind. If they were, they might be in a man that were alone in the world, as well as his Senses, and Passions. They are Qualities, that relate to men in Society, not in Solitude. . . .
The Passions that encline men to Peace, are Feare of Death; Desire of such things as are necessary to commodious living; and a Hope by their Industry to obtain them. And Reason suggesteth convenient Articles of Peace, upon which men may be drawn to agreement.
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1. What does Hobbes mean by saying that when humans live in a state of war of every- body against everybody, there is neither justice nor injustice? What event creates jus- tice and injustice?
2. Compare Glaucon’s and Hobbes’s ideas of justice.
3. Hobbes believes we are all selfi sh by nature; however, since right and wrong for Hobbes don’t exist before the creation of society, is selfi shness in itself a bad thing? Why or why not?
The Ethics of Emergencies
A Y N R A N D
The Virtue of Selfi shness: A New Concept of Egoism, 1964. Excerpt.
Ayn Rand’s essay from her book The Virtue of Selfi shness exemplifi es her defense of self- interest for the sake of human well-being. Here she argues that there is a false dichotomy between what she sees as the foremost, common moral philosophy—that you have to be willing to sacrifi ce your life for others (altruism)—or else you must be a cold, non-feeling beast who wouldn’t lift a fi nger to help anyone. She sees her own theory of Objectivism as the only alternative: If we do what we can for those we love it is never a “sacrifi ce,” because we do it willingly. Love is a selfi sh value, and that means it is important to us; so Objectivism demands that we pursue our own self-interest in helping ourselves as well as those we care about.
The psychological results of altruism may be observed in the fact that a great many peo- ple approach the subject of ethics by asking such questions as: “Should one risk one’s life to help a man who is: a) drowning, b) trapped in a fi re, c) stepping in front of a speeding truck, d) hanging by his fi ngernails over an abyss?”
Consider the implications of that approach. If a man accepts the ethics of altruism, he suffers the following consequences (in proportion to the degree of his acceptance):
1. Lack of self-esteem—since his fi rst concern in the realm of values is not how to live his life, but how to sacrifi ce it.
2. Lack of respect for others—since he regards mankind as a herd of doomed beggars crying for someone’s help.
3. A nightmare view of existence—since he believes that men are trapped in a “malevo- lent universe” where disasters are the constant and primary concern of their lives. 4. And, in fact, a lethargic indifference to ethics, a hopelessly cynical amorality—since his questions involve situations which he is not likely ever to encounter, which bear no relation to the actual problems of his own life and thus leave him to live without any moral principles whatever.
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By elevating the issue of helping others into the central and primary issue of ethics, altruism has destroyed the concept of any authentic benevolence or good will among men. It has indoctrinated men with the idea that to value another human being is an act of selfl essness, thus implying that a man can have no personal interest in others—that to value another means to sacrifi ce oneself—that any love, respect or admiration a man may feel for others is not and cannot be a source of his own enjoyment, but is a threat to his existence, a sacrifi cial blank check signed over to his loved ones.
The men who accept that dichotomy but choose its other side, the ultimate prod- ucts of altruism’s dehumanizing infl uence, are those psychopaths who do not challenge altruism’s basic premise, but proclaim their rebellion against self-sacrifi ce by announcing that they are totally indifferent to anything living and would not lift a fi nger to help a man or a dog left mangled by a hit-and-run driver (who is usually one of their own kind).
Most men do not accept or practice either side of altruism’s viciously false dichot- omy, but its result is a total intellectual chaos on the issue of proper human relationships and on such questions as the nature, purpose or extent of the help one may give to oth- ers. Today, a great many well-meaning, reasonable men do not know how to identify or conceptualize the moral principles that motivate their love, affection or good will, and can fi nd no guidance in the fi eld of ethics, which is dominated by the stale platitudes of altruism.
On the question of why man is not a sacrifi cial animal and why help to others is not his moral duty, I refer you to Atlas Shrugged. This present discussion is concerned with the principles by which one identifi es and evaluates the instances involving a man’s nonsacrifi cial help to others.
“Sacrifi ce” is the surrender of a greater value for the sake of a lesser one or of a nonvalue. Thus, altruism gauges a man’s virtue by the degree to which he surrenders, renounces or betrays his values (since help to a stranger or an enemy is regarded as more virtuous, less “selfi sh,” than help to those one loves). The rational principle of conduct is the exact opposite: always act in accordance with the hierarchy of your values, and never sacrifi ce a greater value to a lesser one.
This applies to all choices, including one’s actions toward other men. It requires that one possess a defi ned hierarchy of rational values (values chosen and validated by a rational standard). Without such a hierarchy, neither rational conduct nor considered value judgments nor moral choices are possible.
Love and friendship are profoundly personal, selfi sh values: love is an expression and assertion of self-esteem, a response to one’s own values in the person of another. One gains a profoundly personal selfi sh joy from the mere existence of the person one loves. It is one’s own personal, selfi sh happiness that one seeks, earns and derives from love.
A “selfl ess,” “disinterested” love is a contradiction in terms: it means that one is indifferent to that which one values.
Concern for the welfare of those one loves is a rational part of one’s selfi sh inter- ests. If a man who is passionately in love with his wife spends a fortune to cure her of a dangerous illness, it would be absurd to claim that he does it as a “sacrifi ce” for her sake, not his own, and that it makes no difference to him, personally and selfi shly, whether she lives or dies.
Any action that a man undertakes for the benefi t of those he loves is not a sacrifi ce if, in the hierarchy of his values, in the total context of the choices open to him, it achieves that which is of greatest personal (and rational) importance to him. In the above example,
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his wife’s survival is of greater value to the husband than anything else that his money could buy, it is of greatest importance to his own happiness and, therefore, his action is not a sacrifi ce.
But suppose he let her die in order to spend his money on saving the lives of ten other women, none of whom meant anything to him—as the ethics of altruism would require. That would be a sacrifi ce. Here the difference between Objectivism and altruism can be seen most clearly: if sacrifi ce is the moral principle of action, then that husband should sacrifi ce his wife for the sake of ten other women. What distinguishes the wife from the ten others? Nothing but her value to the husband who has to make the choice— nothing but the fact that his happiness requires her survival.
The Objectivist ethics would tell him: your highest moral purpose is the achieve- ment of your own happiness, your money is yours, use it to save your wife, that is your moral right and your rational, moral choice.
Consider the soul of the altruistic moralist who would be prepared to tell that hus- band the opposite. (And then ask yourself whether altruism is motivated by benevolence.)
The proper method of judging when or whether one should help another person is by reference to one’s own rational self-interest and one’s own hierarchy of values: the time, money, or effort one gives or the risk one takes should be proportionate to the value of the person in relation to one’s own happiness.
To illustrate this on the altruists’ favorite example: the issue of saving a drowning person. If the person to be saved is a stranger, it is morally proper to save him only when the danger to one’s own life is minimal; when the danger is great, it would be immoral to attempt it: only a lack of self-esteem could permit one to value one’s life no higher than that of any random stranger. (And, conversely, if one is drowning, one cannot expect a stranger to risk his life for one’s sake, remembering that one’s life cannot be as valuable to him as his own.)
If the person to be saved is not a stranger, then the risk one should be willing to take is greater in proportion to the greatness of that person’s value to oneself. If it is the man or woman one loves, then one can be willing to give one’s own life to save him or her—for the selfi sh reason that life without the loved person could be unbearable.
Conversely, if a man is able to swim and to save his drowning wife, but becomes panicky, gives in to an unjustifi ed, irrational fear and lets her drown, then spends his life in loneliness and misery—one would not call him “selfi sh”; one would condemn him morally for his treason to himself and to his own values, that is: his failure to fi ght for the preservation of a value crucial to his own happiness. Remember that values are that which one acts to gain and/or keep, and that one’s own happiness has to be achieved by one’s own effort. Since one’s own happiness is the moral purpose of one’s life, the man who fails to achieve it because of his own default—his failure to fi ght for it, is morally guilty.
1. Is Rand correct in saying that if you accept altruism, then you end up with a lack of self-esteem and a lack of respect for others?
2. Is Rand criticizing ideal or reciprocal altruism? Do you think that she would differenti- ate between the two? Would you?
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218 CHAPTER 4 MYSELF OR OTHERS?
3. Comment on the following quotation: “The proper method of judging when or whether one should help another person is by reference to one’s own rational self- interest and one’s own hierarchy of values: the time, money or effort one gives or the risk one takes should be proportionate to the value of the person in relation to one’s own happiness.” What might the social and political outcome be if that approach were implemented?
4. A suggestion: Reread this excerpt after you have studied Chapter 5, on utilitarianism, and speculate: How would Rand evaluate the theory that asks us to maximize happi- ness for the maximum number of people?
5. Go back to Chapter 3 and reread, in the excerpt from Ruth Benedict’s paper “Anthro- pology and the Abnormal,” the section about “unbridled and arrogant egoists” as being typical of Western civilization. What might Rand’s comment be about that remark?
6. On p. 196 you read that one philosophical argument against Rand is her false dichot- omy between altruism and objectivism. Here you’ve read her own words that altruism itself engages in a false dichotomy between selfl essness and inhumanity. Which ver- sion do you fi nd most compelling? Is there another fallacy from Chapter 1 that might apply to Rand’s text? (Hint: look at the Strawman fallacy!)
Primates and Philosophers: How Morality Evolved
F R A N S D E W A A L
In this excerpt from his book, Frans de Waal, primate researcher at Emory University’s Yerkes Primate Center, argues that the Veneer Theory, the notion that humans are fun- damentally selfi sh and that morals are merely a thin veneer of civilization over the inner beast, is fundamentally fl awed. Moral values evolved, ironically, out of a system of or- ganized warfare whereby we developed strong, caring attachments to our fellow human beings within the group. That sense of community is more fundamental than our rational capacities, and moral intuition, long thought to be a myth, is in fact the true foundation of human moral evolution.
Obviously, the most potent force to bring out a sense of community is enmity toward outsiders. It forces unity among elements that are normally at odds. This may not be visible at the zoo, but it is defi nitely a factor for chimpanzees in the wild, which show lethal intercommunity violence. In our own species, nothing is more obvious than that we band together against adversaries. In the course of human evolution, out-group hos- tility enhanced in-group solidarity to the point that morality emerged. Instead of merely ameliorating relations around us, as apes do, we have explicit teachings about the value
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of the community and the precedence it takes, or ought to take, over individual inter- ests. Humans go much further in all of this than the apes, which is why we have moral systems and apes do not.
And so, the profound irony is that our noblest achievement—morality—has evo- lutionary ties to our basest behavior—warfare. The sense of community required by the former was provided by the latter. When we passed the tipping point between confl ict- ing individual interests and shared interests, we ratcheted up the social pressure to make sure everyone contributed to the common good.
If we accept this view of an evolved morality, of morality as a logical outgrowth of cooperative tendencies, we are not going against our own nature by developing a car- ing, moral attitude, any more than civil society is an out-of-control garden subdued by a sweating gardener, as Huxley thought. Moral attitudes have been with us from the start, and the gardener rather is, as Dewey aptly put it, an organic grower. The successful gardener creates conditions and introduces plant species that may not be normal for this particular plot of land “but fall within the wont and use of nature as a whole.” In other words, we are not hypocritically fooling everyone when we act morally: we are making decisions that fl ow from social instincts older than our species, even though we add to these the uniquely human complexity of a disinterested concern for others and for society as a whole.
Following Hume, who saw reason as the slave of the passions, Haidt has called for a thorough reevaluation of the role played by rationality in moral judgment, arguing that most human justifi cation seems to occur post hoc, that is, after moral judgments have been reached on the basis of quick, automated intuitions. Whereas Veneer Theory, with its emphasis on human uniqueness, would predict that moral problem solving is assigned to evolutionarily recent additions to our brain, such as the prefrontal cortex, neuroimaging shows that moral judgment in fact involves a wide variety of brain areas, some extremely ancient. In short, neuroscience seems to be lending support to human morality as evolutionarily anchored in mammalian sociality.
We celebrate rationality, but when push comes to shove we assign it little weight. This is especially true in the moral domain. Imagine that an extraterrestrial consultant instructs us to kill people as soon as they come down with infl uenza. In doing so, we are told, we would kill far fewer people than would die if the epidemic were allowed to run its course. By nipping the fl u in the bud, we would save lives. Logical as this may sound, I doubt that many of us would opt for this plan. This is because human morality is fi rmly anchored in the social emotions, with empathy at its core. Emotions are our compass. We have strong inhibitions against killing members of our own community, and our moral decisions refl ect these feelings. For the same reasons, people object to moral solu- tions that involve hands-on harm to another. This may be because hands-on violence has been subject to natural selection, whereas utilitarian deliberations have not.
Additional support for an intuitionist approach to morality comes from child re- search. Developmental psychologists used to believe that the child learns its fi rst moral distinctions through fear of punishment and a desire for praise. Similar to veneer theo- rists, they conceived morality as coming from the outside, imposed by adults upon a passive, naturally selfi sh child. Children were thought to adopt parental values to con- struct a superego: the moral agency of the self. Left to their own devices, children would never arrive at anything close to morality. We know now, however, that at an early age
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220 CHAPTER 4 MYSELF OR OTHERS?
children understand the difference between moral principles (“do not steal”) and cultural conventions (“no pajamas at school”). They apparently appreciate that the breaking of certain rules distresses and harms others, whereas the breaking of other rules merely vio- lates expectations about what is appropriate. Their attitudes don’t seem based purely on reward and punishment. Whereas many pediatric handbooks still depict young children as self-centered monsters, it has become clear that by one year of age they spontaneously comfort others in distress and that soon thereafter they begin to develop a moral perspec- tive through interactions with other members of their species.
Instead of our doing “violence to the willow,” as Mencius called it, to create the cups and bowls of an artifi cial morality, we rely on natural growth in which simple emotions, like those encountered in young children and social animals, develop into the more refi ned, other-including sentiments that we recognize as underlying morality. My own argument here obviously revolves around the continuity between human social instincts and those of our closest relatives, the monkeys and apes, but I feel that we are standing at the threshold of a much larger shift in theorizing that will end up positioning morality fi rmly within the emotional core of human nature. Humean thinking is making a major comeback.
1. What does de Waal mean when he says that human morality has evolved out of war- fare with other human groups? Do you think he is right? Why or why not?
2. When does de Waal think humans begin to display moral tendencies of empathy? Explain.
3. De Waal argues that there is a continuity between simple primate morality and com- plex human morality. Do you agree? Why or why not?
The One Where Phoebe Hates PBS
M I C H A E L C U R T I S ( T E L E P L A Y )
S H E L L E Y J E N S E N ( D I R E C T O R )
An episode of Friends, 1998–9. Summary.
Can a television sitcom discuss moral problems in an even remotely signifi cant way? I’ll let you be the judge of that. If you’ve ever sat around the kitchen table after a party with friends discussing whether everyone is selfi sh, then you can relate to the main story line in this episode. Just a brief introduction to the characters: Joey is an aspiring actor who has a rather blatant tendency to think of himself fi rst, and others second. Phoebe is a kindhearted and spiritual (some would say scatterbrained) poet/singer/masseuse who has her own private view of the world. She is the surrogate mother of triplets, given over to her half-brother and his wife, who can’t conceive. One morning while some of
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NARRATIVE: TH E ONE WHERE PHOEB E HA TE S PBS 221
the friends (Phoebe, Chandler, Ross, and Monica) are having breakfast, Joey comes in, wearing a tuxedo. He has got a gig (he thinks) hosting a telethon for PBS, and he brags that he’s doing a good deed for PBS while he himself is getting TV exposure. But Phoebe is appalled: for one thing, she thoroughly dislikes PBS because she had a bad experience with the network some years back. Her mother had just killed herself, and Phoebe was feeling sad, so she wrote to Sesame Street because she remembered them fondly from when she was a little kid. But nobody replied—they just sent her a key chain. And at the time she was homeless, living in a box, so she didn’t even have any keys! Besides, she says, the only reason why Joey wants the gig is so he can get on TV, not because he wants to do something unselfi sh. That gets the ball rolling: Now Joey accuses Phoebe of being selfi sh, herself, for having triplets for her brother—because it made her feel good, and, says Joey, that makes it self- ish; we recognize the attitude of a convinced psychological egoist: everyone is selfi sh, and, in Joey’s words, “there’s no unselfi sh good deeds.” Phoebe might just as well forget that, because that’s like believing in Santa Claus. (Later on she casually asks him what he meant, and when she hears him say that Santa doesn’t exist, we see the shock on her face.) So Phoebe sets out to prove Joey wrong because, as she explains to Monica and her other friend Rachel, she just won’t let her babies be raised in a world where Joey is right. Her fi rst attempt involves sneaking over to an elderly neighbor and raking the leaves from his doorstep. But he discovers her and treats her to cider and cookies, which makes her feel great. So, since her good deed made her feel good, it doesn’t qualify as a selfl ess deed, according to Joey’s defi nition. Meanwhile, to his immense disappointment, Joey fi nds out that he isn’t hosting the telethon after all; talk-show host Gary Collins is; Joey is just going to answer phones,
The television sitcom Friends (1994–2004) may not seem like an obvious choice for a textbook about ethics, but real life is full of moral problems, and so are many of the Friends episodes, such as “The One Where Phoebe Hates PBS,” in which Phoebe (Lisa Kudrow, far left) and Joey (Matt LeBlanc, on her right) have a debate about selfi shness. The other friends are, from left to right, Courtney Cox, David Schwimmer, Jennifer Aniston, and Matthew Perry.
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222 CHAPTER 4 MYSELF OR OTHERS?
and it looks like he dressed in a tux for nothing. But one of the calls he receives is from Phoebe, who proudly announces that she has found a selfl ess, good deed: She went to Central Park and let a bee sting her, so it could look macho in front of its friends! And since she’s hurting, it’s not a selfi sh deed. But Joey shoots that down instantly: Since the bee probably died from stinging her, the bee didn’t benefi t (so it wasn’t a good deed!). Joey himself is doing a fi ne job of demonstrating what his true goal is: TV exposure, rather than helping PBS, thus proving Phoebe’s point that he himself is just looking out for number one. He realizes that the place where he is answering calls isn’t even within range of the television camera, so he tries to swap places with another volunteer, who is utterly unwilling to comply, to the point where they slug it out between the tables, in the background, while Gary Collins is talking about contributing to PBS’s fi ne program- ming. So Joey’s own quest to gain an advantage for himself isn’t doing too great. But now Phoebe makes one last attempt to prove that unselfi shness exists. She makes one more call to Joey, pledging $200 to PBS. She explains that even if she is still mad at them, she also knows that lots of children love their shows, so she is doing a good deed by supporting them, while it doesn’t make her feel good at all: $200 is a lot of money, and she had plans for that sum: She was saving up to buy a hamster. Joey can’t believe what he’s hearing: A $200 hamster? When they normally cost $10? Phoebe implies that it was a very special hamster (and we get the feeling that she was probably being taken for a ride, as often happens). So it looks like she has proved to Joey that selfl ess, good deeds do indeed exist! But here comes the twist: Because of Phoebe’s pledge, the station has now surpassed the sum collected by pledges last year, and Gary Collins steps over to the volun- teer who took the pledge—Joey! Who now gets his TV exposure: He is introduced by name standing there in his tux, with a big smile on his face. Phoebe is watching it on TV and is overjoyed that her pledge got Joey on TV—until she realizes what has happened! Her good deed, which was supposed to make her feel bad, now has made her feel good—which again proves Joey’s point that all deeds are selfi sh! So she loses again. Has Joey now been vindicated? Has Phoebe’s failure in proving that she can do a “selfl ess, good deed” convinced us that psychological egoism is true? If things we do make us feel good afterward, do they automatically fall into a “selfi sh” category, even if we didn’t plan on feeling good, and the pleasure is an unintended aftereffect? Keep in mind the debate about whether Lincoln’s act of saving the pigs was selfi sh or not. A truly selfi sh person would not feel good about having sacrifi ced something for others; as you’ve read, it could be a way to tell unselfi sh people from the selfi sh ones that they actually feel good after helping others.
1. Some would say that Phoebe’s project was doomed from the start, because of the na- ture of her goal. What might that mean, and do you agree?
2. Discuss Phoebe’s attempts at disproving Joey, relating them to the arguments against psychological egoism in the chapter text: the principle of falsifi cation, the Lincoln story, and the fallacy of the suppressed correlative.
3. Is Joey selfi sh? Is Phoebe? Is everybody? Are you? Explain.
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NARRATIVE: RETURN TO PAR ADI S E 223
Return to Paradise
W E S L E Y S T R I C K A N D B R U C E R O B I N S O N ( S C R E E N W R I T E R S )
J O S E P H R U B E N ( D I R E C T O R )
Film, 1998. Summary.
Peter Singer’s story of the two hunters and the saber-toothed cat cited earlier in this chap- ter is a version of the so-called prisoner’s dilemma: You and your friend are both political prisoners of a totalitarian regime, isolated from each other, and you are each told that the length of your sentence will depend on whether or not you confess: If you confess and your friend doesn’t, you will get one year in prison and your friend will get ten years; if your friend confesses and you don’t, he or she will get one year and you’ll get ten. If neither of you confesses, you will each get two years. If both of you confess, you’ll each get fi ve years. So if your only goal is to limit your own sentence, logic demands that you confess, because you’ll be ahead whether or not your friend also confesses. Since your friend is thinking along the same lines, chances are you’ll both confess and both get fi ve years. But if you’re capable of thinking about each other’s interests and can be certain that you can trust each other, then it’s a win–win situation for both of you: If you both don’t confess, you’ll both get out after only two years. So the lesson of the prisoner’s dilemma is that it can be of greater personal advantage to be less selfi sh than more selfi sh—just as in the hunter story. But it depends completely on whether we can trust each other— whether we dare take the chance that our friend will also put selfi shness aside. A fi lm that explores the prisoner’s dilemma with a chilling twist is Return to Paradise, based on the 1989 French movie Force Majeure by Pierre Jolivet. Here we have a prisoner who hopes that his two friends, enjoying their freedom, will submit to punishment for his sake, thus averting his own death sentence. The two friends must confront the con- fl ict between their instinct for self-preservation and their sense of duty to help a friend. The fi lm is thus a prisoner’s dilemma story combined with an exploration of the nature of selfi shness and altruism. Sheriff, Tony, and Lewis are three young Americans having a good time in Malaysia, smoking dope, hanging out with the local young women, and enjoying the exotic scen- ery. On the way back from a trip to the market, they wreck a borrowed bicycle, and Sher- iff heaves it over a precipice. A short time afterward, Sheriff and Tony go home to New York City, while Lewis stays on to help endangered orangutans. Before leaving, Sheriff and Tony give their stash of hashish to Lewis. Two years later Sheriff is working as a limo driver in New York; Tony is working in construction and thinking about getting married. They haven’t seen each other since leaving Panang. One night Sheriff has a fare, a young woman named Beth, who reveals that she is a lawyer for Lewis—he’s been in the Panang jail ever since they left, for having in his possession more than the legal limit of 100 grams of hash. The excess amount was the stash given to him by his two friends. The man whose bicycle they wrecked came looking for it with the police, and they found the dope. Ten months ago Lewis received
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224 CHAPTER 4 MYSELF OR OTHERS?
his sentence: death. All appeals have been exhausted, but only last week he mentioned his friends and the hashish story. So now the Malaysian authorities have the following suggestion: If Sheriff and Tony return to take their share of the responsibility, everybody gets three years in prison. If only one of them returns, he gets six years, and so does Lewis; if no one comes back to Panang, Lewis will be hanged—in eight days. Beth tells the same story to Tony, who is at once willing to consider going back but won’t do it if Sheriff doesn’t, because he is willing to lose only three years of his life, not six. Sheriff, on the other hand, sees no reason why he should even consider going—he doesn’t think they can trust the deal, and it seems he just doesn’t have the morals Beth assumes he has. Beth is approached by a persistent journalist, who insists that she has a right to pub- lish Lewis’s story and that she can help him by drawing the world’s attention to his case. Beth is terrifi ed: In another case the Malaysian government reneged on a deal because of international publicity, and the prisoner was executed. She can’t take such a chance but promises the reporter an exclusive if she will wait a few days. Beth shows Sheriff a tape made by a physically and mentally worn-down Lewis, begging him and Tony to come and save his life. As the reality of Lewis’s impending ex- ecution dawns on Sheriff, he has a talk with his father, who is no help: He suggests that Sheriff go because Lewis is probably worth more as a person than Sheriff is. We realize he was being sarcastic. Why agonize over it, he says, when Sheriff isn’t even considering going? So Sheriff tells Beth he won’t go: “It isn’t in me.” Compelled by Sheriff’s selfi sh attitude, Tony now promises to go, but Beth isn’t certain of his commitment.
In the fi lm Return to Paradise (Polygram, 1998), two friends are faced with a moral problem: Should they voluntarily return to Malaysia to save another friend from a death sentence and share the blame for his illegal drug possession, even if it would entail prison time for both of them? Here at- torney Beth Eastern (Anne Heche) is trying to persuade Sheriff (Vince Vaughn) to return with her.
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NARRATIVE: RETURN TO PAR ADI S E 225
Sheriff and Beth have been developing an attraction for each other, and in a desper- ate mood they make love. The next morning he is still with her, now committed to help- ing her and his friend Lewis. Two days before Lewis’s scheduled execution, all three of them are on the plane to Panang. The two friends have decided to give Lewis three years of their lives to save his. Once in Panang, they go to see Lewis, but only one visitor is allowed. Sheriff fi nds Lewis hunched over, shivering, rocking back and forth, praying. Sheriff tries to com- fort him and lift his spirits, and it seems to be working: As Sheriff is leaving, Lewis says to him, “I knew you’d come back—even if you didn’t.” Back with Tony and Beth, Sheriff expresses his concerns about Lewis’s state of mind, and Beth lets slip that he’s always been that way. How would she know, as his lawyer? It turns out she’s not just his lawyer—she’s his big sister. With that revelation, the deal is off. Tony and Sheriff feel they can’t trust her—she’d promise them anything just to get Lewis out. Fearing for their own lives, they take off for the airport. Tony boards the plane for New York—but Sheriff hesitates: He has real- ized it was his recklessness in throwing the bike away that put Lewis in this situation, so he must take responsibility for it. Tony leaves for New York, but Sheriff goes back to Panang, in time to walk into the courtroom where Lewis’s sentence is about to be confi rmed. The judge exclaims that his faith in humanity is half restored. Sheriff says they were young and stupid, but not evil; he is responsible and is willing to do what it takes to save his friend’s life. The judge goes to his chambers to reassess the situation; he is expected to come out and pronounce a reprieve for Lewis and a six-year sentence for Sheriff. But a commotion erupts as the media arrive at the courthouse. Apparently an Amer- ican newspaper has published the persistent journalist’s story, making the Malaysian system of justice look medieval and cruel. The judge emerges, livid: He won’t have the Western media dictating the decisions of his court. The West might not understand his country’s harsh drug sentences, he says, but Malaysian kids are safe from drugs, unlike kids in the West. Will the judge stand by his word and give Lewis a lesser sentence because Sheriff came back? Or has the publication of the article endangered Lewis’s life, as Beth pre- dicted it would? The ending of this fi lm is haunting and thought-provoking, and I would like for you to experience it yourself. Also, I’d like you to consider the following: If Lewis dies, has Sheriff’s willingness to help him been for nothing?
1. Early in the fi lm, Sheriff asks Beth whether she would go to prison for Lewis, if the question were put to her. Would you give three years of your life to save a friend? Would you give six? Explain.
2. Explore the changes in the characters of Tony and Sheriff. Which change is the great- est, and why?
3. What would a psychological egoist say to this story? What would an ethical egoist say?
4. Compare this story with the original prisoner’s-dilemma scenario. What are the simi- larities, and what are the differences?
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226 CHAPTER 4 MYSELF OR OTHERS?
5. Is anyone being altruistic in this fi lm? Does a person have to have no self-interest in- volved in order to be unselfi sh?
6. Go back to Chapter 2, reread the excerpt from Aristotle, and apply his theory of the perfect tragic plot to this fi lm. Who is the ordinary man who makes a fatal error in judgment? Is Aristotle right that such plot lines are timeless?
A Y N R A N D
Novel, 1957. Film, 2011. Summary and Excerpt.
In Greek mythology, Atlas is the god who holds up the earth on his shoulders—and when Atlas shrugs, the world shakes. Ayn Rand’s book is about the shake-up of the world by those who form its economic foundation: the factory owners, the entrepreneurs, the railroad builders. It is not the workers but those who employ them who are the movers and the shakers of the world, and in Rand’s opinion they have been abused by unions and “bleeding hearts” long enough. In this book she outlines her philosophy of objectiv- ism “between the lines” of the novel, urging those people with creative powers to start thinking about themselves and taking pride in what they do, for without them the world literally will come to a halt. In Atlas Shrugged, the movers and shakers go on strike, led by the mythic fi gure of John Galt and joined by the railroad tycoon Dagny Taggart. Before she died, Rand worked on a screenplay based on her book, and in 2011 Part 1 of the story fi nally came to the silver screen as a major Hollywood production, albeit in limited theatrical release. Rand sees the world as being divided between those who can think and create and those who are parasites on the creators; each person has a right to what he or she creates (and earns), and no one else has any right to any of it. The only duty we have is to look out for ourselves and not give our lives away to others who aren’t will- ing to work for their own share. The following excerpt is from a conversation between Francisco d’Anconia, a copper tycoon and millionaire, and Henry Rearden, a steelworks owner and inventor who is beginning to understand that he has been letting people take advantage of him all his life:
“If you want to see an abstract principle, such as moral action, in material form—there it is. Look at it, Mr. Rearden. Every girder of it, every pipe, wire and valve was put there by a choice in answer to the question: right or wrong? You had to choose right and you had to choose the best within your knowledge—the best for your purpose, which was to make steel—and then move on and extend the knowledge, and do better, and still better, with your purpose as your standard of value. You had to act on your own judgment, you had to have the capacity to judge, the courage to stand on the verdict of your mind, and the purest, the most ruthless consecration to the rule of doing right, of doing the best,
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NARRATIVE: ATLAS SHRUG G E D 227
the utmost best possible to you. Nothing could have made you act against your judg- ment, and you would have rejected as wrong—as evil—any man who attempted to tell you that the best way to heat a furnace was to fi ll it with ice. Millions of men, an entire nation, were not able to deter you from producing Rearden Metal—because you had the knowledge of its superlative value and the power which such knowledge gives. But what I wonder about, Mr. Rearden, is why you live by one code of principles when you deal with nature and by another when you deal with men?”
Rearden’s eyes were fi xed on him so intently that the question came slowly, as if the effort to pronounce it were a distraction: “What do you mean?”
“Why don’t you hold to the purpose of your life as clearly and rigidly as you hold to the purpose of your mills?”
“You have judged every brick within this place by its value to the goal of making steel. Have you been as strict about the goal which your work and your steel are serving? What do you wish to achieve by giving your life to the making of steel? By what standard of value do you judge your days? For instance, why did you spend ten years of exacting effort to produce Rearden Metal?”
Rearden looked away, the slight, slumping movement of his shoulders like a sigh of release and disappointment. “If you have to ask that, then you wouldn’t understand.”
“If I told you that I understand it, but you don’t—would you throw me out of here?” “I should have thrown you out of here anyway—so go ahead, tell me what you
mean.” “Are you proud of the rail of the John Galt Line?” “Yes.” “Why?” “Because it’s the best rail ever made.” “Why did you make it?” “In order to make money.” “There were many easier ways to make money. Why did you choose the hardest?” “You said it in your speech at Taggart’s wedding: in order to exchange my best effort
for the best effort of others.” “If that was your purpose, have you achieved it?” A beat of time vanished in a heavy drop of silence. “No,” said Rearden. “Have you made any money?” “No.” “When you strain your energy to its utmost in order to produce the best, do you
expect to be rewarded for it or punished?” Rearden did not answer. “By every standard of decency, of honor, of justice known to you—are you convinced that you should have been rewarded for it?”
“Yes,” said Rearden, his voice low. “Then if you were punished, instead—what sort of code have you accepted?” Rearden did not answer. “It is generally assumed,” said Francisco, “that living in a human society makes one’s
life much easier and safer than if one were left alone to struggle against nature on a des- ert island. Now wherever there is a man who needs or uses metal in any way—Rearden Metal has made his life easier for him. Has it made yours easier for you?”
“No,” said Rearden, his voice low. “Has it left your life as it was before you produced the Metal?”
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228 CHAPTER 4 MYSELF OR OTHERS?
“No—” said Rearden, the word breaking off as if he had cut short the thought that followed.
Francisco’s voice lashed at him suddenly, as a command: “Say it!” “It has made it harder,” said Rearden tonelessly. “When you felt proud of the rail of the John Galt Line,” said Francisco, the measured
rhythm of his voice giving a ruthless clarity to his words, “what sort of men did you think of? Did you want to see that Line used by your equals—by giants of productive energy, such as Ellis Wyatt, whom it would help to reach higher and still higher achievements of their own?”
“Yes,” said Rearden eagerly. “Did you want to see it used by men who could not equal the power of your mind,
but who would equal your moral integrity—men such as Eddie Willers—who could never invent your Metal, but who would do their best, work as hard as you did, live by their own effort, and—riding on your rail—give a moment’s silent thanks to the man who gave them more than they could give him?”
“Yes,” said Rearden gently. “Did you want to see it used by whining rotters who never rouse themselves to
any effort, who do not possess the ability of a fi ling clerk, but demand the income of a company president, who drift from failure to failure and expect you to pay their bills, who hold their wishing to an equivalent of your work and their need as a higher claim to reward than your effort, who demand that you serve them, who demand that it be the aim of your life to serve them, who demand that your strength be the voiceless, rightless, unpaid, unrewarded slave of their impotence, who proclaim that you are born to serf- dom by reason of your genius, while they are born to rule by the grace of incompetence, that yours is only to give, but theirs only to take, that yours is to produce, but theirs to consume, that you are not to be paid, neither in matter nor in spirit, neither by wealth nor by recognition nor by respect nor by gratitude—so that they would ride on your rail and sneer at you and curse you, since they owe you nothing, not even the effort of taking off their hats which you paid for? Would this be what you wanted? Would you feel proud of it?”
“I’d blast that rail fi rst,” said Rearden, his lips white.
John Galt’s Speech
A key moment in Atlas Shrugged is when the elusive hero John Galt fi nally steps forth and explains his philosophy to the world. The speech itself is approximately sixty pages long, so an excerpt from the beginning of the speech will have to suffi ce here. However, since the speech outlines Rand’s Objectivism in detail, you may want to go to the novel and read it in its entirety:
“You have heard it said that this is an age of moral crisis. You have said it yourself, half in fear, half in hope that the words had no meaning. You have cried that man’s sins are destroying the world and you have cursed human nature for its unwillingness to practice the virtues you demanded. Since virtue, to you, consists of sacrifi ce you have demanded more sacrifi ces at every successive disaster. In the name of a return to morality, you have sacrifi ced all those evils which you held as the cause of your plight. You have sacrifi ced justice to mercy. You have sacrifi ced independence to unity. You have sacrifi ced reason
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NARRATIVE: ATLAS SHRUG G E D 229
to faith. You have sacrifi ced wealth to need. You have sacrifi ced self-esteem to self-denial. You have sacrifi ced happiness to duty.
“You have destroyed all that which you held to be evil and achieved all that which you held to be good. Why, then, do you shrink in horror from the sight of the world around you? That world is not the product of your sins, it is the product and the image of your virtues. It is your moral ideal brought into reality in it full and fi nal perfection. You have fought for it, you have dreamed of it, you have wished it, and I—I am the man who has granted you your wish.
“Your ideal had an implacable enemy, which your code of morality was designed to destroy. I have withdrawn that enemy. I have taken it out of your way and out of your reach. I have removed the source of all those evils you were sacrifi cing one by one. I have ended your battle. I have stopped your motor. I have deprived your world of man’s mind.
“Men do not live by the mind, you say? I have withdrawn those who do. The mind is impotent, you say? I have withdrawn those whose mind isn’t. There are values higher than the mind, you say? I have withdrawn those for whom there aren’t.
“While you were dragging to your sacrifi cial altars the men of justice, of indepen- dence, of reason, of wealth, of self-esteem—I beat you to it, I reached them fi rst. I told them the nature of the game you were playing and the nature of that moral code of yours, which they had been too innocently generous to grasp. I showed them the way to live by another morality—mine. It is mine that they chose to follow.
“All the men who have vanished, the men you hated, yet dreaded to lose, it is I who have taken them away from you. Do not attempt to fi nd us. We do not choose to be found. Do not cry that it is our duty to serve you. We do not recognize such duty. Do not cry that you need us. We do not consider need a claim. Do not cry that you own us. You don’t. Do not beg us to return. We are on strike, we, the men of the mind.
“We are on strike against self-immolation. We are on strike against the creed of unearned rewards and unrewarded duties. We are on strike against the dogma that the pursuit of one’s happiness is evil. We are on strike against the doctrine that life is guilt.
“There is a difference between our strike and all those you’ve practiced for centuries: our strike consists, not of making demands, but of granting them. We are evil, according to your morality. We have chosen not to harm you any longer. We are useless, according to your economics. We have chosen not to exploit you any longer. We are dangerous and to be shackled, according to your politics. We have chosen not to endanger you, nor to wear the shackles any longer. We are only an illusion, according to your philosophy. We have chosen not to blind you any longer and have left you free to face reality—the reality you wanted, the world as you see it now, a world without mind.
“We have granted you everything you demanded of us, we who had always been the givers, but have only now understood it. We have no demands to present to you, no terms to bargain about, no compromise to reach. You have nothing to offer us. We do not need you.
“Are you now crying: No, this was not what you wanted? A mindless world of ruins was not your goal? You did not want us to leave you? You moral cannibals, I know that you’ve always known what it was that you wanted. But your game is up, because now we know it, too.
“Through centuries of scourges and disasters, brought about by your code of moral- ity, you have cried that your code had been broken, that the scourges were punishment for breaking it, that men were too weak and too selfi sh to spill all the blood it required.
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230 CHAPTER 4 MYSELF OR OTHERS?
You damned man, you damned existence, you damned this earth, but never dared to question your code. Your victims took the blame and struggled on, with your curses as reward for their martyrdom—while you went on crying that your code was noble, but human nature was not good enough to practice it. And no one rose to ask the question: Good?—by what standard?
“You wanted to know John Galt’s identity. I am the man who has asked that question.
“Yes, this is an age of moral crisis. Yes, you are bearing punishment for your evil. But it is not man who is now on trial and it is not human nature that will take the blame. It is your moral code that’s through, this time. Your moral code has reached its climax, the blind alley at the end of its course. And if you wish to go on living, what you now need is not to return to morality—you who have never known any—but to discover it.
“You have heard no concepts of morality but the mystical or the social. You have been taught that morality is a code of behavior imposed on you by whim, the whim of a supernatural power or the whim of society, to serve God’s purpose or your neighbor’s welfare, to please an authority beyond the grave or else next door—but not to serve your life or pleasure. Your pleasure, you have been taught, is to be found in immorality, your interests would best be served by evil, and any moral code must be designed not for you, but against you, not to further your life, but to drain it.
“For centuries, the battle of morality was fought between those who claimed that your life belongs to God and those who claimed that it belongs to your neighbors— between those who preached that the good is self-sacrifi ce for the sake of ghosts in heaven and those who preached that the good is self-sacrifi ce for the sake of incompe- tents on earth. And no one came to say that your life belongs to you and that the good is to live it.
1. What is it that d’Anconia accuses Rearden of?
2. Can you identify d’Anconia’s and Galt’s political standpoint and the standpoint they argue against?
3. Why is this considered an example of ethical egoism? How do these excerpts relate to Rand’s analysis of happiness as a moral purpose?
4. Compare Galt’s speech excerpt to Rand’s text in the Primary Readings. Find similari- ties and additions. In your view, does Galt’s views have philosophical merit? Why or why not?
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Using Your Reason, Part 1: Utilitarianism
I n the previous chapter, you read that we may have self-serving tendencies, but that in all likelihood we also have the capacity for fellow-feeling, some limited form of altruism. That means that we can, and perhaps should, look after ourselves and others at the same time, as reciprocal altruism says. This is, in effect, incorporated into one of the most infl uential moral theories of all time, utilitarianism. However, in utilitarianism it is not only a matter of what we are capable of emotionally, but also a matter of what we ought to do rationally. When deciding on a moral course of action, some of us fi nd it is the potential consequences of our choice that determine what we decide to do. Others of us see those consequences as being of minor im- portance when we view them in light of the question of right and wrong. A student of mine, when asked to come up with a moral problem we could discuss in class, proposed this question to ponder: Imagine that your grandmother is dying; she is very religious, and she asks you to promise her that you will marry within the family faith. Your beloved is of another faith. Do you tell her the truth, or do you make a false promise? This profound (and, I suspect, real-life) question makes us all wonder: If I think it is right to lie to Grandma, why is that? To make her last moments peace- ful; what she doesn’t know won’t hurt her; why should I upset her by telling her the truth? Is that a good enough reason? And if I think lying to Grandma is wrong and refuse to do it, how do I justify making her last moments miserable? You will see that those of us who think lying to her is the only right choice because then she will die happy generally subscribe to the theory of consequentialism, in particular the theory of utilitarianism, the most widespread and popular form of consequentialism. If you think that lying is always wrong, even if it would make Grandma feel better, then hang in there until Chapter 6, where we discuss Kant’s moral theory. In the Narratives section of this chapter you’ll encounter a fi lm that asks similar questions, with parallels to the “Grandma” scenario: The Invention of Lying. In the preceding chapter you encountered the philosopher Peter Singer, who claimed that we as humans are capable of caring for others as well as ourselves. Singer identifi es himself as a utilitarian, as do numerous others today—philosophers as well as laypeople. (You’ll fi nd a text by Singer in the Primary Readings section.) Utilitarians see as their moral guideline a rule that encourages them to make life bearable for as many people as possible. Perhaps we can actively do something to make people’s lives better, or perhaps the only thing we can do to make their lives better is to stay out of their way. Perhaps we can’t strive to make people happy, but
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we can at least do our best to limit their misery. That way of thinking just seems the decent approach for many of us, and when we include ourselves among those who should receive a general increase of happiness and decrease of misery, then the rule seems attractive, simple, and reasonable. Small wonder this attitude has become the cornerstone of one of the most vital and infl uential moral theories in human history. Utilitarians are hard universalists in the sense that they believe there is a single universal moral code, which is the only one possible, and everyone ought to real- ize it. It is the principle of utility, or the greatest-happiness principle: When choosing a course of action, always pick the one that will maximize happiness and minimize un- happiness for the greatest number of people. Whatever action conforms to this rule will be defi ned as a morally right action, and whatever action does not conform to it will be called a morally wrong action. In this way utilitarianism proposes a clear and simple moral criterion: Pleasure is good and pain is bad; therefore, whatever causes happiness and/or decreases pain is morally right, and whatever causes pain or un- happiness is morally wrong. In other words, utilitarianism is interested in the conse- quences of our actions: If they are good, the action is right; if bad, the action is wrong. This principle, utilitarians claim, will provide answers to all real-life dilemmas. Are all theories that focus on the consequences of actions utilitarian? No. As we saw in Chapter 4, the consequences we look for may be happy consequences for our- selves alone, and in that case we show ourselves to be egoists. We may focus on the consequences of our actions because we believe that those consequences justify our actions (in other words, that the end justifi es the means), but that does not necessar- ily imply that the consequences we hope for are good in the utilitarian sense that they maximize happiness for the maximum number of people. We might, for instance, agree with the Italian statesman Niccolò Machiavelli (1469–1527) that if the end is to maintain political power for oneself, one’s king, or one’s political party, that will justify any means one might use for that purpose, such as force, surveillance, or even deceit. Although this famous theory is indeed consequentialist, it does not qualify as utilitarian because it doesn’t have the common good as its ultimate end.
Jeremy Bentham and the Hedonistic Calculus
It is often tempting to say that history moves in a certain direction. For example, eighteenth-century Europe and America saw a general movement toward greater recognition of human rights and social equality, of the value of the individual, of the scope of human capacities, and of the need for and the right to education. During that period, known as the Enlightenment, rulers and scholars shared a staunch belief that human reason, rationality, held the key to the future—to the blossoming of the sciences as well as to social change. That period is, appropriately, also referred to as the Age of Reason, not so much because people were particularly rational at the time as because reason was the social, scientifi c, and philosophical ideal . Perhaps, then, it is tempting to say that civilization moved toward an appreciation of human rationality, but it would be more appropriate to say that it was moved along by the thoughts of certain thinkers. Such a mover was the English jurist and philoso- pher Jeremy Bentham. Box 5.1 provides you with a brief introduction to Bentham.
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JEREMY BENTHAM AND THE HEDONISTIC CALCULUS 233
Jeremy Bentham (1748–1832), the British phi- losopher and jurist, developed together with his friend James Mill the theory of utilitarian- ism based on the principle of utility: Maximize happiness and minimize unhappiness for as many as possible. Bentham donated his body to medical research and his money to University College of London, with the provision that after research on his body was complete, it was to be preserved and displayed at university board
Box 5.1 J E R E M Y B E N T H A M, T H E N A N D N O W . . . meetings. That request is not as odd as it might sound: Bentham, a promi- nent person, hoped that by donating his body to science he would make a statement in support of the medi- cal profession’s need for cadavers for research. Most people at the time felt, however, that having one’s deceased body cut up was a sacrilege, and so only the bodies of executed criminals were available. As a result, a thriving clandestine business arose, a trade in newly dead bodies stolen from their graves. In one case, the infamous Burke and Hare case of 1828, the body snatchers didn’t wait for corpses to be buried but murdered sixteen people in one year and sold them to anatomists. By deciding to donate his body, Bentham took a stand against what he saw as superstition and at- tempted to put a stop to the practice of body snatching. And he may have thought further, What better way to undo superstitions about dead bod- ies than for his own to be on display at board meetings? He specifi ed in his will that he was to become an Auto-Icon, an image of himself, and he even picked out the glass eyes to be placed in his head after his de- mise and carried them around in his pocket, according to legend. He had
intended for his head to remain on the shoul- ders of his Auto-Icon, but after his death, the preservation process of his head went wrong, and a wax head was substituted. In this photo you see both the wax head (a good likeness), and Bentham’s real head between his feet. He still sits in his mahogany case at the University College of London and is wheeled in at annual board meetings. He is recorded as “present, but not voting.”
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234 CHAPTER 5 US ING YOUR REASON, PART 1 : UTILITARIANISM
Bentham, author of Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation (1789), set out to create not a new moral theory so much as a hands-on principle that could be used to remodel the British legal system. Indeed, it was not Bentham but another philosopher, David Hume, who invented the term utilitarianism . Hume believed that it is good for an action to have utility in the sense that it makes yourself and others happy, but he never developed that idea into a complete moral theory. Bentham, however, used the term to create a moral system for a new age. So in Hume’s version, what is useful is what is morally good. But we have an even earlier, famous reference to the goodness of utility: In Plato’s Republic (see Chapters 2 and 4), Socrates says to Glaucon, “That is, and ever will be, the best of sayings, that the useful is the noble and the hurtful is the base.” If a utilitarian is someone who believes that anything useful is good, and anything painful is bad, why isn’t Socrates hailed as the fi rst utilitarian? Because there is so much more to Socrates’ value theory than a theory of the best outcome, as you’ll see in Chapter 8. But also because what is “useful” for Socrates isn’t necessarily what is pleasurable! Socrates placed great emphasis on the needs of the community, as you’ll remember from Chapter 4, but not as much on the personal needs of the individual; that is a modern concept, and it is precisely during Bentham’s era, the time of the Enlightenment, that the needs as well as the rights of the individual become a focal point for moral and political discussions. In Bentham’s England the feudal world had all but vanished. Society had strati- fi ed into an upper class, a middle class, and a working class, and the Industrial Revo- lution was just beginning. Conditions for the lowest class in the social hierarchy were appalling. Rights in the courts were, by and large, something that could be bought, which meant that those who had no means to buy them didn’t have them. The world portrayed in the novels of Charles Dickens was developing; if you were in debt, you were taken to debtors’ prison, where you stayed until your debt was paid. Whoever had funds could get out, but the poor faced spending the rest of their lives with their family inside debtors’ prison. There were no child labor laws, and the exploitation of children in the workforce, which horrifi ed Marx some decades later, was rampant in Bentham’s day. Bentham saw it as terribly unfair and decided that the best way to redesign this system of unfair advantages would be to set up a simple moral rule that everyone could relate to, rich and poor alike. Bentham said that what is good is what is pleasurable, and what is bad is what is painful. In other words, hedonism (pleasure seeking) is the basis for his moral the- ory, which is often called hedonistic utilitarianism (see Box 5.2). The ultimate value is happiness or pleasure—these things are intrinsically valuable. Anything that helps us achieve happiness or avoid pain is of instrumental value, and because we may do something pleasurable to achieve another pleasure, pleasure can have both intrinsic and instrumental value. (Box 5.3 explains this distinction in more detail.) For this basic rule to be useful in legislation, we need to let people decide for themselves wherein their pleasure lies and what they would rather avoid. Each person has a say in what pleasure and pain are, and each person’s pleasure and pain count equally. We might illustrate this viewpoint by traveling back in our minds to nineteenth-century London. A well-to-do middle-class couple may feel that their greatest pleasure on a Saturday night is to don their fancy clothes, drive to Covent Garden in their shining
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JEREMY BENTHAM AND THE HEDONISTIC CALCULUS 235
Often the Greek thinker Epicurus (341–270 B.C.E.) is credited with being the fi rst philoso- pher to advocate a life in search of pleasure, hedonism. That, however, isn’t quite accurate, because what Epicurus seems to have been after was a life free of pain—for if you are free of pain you have obtained peace of mind, ataraxia, the highest pleasure. But others have advocated that seeking pleasure and avoiding pain are human nature, and what humans ought to embark on in life is to accumulate good times. Jeremy Bentham believed all humans are hedonists. Everyone wants pleasure, so we search for it. Searching and fi nding are two different things, however, and the paradox of hedonism often prevents us from fi nding what we are looking for. Suppose we set out to achieve pleasure on the weekend. We go to the beach, we take a walk in the woods, we hang out at the mall, we go to the movies, but we’re just not enjoy- ing ourselves very much; pleasure has some- how eluded us, and we face Monday with the sense of a lost weekend, telling ourselves that next weekend we’ll look harder. Our friend, on the contrary, had a great time; he went with us because he likes going to the beach, loves the woods, wanted to look for a pair of jeans at the mall, and had been looking forward to seeing a movie for weeks. He even enjoyed our com- pany. Why did he have a good weekend while we felt unfulfi lled? Because we were trying to have a good time, and he was doing things he liked to do and enjoying being with someone
he liked. The pleasure he got was, so to speak, a by-product of doing those things—it wasn’t the main object of his activity. We, on the other hand, looked for pleasure without think- ing about what we like to do that might give us pleasure, as if “pleasure” were a thing sepa- rate from everything else. The hedonistic par- adox is this: If you look for pleasure, chances are you won’t fi nd it. (People who have been looking hard for someone to love can attest to that.) Pleasure comes to you when you are in the middle of something else and rarely when you are looking for it. Sometimes the “Don Juan syndrome” is cited as an example of the hedo- nistic paradox. A person (traditionally a man, but there is no reason it can’t apply to women) who has numerous sexual conquests very often feels compelled to move from partner to partner because he or she likes the pursuit but some- how tires of an established relationship. Why is that the case? It could be because such people are unwilling to commit themselves to a per- manent relationship, but it also may be due to the paradox of hedonism: In each partner they see the promise of “pleasure,” but somehow all they end up with is another conquest. If they had been setting their sights on building a re- lationship with their partners, they might have found out that pleasure comes from being with someone you care for, and you have to care in order to feel pleasure; you can’t expect pleasure to appear if there is no genuine feeling—or so the theory says.
Box 5.2 H E D O N I S M A N D T H E H E D O N I S T I C P A R A D O X
coach, and go to the opera. The girl at Covent Garden who tries to sell them a bouquet of wilting violets as they pass by would probably not enjoy a trip to the opera as much as she would enjoy the bottle of gin she saves up for all week. Bentham would say she has as much right to relish her gin as the couple has a right to enjoy the opera. The girl can’t tell the couple that gin is better, and they have no right to force their appre- ciation of the opera on her. For Bentham, what is good and bad for each person is a matter for each person to decide, and as such, his principle becomes a very egalitarian
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236 CHAPTER 5 US ING YOUR REASON, PART 1 : UTILITARIANISM
one. At the end of the chapter you’ll fi nd an excerpt from Bentham’s Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation, in which he outlines the principle of utility .
The Hedonistic Calculus
How, exactly, do we choose a course of action? Before we decide what to do, we must calculate the probable consequences of our actions. This is what has become known as Bentham’s hedonistic calculus (also called the hedonic calculus ). We must, he says, investigate all aspects of each proposed consequence: (1) Its intensity —how intense will the pleasure or pain be? (2) Its duration —how long will it last? (3) Its certainty or uncertainty —how sure can we be that it will follow from our action? (4) Its propin- quity or remoteness —how far away is it, in time and space? (5) Its fecundity —how big are the chances that it will be followed by a similar pleasure or a similar pain? (6) Its purity —how big are the chances that it will not be followed by the opposite sensation (pain after pleasure, for example)? (7) Its extent —how many people will be affected by our decision? After considering those questions, we must do the following:
Sum up all the values of all the pleasures on the one side, and those of all the pains on the other. . . . Take the balance; which, on the side of pleasure, will give the general good ten- dency of the act, with respect to the total number or community of individuals concerned; if on the side of pain, the general evil tendency, with respect to the same community.
What do we have here? A simple, democratic principle that seems to make no unreasonable demands of personal sacrifi ce, given that one’s own pleasure and pain
An instrumental value is one that can be used as an instrument or a tool to get something else that we want. If you needed to get to class or work on time, a car might be the instrumen- tal value that would get you there. If you didn’t have a car, then money (or good credit) might be the instrumental value that would get you the car that would get you to school or to your workplace. How about going to school? If you’re going to school to get a degree, then you might say that going to school is an instru- mental value that will get your degree. And the degree? An instrumental value that will get you a good job. And the job? An instrumental value that will get what? More money. And what do you want with that? A better lifestyle, a better place to live, good health, and so on. And why
do you want a better lifestyle? Why do you want to be healthy? This is where the chain comes to an end, because we have reached something that is obvious: We want those things because we want them. Perhaps they “make us happy,” but the bottom line is that we value them for their own sake, intrinsically . Some values can of course be both instrumental and intrinsic; the car may help you get to school, but also, you’ve wanted the car for a long time just because you like it. Exercising may make you healthy, but you also may actually enjoy it. And going to school is certainly a tool that can be used to get a degree, but some people appreciate train- ing and knowledge for their own sake, not just because those goods can be used to get them somewhere in life.
Box 5.3 I N T R I N S I C V E R S U S I N S T R U M E N T A L V A L U E S
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JEREMY BENTHAM AND THE HEDONISTIC CALCULUS 237
count just as much as anybody else’s. Furthermore, in line with the scientifi c dreams of the Age of Reason, the proper moral conduct is calculated mathematically; values are reduced to a calculation of pleasure and pain, a method accessible to everyone with a basic understanding of arithmetic. By calculating pleasures and pains, one can presumably get a truly rational solution to any moral as well as nonmoral (morally neutral) problem. That sounds very good, and yet there are several problems with this approach. For one thing, from where does Bentham get his numerical values? Ascertaining that our pleasure from eating a second piece of mud pie will be intense but will not last long and very likely will be followed by pain and remorse will not supply us with any numerical values to add or subtract: We have to make up the numerical values! That may not be as diffi cult as it seems, though. It is surprising how much people can agree on a value system, if they can just decide what should count as top and bottom value. If they agreed on a system that goes from !10 to "10, for example, most people would agree to assigning specifi c numerical values to the various consequences of eating that second piece of pie. What value would be as- signed to the aspect of intensity? Not a 10, because that probably would apply only to the fi rst piece, but perhaps an 8. The duration of the pleasure might get a measly 2 or 3, and the chance that it would be followed by pleasure or pain certainly would be way down in the negative numbers, perhaps !5 or worse. As for evaluating how many people are affected by the decision, that could take into account friends and family who don’t want you to gain weight or the person who owns the second piece of pie (which you stole), who will be deprived of it if you eat it. All such hypotheti- cal situations can be ascribed a value if people can agree on a value system to use for all choices, from personal ones to far-reaching political decisions. (See Box 5.4 for a discussion of pleasure as an indicator of happiness.) What this rating system adds up to is what most people would call the “pros and cons,” those lists we sometimes make for ourselves when we are in severe doubt about what to do—what major fi eld of study to choose, whether to go home for Thanksgiving or celebrate it with friends, whether to get married, whether to take a new job, and so on. The only difference is that in this system we assign numerical values to the pros and cons. Can such a list really help us make rational decisions? Bentham believed it was an infallible system for rational choice. A method that quan- tifi es (makes measurable) the elusive qualities of life would certainly be useful, and several workplaces today are actually employing a form of hedonistic calculus in their hiring process: Applicants are rated according to their qualifi cations, and those qualifi cations are assigned numerical values (they are quantifi ed); the person with the highest score presumably gets the job. Another area in which the calculus has had a rebirth is in the fi eld of health care, where attempts are being made to create an objective measure for what is known as quality of life (see Chapter 7). One person’s idea of quality of life may not be the same as another person’s, however, and even in workplaces where such a hiring method is used, other, less rational, elements may play a part in the hiring process (such as the looks of the applicant or relation to the employer). People who have given Bentham’s system a try in their own personal de- cision making often fi nd that it may help in clarifying one’s options, but the results
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238 CHAPTER 5 US ING YOUR REASON, PART 1 : UTILITARIANISM
One of the persistent problems in utilitarianism is the claim that the ultimate intrinsic value is happiness. We have already seen how the search for pleasure can lead to the hedonistic paradox (see Box 5.2), and this paradox is a problem for utilitarians as much as for anyone claiming that the ultimate reason we do things is to seek happiness. But is happiness the same as plea- sure? Jeremy Bentham doesn’t say, and indeed he doesn’t care: For him, happiness is how you defi ne it. John Stuart Mill defi nes happiness as distinct from both pleasure and contentment and views it as an intellectual achievement. Aristotle, who introduced the idea of happiness as a human goal to Western philosophy (see Chapter 9), also believed it was a result of ratio- nal activity and not a pursuit of pleasure. In the United States where our fundamental outlook on life has at least to some extent been shaped by the British tradition and the thoughts of John Locke in particular (see Chapter 7), access to the pursuit of happiness is considered a human right. In contrast, the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche (see Chapter 10), famous for acerbic remarks, once wrote, “Man does not strive for happiness; only the Englishman does!” That tells us in a nutshell what Nietzsche thought of the British… In recent years there has been a surge of interest in the concept of happiness—among philosophers, but initially by psychologists. “Happiness Studies” have occupied not only intellectual minds, but have spilled over into self-help literature, and frequently publicized polls giving us a picture of which popula- tions consider themselves happy. Again and again the people of Denmark come out on top of the polls as the “happiest people on earth.” But in what way, and why? The trouble with such surveys is that they don’t specify what
they mean by “happiness”: a general feeling of being contented? Some kind of persistent feel- ing of ecstasy and exuberance? A feeling of deep peace within—akin to what the Greeks called ataraxia? Or perhaps a modest outlook on life where one doesn’t have too high expectations? Or simply, as Spanish economist Eduardo Pun- set suggests, the absence of misery? An interest- ing perspective comes from French philosopher Pascal Bruckner who argues, in his book Per- petual Euphoria: On the Duty to Be Happy (2011), that modern people are now obsessed with being happy, and feel like failures if they are not, as if happiness has become a duty. Bruckner himself sides with the analysis of the hedonis- tic paradox (Box 5.3) and says that happiness will elude us if we pursue it too vigorously. And what does happiness mean to Bruckner? A fl eeting moment of enchantment, a “moment of grace,” something to cherish when it happens, but you can’t expect it to last or be a sustainable condition. And besides, he’d much rather have an adventurous life than a “happy” one, he says. We are not likely to be able to agree on ex- actly what happiness means, but the question has occupied many people in many different cultures across the ages. Here is an ancient story which also suggests that happiness has noth- ing to do with physical comfort or indulgence: A Persian prince was told that to cure his un- happiness he had to wear the shirt of a happy man. The Persian prince now tried the shirts of lords, artists, merchants, soldiers, and fools, but it was to no avail. Happiness seemed to elude him. Finally he encountered a poor farmer sing- ing behind his plow; the prince asked him if he was happy, and the farmer answered that he was. The prince then asked if he could have the farmer’s shirt, and the farmer answered, “But I have no shirt!”
Box 5.4 W H A T I S H A P P I N E S S ?
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JEREMY BENTHAM AND THE HEDONISTIC CALCULUS 239
are not always persuasive. You may end up with sixteen items on the con side and four on the pro side and still fi nd yourself getting married or taking a new job simply because you want to so badly. There are parts of the human psyche that simply don’t respond to rational arguments, and Bentham didn’t have much appreciation for that. Interestingly enough, his godson and successor, John Stuart Mill, did have just such an appreciation, and we will look at his work shortly. But suppose you actually make a detailed list of the consequences of your ac- tions. How, exactly, do you decide on the values that you assign each consequence? In some cases it is easy, as for example when you compare school fees or driving dis- tances. But if you want to decide whether to stay in school for the duration or quit and get a job and make fast money, how do you choose what things to put on your list? Critics of Bentham’s approach say that if we assign a higher value to getting an education than to acquiring fast money, then it is because we are operating within a system that favors higher education; in other words, we are biased, and our choice
Sheer numbers: If we imagine the horizontal line representing a neutral position in terms of pain and pleasure, 0, the vertical line above 0 representing pleasure, and the line below 0 representing pain, we have a visual representation of the hedonistic calculus. Here all that matters is that the positive numbers outweigh the negative numbers. So if we have a scenario where many (humans or animals) are suffering but not much contentment is generated, the utilitarian would be against it. If only a few are suffering, and the many benefi t from their suffering, it is the morally right course of action, according to utilitarianism.
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of values refl ects that bias. To put it another way, we rig the test even as we perform it. If we were operating within a system that favored making money—for instance, if we already had left school to make money—then our values would refl ect that bias. The values, therefore, are truly arbitrary, depending on what we would like the outcome to be, and we can’t trust the hedonistic calculus to give us an objec- tive, mathematically certain picture of what to do. That does not mean such lists are useless; they can tell us much about ourselves and our own preferences and biases. However, they can do little more than that, because we can change the numbers until we get the result we want!
The Uncertain Future
Utilitarianism might still be able to offer a less presumptuous system, one designed to give guidance and material for refl ection rather than objectively calculated solu- tions. Even with that kind of system, though, there are problems to be dealt with. One lies in the concept of consequences itself. Of course, we can’t claim that an action has any consequences before we actually have taken that action. The consequences we are evaluating are hypothetical; they have yet to occur. How can we decide once and for all whether an action is morally good if the consequences are still up in the air? We have to (1) make an educated guess and hope for the best, (2) act, and (3) wait to see the results. If we’re lucky and wise, the results will be as positive as what we hoped for. But suppose they aren’t. Before we learn the results, our good intentions are of course part of the plus side of the hedonistic calculus: If we in- tend to create benefi cial consequences for as many as possible, it is a process that the utilitarian will approve of. But the true value of our action is not clear until the consequences are clear. You may intend to create much happiness, and your calcu- lations may be educated, but your intentions may still be foiled by forces beyond your control. In that case, it is the end result that counts and not your fi ne intentions and calculations. How long do we have to wait until we know whether our actions were morally good or evil? It may take a long time before all the effects are known— maybe a hundred years or more. Critics of utilitarianism say it is just not reasonable to use a moral system that doesn’t allow us to know whether what we did was mor- ally right or wrong until some time in the far-off future. Furthermore, how will we ever be able to decide anything in the fi rst place? Thousands—perhaps millions—of big and small consequences result from everything we do. Do we have to calculate them all? How can we ever make a quick decision if we have to go through such a complicated process every time? Answers to such criticisms were provided by the philosopher and economist John Stuart Mill (1806–1873). For one thing, Mill says, we don’t have to calculate every little effect of our action; we can rely on the common experience of human- ity. Through the millennia, humans have had to make similar decisions all the time, and we can consider their successes and failures in deciding our own actions. (Be- cause Mill had actually given up on calculating every action to an exact mathematical value, it was easier for him than for Bentham to allow for some uncertainty in future results.) What about having to wait a long time for future consequences to happen,
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in order to pass judgment on the morality of our action? Mill says all we have to do is wait a reasonable amount of time—a short wait for small actions, a longer wait for bigger actions. Mill relies on us to know intuitively what he means, and perhaps we do. But the problems inherent in utilitarianism are not solved with those suggestions, merely diffused a little.
Advantages and Problems of Sheer Numbers: From Animal Welfare to the Question of Torture
Initially, the idea of creating as much pleasure as possible for as many as possible seems a positive one. If we read on in Bentham’s writings, we even fi nd that “the many” may not be limited to humans. Bentham’s theory was so advanced for its time that it not only gave the right to seek pleasure and avoid pain to all humans, regardless of social standing, but also said that the criterion for who belongs in the moral universe is not who has the capability to speak or to reason but who can suffer, and surely suffering is not limited to human beings. (See Box 5.5 for a discussion of suffering and nonhuman animals.) The contemporary philosopher Peter Singer (see Chapter 4) has taken this aspect of utilitarianism to heart and has become one of today’s most vocal champions of animal rights and welfare, even to the point where he believes that some animals deserve at least as much moral consideration as some humans, and occasionally more, based on the evaluation of the capacity for joy and suffering in a given animal as opposed to a given human being. His books such as In Defense of Animals (1985) and Animal Liberation: A Practical Guide (1987) have become controversial classics. In an article from the New York Times in January 2007 he says, “We are always ready to fi nd dignity in human beings, including those whose mental age will never exceed that of an in- fant, but we don’t attribute dignity to dogs or cats, though they clearly operate at a more advanced mental level than human infants. Just making that comparison provokes outrage in some quarters. But why should dignity always go together with species membership, no matter what the characteristics of the individual may be?” (You’ll fi nd the entire article, “A Convenient Truth,” in the Primary Readings section.) If we assume that the capacity to suffer (and feel pleasure) qualifi es a living or- ganism for inclusion in the moral universe, and if we believe that each individual’s pleasure counts equally, we fi nd ourselves with a dramatically expanded moral uni- verse. Even today, the idea that all creatures who can suffer deserve to be treated with dignity does not meet with the approval of every policymaker. Moreover, if the decrease of suffering and the increase of happiness are all that counts for all these members of our moral universe, what does it mean for our decision if the happiness of some can be obtained only at the cost of the suffering of others? This is where we encounter the problem of sheer numbers in utilitarianism, because whatever creates more happiness for more individuals or decreases their pain is morally right by defi ni- tion . If giving up animal-tested household products causes human housekeepers only minor inconvenience, then we have no excuse to keep using them, because major suffering is caused by such testing. Indeed, the focus on animal suffering has become
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Jeremy Bentham’s insistence that the moral uni- verse be open to any creature who can suffer is still a controversial statement, and in Bentham’s own day it was extremely radical. Of his infl uen- tial contemporaries, only John Stuart Mill took up the idea that humans are not necessarily the only members of the moral realm; it was (and still is) standard procedure to view morality as something only humans can engage in or benefi t from. Most arguments that exclude animals are based on the assumption that they can’t speak or reason (which is why Bentham says this is irrelevant and asks, “Can they suffer?”). To most people, then and now, it is obvious that animals can suffer—all we have to do is observe an in- jured animal. But to some thinkers, this is not a foregone conclusion. An argument that used to be popular in theology was that humans suf- fer because Adam and Eve sinned against God in the Garden of Eden, and suffering was their, and their children’s, punishment; since animals have not sinned against God, they can’t suffer. A more infl uential argument in philosophy comes from René Descartes (1596–1650), otherwise known for opening up the gates of modern phi- losophy with his statement “I think, therefore I am.” Descartes argued that only humans have minds; everything else in the world consists of matter only, including animals. If you have a mind, you can have awareness of suffering; if you have no mind, your body may be sub- jected to physical stress, but you won’t know it. The dog whose tail is caught in the door will yelp, but that is no sign of feeling pain, accord- ing to Descartes—that is the way the dog is constructed, like a clock with moving parts (in today’s jargon, the dog is programmed to yelp). The dog itself has no mind and feels nothing. (Descartes actually was a dog owner; according to legend, his dog’s name was Monsieur Grat.) When challenged by Margaret Cavendish, the Duchess of Newcastle, Descartes’s answer was that if animals had minds, then oysters would
have to have minds too, and he found that ri- diculous. Margaret Cavendish was a writer with an interest in science. Like most contemporary readers, she knew that there is a considerable difference between the nervous systems of dogs and oysters, but Descartes’s viewpoint has had immense infl uence on the treatment of animals to this day. Modern biology generally assumes that mammals and many other animals can feel pain, precisely because there is such a similar- ity between their nervous systems and ours. In addition, the capacity for suffering seems to be an evolutionary advantage; a being that can feel pain is more likely to be cautious, to survive, and to propagate. And fi nding support in recent neurological research, there is far more willing- ness among animal researchers today to accept that animals can feel pain, both physically and emotionally. All animals, from humans to rep- tiles, share a structure in the brain called the amygdala, which is responsible for the “fi ght-or- fl ight” reaction. It is the amygdala that is acti- vated when our heart starts pumping, our palms get sweaty, and we feel fear or panic, and that reaction is an ancient, primitive, and very use- ful response to danger that we share with most other vertebrates on this planet. So we can all be afraid—but what is generally less known is that the same, ancient part of the brain, sometimes called the “reptile brain,” can also know plea- sure, even joy. Life in the wild has never been merely a terrifi ed existence from one danger- ous moment to another—it is also full of good times and exuberance! Suffering and joy are, as Bentham suspected, a part of life not only for humans but for most other animals as well. The utilitarian Peter Singer has argued that there is no reason to assume that fi sh can’t feel pain. Where we humans differ from most other ani- mals is that we are aware of our own feelings and of our own existence. You can read more about the issue of animals in Chapter 13.
Box 5.5 W H O C A N S U F F E R ?
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much more prevalent among scientists within the last twenty years: Where countless rabbits would be used in the past in tests on cosmetics and household products, new methods are now being developed in which lab-grown human skin, “Episkin,” can be used instead to determine whether the cosmetic ingredients will damage the skin; that is in response to the European Union directive that bans animal testing by 2013. However, if it could be shown that only a few animals would have to suffer (even if they would suffer horribly) so that an immense number of humans would fi nd their housecleaning greatly eased, would it then be permissible to cause such suffering? Yes, if the pleasure gained from easy housecleaning in a large number of households could be added up and favorably compared with the immense suffering of only a very few nonhuman animals. The argument for doing whatever benefi ts more living creatures, human or non- human, is usually advanced with regard to animal testing of medical procedures that could benefi t humans. But because sheer numbers are all that matter in utilitarianism, the housecleaning example works too. Curing human ailments is not intrinsically “better” than helping humans clean their houses—what matters is the happiness that is created and the misery that is prevented. Suppose feline leukemia could be cured by subjecting ten humans to painful experiments. The humans would certainly suf- fer, but all cats would, from then on, be free of leukemia. For some, this type of example reveals the perversely narrow focus of utilitarianism; looking at pleasure and pain and adding them up are simply not enough. For others, examples like this one only confi rm that all creatures matter, and no one’s pain should be more or less important than anyone else’s. To focus on the problem, let’s assume that we are faced with a situation in which some humans are sacrifi ced for the happiness and welfare of other humans. Suppose it is revealed that governments around the world have for years had a secret pact with aliens from outer space whereby the governments have agreed to deny consistently that UFOs exist and to not interfere with occasional alien abductions of humans for medical experiments. In return, at the end of their experiments, the aliens will
René Descartes (1596–1650), French philosopher, mathemati- cian, and naturalist, known as the founder of modern philoso- phy; he is particularly famous for having said, “ Cogito, ergo sum, ” or, “I think, therefore I am.” Descartes believed that a human consists of a body and a soul; thanks to the soul, hu- mans can be self-aware and conscious of their bodies, includ- ing physical pleasures and pains. But since Descartes couldn’t imagine that animals have souls, he had to conclude that ani- mals couldn’t be aware of their physical condition either, so the inevitable deductive conclusion was, for him, that animals can’t feel pain.
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provide humanity with a cure for all viral diseases. For a great number of people, that would be a trade well worth the suffering of the “specimens” involved—provided that they themselves would not be among the specimens. Indeed, some humans might even volunteer for the experiments, but let us assume, as a condition, that the human subjects are reluctant participants, and no volunteers are accepted. Although some people would gladly commit their fellow humans to death from suffering, oth- ers would insist that it is not right; somehow, these humans do not deserve such a fate, and the immense advantages to humankind forever do not really make up for it. In other words, some may have a moral sense that the price is too high, but utili- tarianism can’t acknowledge such a moral intuition because its only moral criterion is one of sheer numbers. For many, the morality of utilitarianism is counterintuitive when applied to some very poignant human situations. The UFO example is (or at least it is intended to be) fi ctional. But the late twen- tieth century revealed to us a number of real-life, large-scale cases in which a number of people had unwittingly been made into guinea pigs for the sake of some greater cause. What if we could accomplish benefi cial results for a large number of people or living beings at the cost of intolerable pain suffered by a few? Whether one sees immediate benefi ts to a population, such as security measures, or long-term benefi ts, such as medical knowledge, the price of pain and suffering, even death, was paid by human beings, not by choice but by force, for the sake of some higher goal. The Tuskegee syphilis experiment is a chilling example, but it doesn’t end there. Other morally questionable governmental practices have been revealed; see Box 4.5 for some examples. Such experiments have reduced people to being mere tools in some- one else’s agenda. A classic utilitarian will answer that, depending on the greatness and the nature of the goal, the sacrifi ce and suffering might well be worth the price. But John Stuart Mill added that, in the long run, a population abusing a minority will reap not good results but social unrest, so such practices should be discouraged. (See the subsequent section on act and rule utilitarianism.) Still, the salvation of humanity is a forceful argument. Let us suppose, however, that we are talking not about salvation from disease but about salvation from bore- dom. Television is already moving toward showing live or videotaped events involv- ing human suffering and death; home movies are often the source of that footage, and this form of “entertainment” has become increasingly popular. YouTube has a large selection of private videos of young men and women engaging in violent acts toward others. Might viewers choose to watch real-time shows of criminals who are granted one television hour to run through a city or a neighborhood, avoiding snip- ers and hoping to live through it all and win their freedom? The Romans watched Christians, slaves, criminals, prisoners of war, and wild animals fi ght each other, with much appreciation for the entertainment value of such events. If they had had the ability to televise the events, might we not assume that they would have done so, having recognized that “bread and circuses” (food and entertainment) would ap- pease the unruly masses? According to the utilitarian calculation, a great number of people may be hugely entertained by the immense suffering of one or a few. How far are we allowed to let numbers run away with us in disregarding people’s inherent right to fair treatment?
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A common utilitarian reply is that under such circumstances, people start wor- rying about being victimized, and social unrest follows. Until that happens, though, utilitarians must conclude that there is justifi cation in letting a large number of peo- ple enjoy the results of the suffering of a few (or even enjoy the suffering itself). In the Narratives section you’ll fi nd several stories illustrating this problem of “sheer numbers”: Wessel’s satire “The Blacksmith and the Baker”; a selection from Dostoyevsky’s Brothers Karamazov; Ursula K. Le Guin’s story about a child being tortured for the sake of communal happiness, “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas”; and a summary of the fi lm Extreme Measures. Once we start identifying the utilitarian sheer-numbers problem as one of disregard for the rights of the individual for the sake of the well-being of the many, we tend to be critical of any decision that would favor the happiness of the majority over the rights of a minority, and perhaps rightfully so. However, there are compelling scenarios that make us reevaluate the simple math of Bentham’s utilitarianism: When push comes to shove, and hard deci- sions have to be made in a split second, saving the many by sacrifi cing the few may be the decision most of us would agree with. Think back to that dreadful day of September 11, when four airplanes were hijacked with the presumed intent to cause as much damage as possible to people and institutions. Three planes hit their targets: the World Trade Center towers and the Pentagon. But as you’ll recall, the fourth plane, Flight 93, did not reach its intended target, in all likelihood the Capitol or the White House, because of the heroic resolve of the passengers. But in the aftermath we also learned that had the passengers not acted, Flight 93 would probably not have reached its target anyway, because U.S. Air Force fi ghter jets were already poised to escort the plane down or, if necessary, shoot it down. That came as a shock to many Americans, in particular when the government announced that any plane on a collision course with a civilian or military structure would be regarded as a threat and would be shot down. Here we see the principle of utility at work in a desperate situation: Sacrifi ce the few on the plane rather than take a chance and risk the lives of the many on the ground and the security of our institutions. Some might say, “But those people on the plane were going to die when the plane hit the building anyway, so what difference did it make if they died sooner rather than later?” The difference is in the attitude regarding the few as expendable. Furthermore, it isn’t a given that they would die anyway. So if we could limit terrible consequences for a large number of people by sacrifi cing a few innocent people, would the decision be acceptable, even if we happened to be among the unfortunate few ourselves? If we say yes, where do we draw the line? How do we defi ne “terrible consequences”? And, if we say no, are we seriously advocating that it is better for the many to perish in the name of fairness than for the many to survive at the cost of the lives of the few? But one thing is contemplating the sacrifi ce of the innocent few to save the many; how about causing pain to a few people who are not “innocent,” such as cap- tured terrorists, for the sake of extracting information? If lives of our soldiers and civilians might be saved, should we engage in torture of prisoners who may have the information we need? The hedonistic calculus seems to have a clear answer: We just have to calculate the projected pains involved in administering torture, as opposed to not doing it. But elsewhere the debate has been vigorous among the
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public, media hosts, and politicians, reaching the Capitol, where new guidelines for torture were established in 2006 under the Bush administration, and revised again in 2009 by the Obama administration. Here we are looking at a prime example of why a discussion of metaethics is important (see Chapter 3): We may have an idea of what torture is and who has been known to commit torture (a descriptive ap- proach), and we may have strong opinions about whether or not torture should be acceptable under certain conditions (a normative approach), but how do we know that we agree on the meaning of the concept of torture (a metaethical ap- proach)? Subjecting a person to methodical, physical pain that leaves permanent or at least long-lasting damage is recognized by everyone as “torture,” but what about “enhanced” interrogation methods that leave no physical damage, but do re- sult in psychological scars—such as waterboarding? The Military Commissions Act ( Antiterrorism) of 2006 upheld the Geneva Convention for lawful enemy combat- ants but not for “unlawful enemy combatants”—that is, terrorists. There was some dispute as to whether this might include U.S. citizens. To a great extent, that revised version left the very defi nition of torture open to interpretation. The Antiterrorism Act did not initially label waterboarding as torture, and the method has been used by the CIA numerous times on at least three prisoners suspected of terrorism (see Chapter 3), presumably leading to valuable information. However, the Obama ad- ministration reclassifi ed waterboarding as torture, and thus made it unavailable as a way to extract information. In Chapter 6 we look at the viewpoint that regardless of whether torture or “ enhanced” interrogation methods yield results, such methods are fundamen- tally morally wrong in themselves. But for a utilitarian viewpoint the all-important question is, do they work, and what are the costs compared to the benefi ts? Senator John McCain (who himself was tortured as a POW during the Vietnam War) has argued that the United States should not engage in the torture of enemy combatants/ terrorists, because it doesn’t yield reliable knowledge: The prisoner will say anything to make the torture stop, and sometimes he, or she, has been trained to give out disinformation under duress. Put into a utilitarian formula, the pain caused will not yield suffi ciently useful results to justify the pain. Opponents of McCain’s view have argued that in an extreme situation we would be remiss if we didn’t use harsh interrogation methods as a last resort. The response from McCain and others has been that methods of torture generally don’t work, and when employed, may lead to further acts of revenge by the groups whose members have been tortured. All these arguments are, of course, fundamentally utilitarian: The pro-torture argument says that resorting to torture, on rare occasions, will give us the edge we need to survive, so the good consequences outweigh the bad; the anti-torture argument says that torture doesn’t yield reliable information, and the counterattacks will escalate as a matter of revenge, so the bad consequences outweigh the good. With the killing of Osama bin Laden by U.S. Navy Seals in the spring of 2011 the debate was on the agenda again. The operation was diffi cult—taking place in total secret inside another nation’s borders—and depending on accurate information about bin Laden’s hideout. So where did our military forces get that information from? President Obama’s Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta said in an interview
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that some information had been obtained through waterboarding, but later another government offi cial said it probably hadn’t been obtained that way. So we may never know if there is a “true story,” and perhaps we don’t need to know, because it may be a matter of national security, but from a utilitarian viewpoint it becomes a ques- tion of whether enhanced interrogations can yield valid results to the extent that the success rate is overall higher than the failure rate. Would Bentham be in favor of torturing terrorists who are presumed to have knowledge about a future terror attack, or the whereabouts of their leader? It would depend exclusively on the prob- able outcome. Critics of Bentham—and of torture—point out that if we can use torture methods as a last resort, what is to stop us from lowering the bar and using such methods in less serious situations? For proponents of using enhanced interro- gation methods including waterboarding, there is no doubt that it is a measure to be used only as a last resort, and a necessary one: While we are respecting all other human beings, some of them are preparing to kill us, and we can’t afford to lose our vigilance. But, say the critics, in that way we lose sight of what we have cherished the most since the creation of this nation: the fundamental respect for other human beings. The foundation for that respect will be explored in Chapter 6.
John Stuart Mill: Higher and Lower Pleasures
Bentham was not alone in designing the theory of utilitarianism. He and his close friend James Mill worked out the specifi cs of the new moral system together. Mill’s son John Stuart Mill, the eldest of nine children, was a very bright boy, and James Mill’s ambition was to develop his son’s talents and intelligence as much as possible and as fast as possible. The boy responded well, learned quickly, and was able to read Greek and Latin at an early age. Throughout his childhood he was groomed to become a scientist. He was tutored privately and performed marvelously until he came to a halt at the age of twenty, struck by a nervous breakdown. His crisis was quiet and polite, in accordance with his nature: He went on with his work, and few people close to him realized what was going on; but internally he stopped in his
John Stuart Mill (1806–1873), English philosopher and econo- mist. Believing that utilitarianism was the only reasonable moral system, Mill nevertheless saw Jeremy Bentham’s version as rather crude and created a more sophisticated version of the principle of utility, taking into consideration the qualitative differences between pleasures.
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tracks and in a very modern sense decided to “get in touch with himself,” for he had come to the realization that despite his intense studying, one part of his education was pitifully incomplete. He knew much about how to think, but he didn’t know how to feel; as a child he had been emotionally deprived and had never been allowed to have playmates other than his sisters Willie, Harriet, and Clara, and he now felt to- tally inadequate in his emotional life. (If you remember from Chapter 2 the emphasis that was placed on feelings during the Age of Romanticism, you’ll have an even better understanding of what Mill went through, because he was a young man of twenty when the Age of Romanticism was at its peak.) In the months before his breakdown, he had engaged in debates, published articles, helped edit a major work by Bentham, and was probably beginning to suffer from what we today call burnout—at the very least, he was overworked. Later in life, Mill described his breakdown in his Autobiography; in modern ter- minology, he put a spin on it that refl ected his rebellion against Jeremy Bentham:
From the winter of 1821, when I fi rst read Bentham . . . I had what might truly be called an object in life; to be a reformer of the world. My conception of my own life was entirely identifi ed with this object. . . . But the time came when I awakened from this as from a dream. It was in the autumn of 1826. I was in a dull state of nerves, such as everybody is occasionally liable to; unsusceptible to enjoyment or pleasurable excitement. . . . In this frame of mind it occurred to me to put the question directly to myself: “Suppose that all your objects in life were realized; that all the changes in institutions and opinions which you are looking forward to, could be completely effected at this very instant: would this be a great joy and happiness to you?” And an irrepressible self-consciousness distinctly answered, “No!” At this my heart sank within me: the whole foundation on which my life was constructed fell down. . . . I seemed to have nothing left to live for. . . . If I had loved anyone suffi ciently to make confi ding my griefs a necessity, I should not have been in the condition I was.
What Mill read into his breakdown later in life was that his father’s intellec- tual training and Bentham’s philosophy had let him down—the utilitarian greatest- happiness principle might lead to happiness for the many, but it didn’t necessarily lead to happiness for the utilitarian. Mill, in his Autobiography, uses this term to ram a lesson home: You don’t fi nd happiness by looking for it but by enjoying life along the way as you focus on other things. “Ask yourself whether you are happy, and you cease to be so.” In his crisis, Mill rediscovered the truth of the paradox of hedonism: The harder you look for happiness, the more likely it is to elude you. But what re- ally happened to him psychologically may not have been clear to Mill at all. For one thing, he was overworked, and winter was approaching. For another, he found himself a cerebral intellectual in the midst of the most feeling-oriented period so far in Western history. For a third, he was lonely and became depressed; he had what we’ve come to know as a severe case of “the blues.” But the loneliness problem didn’t last long. Neither did his disenchantment with utilitarianism—he just stopped look- ing for self-gratifi cation in it and focused on the goal of improving the world. Mill began exploring the world of feelings—music, poetry, literature—and later he went abroad to the European continent and traveled (as did the Romantic painters
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and poets). In a roundabout way, Mill’s personal story illustrates Nussbaum’s theory that emotions are not irrelevant for ethics (see Chapter 1). During this period he took time out to reexamine his life and his future, turned his back on the sciences, and decided to “go into his father’s business” and become a social thinker and an economist. As a social thinker he became one of the most infl uential persons of the nineteenth century, laying the foundation for many of the political ideas in the West- ern world on both the liberal and the conservative sides.
Mill’s Revision of Utilitarianism: The Higher and Lower Pleasures
Mill’s aim was to take his godfather and father’s theory of utilitarianism and re- design it to fi t a more sophisticated age. What had seemed overwhelmingly im- portant to Bentham—a more just legal system—was no longer the primary goal, for he realized that without proper education for the general population, true so- cial equality would not be obtained. Mill also realized that Bentham’s version of utilitarianism had several fl aws. For one thing, it was too simple; it relied on a very straightforward system of identifying good with pleasure and evil with pain, without specifying the nature of pleasure and pain. (Some say this was actually one of the strengths of early utilitarianism, but Mill saw it as a serious defi ciency.) Bentham’s version also assumed that people were so rational they would always follow the moral calculations. Mill pointed out, however, that even if people are clearly shown it would give them and others more overall pleasure to change their course of action, they are likely to continue doing what they are used to because people are creatures of habit; our emotions, rather than cool deliberation, often dictate what we do. We can’t, therefore, rely on our rationality to the extreme de- gree that Bentham thought we could. (That doesn’t mean, of course, that we can’t educate children and adults to use their heads more profi tably.) We will return to the education question later, but fi rst we look at how Mill decided to redesign the theory of utilitarianism. Mill was a more complex person than Bentham, and his theory refl ects that com- plexity. For Mill the idea that humans seek pleasure and that moral goodness lies in obtaining that pleasure is only half the story—but it is the half that is more frequently misunderstood. What do people think when they hear this idea? That all that counts is easy gratifi cation of any desire they may have—in other words, a “doctrine wor- thy only of swine,” as Mill says, repeating the words of the critics of utilitarianism. And because people reject the notion of seeking only swinish pleasures, they reject utilitarianism as an unworthy theory. They get upset, said Mill, precisely because they are not pigs and want more out of life than a pig could ever want. People are simply not content with basic pleasures, and a good moral and social theory should refl ect that. Furthermore, says Mill, all theories that have advocated happiness have been accused of talking about easy gratifi cation, but that is an unfair criticism when applied to utilitarianism. Even Epicurus held that there are many things in life other than physical pleasures that can bring us happiness, and there is nothing in utilitari- anism that says we have to defi ne pleasure and happiness as mere gratifi cation of physical desires.
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Why was Mill so uneasy about being accused of seeking gratifi cation of physical desires? Consider the changing times in which he lived. When Mill wrote his book Utilitarianism (1863), the British Empire was twenty-six years into the Victorian era. Queen Victoria had ascended the throne in 1837, and morals had subtly undergone a shift since Bentham’s day; preoccupation with physical pleasures was, on the whole, frowned upon by the middle classes, more so than in the previous generation—it was not considered proper to display such indulgence. For many, that signifi es an age of hypocrisy, of double standards, but it would be unfair to accuse Mill of such double standards, because several of his truly innovative social ideas stemmed from his indignation toward this preoccupation with the way other people choose to live. However, it may have been a sign of the times that Mill felt compelled to reas- sure his readers that they could be followers of utilitarianism without being labeled hedonists. Some believe there is also a personal side to the story. In his early twenties, Mill, having earlier worried that he didn’t have any knowledge of feelings, fell head over heels in love with a young married woman, Harriet Taylor, and the feeling was mu- tual. They maintained a relationship for almost twenty years, until her husband died, and then they fi nally got married. Their relationship had become an open secret over the years, even to Mr. Taylor. (Being honest people, they apparently told him of their feelings, but he was also assured that they had no intention of breaking up the Taylor marriage.) It has generally been assumed that they were sexually involved, but judging from their correspondence, it may well have been a platonic friendship until their wedding. Their letters testify to Mill’s later version of utilitarianism: The two seem to agree that spiritual pleasures and intellectual companionship are more valuable than physical gratifi cation. John Stuart Mill prepared his book Utilitarianism during the years of their marriage, but when it was published in 1863, Harriet was no longer alive. She died (probably of tuberculosis) less than ten years after they got married; however, Mill’s moral and political writings were clearly inspired by their intellectual discussions over three decades. (See Box 5.6 for a discussion of Mill’s views on women’s rights.) What, then, does Mill propose? That some pleasures are more valuable, “higher,” than others. That on the whole, humans prefer to hold on to their dignity and strive for truly fulfi lling experiences rather than settle for easy contentment. It is better to be a human dissatisfi ed than a pig satisfi ed, better to be Socrates dissatisfi ed than a fool satis- fi ed, says Mill. Even if the great pleasures in life require some effort—for instance, one has to learn math to understand the joy of solving a mathematical problem—it is worth the effort, because the pleasure is greater than if you had just remained passive. Now the question becomes, Who is to say which pleasures are the higher ones and which are the lower ones? We seem predisposed to assume that the physical pleasures are the lower ones, but need that be the case? Mill proposes a test: We must ask people who are familiar with both kinds of pleasure, and whatever they choose as the higher goal is the ultimate answer. Suppose we gather a group of people who sometimes order a pizza and beer and watch Monday Night Football or a reality show but also occasionally go out to a French restaurant before watching Masterpiece
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JOHN STUART MILL : HIGHER AND LOWER PLEASURES 251
Theatre on PBS. We ask them which activity—pizza and football or French food and Masterpiece Theatre —is the higher pleasure. If the test works, we must accept it if the majority say that on the whole they think pizza and football is the higher pleasure. But will Mill accept that? This is the drawback of his test—it appears that he will not:
Capacity for the nobler feelings is in most natures a very tender plant, easily killed, not only by hostile infl uences, but by mere want of sustenance; and in the majority of young persons it speedily dies away if the occupations to which their position in life has devoted them, and the society into which it has thrown them, are not favorable to keeping that higher capacity in exercise. Men lose their high aspirations as they lose their intellectual tastes, because they have not time or opportunity for indulging them; and they addict themselves to inferior pleasures not because they deliberately prefer them, but because they are either the only ones to which they have access or the only ones which they are any longer capable of enjoying.
What does that mean? It means if you vote for pizza and football as the overall winner, Mill will claim you have lost the capacity for enjoying gourmet French food and intellectual television (which demands some attention from your intellect), or, to use a modern expression, “Use it or lose it.” In other words, he has rigged his own test. This has caused some critics to voice the opinion that Mill is an intellectual snob, a “cultural imperialist” trying to impose his own standards on the general pop- ulation. And the immediate victim of this procedure? The egalitarian principle that was the foundation of Bentham’s version of utilitarianism—that one person equals
John Stuart Mill is today recognized as the fi rst infl uential male speaker for political equality between men and women in modern Western history. (In England, Mary Wollstonecraft pub- lished her Vindication of the Rights of Women in 1792, but already in 1673 the French author Poulain de la Barre, a student of Descartes, had published De l’égalité des deux sexes, in which he argued for total equality between men and women because of their equality in reason- ing power. This book, however, was largely ignored for a long time.) Mill’s book The Sub- jection of Women (1869) revealed to his readers the abyss of inequality separating the lives of men and women in what was then considered a modern society. His exposé of this inequality was a strong contributing factor in women ob- taining the right to vote in England, as well as
elsewhere in the Western world. In 1866 Mill, then a member of the British Parliament, had tried to get a measure passed that would estab- lish gender equality in England. The measure failed, but Mill had succeeded in drawing atten- tion to the issue. It is often mentioned in this context that Mill was inspired by his longtime friend and later wife, Harriet Taylor, although he had shown an interest in the women’s rights issue in an article from 1824 when he was only nineteen. Scholars now believe that Mill’s fi ght for women’s rights was not just a matter of sub- tle inspiration from Mrs. Taylor but also a di- rect result of their long and detailed intellectual discussions, for Mrs. Taylor was an intellectual in her own right. In the Primary Readings sec- tion in Chapter 12, you’ll fi nd a text by Harriet Taylor Mill.
Box 5.6 M I L L A N D T H E W O M E N ’ S C A U S E
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one vote regarding what is pleasurable and what is painful—collapses under Mill’s test. According to him, we have to go to the “authorities of happiness” to fi nd out what it is that everybody ought to desire. If we perform Mill’s test and ask individuals who seem to know of many kinds of pleasure what they prefer, we may get responses that Mill would not have accepted, because some people may indeed favor physical pleasures over intellectual or spiri- tual ones; however, a recent study claimed (with no reference to Mill whatsoever) that people who have a spiritual side are happier overall than are people whose lives are completely focused on material pleasures. Now, it is questionable in itself whether it is at all possible to put together reliable statistics on this topic, but Mill would probably have welcomed the survey: It is not merely because higher, intellec- tual, or spiritual pleasures are somehow fi ner that he recommends them; it is because they presumably yield a higher form of happiness in the long run than do pleasures of easy gratifi cation. (Box 5.7 explores Mill’s attempt at proving that higher pleasures are more desirable and introduces the concept of the naturalistic fallacy.) Be that as it may, the idea of a “spiritual life” is rather vague and intangible, so let us use an example that is more concrete: learning to play a musical instrument. Anyone who has attempted it knows that for the fi rst few months it usually doesn’t sound very good, practicing is hard work, and you’ll be tempted to give up. But if you stick with it, there will probably come a day when you feel you can play what you want the way you want and even play with others, giving joy to yourself and your listeners. The same process occurs, of course, with many other skills that take hard work to learn but yield much gratifi cation when acquired: speaking a foreign language, for example, or painting with watercolors. So now Mill can step in and ask his question: If you had the choice, would you give up that skill, provided you could
Harriet Hardy Taylor Mill (1807–1858) was a chief source of inspiration for her longtime friend and later husband John Stuart Mill. Her views on individual rights are refl ected in Mill’s book On Liberty (1859), published immediately after her death. They did not agree on everything, though: Mill believed that when a woman marries, she must give up working outside the home; Taylor be- lieved that women have a right to employ- ment regardless of their marital status and that no-fault divorce should be available. However, the spouses seemed to be in agree- ment on most other issues and found in each other what we today call a soul mate. Mill grieved deeply when she died and bought a house close to the cemetery where she was laid to rest so he could visit her grave often.
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JOHN STUART MILL : HIGHER AND LOWER PLEASURES 253
John Stuart Mill acknowledges there is no proof that happiness is the ultimate value because no founding principles can be proved, yet he of- fers a proof by analogy. This proof has both- ered philosophers ever since, because it actually does more harm than good to Mill’s own system of thought. The analogy goes like this: The only way we can prove that something is visible is that people actually see it. Likewise, the only way we can prove that something is desirable is that people actually desire it. Everyone de- sires happiness, so happiness is therefore the ultimate goal. Why does this not work as an analogy? It doesn’t work because being “visible” is not analogous to being “desirable.” When we say that something is visible, we are describ- ing what people actually see. But when we say that something is desirable, we are not describ- ing what people desire. If many people desire drugs, we do not therefore conclude that drugs are “desirable,” because “desirable” means that something should be desired. The problem, however, goes deeper. Even if it were true that we could fi nd out what is morally desirable by doing a nose count, why should we then have to conclude that because many people desire something, there should be a moral require- ment that we all desire it? In other words, we are stepping from “is” (from a descriptive state- ment that says something is desired) to “ought” (to a normative/prescriptive statement that says something ought to be desired), and as the
philosopher David Hume pointed out, there is nothing in a descriptive statement that al- lows us to proceed from what people actually do to a rule that states what people ought to do. This step, known as the naturalistic fallacy, is commonly taken by thinkers, politicians, writers, and other people of infl uence, but it is nevertheless a dangerous step to take. We can’t make a policy based solely on what is the case. For instance, if it were to turn out that women actually are better parents than men by nature, it still would not be fair to conclude that men ought not to be single fathers (or that all women ought to be mothers), because we can’t pass from a simple statement of fact to a statement of policy. That does not mean we can’t make policies based on fact; that would be preposterous. What we have to do is insert a value statement—our opinion about what is good or bad, right or wrong (a so-called hid- den premise)—so we can go from a fact (such as “There are many teen pregnancies today”) to the hidden premise (“We believe teen pregnan- cies are bad for teen girls, for their babies, and for society”) and then to the conclusion (“We must try to lower the number of teen pregnan- cies”). In that case, someone who doesn’t agree with our conclusion can still agree with the fact stated but disagree with our hidden premise. Although this idea is occasionally contested by various thinkers, it remains one of philosophy’s ground rules.
Box 5.7 T H E N A T U R A L I S T I C F A L L A C Y
get all those hours of practice time back so you could spend them watching sitcoms? I doubt that a single one of us would say yes; identifying our artistic skill as the higher pleasure in spite of all the hours of hard work, tedium, and frustration leading up to it is no challenge at all. It seems that many of us, including Mill, and perhaps also Socrates, would indeed rather be temporarily dissatisfi ed if it meant we’d put the easy gratifi cations on hold for something higher and better down the road. But we’d still have to ask whether all skills that have taken an effort to acquire would qualify as “higher pleasures” according to Mill—as well as according to us: How about sports?
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computer games? or con artistry? At the end of the chapter, you can read a selection from Utilitarianism in which Mill gives his version of a happy, meaningful life.
Mill’s Harm Principle
Did Mill achieve what he wanted? Certainly he wanted to redesign utilitarianism so that it refl ected the complexity of a cultured population, but did he intend to set himself up as a cultural despot? It appears that what he wanted was something else entirely. Whereas Bentham wanted the girl who sold fl owers at Covent Garden to be able to enjoy her gin in peace, Mill wanted to educate her so that she wouldn’t need her gin anymore and would be able to experience the glorious pleasures enjoyed by the middle-class couple who had learned to appreciate the opera. What Mill had in mind, in other words, was probably not elitism but the notion that the greater plea- sure can be derived from achievement. We feel a special fulfi llment if we’ve worked hard on a math problem or a piece of music or a painting and we fi nally get it right. Mill thought this type of pleasure should be made available to everyone with a ca- pacity for it. This Mill saw as equality of a higher order, based on general education. Once such education is attained, the choices of the educated person are his or hers alone, and nobody has the right to interfere. However, until such a level is achieved, society has a right to gently inform its children and childlike adults about what they ought to prefer. That sounds today like paternalism, and there is much in Mill’s position that supports that point of view. To look more closely at Mill’s ideas of what is best for people, we must take a look at what has become known as the harm principle . Although the principle of utility provides a general guideline for personal as well as political action in terms of increasing happiness and decreasing unhappiness, it
DILBERT © 2001 Scott Adams. Used by permission of UNIVERSAL UCLICK. All rights reserved.
One of the defi ciencies of utilitarianism is that if the fi nal goal of any action is to feel good, it doesn’t matter what makes us feel good. This Dilbert cartoon hits the nail on the head: If succeeding is supposed to make us feel good but failure doesn’t make us feel bad (because some believe that feeling good is important for people to maintain their self-esteem no matter how they do it), what is the incentive for success?
Dilbert by Scott Adams
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MILL ’S HARM PRINCIPLE 255
says very little about the circumstances under which one might justifi ably become involved in changing other people’s lives for the better. Mill had very specifi c ideas about the limitations of such involvement; in his essay On Liberty (1859), he exam- ines the proper limits of government control. Because history has progressed from a time when rulers preyed upon their populations and the populations had to be protected from the rulers’ despotic actions to a time when democratic rulers, in principle, are the people, the idea of absolute authority on the part of rulers should no longer be a danger to the people. But reality shows us that this is not the case, because we now must face the tyranny of the majority . In other words, those who now need protection are minorities (and here Mill thinks of political minorities) who may wish to conduct their lives in ways different from the ways of the majority and its idea of what is right and proper. As an answer to the question of how much the social majority is allowed to exert pressure on the minority, Mill proposes the harm principle:
That principle is, that the sole end for which mankind are warranted, individually or col- lectively, in interfering with the liberty of action of any of their number, is self-protection. That the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others. His own good, either physical or moral, is not a suffi cient warrant. He cannot rightfully be compelled to do or forbear because it will be better for him to do so, because it will make him happier, because, in the opinions of others, to do so would be wise, or even right. These are good reasons for remonstrating with him, or reasoning with him, or persuading him, or entreat- ing him, but not for compelling him, or visiting him with any evil in case he do otherwise. To justify that, the conduct from which it is desired to deter him must be calculated to produce evil to someone else. The only part of the conduct of anyone, for which he is ame- nable to society, is that which concerns others. In the part which merely concerns himself, his independence is, of right, absolute. Over himself, over his own body and mind, the individual is sovereign.
So how does this policy go with his statement four years later that higher plea- sures are better for people than lower pleasures and that some people aren’t capable of knowing what is good for them? Some Mill critics say that they don’t go well to- gether at all—that Mill is claiming in one text that people have a right to choose their own poison, and in the other that they haven’t. But we can perhaps fi nd a middle way: What Mill is saying in On Liberty is that people, if they so choose, should be al- lowed to follow their own tastes; what he is saying in Utilitarianism is that everybody should be allowed to be exposed to higher pleasures through education, so they might be able to make better choices—but he is not going to force anyone who is adult and in control of his or her mental faculties to submit to a life ruled by someone else’s taste. At least, that is a possible reading of Mill that brings the two viewpoints together. (See Box 5.8 for an application of the harm principle to the issue of the legalization of drugs.) The harm principle has had extremely far-reaching consequences. Built in part on John Locke’s theory of negative rights (see Chapter 7), which had had great infl uence not only in the United Kingdom but also on the Constitution of the United States,
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John Stuart Mill’s harm principle, that the only purpose of interfering with the life of someone is to prevent harm to others, has been applied in many social and political debates, with the gen- eral result that we see how ambiguous the princi- ple really is. Examples are the euthanasia debate (see Chapter 13), the debate about “victimless crimes” such as (presumably) prostitution, and the discussion about the legalization of drugs. A general utilitarian view of the legaliza- tion of drugs does not take a stand on whether drugs in themselves are “good” or “bad” but on whether more misery (or happiness) in the long run will be created through making them legally available than through prohibiting them. But remember that the harm principle sets limits to the “general-happiness principle” be- cause it keeps us from interfering with people for their own sake, unless they are harming oth- ers. You can’t force someone to try out some- one else’s model for happiness (and by now you have probably noticed that Mill’s own theory of higher pleasures doesn’t quite go well with his harm principle, because he believed people ought to be educated so they could enjoy the higher pleasures, even though they might not want to give up their lower pleasures). Arguments in favor of drug legalization gen- erally include these:
• The war on drugs isn’t working—it is costly and clogs the jails with drug offenders;
furthermore, drugs are still being brought across the borders.
• If drugs were legalized, they would be safer because they would be controlled by the state, and the black market would disap- pear. Drugs would become less expensive, and addicts wouldn’t have to turn to crime to feed their habit.
• Heavy drug users could be helped by the state, and people who could manage their own drug use could be left to themselves; after all, people who can manage their own drinking are not criminalized.
The harm principle obviously applies here: If a person does no one else harm by a moderate drug intake, then he or she should be allowed to continue using drugs. (This is the drug policy of the Libertarian Party.) This is where advocates of drug legalization usually seek Mill’s support. But we should not draw hasty conclusions. If we take a closer look at the issue, do we still have a situation that involves only individuals who are mature enough to manage their own habits?
• The fact that the war on drugs isn’t working is no reason to give it up. If jails are being inundated with drug offenders, the solution is not to decriminalize drug use but to edu- cate children about drugs before they start using.
Box 5.8 T H E H A R M P R I N C I P L E A N D D R U G L E G A L I Z A T I O N
Mill’s theory helped defi ne two political lines of thought that, paradoxically, are now at odds with each other. We usually refer to Mill’s view as classical liberalism because of its emphasis on personal liberty. The idea of civil liberties—the rights of citizens, within their right to privacy, to do what they want provided that they do no harm and to have their government ensure that as little harm and as much happiness as possible is created for as many people as possible—is also a cornerstone of egalitarian liberalism . But the notions of personal liberty and noninterference by the govern- ment have also become key in the political theory of laissez-faire, the hands-off ap- proach that requires as little government interference as possible, primarily in private
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MILL ’S HARM PRINCIPLE 257
• Will crime go down? Will the black market disappear? Will drugs be safer? Only if you live in a fantasy world. Cigarettes are legal, but there is a huge black market for to- bacco, smuggling is big business, and even with cheap drugs there will be some who can’t afford them and will turn to crime. If drug legalization involves regulation (safer drugs), then there will surely arise a black market for unregulated drugs, which would begin the cycle again.
• Certainly it is a good idea for the state to help heavy users—individual states al- ready do that. And it is also possible that many people could be completely respon- sible with a drug habit, just as many are responsible in their enjoyment of alcohol (which is, of course, a drug). But—and this is where the harm principle takes a turn— imagine all those people, young people in particular, who refrain from drugs simply because they are illegal. With drug le- galization, that obstacle is removed; this means there will be many more people on the streets who are under the infl u- ence, endangering themselves and others in traffi c, not to mention creating lifelong dependencies.
So opponents of drug legalization are say- ing that, overall, legalization will cause more
harm than continued drug legislation. In ad- dition, even though one individual may not be directly harming anyone else, he or she may serve as a role model of drug use for others less mature or responsible. Mill considered only direct harm to others a reason to interfere, not this kind of indirect harm. (But he would have considered drugs a “lower pleasure.”) How- ever, later critics as well as supporters of the harm principle have argued that the line be- tween direct and indirect harm is often blurred. A bad role model may cause more obvious and direct harm to an impressionable child than to an adult who is supposed to be able to distinguish right from wrong. So the harm principle may be used to argue against drug legalization. The issue of medical use of drugs, such as marijuana, may be different, because drugs for medical use are already part of our culture. The question of legislating alcohol as a drug of course has similarities with the drug issue: Alcohol directly endangers not just the person under the infl uence but others as well; MADD (Mothers Against Drunk Drivers) and other victims of alcohol-related accidents and their relatives can attest to that. But there is a difference: Most other drugs are taken strictly for their effect; alcohol is very often consumed not for its effect but for its taste, and the intake need not reach a level where a person is a risk to others.
enterprise. The idea behind laissez-faire is that if we all look after our own business and no authorities make our business theirs, then we all are better off, which is today considered a conservative economic philosophy, expressed in its extreme form by the Libertarian Party. The limitations of the right to privacy are more numerous than might be ap- parent at fi rst glance. For one thing, what exactly does it mean that we are account- able to society only for our conduct that concerns others? What Mill had in mind certainly included the right of consenting adults to engage in sexual activity in the privacy of their own homes, regardless of how other people might feel about the
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issue. In such cases, only nosy neighbors might be “concerned,” and for Mill their right to concern would be proportionate to the extent that they would be exposed to the activities of the couple in question. In other words, if it takes binoculars for you to become exposed to a situation (and hence become “concerned”), then put aside your binoculars and mind your own business. But what about, say, a teenage girl who decides to put an end to her life because her boyfriend broke up with her? Might that fall within the harm principle? Is she harming only herself, so that society has no right to interfere? Here Mill might an- swer in several ways. First, she is harming not only herself but her family as well, who would grieve for her and feel guilty for not having stepped in. There is also the problem of role models. If other teens in the same situation learn about her suicide, they might think it would be a good idea to follow her example, and more harm would be caused. But when does indirect harm ever end? Doesn’t it spread like rings in water? Mill himself would not allow for indirect harm, such as the harm caused by fl awed role models, to be an obvious cause for the interference of authorities. To him, an adult should not be prevented from doing what he or she wants to do just because some other adult might imitate the action, but only if his or her action (such as a policeman being drunk on the job—Mill’s own example) is a likely cause for direct harm to others. You may draw your own conclusions about current discussions concerning direct and indirect harm, such as the debate surrounding helmet laws, drug laws, and prostitution. And what if a blog on the Internet advocated violence in specifi c terms—such as the anti-abortion website The Nuremberg Files of the late 1990s, which published the names and addresses of abortion providers—but the bloggers themselves did not engage in violent ac- tivities? Would that be an instance of legitimate free speech, or of an unacceptable call to violence and harm-doing? The courts have disagreed. It is clear that Mill’s interpretation of his own harm principle still engenders heated debate. As for our example of the suicidal teenage girl, Mill would most certainly add the following: This situation does not fall under the harm principle, because the girl is (1) not an adult and (2) not in a rational frame of mind:
This doctrine is meant to apply only to human beings in the maturity of their faculties. We are not speaking of children, or of young persons below the age which the law may fi x as that of manhood or womanhood. Those who are still in a state to require being taken care of by others, must be protected against their own actions as well as against external injury. For the same reason, we may leave out of consideration those backward states of society in which the [human] race itself may be considered as in its nonage. . . . Despotism is a legiti- mate mode of government in dealing with barbarians, provided the end be their improve- ment, and the means justifi ed by actually effecting that end. Liberty, as a principle, has no application to any state of things anterior to the time when mankind have become capable of being improved by free and equal discussion. . . . But as soon as mankind have attained the capacity of being guided to their own improvement by conviction or persuasion (a period long since reached in all nations with whom we need here concern ourselves), compulsion . . . is no longer admissible as a means to their own good, and justifi ably only for the security of others.
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With this addition to the harm principle, Mill certainly makes it clear that chil- dren are excluded, but so is anyone who, in Mill’s mind, belongs to a “backward” state of society. Again, we see evidence of Mill’s complexity: He adamantly wants to protect civil liberties, but he is also paternalistic: Whoever is not an “adult” by his defi nition must be guided or coerced to comply with existing rules. Individuals as well as whole peoples who fall outside the “adult” category must be governed by others until they reach suffi cient maturity to take affairs into their own hands. Critics have seen this as a defense of not merely cultural but also political imperialism: There are peoples who are too primitive to rule themselves, so someone else has to do it for them and bring them up to Western standards. Who are these peoples? We may assume that they include the native-born peoples of old British colonies. Since Mill made his living not as a philosophy professor but as a Chief Examiner at India House, East India Company, which administered the colony of India (his father, James Mill, had worked for the Company and was the author of a lengthy work on the his- tory of India, and John Stuart himself started working there in 1923 when he was eighteen), his knowledge of colony affairs came from the perspective of the colony power. That viewpoint, sometimes referred to as “the white man’s burden,” is very far from being acceptable in our era, but is it fair to accuse Mill of being an imperial- ist? Perhaps, especially if we take into account that Mill published his piece in 1859, and two years earlier the British Empire had been shocked by the so-called Sepoy mutiny in northern India, in which hundreds of British offi cers and their wives and children had been murdered by Indian infantry soldiers in the British-Indian army. That mutiny was the result of long-standing clashes and misunderstandings between the two cultural groups, after a hundred years of British dominion and (as many would describe it) exploitation. In the aftermath of the mutiny, India was taken over by the British Crown and ruled as a part of the empire. Mill was appalled at the mu- tiny but also at the takeover by the British government, and he retired, declining to take part in the new government. His chief aim seems to have been perpetuating not the British Empire but the utilitarian idea of maximizing happiness for the greatest number and minimizing pain and misery on a global scale. If Mill was biased toward the British way of life, it may be understandable: That way of life was in many ways the best the planet Earth had to offer in the nineteenth century for those with access to a good education. It was, in our terms, an extremely “civilized” culture, at least for the upper and middle classes. Perhaps, then, we can think of Mill not merely as an intellectual snob but also as an educator who wanted to see everybody get the same good chances in life that he got and enjoy life as much as he did. One fi nal remark concerning Mill: Sometimes the present forces us to reevalu- ate things we thought were simply part of history—something we thought we un- derstood pretty well. For at least half a century, it has been considered right and appropriate (at least in this country) to criticize Mill for wanting to govern India until Indians were capable of governing themselves in a democratic fashion. Ethical relativism, being a strong cultural force in the twentieth century, has told us that each culture is right in its own way and that no culture has the right to superimpose its values on other cultures. But wait . . . in Chapter 3 we discussed the types of situ- ations that have made so many people change their minds about ethical relativism.
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Should we just stand by while little girls are being circumcised? while people are being sold into slavery? Now suppose we add to the list: while people are being tortured and murdered by a dictator, while entire populations are being subject to genocide? What I am getting at is, of course, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. In addition to goals such as to carrying out military actions designed to keep our nation safe from future acts of terrorism by al Qaeda (in Afghanistan) and disrupting what was then assumed to be a connection between terrorists and Saddam Hussein (in Iraq), assisting in creating democracies where people could determine their own fate, unafraid of despotic or oppressive governments, became the additional goals of both wars, at least in most Americans’ eyes. That puts us at a crossroads: On the one hand, we can stay with the earlier critical evaluation of Mill and say that no matter what the situation, a nation doesn’t have the right to try to run another nation or change its regime to something that seems more right, or even just more acceptable or safer. On the other hand, if we agree with Mill that democracy is better than tyranny, and freedom of educated people is better than the superstition of illiteracy—then can we still claim that he is wrong? And if we think he has a point, how does that translate into the evaluation of the war in Iraq 2003–2011? For Mill and other British citi- zens, the Sepoy Mutiny can perhaps be understood as a kind of 9/11 experience. Even if he didn’t approve of the way the British government handled the crisis, his conclusion was that nations who aren’t “civilized” must be put under the civilizing infl uence of other nations until they have matured suffi ciently to govern themselves. So if we view Mill’s attitude through the lenses of our own 9/11 experience, and the subsequent wars in Afghanistan and—in particular—in Iraq, would you condemn his view, or would you instead reevaluate Mill’s statement in light of the capture of Saddam Hussein and the attempt by the United States and its allies to introduce de- mocracy into a country that has never known a “free and equal discussion,” as Mill called it? For a utilitarian such as Mill, the question will eventually become, Can the goal be accomplished, and at what cost? In Chapter 13 you’ll read about the theory of just war. For now, I suggest you engage in the thought experiment of taking a look at a nineteenth-century event through twenty-fi rst-century eyes—and then allow yourself to look at today’s events from the viewpoint of a nineteenth-century philosopher. It may increase your understanding of the past as well as the present.
Act and Rule Utilitarianism
In the twentieth century it became clear to philosophers attracted to utilitarianism that there were severe problems inherent in the idea that a morally right act is an act that makes as many people as possible happy. One fl aw is that, as we saw previ- ously, it is conceivable many people will achieve much pleasure from the misery of a few others, and even in situations where people don’t know that their happiness is achieved by the pain of others, that is still an uncomfortable thought. It is especially so if one believes in the Golden Rule (as John Stuart Mill did), which states that we should do for others what we would like done for ourselves and refrain from doing to others what we would not like done to ourselves. Mill himself was aware of the problem and allowed that in the long run a society in which a majority abuses a
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ACT AND RULE UTILITARIANISM 261
minority is not a good society. That still means we have to explain why the fi rst cases of happiness occurring from the misery of others are wrong, even before they have established themselves as a pattern with increasingly bad consequences. In a sense, Mill tried to address the problem, suggesting that utilitarianism be taken as a general policy to be applied to general situations. He did not, however, develop the idea further within his own philosophy. Others have taken up the challenge and suggested it is just that particular for- mulation of utilitarianism which creates the problem; given another formulation, the problem disappears. If we stay with the classical formulation, the principle of utility goes like this: Always do whatever act will create the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people . In this version we are stuck with the problems we saw earlier; for example, the torture of innocents may bring about great pleasure for a large group of people. The Russian author Dostoyevsky explored this thought in his novel The Brothers Karamazov: Suppose your happiness, and everyone else’s, is bought by the suffering of an innocent child? (We look more closely at this idea in the Narratives section.) It is not hard to see this as a Christian metaphor, with Jesus’ suffering as the condition of happiness for humans, but there is an important difference: Jesus was a volunteer; an innocent child is not. In any event, a utilitarian, by defi nition, would have to agree that if a great deal of suffering could be alleviated by putting an innocent person through hell, then doing so would be justifi ed. Putting nonhuman animals or entire populations of humans through hell would also be justifi ed. The glorious end (increased happiness for a majority) will in any event justify the means, even if the means violate these beings’ right to life or to fair treatment. Suppose we reformulate utilitarianism. Suppose we say, Always do whatever type of act will create the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people . What is the result? If we set up a one-time situation, such as the torture of an innocent person for the sake of others’ well-being, it may work within the fi rst formulation. But if we view it as a type of situation—one that is likely to recur again and again because we have now set up a rule for such types of situations—it becomes impermissible: The consequences of torturing many innocent people will not bring about great happi- ness for anyone in the long run. Is this, perhaps, what Mill was trying to say? This new formulation is referred to as rule utilitarianism, and it is advocated by many mod- ern utilitarians who wish to distance themselves from the uncomfortable implica- tions of the classical theory, now referred to as act utilitarianism . If this new version is used, they say, we can focus on the good consequences of a certain type of act rather than on the singular act itself. It may work once for a student to cheat on a fi nal, but cheating as a rule is not only dangerous (the student herself is likely to be found out) but also immoral to the rule utilitarian, because very bad consequences would occur if everyone were to cheat. Professors would get wise in no time, and nobody would graduate. Students and professors would be miserable. Society would miss out on a great many well-educated college graduates. The Golden Rule is in this way fortifi ed: Don’t do something if you can’t imagine it as a rule for everybody, because a rule not suited for everyone can have no good overall consequences. Some critics have objected that not everything we do can be made into a rule with good consequences. After all, many of the things we like to do are unique to
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us, and why should we assume that just because one person likes to collect movie memorabilia, the world would be happier if everyone collected movie memorabilia? That is not the way it is supposed to work, say the rule utilitarians. You have to specify that the rule is valid for people under similar circumstances, and you have to specify what exceptions you might want to make. It may be morally good to make sure you are home in time for dinner if you have a family to come home to but not if you are living by yourself. And the moral goodness of being there in time for din- ner depends on there not being something of greater importance that you should see to. Such things might be a crisis at work, a medical emergency, extracurricular activities, walking the dog, seeing your lover, watching a television show all the way to the end, talking on the phone, or whatever you choose. They may not all qualify as good exceptions, but you should specify in your rule which ones are acceptable. Once you have created such a rule, the utilitarian ideal will work, say the rule utili- tarians; it will make more people happy and fewer people unhappy in the long run. If it doesn’t, then you just have to rework the rule until you get it right. The problem with this approach is that it may be asking too much of people. Are we likely to ponder the consequences of whatever it is we want to do every time we are about to take action? Are we likely to envision everyone doing the same thing? Probably not. Even if it is wrong to make numerous private phone calls from a com- pany phone, we think it won’t make much difference if one person makes private calls as long as nobody else does. As long as most people comply, we can still get away with breaking the rule without creating bad consequences. Even so, we are in the wrong, because a healthy moral theory will not set “myself” up as an exception to the rule just because “I’m me and I deserve it.” This, as philosopher James Rachels has pointed out, is as much a form of discrimination as racism and sexism are. We might call it “me-ism,” but we already have a good word for it, egoism, and we already know that that is unacceptable. This addition to utilitarianism, that one ought to look for rules that apply to everyone, is for many a major step in the right direction. Rule utilitarianism cer- tainly was not, however, the fi rst philosophy to ask, What if everybody did what you intend to do? Although just about every parent must have said that to her or his child at some time or other, the one person who is credited with putting it into a philosophical framework is the German philosopher Immanuel Kant. There is one important difference between the way Kant asks the question and the way it has later been developed by rule utilitarians, though. Rule utilitarianism asks, What will be the consequences of everybody doing what you intend to do? Kant asks, Could you wish for it to be a universal law that everyone does what you intend to do? We look more closely at this difference in the next chapter.
1. Explain the function of Bentham’s hedonistic (hedonic) calculus and give an example of how to use it. Explain the advantages of using the calculus; explain the problems inherent in the concept of the calculus.
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2. Evaluate the question of torture used as a last resort in a national security crisis: What would Bentham recommend? Would you agree? Why or why not? (You may want to revisit the question after having read Chapter 6.)
3. Explain John Stuart Mill’s theory of higher and lower pleasures: What are the problems inherent in the theory? Overall, does Mill’s idea of higher and lower pleasures make sense to you? Why or why not?
4. Evaluate Descartes’s theory that only those beings with a mind can suffer and that only humans have minds. Explore the consequences for utilitarianism if we agree that animals (including human beings) have a capacity for suffering.
5. Explore Mill’s harm principle: Do you fi nd the principle attractive or prob- lematic? Explain why. Discuss the application of the harm principle to the issue of drug legalization.
6. Are we more likely to accept the idea of utilitarianism in a time of crisis? If so, does that make the theory acceptable? Explain.
Primary Readings and Narratives
The fi rst two Primary Readings are Jeremy Bentham’s defi nition of the principle of utility and John Stuart Mill’s vision of true happiness. The third Reading is Peter Singer’s controversial article in the New York Times on the case of a severely disabled young girl. The Narratives based on literature include a Danish tale about utilitarian- ism in action and a pairing of excerpts from Dostoyevsky and Ursula K. Le Guin that look at the happiness of the many in light of the suffering of a few. A summary of the fi lm Extreme Measures explores the moral question of performing medical experi- ments on a few unwanted homeless people to gain knowledge that will save the lives and mobility of thousands of others. And, fi nally, the fi lm summary of The Invention of Lying raises the question, If lying to people makes them happier, what exactly is wrong with that?
Of the Principle of Utility
J E R E M Y B E N T H A M
From An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation, 1789. Excerpt.
Jeremy Bentham’s primary interests were legislative, and he wrote in a meticulous style suited to the language of the law. In this excerpt Bentham defi nes the principle of util- ity and outlines the consequences for individuals, for the community, and for moral concepts.
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I. Mankind governed by pain and pleasure . Nature has placed mankind under the gover- nance of two sovereign masters, pain and pleasure . It is for them alone to point out what we ought to do, as well as to determine what we shall do. On the one hand the standard of right and wrong, on the other the chain of causes and effects, are fastened to their throne. They govern us in all we do, in all we say, in all we think: every effort we can make to throw them off our subjection, will serve but to demonstrate and confi rm it. In words a man may pretend to abjure their empire: but in reality he will remain subject to it all the while. The principle of utility recognises this subjection, and assumes it for the foundation of that system, the object of which is to rear the fabric of felicity by the hands of reason and of law. Systems which attempt to question it, deal in sounds instead of sense, in caprice instead of reason, in darkness instead of light.
But enough of metaphor and declamation: it is not by such means that moral sci- ence is to be improved.
II. Principle of utility, what . The principle of utility is the foundation of the present work: it will be proper therefore at the outset to give an explicit and determinate account of what is meant by it. By the principle of utility is meant that principle which approves or disapproves of every action whatsoever, according to the tendency which it appears to have to augment or diminish the happiness of the party whose interest is in question: or, what is the same thing in other words, to promote or to oppose that happiness. I say of every action whatsoever; and therefore not only of every action of a private individual, but of every measure of government.
III. Utility, what . By utility is meant that property in any object, whereby it tends to produce benefi t, advantage, pleasure, good, or happiness, (all this in the present case comes to the same thing) or (what comes again to the same thing) to prevent the hap- pening of mischief, pain, evil, or unhappiness to the party whose interest is considered: if that party be the community in general, then the happiness of the community: if a particular individual, then the happiness of that individual.
IV. Interest of the community, what . The interest of the community is one of the most general expressions that can occur in the phraseology of morals: no wonder that the meaning of it is often lost. When it has a meaning, it is this. The community is a fi ctitious body, composed of the individual persons who are considered as constituting as it were its members . The interest of the community then is, what?—the sum of the interests of the several members who compose it.
V. It is in vain to talk of the interest of the community, without understanding what is the interest of the individual. A thing is said to promote the interest, or to be for the interest, of an individual, when it tends to add to the sum total of his pleasures: or, what comes to the same thing, to diminish the sum total of his pains.
VI. An action conformable to the principle of utility, what . An action then may be said to be conformable to the principle of utility, or, for shortness sake, to utility, (meaning with respect to the community at large) when the tendency it has to augment the happiness of the community is greater than any it has to diminish it.
VII. A measure of government conformable to the principle of utility, what . A measure of government (which is but a particular kind of action, performed by a particular person or persons) may be said to be conformable to or dictated by the principle of utility, when in like manner the tendency which it has to augment the happiness of the community is greater than any which it has to diminish it.
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VIII. Laws or dictates of utility, what . When an action, or in particular a measure of government, is supposed by a man to be conformable to the principle of utility, it may be convenient, for the purposes of discourse, to imagine a kind of law or dictate, called a law or dictate of utility: and to speak of the action in question, as being conformable to such law or dictate.
IX. A partizan of the principle of utility, who . A man may be said to be a partizan of the principle of utility, when the approbation or disapprobation he annexes to any action, or to any measure, is determined by and proportioned to the tendency which he conceives it to have to augment or to diminish the happiness of the community: or in other words, to its conformity or unconformity to the laws or dictates of utility.
X. Ought, ought not, right and wrong, &c. how to be understood . Of an action that is conformable to the principle of utility one may always say either that it is one that ought to be done, or at least that it is not one that ought not to be done. One may say also, that it is right it should be done; at least that it is not wrong it should be done: that it is a right action; at least that it is not a wrong action. When thus interpreted, the words ought, and right and wrong, and others of that stamp, have a meaning: when otherwise, they have none.
1. Identify the concept of moral right and wrong as defi ned by the principle of utility. Do you approve of such a defi nition? Why or why not?
2. How does Bentham identify the concept of “community”? Evaluate Bentham’s statement in terms of possible political consequences. Do you agree with him? Why or why not?
3. In your opinion, is Bentham right in stating that pain and pleasure govern us in every- thing we do?
4. Some scholars see Bentham as one short step removed from ethical egoism. Why? Is that a fair assessment?
J O H N S T U A R T M I L L
In this section Mill outlines the idea of a test of higher and lower pleasures according to the judgment of those who know and appreciate both kinds. He then speaks of the true nature of happiness, as he sees it: a feeling that has little to do with pleasure seeking and much to do with the joy of contributing to the common good.
It is quite compatible with the principle of utility to recognize the fact, that some kinds of pleasure are more desirable and more valuable than others. It would be absurd that
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while, in estimating all other things, quality is considered as well as quantity, the estima- tion of pleasures should be supposed to depend on quantity alone.
If I am asked what I mean by difference of quality in pleasures, or what makes one pleasure more valuable than another merely as a pleasure, except its being greater in amount, there is but one possible answer. Of two pleasures, if there be one to which all or almost all who have experience of both give a decided preference, irrespective of any feeling of moral obligation to prefer it, that is the more desirable pleasure. If one of the two is, by those who are competently acquainted with both, placed so far above the other that they prefer it, even though knowing it to be attended with a greater amount of discontent, and would not resign it for any quantity of the other pleasure which their nature is capable of, we are justifi ed in ascribing to the preferred enjoyment a superiority in quality, so far outweighing quantity as to render it, in comparison, of small account.
Now it is an unquestionable fact that those who are equally acquainted with, and equally capable of appreciating and enjoying, both, do give a most marked preference to the manner of existence which employs their higher faculties. Few human creatures would consent to be changed into any of the lower animals, for a promise of the fullest al- lowance of a beast’s pleasures; no intelligent human being would consent to be a fool, no instructed person would be an ignoramus, no person of feeling and conscience would be selfi sh and base, even though they should be persuaded that the fool, the dunce, or the rascal is better satisfi ed with his lot than they are with theirs. They would not resign what they possess more than he for the most complete satisfaction of all the desires which they have in common with him. If they ever fancy they would, it is only in cases of unhap- piness so extreme, that to escape from it they would exchange their lot for almost any other, however undesirable in their own eyes. A being of higher faculties requires more to make him happy, is capable probably of more acute suffering, and certainly accessible to it at more points, than one of an inferior type; but in spite of these liabilities, he can never really wish to sink into what he feels to be a lower grade of existence. We may give what explanation we please of this unwillingness: we may attribute it to pride, a name which is given indiscriminately to some of the most and to some of the least estimable feelings of which mankind are capable; we may refer it to the love of liberty and personal independence, an appeal to which was with the Stoics one of the most effective means for the inculcation of it; to the love of power, or to the love of excitement, both of which do really enter into and contribute to it: but its most appropriate appellation is a sense of dignity, which all human beings possess in one form or other, and in some, though by no means in exact, proportion to their higher faculties, and which is so essential a part of the happiness of those in whom it is strong, that nothing which confl icts with it could be, otherwise than momentarily, an object of desire to them. Whoever supposes that this preference takes place at a sacrifi ce of happiness—that the superior being, in anything like equal circumstances, is not happier than the inferior—confounds the two very different ideas, of happiness and content . It is indisputable that the being whose ca- pacities of enjoyment are low, has the greatest chance of having them fully satisfi ed; and a highly endowed being will always feel that any happiness which he can look for, as the world is constituted, is imperfect. But he can learn to bear its imperfections, if they are at all bearable; and they will not make him envy the being who is indeed unconscious of the imperfections, but only because he feels not at all the good which those imperfec- tions qualify. It is better to be a human being dissatisfi ed than a pig satisfi ed; better to be Socrates dissatisfi ed than a fool satisfi ed. And if the fool, or the pig, are of a different
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opinion, it is because they only know their own side of the question. The other party to the comparison knows both sides. . . .
According to the “greatest happiness principle,”. . . the ultimate end, with reference to and for the sake of which all other things are desirable (whether we are considering our own good or that of other people), is an existence exempt as far as possible from pain, and as rich as possible in enjoyments, both in point of quantity and quality; the test of quality, and the rule for measuring it against quantity, being the preference felt by those who in their opportunities of experience, to which must be added their habits of self-consciousness and self-observation, are best furnished with the means of com- parison. This, being, according to the utilitarian opinion, the end of human action, is necessarily also the standard of morality; which may accordingly be defi ned, 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, so far as the nature of things admits, to the whole sentient creation. . . .
If by happiness be meant a continuity of highly pleasurable excitement, it is evident enough that this is impossible. A state of exalted pleasure lasts only moments, or in some cases, and with some intermissions, hours or days, and is the occasional brilliant fl ash of enjoyment, not its permanent and steady fl ame. Of this the philosophers who have taught that happiness is the end of life were as fully aware as those who taunt them. The happiness which they meant was not a life of rapture; but moments of such, in an exis- tence made up of few and transitory pains, many and various pleasures, with a decided predominance of the active over the passive, and having as the foundation of the whole, not to expect more from life than it is capable of bestowing. A life thus composed, to those who have been fortunate enough to obtain it, has always appeared worthy of the name of happiness. And such an existence is even now the lot of many, during some considerable portion of their lives. The present wretched education, and wretched social arrangements, are the only real hindrance to its being attainable by almost all.
In a world in which there is so much to interest, so much to enjoy, and so much also to correct and improve, everyone who has [a] moderate amount of moral and intellectual requisites is capable of an existence which may be called enviable; and unless such a per- son, through bad laws or subjection to the will of others, is denied the liberty to use the sources of happiness within his reach, he will not fail to fi nd this enviable existence, if he escape the positive evils of life, the great sources of physical and mental suffering—such as indigence, disease, and the unkindness, worthlessness, or premature loss of an affec- tion. The main stress of the problem lies, therefore, in the contest with these calamities from which it is a rare good fortune entirely to escape; which, as things are now, cannot be obviated, and often cannot be in any material degree mitigated. Yet no one whose opinion deserves a moment’s consideration can doubt that most of the great positive evils of the world are in themselves removable, and will, if human affairs continue to improve, be in the end reduced within narrow limits. . . .
As for vicissitudes of fortune, and other disappointments connected with worldly circumstances, these are principally the effect either of gross imprudence, of ill-regulated desires, or of bad or imperfect social institutions. All the grand sources, in short, of human suffering are in a great degree, many of them almost entirely, conquerable by human care and effort; and though their removal is grievously slow—though a long suc- cession of generations will perish in the breach before the conquest is completed, and this world becomes all that, if will and knowledge were not wanting, it might easily be
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made—yet every mind suffi ciently intelligent and generous to bear a part, however small and unconspicuous, in the endeavor, will draw a noble enjoyment from the contest itself, which he would not for any bribe in the form of selfi sh indulgence consent to be without.
And this leads to the true estimation of what is said by the objectors concerning the possibility, and the obligation, of learning to do without happiness. Unquestionably it is possible to do without happiness; it is done involuntarily by nineteen-twentieths of mankind, even in those parts of our present world which are least deep in barbarism; and it often has to be done voluntarily by the hero or the martyr, for the sake of some- thing which he prizes more than his individual happiness. But this something, what is it, unless the happiness of others, or some of the requisites of happiness? It is noble to be capable of resigning entirely one’s own portion of happiness, or chances of it: but, after all, this self-sacrifi ce must be for some end; it is not its own end; and if we are told that its end is not happiness, but virtue, which is better than happiness, I ask, would the sacrifi ce be made if the hero or martyr did not believe that it would earn for others immunity from similar sacrifi ces? Would it be made if he thought that his renunciation of happiness for himself would produce no fruit for any of his fellow creatures, but to make their lot like his, and place them also in the condition of persons who have renounced happiness? All honor to those who can abnegate for themselves the personal enjoyment of life, when by such renunciation they contribute worthily to increase the amount of happiness in the world; but he who does it, or professes to do it, for any other purpose, is no more deserv- ing of admiration from the ascetic mounted on his pillar. He may be an inspiriting proof of what men can do, but assuredly not an example of what they should .
1. Do you agree with Mill that “a being of higher faculties requires more to make him happy . . . than one of an inferior type”?
2. What might be Ayn Rand’s comment on the excerpt?
3. What does Mill mean by “the whole sentient creation”?
4. Comment on the meaning of this passage: “It is better to be a human being dissatisfi ed than a pig satisfi ed; better to be Socrates dissatisfi ed than a fool satisfi ed.” What does Mill mean? Do you agree? Why or why not?
A Convenient Truth
P E T E R S I N G E R
Article, New York Times, January 26, 2007.
The topic of this essay is a controversial case that arose in 2006: The parents of a severely disabled little girl, Ashley, went public with their belief that it would be in her best inter- est to receive surgery and hormonal treatment to restrict her growth so that her parents
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could continue to carry her and so that she would not develop sexually. Singer argues that as much as people may fi nd this kind of intervention distasteful, it is in the utilitar- ian spirit. Since Singer is a utilitarian, he approves of the procedure, stating that it will limit her suffering and enhance a life she is capable of enjoying. In the fi nal paragraphs, Singer brings up the question of whether dignity should be a matter of membership in the human race. The surgery was completed, and has since been dubbed the “Ashley Treatment.” In 2010 Ashley’s parents concluded that the surgery had been a success. Some pediatric endocrinologists recommend similar treatment of children with similar physical and mental disabilities.
Can it be ethical for a young girl to be treated with hormones so she will remain below normal height and weight, to have her uterus removed, and to have surgery on her breasts so they will not develop? Such treatment, applied to a profoundly intellectually disabled girl known only as Ashley, has led to criticism of Ashley’s parents, of the doctors who carried out the treatment, and of the ethics committee at Seattle Children’s Hospital, which approved it.
Ashley is 9, but her mental age has never progressed beyond that of a 3-month-old. She cannot walk, talk, hold a toy, or change her position in bed. Her parents are not sure she recognizes them. She is expected to have a normal lifespan, but her mental condition will never improve.
In a blog, Ashley’s parents explain that her treatment is not for their convenience but to improve her quality of life. If she remains small and light, they will be able to continue to move her around frequently and take her along when they go out with their other two children. The hysterectomy will spare her the discomfort of menstrual cramps, and the surgery to prevent the development of breasts, which tend to be large in her family, will make her more comfortable whether lying down or strapped across the chest in her wheelchair.
All this is plausible, even if it is also true that the line between improving Ashley’s life and making it easier for her parents to handle her scarcely exists, because anything that makes it possible for Ashley’s parents to involve her in family life is in her interest.
The objections to Ashley’s treatment take three forms familiar to anyone working in bioethics. First, some say Ashley’s treatment is “unnatural”—a complaint that usually
Peter Singer (born 1946) is an Australian philosopher who has taught at Princeton University since 1999. Arguably the most controversial of all modern philosophers, Singer has defended his utilitarian views on euthanasia, animal rights, global wel- fare, and other issues in books, articles, and op-ed pieces, and on television. His most famous books include Animal Liberation (1975), Practical Ethics (1979), The Expanding Circle (1981), and One World: Ethics and Globalization (2002). In addition, he has created The Great Ape Project in collaboration with Paola Cavalieri, which advocates three basic rights for the Great Apes: the right not to be killed, the right to liberty, and the right not to be tortured.
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means little more than “Yuck!” One could equally well object that all medical treatment is unnatural, for it enables us to live longer, and in better health, than we naturally would. During most of human existence, children like Ashley were abandoned to become prey to wolves and jackals. Abandonment may be a “natural” fate for a severely disabled baby, but it is no better for that reason.
Second, some see acceptance of Ashley’s treatment as the fi rst step down a slippery slope leading to widespread medical modifi cation of children for the convenience of their parents. But the ethics committee that approved Ashley’s treatment was convinced that the procedures were in her best interest. Those of us who have not heard the evi- dence presented to the committee are in a weak position to contest its judgment.
In any case, the “best interest” principle is the right test to use, and there is no reason that other parents of children with intellectual disabilities as profound as Ashley’s should not have access to similar treatments, if they will also be in the interest of their children. If there is a slippery slope here, the much more widespread use of drugs in “problem” children who are diagnosed as having attention defi cit hyperactivity disorder poses a far greater risk than attenuating growth in a small number of profoundly disabled children.
Finally, there is the issue of treating Ashley with dignity. A Los Angeles Times report on Ashley’s treatment began: “This is about Ashley’s dignity. Everybody examining her case seems to agree at least about that.” Her parents write in their blog that Ashley will have more dignity in a body that is healthier and more suited to her state of development, while their critics see her treatment as a violation of her dignity.
But we should reject the premise of this debate. As a parent and grandparent, I fi nd 3-month-old babies adorable, but not dignifi ed. Nor do I believe that getting bigger and older, while remaining at the same mental level, would do anything to change that.
Here’s where things get philosophically interesting. We are always ready to fi nd dignity in human beings, including those whose mental age will never exceed that of an infant, but we don’t attribute dignity to dogs or cats, though they clearly operate at a more advanced mental level than human infants. Just making that comparison provokes outrage in some quarters. But why should dignity always go together with species mem- bership, no matter what the characteristics of the individual may be?
What matters in Ashley’s life is that she should not suffer, and that she should be able to enjoy whatever she is capable of enjoying. Beyond that, she is precious not so much for what she is, but because her parents and siblings love her and care about her. Lofty talk about human dignity should not stand in the way of children like her getting the treatment that is best both for them and their families.
1. Identify the utilitarian aspects of Singer’s argument. Would Bentham agree? Would John Stuart Mill? Explain why.
2. In your view, would the surgery and hormonal treatment be in Ashley’s best interest? Explain why or why not.
3. Comment on Singer’s remark that dignity shouldn’t necessarily be exclusively associated with “species membership.” What does he mean? Would you agree? Why or why not?
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The Blacksmith and the Baker
J O H A N N H E R M A N W E S S E L
Poem, 1777. Loosely translated from Danish, from verse to prose, by Nina Rosenstand. Summary and Excerpt.
Wessel is famous in his own country of Denmark for his satirical verses. This one may have been inspired by a real newspaper story or possibly by British fables.
“The Blacksmith and the Baker,” illustration by Nils Wiwel, 1895. Utilitarianism taken to an ex- treme: The baker is led away to be executed for what the blacksmith has done, because that is more useful to society. The policeman’s belt reads “Honest and Faithful,” and the building in the back- ground is the old Copenhagen courthouse with the inscription “With Law Must Land Be Built.”
NARRATIVE: T H E B L A C K S M I T H A N D T H E B A K E R 271
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Once upon a time there was a small town where the town blacksmith was a mean man. He had an enemy, and one day he and his enemy happened to meet at an inn. They proceeded to get drunk and exchange some nasty words. The blacksmith grew angry and knocked the other man out; the blow turned out to be fatal. The blacksmith was carted off to jail, and he confessed, hoping that his opponent would forgive him in Heaven. Be- fore his sentence was pronounced, four upstanding citizens asked to see the judge, and the most eloquent of them spoke: “Your Wisdom, we know you are thinking of the welfare of this town, but this wel- fare depends on getting our blacksmith back. His death won’t wake up the dead man, and we’ll never fi nd such a good blacksmith ever again.” The judge said, “But a life has been taken and must be paid for by a life. . . .” “We have in town an old and scrawny baker who’ll go to the devil soon, and since we have two bakers, how about taking the oldest one? Then you still get a life for a life.” “Well,” said the judge, “that is not a bad idea, I’ll do what I can.” And he leafed through his law books but found nothing that said you can’t execute a baker instead of a blacksmith, so he pronounced this sentence: “We know that blacksmith Jens has no excuse for what he has done, sending Anders Petersen off to eternity; but since we have but one blacksmith in this town I would be crazy if I wanted him dead; but we do have two bakers of bread . . . so the oldest one must pay for the murder.” The old baker wept pitifully when they took him away. The moral of the story: Be always prepared to die! It comes when you least expect it.
1. Do you think this is a fair picture of a utilitarian judge?
2. How might the utilitarian respond to this story?
3. Return to this story after reading Chapter 6 and consider: How might a Kantian respond?
The Brothers Karamazov
F Y O D O R D O S T O Y E V S K Y
Novel, 1881. Film, 1958. Summary and Excerpt.
(This excerpt should be read in conjunction with the narrative “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas,” which follows.) The story of the brothers Karamazov, one of the most famous in Russian literature, is about four half-brothers and their father, an unpleasant, old, corrupt scoundrel. The
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brothers are very different in nature; the oldest son, Dmitri, is a rogue and a pleasure- seeker; the next son, Ivan, is intelligent and politically engaged; the third son, Alyosha, is gentle and honest; and the fourth son, Smerdyakov, was born outside marriage and never recognized as a proper son. When a murder happens, each son in turn fi nds himself under suspicion. Here, Ivan is telling Alyosha a story:
“It was in the darkest days of serfdom at the beginning of the century. . . . There was in those days a general of aristocratic connections, the owner of great estates, one of those men—somewhat exceptional, I believe, even then—who, retiring from the service into a life of leisure, are convinced that they’ve earned absolute power over the lives of their subjects. There were such men then. So our general, settled on his property of two thousand souls, lives in pomp, and dominates his poor neighbors as though they were dependents. He has kennels of hundreds of hounds and nearly a hundred dog-boys— all mounted, and in uniform. One day a serf boy, a little child of eight, threw a stone in play and hurt the paw of the general’s favorite hound. ‘Why is my favorite dog lame?’ He is told that the boy threw a stone that hurt the dog’s paw. ‘So you did it.’ The general looked the child up and down. ‘Take him.’ He was taken—taken from his mother and kept shut up all night. Early the next morning the general comes out on horseback, with the hounds, his dependents, dog-boys, and huntsmen, all mounted around him in full hunting parade. The servants are summoned for their edifi cation, and in front of them all stands the mother of the child. The child is brought forward. It’s a gloomy cold, foggy autumn day, a perfect day for hunting. The general orders the child to be undressed. The child is stripped naked. He shivers, numb with terror, not daring to cry. . . . ‘Make him run,’ commands the general. ‘Run, run!’ shout the dog-boys. The boy runs. . . . ‘At him!’ yells the general, and he sets the whole pack of hounds after the child. The hounds catch him, and tear him to pieces before his mother’s eyes! . . . I believe the general was afterwards declared incapable of administering his estates. Well—what did he deserve? To be shot? To be shot for the satisfaction of our moral feelings? Speak, Alyosha!
“Tell me yourself, I challenge you—answer. Imagine that you are creating a fabric of human destiny with the object of making men happy in the end, giving them peace and rest at last. Imagine that you are doing this but that it is essential and inevitable to torture to death only one tiny creature—that child beating its breast with its fi st, for instance—in order to found that edifi ce on its unavenged tears. Would you consent to be the architect on those conditions? Tell me. Tell the truth.”
“No, I wouldn’t consent,” said Alyosha softly. “And can you accept the idea that the men for whom you are building would agree
to receive their happiness from the unatoned blood of a little victim? And accepting it would remain happy forever?”
“No, I can’t admit it,” said Alyosha suddenly, with fl ashing eyes.
Here Ivan and Alyosha are engaged in a discussion about the meaning of life: If God does not exist, then what? Then everything is permissible. But what if our highest moral aim is to make the majority happy? Do the means always justify the end? If the suffering of a child could somehow create general happiness and harmony, should its mother forgive those who caused it to suffer?
NARRATIVE: T H E B R O T H E R S K A R A M A Z O V 273
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1. Answer Ivan’s question: Would you agree to make humankind happy at the cost of a child’s suffering? Explain how a utilitarian might answer, and then explain your own answer.
2. Should the mother ever forgive the general for murdering her son?
3. Return to this story after reading Chapter 6 and consider: How might a Kantian respond?
The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas
U R S U L A K . L E G U I N
Short story, 1973. Summary and Excerpt.
There is a festival in the city of Omelas. The weather is beautiful, the city looks its best, and people are happy and serene in their pretty clothes. This is a perfect place, with freedom of choice and no oppressive power enforcing the rules of religion, politics, or morality—and it works, because the people know they are responsible for their actions. This place is a Utopia, except for one thing: The happiness of the citizens is bought at a high price, with the full knowledge of every citizen.
In a basement under one of the beautiful public buildings of Omelas, or perhaps in the cellar of one of its spacious private homes, there is a room. It has one locked door, and no window. A little light seeps in dustily between cracks in the boards, secondhand from a cobwebbed window somewhere across the cellar. In one corner of the little room a cou- ple of mops, with stiff, clotted, foul-smelling heads, stand near a rusty bucket. . . . The room is about three paces long and two wide: a mere broom closet or disused tool room. In the room a child is sitting. It could be a boy or a girl. It looks about six, but actually is nearly ten. It is feeble-minded. Perhaps it was born defective, or perhaps it has be- come imbecile through fear, malnutrition, and neglect. It picks its nose and occasionally fumbles vaguely with its toes or genitals, as it sits hunched in the corner farthest from the bucket and the two mops. It is afraid of the mops. It fi nds them horrible. It shuts its eyes, but it knows the mops are still standing there; and the door is locked; and nobody will come. The door is always locked; and nobody ever comes, except that sometimes . . . the door rattles terribly and opens, and a person, or several people, are there. . . . The people at the door never say anything, but the child, who has not always lived in the tool room, and can remember sunlight and its mother’s voice, sometimes speaks. “I will be good,” it says. “Please let me out. I will be good!” They never answer.
All this is part of a greater plan. The child will never be let out—it will die within a short time—and presumably another child will take its place, for it is the suffering of this in- nocent being that makes the perfect life in Omelas possible. All the citizens know about it from the time they are adolescents, and they all must go and see the child so that they can
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understand the price of their happiness. They are disgusted and sympathetic for a while, but then they understand the master plan: the pain of one small individual in exchange for great communal happiness. Because the citizens know the immense suffering that gives them their beautiful life, they are particularly loving to one another and responsible for what they do. And what would they gain by setting the child free? The child is too far gone to be able to enjoy freedom, anyway, and what is one person’s suffering compared with the realm of happiness that is achieved? So the people feel no guilt. However, a few young people and some adult visitors go to see the child, and something happens to them: They don’t go home afterward, but keep on walking—through the city, through the fi elds, away from Omelas.
1. Where are they going, the ones who walk away? And why are they leaving?
2. How does Le Guin feel about the situation? Does she condone the suffering of the child, or is she arguing against it? Is the story realistic or symbolic?
3. How would an act utilitarian evaluate the story of Omelas? Would a rule utilitarian reach the same conclusion or a different one? Why?
4. Return to this story after reading Chapter 6 and develop a deontological critique of the people of Omelas (those who don’t walk away).
5. In the fi lm Swordfi sh a similar question is raised: “Would you kill a child to save the world?” However, in Omelas it is not a question of saving the world, just the happi- ness of all. In light of the discussion about “sheer numbers,” would it make a differ- ence to you if the torturous death of the child did indeed save the world and not just people’s contentment? If yes, explain while focusing on where you would draw the line. If no, explain why not.
T O N Y G I L R O Y ( S C R E E N W R I T E R )
M I C H A E L A P T E D ( D I R E C T O R )
Film, 1996. Based on a novel by Michael Palma. Summary.
A young British emergency room doctor, Guy Luthan, is faced with a terrible moral and professional choice: In his emergency room, two patients need urgent care. One is a po- lice offi cer who has been shot, and the other is the man who shot him, a troublemaker who pulled a gun on a bus. He was in turn shot by the cop. The offi cer is barely stabi- lized, whereas the gunman is in critical condition. There is only one surgery slot avail- able. Whom should Guy choose? He needs to decide immediately. He sends the police
NARRATIVE: E X T R E M E M E A S U R E S 275
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offi cer into surgery and lets the gunman wait his turn. As it happens, they both survive, but a young nurse, Jodie, blames Guy for making an unprofessional moral choice: The gunman’s medical needs were more urgent than the cop’s. Guy explains, “I had to make a choice; on my right I see a cop with his wife in the corridor and pictures of his kids in his wallet, and on my left some guy who’s taken out a gun on a city bus! I had ten seconds to make a choice, I had to make it—I hope I made the right one. I think I did, oh shit, maybe I didn’t . . . I don’t know.” This sets the scene for what could be just a run-of-the-mill hospital suspense story but turns out to be an honest exploration of the principle of utility as a social, moral, and psychological justifi cation. Guy has just received a fellowship in neurology at New York University. This means much to him and his family, because his father in England, once a medical doctor, lost his license to practice after euthanizing an old friend—another moral choice with consequences. Meanwhile, a patient is brought to Guy’s emergency room from the street, half naked and in complete physical and mental breakdown. He has a hospital bracelet on, and, in a lucid moment before he dies, he says two things to Guy—the word triphase and the name of a friend. Not understanding the cause of death, Guy orders an autopsy, but
The fi lm Extreme Measures (Castle Rock, 1996) notes that sometimes we must make hard moral choices; the question is, What criterion should we use? Should we do what is right, regardless of the consequences, or should we try to obtain the best result for as many as possible with the least harm caused? This is the dilemma facing Dr. Guy Luthan (Hugh Grant), not only in his own career, but also as the pawn in a greater plot orchestrated by a famous doctor: to use homeless people as guinea pigs. Here Guy has to choose whether to save the life of a police offi cer with a wife and kids or the gunman who shot the offi cer in cold blood.
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the hospital loses track not only of the autopsy but also of the body itself. Guy feels that something is terribly wrong and pursues the dead man’s records on his own. The man had been admitted to the hospital previously for a neurological examination. Other pa- tients turn up in the computer with the same profi le: homeless, without relatives, having lab work done, and all fi les on them deleted. But Guy is in for another shock: His apartment has been burglarized, and the detec- tives investigating the burglary fi nd a stash of drugs in his place. Guy is arrested. Since Guy doesn’t do drugs, he realizes that the burglary was a ruse and that the drugs were planted to discredit him, to get him out of the way—by whom? Whoever it is, their plan succeeds; Guy manages to raise bail, but once out of jail, he is suspended from his hospital position—his colleagues and supervisors assume that he is guilty. This also means that his fellowship to NYU will be lost because he will no longer be able to prac- tice medicine—just like his father. Compelled to seek the truth, Guy locates a patient of his among the homeless and soon fi nds himself in a world underground in the subway system, where the homeless and destitute have made a world for themselves. Here he fi nds another piece of the puzzle: Doctors have been preying on the homeless, subjecting them to experiments leading to great suffering and death. But Guy himself is now being hunted in a prolonged chase, and just as he thinks he has found refuge with a friend, he is rendered unconscious. Guy wakes up in a hospital bed—and to his horror, he fi nds himself paralyzed from the neck down. He is told that the blow he sustained to his spine severed it, and he will be a quadriplegic for life. Realizing the enormity of what has happened to him, Guy feels that, having no hope of recovery, he might as well be dead. The famous neurologist Dr. Myrick now pays him a visit, talking enigmatically about hope. What if there were hope for him after all? What would it be worth to him to return to his old life? What would he risk if a procedure were available? Guy answers, “Anything!” Myrick replies, “You’d better think about that.” Who is responsible for the burglary, the planted drugs, the disappearance of the homeless, and the attempt on Guy’s life? The answer lies within Guy’s own hospital en- vironment. When Guy’s paralysis miraculously wears off after 24 hours, he realizes he’d been drugged, and that it is Dr. Myrick, passionately engaged in helping victims of spinal cord injury, who has undertaken research into spinal cord regeneration by using home- less patients as guinea pigs for the good of humanity. Guy now tries to escape from the hospital. This is a pivotal scene in the fi lm, and I will not spoil the surprise twists for you. During a dramatic moment, Myrick tries to explain his actions to Guy: The homeless men he experimented on were useless beings—but now they are heroes, since their deaths have given hope to so many injured people. “Good doc- tors do the correct thing. Great doctors have the guts to do the right thing. . . . If you could cure cancer by killing one person, wouldn’t you have to do it? Wouldn’t it be the brave thing to do? One person, and it’s gone tomorrow?” Guy replies that perhaps the homeless people he used weren’t worth much, but they didn’t choose to be heroes—he never asked for volunteers. To Guy, doctors can’t do that—Myrick has been playing God. One fi nal confrontation remains—one that solves some issues but raises others. In the end, Guy is given all of Myrick’s fi les from his research into spinal cord injuries . . . and Guy does not reject the fi les.
NARRATIVE: E X T R E M E M E A S U R E S 277
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278 CHAPTER 5 US ING YOUR REASON, PART 1 : UTILITARIANISM
1. Discuss the opening scene. Did Guy make the right professional choice? the right moral choice? Should there be a difference? Explain your position.
2. Is Dr. Myrick’s experimentation a noble quest to help humanity or a perverse abuse of human beings? Is there a third alternative? Explain your position.
3. Dr. Myrick asks Guy what he would be willing to do to regain his mobility at a time when Guy believes himself to be paralyzed for life. What does Guy answer, and why is this scene so important?
4. Guy accuses Myrick of playing God. Guy’s own father lost his license to practice medi- cine because he euthanized a friend. Do you think there is a connection here, or is this a coincidence in the fi lm?
5. In the end, Guy takes over Myrick’s research papers. Is this gesture an acceptance of Myrick’s utilitarian principles, or is there another possibility? By accepting the papers, have Guy’s hands now been dirtied? Why or why not?
6. Is this a pro-utilitarian or an anti-utilitarian fi lm? Explain.
7. The scene where Guy makes his decision in the ER and Myrick’s explanation of his medical experiments are deliberately set up as parallels. What are the similarities, and what are the differences? Does the discussion in the chapter text about the hedonistic calculus as a last resort provide us with a tool for distinguishing between Guy and Myrick?
8. Scientists have announced that they believe great strides can be made toward curing paralysis through stem cell research. Given that the stem cells originated in a human embryo, do you think there is a difference between Myrick’s experiments on homeless people for the sake of helping patients with paralysis and using stem cells from an em- bryo to accomplish the same thing? Explain similarities and differences.
The Invention of Lying
R I C K Y G E R V A I S A N D M A T T H E W R O B I N S O N
( D I R E C T O R S / S C R E E N W R I T E R )
Film, 2010. Summary.
Since The Invention of Lying is a comedy we should not expect a deep, realistic plot or a sophisticated analysis, and the fi lm does have a lot of conceptual “holes” in it, but the premise is entertaining and even thought-provoking: What if everybody always told the truth, except for one person? Will we have a “selfi shness” scenario, as parts of Chapter 4 would lead us to expect, or might the fi lm conclude with a moral lesson that lying is not
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worth the pain and trouble, or be downright wrong in itself? Or will we get a utilitarian outlook on life that sometimes lying can be a good thing, and sometimes it is not? If you have in the back of your mind the question from the beginning of the chapter about lying to Grandma, then you’re all set for this fi lm. It is an ordinary day in a contemporary world almost identical to ours—but in that world, lying is an unknown phenomenon. The concept of a lie or an untruth doesn’t even exist—the closest one can get to explaining it is “something that isn’t.” No deceit, fl attery, or fi ction. And no religion. In that world, people are not only honest, but brutally so. Rude- ness is part of the expected daily interchange. When people are bored, or irritated, or upset, they don’t hold back out of politeness (because, in a sense that would be lying), but tell others in no uncertain terms how they feel. Bosses tell their employees that they’re incom- petent, dates break up because they’re boring or not promising in the genetics department, television commercials pitifully plead for customers, and friends let loose with criticism of each other as well as dispensing their innermost thoughts on the pointlessness of life. Mark Bellison is a screenwriter with Lecture Films, a fi lm production company—but since fi ction is unknown, the screenplays he writes are historical accounts. His area of expertise is the Middle Ages, and he is trying to get his boss involved in a project about the Black Plague, but nobody fi nds it interesting. And since acting is also a form of lying and as such, unknown, these “fi lms” consist of lectures by well-known historians. Mark knows he is a mediocre screenwriter, because everyone tells him so, and he even knows he is about to be fi red, because that has been rumored for days. He is on a date the night before with a very attractive young woman, Anna, who lets him know that this is prob- ably going to be their one and only date, because he is a loser—he is short and chubby, and has a snubnose, and no future prospects. The next day he is fi red as expected, although his boss confesses to feeling awkward about fi ring people; Anna sends him an e-mail saying that she is out of his league and isn’t interested in seeing him again; a colleague, Brad, tells him he always hated him. The following day he is evicted from his apartment because his landlord knows he can’t pay the rent. In desperation he goes to the bank to withdraw everything he has, $300, to cover moving expenses. But in front of the teller something extraordinary happens. The computer system is down, and the teller, accustomed to people telling the truth, asks him how much money he has in his account. And at that moment Mark’s brain undergoes a transformation. The possibility of telling something that isn’t true dawns on him, and he says “$800.” Even when the system comes back online, the teller chooses to believe him rather than electronic evi- dence, and he walks away with enough money to pay his rent, and a whole new world opening up to him. He realizes that people will believe anything they’re told, even if they know better. His friend is arrested for drunk driving, and all he has to do is tell the cop that the man is not drunk. He cheats at the casino, and walks away with the jackpot. But when he meets a suicidal friend and tells him he doesn’t have to kill himself, Mark realizes that he can put his newfound skill to a different use: He can actually be of help to other people by twisting the truth so life doesn’t seem so harsh and bleak any longer, and now he engages in making people happy by telling what they’d like to hear. He calls up Anna and tells her that he is a changed man now, and manages to get a second date with her—because even if she can’t see a future with a short and chubby man because she doesn’t want short and chubby kids, she still fi nds him likeable.
NARRATIVE: T H E I N V E N T I O N O F L Y I N G 279
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280 CHAPTER 5 US ING YOUR REASON, PART 1 : UTILITARIANISM
Mark returns to his workplace with a pack of lies ready for his boss about fi nding an original manuscript (he wrote it the night before) from the 1300s, reading like a sci-fi novel involving Martians, dinosaurs, and other impossibilities. Everybody loves the new “history” he has uncovered, and he gets reinstated, writing the “newfound” manuscript into a screenplay—“The Black Plague.” During that night’s date Anna sees the new Mark, and she still likes him, but his success hasn’t changed his genetics—he’s still short and chubby, and she just doesn’t see him as the father of the kids she wants. But during the dinner Mark gets a call on his cellphone: his mother is dying. Mark’s mother is in a nursing home, “A Sad Place for Hopeless Old People,” and Mark visits her frequently. He is, as far as we can tell, a good and caring son, but as usual, both patients and doctors are blunt about their patients’ prospects. So now he rushes to her bedside and fi nds that she has had a heart attack and doctors tell her fl at out that she won’t last the day. She dreads the nothingness she believes awaits her, and Mark’s heart aches for her. So he tells her what he thinks she needs to hear: that death is not the end; she will meet everyone she has loved; she will be young again; there will be no pain but eternal happiness—and everyone will get a mansion. His mother reacts with surprise and relief, and dies with a smile on her face. Mark’s lie has made her passing easy. But around the bed stand the doctor and nurses who have been listening, and they are elated. No nothingness! Another life! They’ll meet their loved ones who have passed away! And a mansion for everybody! The word spreads beyond the hospital, and now Mark fi nds himself in the middle of a news storm. Everyone wants to know more about life after death, and about the source of Mark’s knowledge. Anna makes him tell her what he told his mother, and she insists that he share it with humanity: It made his mother happy, didn’t it? And that made him happy, didn’t it? (Of course she, too, believes his story to be true.) Being hounded by the world press, he fi nally agrees to talk, and produces two tablets with facts about the Other Side—messages scrawled on lids from pizza boxes and not exactly the stone tablets of Moses, but we get the inference: He is inventing religion. There is a man in the sky, he says, and he talks to Mark. And he reads from the tablets:
A man lives in the sky, and he controls everything; when you die, you go to a better place, and everyone will get a mansion. All the people you love will be there; there is free ice cream; if you’ve been bad you’ll go the worst place imaginable; the man in the sky decides who lives or dies . . .
Mark’s fellow citizens may not be able to tell a lie, but they are no dummies, either. They bombard him with questions based on logic: Does the man live in space? What happens to your mansion in the sky if you want to go live with someone else in their mansion? Do you go to the worst place imaginable if you forget to feed your dog? What exactly is bad? Does the man in the sky kill those we love? So Mark has to think on the spot, and claims the man in the sky is responsible for both the good and the bad things. And since he never intended to create an ironclad other reality when he just wanted to give his mother a peaceful passing, his answers are not exactly consistent, but since people still don’t expect anyone to lie, he gets away with it, people accept the idea, and he is propelled into fame and fortune as the one the man in the sky talks to—and the writer of the greatest movie of all time, The Black Plague. But unfortunately that doesn’t change his genetics—he is still short and pudgy. So even if Anna now is beginning to see
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qualities in Mark beneath his pudgy exterior, she is still not interested in him—unless, she asks, does being rich and famous change your genetics? This is the “moment of truth” for Mark; he hesitates a moment—and answers truthfully, no, it doesn’t. And Anna, consequentially, starts dating handsome Brad instead, but when Brad reveals himself to be overbearing and particularly rude, she begins to do what Mark has taught her: look beneath the surface. Mark’s invention of religion is beginning to backfi re: some people are looking so much forward to the afterlife that they are neglecting their life on earth, and others are arguing about the mansions in the sky. Mark himself is letting himself go. And now Anna comes to his house—a mansion—and invites him to her wedding with Brad. What is going to happen at the wedding? Will Mark show up? Will Anna realize who her ideal partner really is? And will the world realize they’ve been lied to? Will Mark tell Anna the truth about the man in the sky, and his capacity for lying? Watch the fi lm and fi nd out.
1. Compare Mark’s mother’s death scene with the introduction to Chapter 5, the sce- nario asking whether or not to lie to Grandmother who is dying. Find similarities and differences.
2. Is Anna a bigot since she rejects Mark because he is chubby and short, and she doesn’t want short and chubby kids? He obviously still loves her, even if she fi nds him physi- cally unworthy of her. Does he show poor judgment in pursuing her, or can we un- derstand why he is persistent?
3. Why does Mark tell Anna the truth when she asks if success might change him geneti- cally? What are we, the audience, supposed to read into that scene?
4. Is this a fi lm advocating ethical egoism? Utilitarianism? Explain.
5. Has Mark unleashed a nightmare with his story of the man in the sky, or has he, over- all, increased people’s happiness?
6. If you’ve seen the fi lm, you may remember the ending (which I won’t give away here): What if there is one more person who can lie? Does that change the scenario? Should it?
7. After you’ve read Chapter 8 you may want to return to this fi lm, and discuss not its focus on lying, but its emphasis on looking beyond the surface to the true qualities of a person.
NARRATIVE: T H E I N V E N T I O N O F L Y I N G 281
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Using Your Reason, Part 2: Kant’s Deontology
O n the whole, we might say that there are two major ways in which we can ap- proach a problem. We might ask ourselves, What happens if I do X? In that case we’re letting ourselves be guided by the future consequences of our actions. Or we might ask ourselves, Is X right or wrong in itself, regardless of the consequences? The fi rst approach is utilitarian, provided that we are looking for good consequences for as many as possible. The version of the second approach that has had the most infl uence is Immanuel Kant’s duty theory . (See Box 6.1 for a summary of Kant’s life.) Kant’s moral theory is often referred to as deontology (the theory of moral obliga- tion, from the Greek deon, “that which is obligatory”). Kant believed his theory was the very opposite of a consequentialist theory, and his moral analysis was, in part, written to show how little a moral theory that worries about consequences has to do with true moral thinking. Let us look at an example to illustrate this fundamental difference.
Consequences Don’t Count—Having a Good Will Does
Some years ago, newspapers reported an accident somewhere in the Pacifi c North- west. A family had gone away for a short vacation and had left their keys with their neighbor so that he could water their plants and look after the place. On Sunday afternoon, a few hours before they were due to arrive home, the temperature was dropping, and the neighbor thought he would do them a favor and make sure they would come home to a nice, toasty house. He went in and turned on the furnace. You’ve guessed what happened: The house burned down and the family came home to a smoking ruin. That was the extent of the newspaper coverage, but suppose it had been reported by a classical utilitarian. Then the article might have ended something like this: “The neighbor will have to answer for the consequences of this terrible deed.” Why? Because, given that only consequences count, the act of turning on the furnace was a terrible one, regardless of the man’s good intentions. As it is sometimes said, the road to hell is paved with good intentions. In other words, only your deeds count, not what you intended by them. Suppose, however, that a Kantian had written the article. Then it might have ended like this: “This good neighbor should be praised for his kind thought and good intentions regardless of the fact that the family lost their home; that conse- quence certainly can’t be blamed on him, because all he intended to do was the right thing.”
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CONSEQUENCES DON’T COUNT—HAVING A GOOD WILL DOES 283
Let us continue speculating. Suppose the house didn’t burn down, but instead provided a warm, cozy shelter for and saved the lives of the entire family, who (shall we say) had all come down with pneumonia. The utilitarian now would have to say that the act of lighting the furnace was a shining example of a morally good deed, but Kant would not change his mind: The neighbor’s action was good because of his intention, and the consequences of the act don’t make it any better or worse. It is not just any good intention, however, that makes an action morally good in Kant’s view: One must have a respect for the moral law that is expressed in the intention. It isn’t enough for the neighbor to be a kind man who wants his neighbors to be comfort- able; he must imagine it to be a good thing for neighbors to act that way in general — not because it would make everyone comfortable and happy, but strictly for the sake of the principle of doing the right thing. This is what Kant calls having a good will . For
Some famous and infl uential people lead lives of adventure. The life of Immanuel Kant (1724– 1804) seems to have been an intellectual adven- ture exclusively, for he did little that might in any other way be considered adventurous. He grew up in the town of Königsberg, East Prussia (a city on the Baltic Sea, now Kaliningrad in Russian territory). He was raised in an atmosphere of strict Protestant values by his devout mother and by his father, who made a meager living as a saddler. He entered Königsberg University, stud- ied theology, graduated, and tutored for a while until he was offered a position at the university in his hometown. In 1770 he became a full pro- fessor in logic and metaphysics, and that was when the philosophical drama began, for Kant achieved infl uence not only in Western philoso- phy but also in science and social thinking—an infl uence that was never eclipsed by anyone else in the eighteenth century. He developed theo- ries about astronomy that are still considered plausible (the so-called Kant-Laplace hypoth- esis has to a great extent been corroborated by the Hubbell Space Telescope); he laid out rules for a new social world of mutual respect for all citizens; he made contributions to philosophy of law and religion; he attempted to map the en- tire spectrum of human intelligence in his three
major works, Critique of Pure Reason (1781), Critique of Practical Reason (1788), and Critique of Judgment (1790), as well as in smaller works such as Prolegomena to Every Future Metaphysics (1783) and Grounding for the Metaphysics of Mor- als (1785). He continued working until late in life; one of his most infl uential works from that period is The Metaphysics of Morals (1797). When Kant calls a book a “critique,” he is not implying that he is merely writing a nega- tive criticism of a subject; he is, rather, looking for the condition of possibility of that subject. In Critique of Pure Reason he asks, “What makes it possible for me to achieve knowledge?” (In other words, what is the condition of possibility of knowledge?) In Critique of Practical Reason he asks about the condition of possibility of moral thinking, and in Critique of Judgment he exam- ines the condition of possibility for appreciating natural and artistic beauty. In all those fi elds his insights helped shape new disciplines and rede- fi ne old disciplines. Kant was never an agitator for his ideas, though; on the contrary, he was famous for his extremely quiet and highly regu- lated routine. He remained single throughout his life, and his sole interest seems to have been his work. His students reported that he was in fact a good and popular teacher.
Box 6.1 K A N T : H I S L I F E A N D W O R K
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284 CHAPTER 6 US ING YOUR REASON, PART 2 : KANT’S DEONTOLOGY
Kant the presence of a good will is what makes an action morally good, regardless of its consequences. Therefore, even if you never accomplished what you intended, you are still morally praiseworthy provided you tried hard to do the right thing. In his book Grounding for the Metaphysics of Morals (1785; also commonly referred to as Groundwork or Foundations ), Kant assures us that
[e]ven if, by some especially unfortunate fate or by the niggardly provision of stepmotherly nature, this will should be wholly lacking in the power to accomplish its purpose; *
*To modern readers without much experience with older literature in English, the term niggardly generally gives pause because it bears an unfortunate resemblance to a racial epithet and people have in recent years been fi red for using the word; however, the two words are unrelated in etymology and meaning, and there is no racial undertone in the word used by Kant’s translators. The term means “avaricious” or “stingy.” The original German word is kärglich . But even though niggardly doesn’t associate to bigotry and discrimination, how about the term stepmotherly? That is Kant’s own term in translation.
This painting shows the German philosopher Immanuel Kant, second from the left, dining with friends. Kant was reportedly a popular guest at dinners, and his own dinner parties were legendary. He even included a guide to the perfect dinner party in Anthropology from a Pragmatic Point of View , specifying the ideal number of guests: No fewer than three, and no more than nine; moderate use of wine will help the conversation fl ow; what is said at the table in confi dence should stay at the table; the conversation should start with talking about the news, then a discussion should follow, and the dinner should end with jokes. Among the other rules were: no dinner music, and no extended silences. The end result should be a good time, with cheerful respect of each others’ varied view- points. And the entire point of a good dinner party? It is part of the path to happiness. Which stage of the dinner do you think the dinner guests in the painting have reached?
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THE CATEGORICAL IMPERATIVE 285
if with the greatest effort it should yet achieve nothing, and only the good will should remain (not, to be sure, as a mere wish but as the summoning of all the means in our power), yet would it, like a jewel, still shine by its own light as something which has its full value in itself. Its usefulness or fruitlessness can neither augment nor diminish this value.
The Categorical Imperative
How do we know that our will is good? We put our intentions to a test. In Ground- ing for the Metaphysics of Morals, Kant says we must ask whether we can imagine our intentions as a general law for everybody. That means that our intentions have to conform to a rational principle . We have to think hard to determine whether we’re about to do the right thing or not; it can’t be determined just by some gut-level feel- ing. However, we don’t have to wait to see the actual consequences to determine whether our intentions are good—all we have to do is determine whether we could imagine others doing to us what we intend doing to them. In other words, Kant pro- poses a variant of the Golden Rule—but it is a variant with certain specifi cs, as we shall see—and it illustrates that Kant is also a hard universalist, perhaps the hardest one ever to write a book on morals. For Kant, humans usually know what they ought to do, and that is almost always the opposite of what they want to do: Our moral confl icts are generally between our duty and our inclination, and when we let our desires run rampant it is simply because we haven’t come up with a way for our sense of duty to persuade us to do the right thing. Kant therefore proposes a test to determine the right thing to do. He refers to this test as the categorical imperative . But because it is a matter of doing the right thing not in terms of the outcome but in terms of the intentions, we must look more closely at these intentions. Suppose a store owner is trying to decide whether to cheat her customers. She might tell herself, (1) “I will cheat them whenever I can get away with it” or “I will cheat them only on occasion so nobody can detect a pattern.” We can all tell, in- tuitively, that this merchant’s intentions aren’t good, although they certainly might benefi t her and give her some extra cash at the end of the week. In other words, the consequences may be good, yet we know that cheating the customers is not the right thing to do. (We’ll get back to the reason in a while.) Suppose, though, that the owner decides not to cheat her customers because (2) she might be found out, and then she would lose their business and might have to close shop. This is certainly prudent, but it still is not a morally praiseworthy decision, because she is doing it only to achieve good consequences. What if the store owner decides not to cheat her customers because (3) she likes them too much to ever do them any harm? She loves the little kids buying candy, the old ladies buying groceries, and everyone else, so how could she ever consider cheating them? This, says Kant, is very nice, but it still is not morally praiseworthy, because the merchant is doing only what she feels like doing, and we can’t be expected to praise her for just wanting to feel good. (If you want to reexamine this argument, go back to the section in Chapter 4 on psychologi- cal egoism, where a similar argument is analyzed in detail.) And indeed, what if some day she should stop loving her customers or just one of them? Then the reason for
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not cheating is gone; so, Kant cannot approve of motive 3, regardless of how much we generally approve of people who help others because they enjoy it; it really isn’t a principle any more than motive 1 or motive 2. The only morally praiseworthy reason for not wanting to cheat the customers would be if the store owner told herself, (4) “It wouldn’t be right,” regardless of consequences or warm and fuzzy feelings. Why wouldn’t it be right? Because she certainly couldn’t want everybody else to cheat their customers as a universal law. If the store owner tells herself, “I will not cheat my customers because otherwise I’ll lose them,” then she is not doing a bad thing, of course. She is just doing a pru- dent thing, and Kant says our lives are full of such prudent decisions; they are de- pendent on each situation, and we have to determine in each case what would be the smart thing to do. Kant calls these decisions, which are conditional, because they de- pend on the situation and on one’s own personal desires, hypothetical imperatives — imperatives because they are commands: If you don’t want to lose your customers, then you should not cheat them. If you want to get your degree, then you should not miss your fi nal exam. If you want to be good at baking biscuits, then you ought to bake them from scratch and not use a prepared mix. But suppose you’re closing down your shop and moving to another town? Then you might not care about losing those customers. And suppose you decide to drop out of school—then who cares about that fi nal exam? And if you and everyone you know hates biscuits, then why bother worrying about getting good at baking them? In other words, a hypotheti- cal imperative is dependent or conditional, on your interest in a certain outcome. If you don’t want the outcome, the imperative is not binding. We make such deci- sions every day, and, as long as they are based merely on wanting some outcome, they are not morally relevant. (They can, of course, be morally bad, but, even if they have a good outcome, Kant would say that they are morally neutral.) What makes a decision morally praiseworthy is that the agent (the person acting) decides to do something because it might be applied to everyone as a universal moral law . In that case that person has used the categorical imperative. What makes a categorical imperative categorical is that it is not dependent on anyone’s desire to make it an imperative; it is binding not just in some situations and for some people, but always, for everyone. It is absolute. That is the very nature of the moral law: If it applies at all, it applies to everyone in the same situation. Although there are myriad hypothetical imperatives, there is only one categorical imperative, expressed in the most general terms possible: Always act so that you can will that your maxim can become a universal law . In ordinary language that means: Ask yourself what it is you want to do right now (such as making the house next door toasty for your neighbors, skipping classes on Friday, or lying to Grandma about dating some- one outside your religion). Then imagine making that action into a rule (such as, Always make sure your neighbors come home to a toasty house; Always skip Friday classes; Always lie to Grandma to spare her pain). Now you’ve identifi ed your maxim, or the principle or rule for your action. The next step is to ask yourself whether you could want that maxim to become a universal rule for everyone to follow. And, if you can’t agree to that—if you don’t think everyone should, under similar circumstances, light their neighbors’ furnaces, skip classes, or lie to Grandma—then you shouldn’t
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THE CATEGORICAL IMPERATIVE 287
do it either. It’s that simple, and for Kant this realization was so breathtaking that it could be compared only to his awe of the universe on a starry night. Let us use Kant’s own example to illustrate.
[A man] in need fi nds himself forced to borrow money. He knows well that he won’t be able to repay it, but he sees also that he will not get any loan unless he fi rmly promises to repay it within a fi xed time. He wants to make such a promise, but he still has conscience enough to ask himself whether it is not permissible and is contrary to duty to get out of diffi culty in this way. Suppose, however, that he decides to do so. The maxim of his action would then be expressed as follows: When I believe myself to be in need of money, I will borrow money and promise to pay it back, although I know that I can never do so. Now this principle of self-love or personal advantage may perhaps be quite compatible with one’s entire future welfare, but the question is now whether it is right. I then transform the requirement of self-love into a universal law and put the question thus: how would things stand if my maxim were to become a universal law? He then sees at once that such a maxim could never hold as a universal law of nature and be consistent with itself, but must necessarily be self-contradictory. For the universality of a law which says that anyone believing himself to be in diffi culty could promise whatever he pleases with the intention of not keeping it would make promising itself and the end to be attained thereby quite impossible, inasmuch as no one would believe what was promised him but would merely laugh at all such utterances as being vain pretences.
Do we know why this man wants to borrow money? Perhaps he wants to buy a speedboat. Perhaps he wants to pay a hit man for a contract killing. Or he needs to pay the rent. Perhaps his child is ill, and he has to buy medication and pay the doctor’s bill. We don’t know. Is knowing his reason relevant? If we were utilitarians, it would be very relevant, because then we could judge the merit of the proposed consequences. (Saving his child generally has more utility than buying a boat or hir- ing a hit man.) But Kant is no utilitarian, and the prospect of the man in the example wanting to do good with the borrowed money is no more relevant than the prospect of his wanting to buy a boat or even to hire a hit man. The main issue here is, Does the man have a good will? Would he refuse to follow a course of action if he couldn’t agree to everyone else having the right to act the same way? At the end of the chapter you’ll fi nd an example from Kant’s Grounding that illustrates what he means by hav- ing a good will. Let us go over the structure of the proposed test of right and wrong conduct again: What is it you’re thinking of doing? Imagine that as a general rule for ac- tion you’ll follow every time the situation comes up. You have now expressed your maxim . Then imagine everybody else doing it too; by doing this you universalize your maxim . Then ask yourself, Would this be rational? Could I still get away with it if everyone did it? The answer is no, you would undermine your own intention, because nobody would lend you any money if everyone were lying about paying it back. So it is not just the fact that banks would close and the fi nancial world would be in chaos—it is the logical outcome of your universalized maxim that shows you that your intention was wrong. This means that it is your duty to refrain from following a self- contradictory maxim, simply because your reason tells you it can’t be universalized.
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288 CHAPTER 6 US ING YOUR REASON, PART 2 : KANT’S DEONTOLOGY
The categorical imperative asks us, in effect, Would you want others to treat you the way you’re thinking of treating them? The association to the Golden Rule (see Box 4.8) is almost inevitable: How should we treat others? The way we would want to be treated. And yet Kant had harsh words for the old Golden Rule. He thought it was just a simplistic version of his own categorical imperative and that it could even be turned into a travesty: If you don’t want to help others, just claim you don’t want or need any help from them! But the bottom line is that the categorical imperative draws on that same fundamental realization that I called a spark of moral genius in the Golden Rule: It sees self and others as fundamentally similar—not in the details of our lives, but in the fact that we are human beings and should be treated fairly by one another. Does that mean that the categorical imperative works only if everyone can accept your maxim as a universal law? Not in the sense that we have to take a poll before we decide to act; if everyone’s actual approval were the fi nal criterion, the principle would lose its appeal as an immediate test of where one’s duty lies. There is an ele- ment of universal approval in Kant’s idea, but it lies in the refl ection of an ideal situ- ation, not an actual one. If everyone put aside his or her personal interests and then used the categorical imperative, then everyone would, ideally, come up with the same conclusion about what is morally permissible. Kant, who belonged to an era of less doubt about what exactly rationality means, believed that if we all used the same rules of logic and disregarded our personal interests, then we all would come to the same results about moral as well as intellectual issues. This immense faith in human rationality is an important factor in Kant’s moral theory because it refl ects his belief that humans are privileged beings. We can set up our own moral rules without having to seek guidance by going to the authorities; we need not be told how to live by the church or by the police or by the monarch or even by our parents. All we need is our good will and our reason, and with that we can set our own rules. If we choose a certain course of action because we have been told to—because we listen to other people’s advice for some reason or other—we are merely doing what might be prudent and expedient, but if we listen to our own reason and have good will, then we are autonomous lawmakers . Won’t this approach result in a society where everyone looks after himself or herself and lives by multiple rules that may contradict one another? No, because if everyone has good will and applies the categorical imperative, then all will set the same, reasonable, unselfi sh rules for themselves because they would not wish to set a rule that would be impossible for others to follow. In this way Kant believes he has shown us how to solve every dilemma, every problem where desire clashes with duty. When the categorical imperative is applied, we automatically disregard our own personal interests and look at the bigger picture, and this action is what is morally praiseworthy: to realize that something is right or wrong in itself. In the Narratives section you’ll fi nd a selection of stories that explore, each in its own way, the principle of doing the right thing regardless of the opinion of others or the consequences for oneself: Two Western fi lms are placed together because of their common focus on doing the right thing as a matter of principle: the classic High Noon and the 2007 fi lm 3:10 to Yuma .
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THE CATEGORICAL IMPERATIVE 289
Criticism of the Categorical Imperative
Some people are immediately impressed by the idea that one’s intentions count for more than the outcome of one’s actions and that the question of right or wrong in itself is important; we can’t consider only the consequences if it means violating the rights of others. Others claim that no matter how much you say you’re not interested in consequences, they still end up being a consideration. Critics have raised fi ve major points when fi nding fault with Kant’s theory.
1. Consequences Count Doesn’t the categorical imperative actually imply concern for consequences? That is the criticism of John Stuart Mill, who had some sharp things to say about Kant’s example of borrowing money and not keeping promises. If that was the best Kant could come up with to show that consequences don’t count, he was not doing a very good job, said Mill, because what was he appealing to? By asking “What if everybody does what you want to do?” wasn’t Kant worrying about conse- quences? What will happen if everyone borrows money and doesn’t pay it back in spite of their promises? Then no one else can take advantage of promising falsely, either. In Mill’s view, that is as much an appeal to consequences as regular utilitarianism is. That caused Mill to conclude that we all must include consequences in our moral theory, no matter how reluctant we are to recognize their importance. This appears to be a valid point against Kant. The only thing Kant might say in response to this (he never did, of course, since he was long dead by the time Mill criticized his point of view) is that his viewpoint does not look at actual consequences but at the logical implications of a universalized maxim: Will it or will it not undermine itself? Whether Mill has successfully criticized Kant or misunderstood him is still a topic of discussion among philosophers, but that is only when we focus on the Categorical Imperative in its original version. If we read further in Kant’s Grounding (as you will in a few pages) we fi nd that Kant indeed has a related theory about duties that in no way refers to consequences of one’s actions. On the contrary, the theory of “ends-in-themselves” states that no matter what the consequences, a person should always be treated with respect for his or her humanity. We return to “ends-in-themselves” on p. 295.
2. Conflict Between Duties Can we be so sure that the categorical imperative is always going to tell us what to do? Suppose we have a confl ict between two things we have to do—and we don’t particularly want to do either of them. Kant’s system assumes that a moral confl ict is one between duty and inclination—between what we have to do and what we want to do. In that case it is entirely possible we may be persuaded to do the right thing by imagining our maxim as a universal rule for everyone. But suppose we have a confl ict between two duties, such as having to take inventory at our workplace the night before we have a fi nal exam for which we should be studying. Certainly we can’t say we want to do one thing more than we want to do the other—anyone who has done both will probably agree that they are both rather unpleasant tasks. How might the categorical imperative help us decide what to do? All it can tell us is that failing to show up for the inventory would not be rational, but neither would skipping the fi nal, because both are duties that everyone ought to fulfi ll under the same circumstances. The amount of help offered by the categorical imperative is at best limited to cases
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where duties are not in confl ict. (Of course, in a situation where we have a confl ict be- tween duties, we already know of another approach that might answer the question of what to do: Bentham’s hedonistic calculus. But most philosophers agree that you can’t just mix and match theories according to your needs. In Chapter 11 we return to the question of combining the best of various moral theories.)
3. The Loophole Might it not be possible to fi nd a loophole in the imperative? Sup- pose the categorical imperative tells us that it would be irrational (and thus morally impermissible) for anyone to even think about robbing a bank if he needs money because we wouldn’t want everyone in the same situation to take that course of action. But what exactly is the situation we’re talking about? Suppose Joe is broke because he is out of work and has been for seven months. He is twenty years old and has a high school diploma. He worked at a video arcade, but now it is closed because of gang violence. Joe likes to wear denim. His parents are divorced. He is dating a girl named Virginia who works at a supermarket and goes to the community college, and he needs money so that they can get married and rent a small apartment. Let’s assume that Joe applies the categorical imperative and that his maxim is: Every time I (who am in a certain situation) am broke and cannot get a loan, I will rob a bank. Then he universalizes it: Every time someone who is twenty, and whose name is Joe, who has divorced parents, used to work in a video arcade, likes denim, and is dating a check- out girl named Virginia who goes to a community college—anytime he feels like rob- bing a bank because he is broke, it is all right for him to do so. Now is that rational? Will Joe’s maxim undermine his intention because everyone else will do the same thing he is planning to do? No, because he has described his situation so that “every- one” is reduced to a group of very few people who are in his exact same situation. In fact, his description of “everyone” could apply to only one person: Joe himself. In that case it is perfectly logical for him to rob a bank, because he won’t undermine his own intention. This is hardly the kind of ironclad philosophical proof of doing the right thing that we were looking for. This argument, which also works against rule utilitari- anism, is of course not a valid excuse for doing the wrong thing, and Joe shouldn’t run out and rob the bank because he thinks philosophers have shown it to be okay. It is, however, an attempt to show that if we work with a principle that is as general as the categorical imperative, we just can’t expect it to answer all our moral questions with- out a doubt. Of course, it isn’t an example Kant himself would have appreciated. Kant would have complained that we are making the example too specifi c. But the fact remains that the categorical imperative needs some further clarifi cation and defi nition to avoid the “escape clause” that the loophole provides. You may think this example is rather far-fetched, since it’s pretty obvious that nobody designs a moral rule you can get away with breaking if it applies only to yourself. However, the story of Joe, be it ever so outlandish, is our own story, in all those situations where we ask for lenient treatment because “we’re special.” We know we’re supposed to send our taxes in on time, and to show up for the fi nal, and so forth, but it’s been a hard year, we just had the fl u, our family’s falling apart, and we’d really like some special consideration. And, if the special circumstances apply only in our case, well, then, we’ve found a loophole. The example of Joe is just a little more extreme.
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THE CATEGORICAL IMPERATIVE 291
4. What Is Rationality? Who is to say when something is irrational? This is an issue that might not have occurred to Kant. He, as a product of his times and a co- producer of the Age of Reason, believed that if we use our reason without looking to self-interest, then we will all come up with the same idea and result. Actually, Bentham believed the same thing, even though his moral vision was quite different from that of Kant. Today, after garnering a century of knowledge about the work- ings of the subconscious mind and realizing that people just aren’t rational all or even most of the time, we are more inclined to believe that our individual idea of what is rational may depend greatly on who we are. If we use a very broad defi nition of rational, such as “realizing the shortest way to get to your goal and then pursu- ing it,” we still may come up with different ideas about what is rational. Suppose that our Joe not only is broke but also is a political anarchist who believes that the sooner society breaks down, the better for all humanity and for himself in particu- lar. Why then would it be particularly illogical for him to rob a bank, given that the downfall of society, including banks, is what he is longing for? And why should we refrain from lying to one another if what we want is to create social chaos and alien- ate our friends? Why refrain from hurting one another, if we are sadomasochists and believe it would be great to live in a world of mutual harmdoing? Although Joe is a fi ctional example, the real world provides examples of people who most of us believe to have acted irrationally although in their own minds they followed a sure rational path toward a goal. Consider Timothy McVeigh, the man responsible for the bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City in 1995, which killed 167 men, women, and children. McVeigh was convicted of multiple murders of federal agents and was executed in June 2001. What kind of reasoning process did he go through to decide that taking human lives—the lives of strang- ers who had never done him any harm, the lives of toddlers and children—would somehow further a goal? If we ask whether he seriously considered the categorical imperative—Could he want others to do the same thing? Could he agree to a world in which someone did such things to him and his family?—then the Kantian tradi- tion would probably claim that he could not, that his decision was irrational. But McVeigh already believed he did live in such a world, in which the government kills innocent people. (McVeigh was highly infl uenced by the federal raid on the Branch Davidian compound in Waco two years earlier.) In an interview he admitted that he thought his actions would start a revolution. So, if the rationality of one’s decision depends on one’s personal interpretation of the situation, how can the categorical imperative be a guarantee that we will all reach the same conclusion if only we use logic? Would using the categorical imperative have stopped Theodore Kaczynski, the Unabomber? For all his mental problems, Kaczynski is apparently an intelligent man and a scholar, and it is not improbable that he may have asked himself, Would you want your action to become a universal law? and answered Yes, I am doing the morally right thing. Kant seems to assume that we all have the same general goals, which serve as a guarantee of the rationality of our actions. Change the goals, though, and the ideal of a reasonable course of action takes on a new meaning. (Box 6.2 further explores the issue of rationality.)
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Philosophers often refer to conduct and argu- ments as being rational or logical . Since the Age of Reason (the Western Enlightenment) in the eighteenth century, the emphasis has been par- ticularly strong, the assumption being that as long as you use your reason, you can’t go wrong. If you do go wrong, the implication is that you have been applying faulty logic: One part of your conduct or your statement has been at odds with another part. For both Bentham and Kant, prod- ucts of the Enlightenment, there is a staunch belief in the infallibility of properly applied rea- soning. That belief was eroded considerably in the twentieth century, partly because of Freud’s theories of the Unconscious as a powerful factor in our decision making but one fundamentally outside the control of our rational mind. In the last decades of the twentieth century, other criti- cisms were raised against the concept of rational- ity. If we choose a basic defi nition of rationality that says, “Decide on a goal and select the most direct method to achieve it,” then critics of the philosophical emphasis on reason may point
out that this method is above all a Western cul- tural ideal and is not indicative of a worldwide method of conduct. Some cultures prefer indirect methods of achieving goals and consider direct methods rude. Some feminists point out that the direct method of rationality is a predominantly male approach, whereas many women prefer an indirect way of achieving a goal; in addition, they say, women make use of a special way of know- ing: knowledge by emotion and intuition. Could it be true that men, having developed rational skills from millennia of being hunters, think in hunters’ terms—going straight for the prey and killing it? And women, after millennia of being gatherers, think more in terms of picking and choosing and comparing? A comedian, Rob Becker, built this into his act in the 1990s, il- lustrating man the hunter going shopping at the mall, single-mindedly tracking down a shirt— and his wife, the gatherer, shopping around until all items have been compared. It was a very funny routine—and it may actually come close to an evolutionary truth. But many feminists,
Box 6.2 W H A T I S R A T I O N A L I T Y ?
cathy® by Cathy Guisewite
CATHY © 1998 Cathy Guisewite. Reprinted with permission of UNIVERSAL UCLICK. All rights reserved.
Is there a male and a female type of rationality? And does it reveal itself in our different styles of shopping? And if that might be the case, can a female shop the male way, and vice versa? Could there be other explanations for different shopping styles, rather than hard-wired gender nature?
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THE CATEGORICAL IMPERATIVE 293
5. No Exceptions? Does it really seem right that we can never be morally correct in breaking a universal rule? In other words, can the categorical imperative always assure us that sticking to the rule is better than breaking it? Let us say that a killer is stalking a friend of yours, and the friend comes to your door and asks you to hide her. You tell her to go hide in the broom closet. (This is a slightly altered version of one of Kant’s own examples, and you were introduced to it in Chapter 1.) The killer comes to your door and asks, “Where is she?” Most of us would feel a primary obliga- tion to help our friend, but for Kant the primary obligation is to the truth. You are supposed to answer, “I cannot tell a lie—she is hiding in the broom closet.” This is what is meant by an absolutist moral theory: A moral rule allows for no exceptions. But why? Most of us would assume that the life of our friend would at least be worth a white lie, but for Kant it is a matter of principle. Suppose you lie to the killer, but your friend sneaks out of the house, and the killer fi nds her; then it is your fault. If you had told the truth, your friend might still have escaped, and the killer could have been prevented from committing the murder. (Perhaps you could have trapped him in the broom closet.) This far-fetched argument follows Kant’s own reasoning for why we should always stick to the rule: because if we break a rule we must answer for the consequences, whereas if we stick to the rule, we have no such responsibility. If we tell the truth, and the killer goes straight for the broom closet and kills our friend, Kant insists that we bear no responsibility for her death. But why should we accept Kant’s idea that consequences don’t count as long as you are following the rule but that they do count when you are not? Philosophers tend to agree that you can’t make such arbitrary choices of when consequences count and when they don’t. At the end of the chapter, the second Primary Reading shows how serious Kant was about not accepting any exceptions to his moral principles: To the end of his days, in The Meta- physics of Morals, he insisted that even white lies are unacceptable. You may remember Martha Nussbaum in Chapter 1 complaining that philosophy abounds with little, dry, unrealistic examples that are written, “cooked,” to illustrate a particular moral rule, and that we’d be better off if we instead read a good novel that illustrates that particu- lar moral problem or rule. Kant’s story of the killer at the door is precisely the kind of example she was talking about, and in the Narrative section you’ll read the summary of the movie Match Point, which illustrates the moral problem of lying—but perhaps in a different way from what most of us, including Kant, would have expected.
such as Alison Jaggar, argue that the highest kind of knowledge incorporates both traditional ratio- nal thinking and emotional thinking—for both men and women. Although some rejoice in the possibility of there being several legitimate ways of being rational, some women thinkers worry that this view might turn back the clock and re- vive the old prejudice that “women can’t think
logically.” And some advocates of traditional rationality as a universal philosophical method speculate that although it is possible that several different ways of conducting oneself rationally may exist, the rules of mathematics and logic are universal examples of applied rationality: The basic rules for pure, logical thinking are not cul- ture- or gender-dependent.
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If there are all these diffi culties with the categorical imperative, why has it been such an infl uential moral factor? The reason is that it is the fi rst moral theory to stress the idea of universalizability: realizing that the situation you are in is no different from that of other human beings. If something will bother you, it will probably bother others too, everything else being equal. If you allow yourself a day off, you should not gripe when others do the same thing. Most important, however, you should think about it before you allow yourself that day off and realize that it won’t do as a universal rule. The problem is, on occasion we all encounter special situations when we might actually need a day off; perhaps we are sick or emotionally upset. Similarly, on the whole we should not kill, but in certain rare situations we may be called on to do just that, in war or in self-defense. On the whole we should not lie, but there may come a day when a killer is stalking a friend of ours, and we have a chance to save her. In that case we may need to lie. Those are unusual situations, so why should Kant’s generalizations apply to them? This issue has caused scholars to suggest that there really is nothing wrong with the format of the categorical imperative, provided that we are allowed to expand our maxim to include situations in which we might accept certain exceptions to our rule. As long as they don’t expand to become a loop- hole, the universalization works just fi ne: We can universalize not killing, with the exception of self-defense and certain other specifi ed cases. We can universalize not taking a day off from work unless we are sick or severely emotionally upset, as long as it doesn’t happen very often. We can universalize not lying if it is understood that preventing harm to an innocent person would constitute an exception. The American philosopher Christine Korsgaard, who has been signifi cantly in- spired by Kant’s moral philosophy, is also one of the critics of Kant’s unyielding hard universalism, and she proposes a solution: that we view Kant’s categorical imperative as an ideal solution in an ideal world, but that we must also realize that real life is less than perfect and makes other demands on us. The ideal is still important as a principle, but, she asks, why would we even consider that lying to the killer would undermine our intention to lie, since the killer must surely know that asking where our friend went does not represent a normal situation? In other words, in some situa- tions Kant is right on the mark, such as the example of the man who wants to borrow money, and in other situations we must go beyond the categorical imperative—in cases where we have to respond to actions or people we might characterize as evil . As an example of a person’s making evil choices, or even as an example of an evil person, let us consider the shootings at Virginia Tech in 2007. Who among us would not have chosen to lie to the mass murderer, Cho, if he had asked us for directions to students, professors, or classrooms and we suspected what he was about to do? We might have been too afraid to come up with a good lie, but that doesn’t make truth-telling right. This would be a clear case where the truth could be circumvented for the sake of innocent lives, with an exception built into the maxim of not lying. In Chapter 9 we meet a classic theory (by Aristotle) that will suggest that for most actions there is a right amount —not too much and not too little, and telling the truth to Cho would certainly qualify as excessive, if nothing else. But what is particularly interesting is that Kant, a few pages further into the little book Grounding, in fact sup- plies us with the very principle we need to save innocent lives: that no human beings should be treated like stepping-stones or used for other people’s purposes.
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RATIONAL BEINGS ARE ENDS IN THEMSELVES 295
Rational Beings Are Ends in Themselves
In his book Grounding for the Metaphysics of Morals, Kant explores three major themes: the categorical imperative, the concept of ends in themselves, and the concept of a king- dom of ends . In a sense you might say that if we add the idea of people being ends in themselves to the idea of the categorical imperative, then the result will be a kingdom of ends. In the discussion that follows, we look at the ends-in-themselves concept as well as the kingdom of ends.
Persons Shouldn’t Be Used as Tools
In Grounding, Kant suggests two different ways to express the categorical imperative. The fi rst one we have just looked at; the other goes like this:
Now I say that man, and in general every rational being, exists as an end in himself and not merely as a means to be arbitrarily used by this or that will. He must in all his actions, whether directed to himself or to other rational beings, always be regarded at the same time as an end.
What does it mean to be treated as an “end in himself”? Let us fi rst look at the opposite approach: to be treated as a “means to an end only.” What is a means to an end? It is a tool, an instrument to be used to achieve some goal; it is something that has instrumental value in the achievement of something of intrinsic value. If someone is used as a means to an end, she or he is treated as a tool for someone else’s purpose, in a very broad sense. If someone is being sexually abused or kept as a slave, that person obvi- ously is being treated as a means to an end, but so is the girl we befriend so we can get to know her brother. So is anyone who is being used for other people’s purposes without regard for his or her intrinsic value and dignity as a human being, such as in the contro- versial fi lm Bumfi ghts, where young fi lmmakers persuaded homeless men to fi ght each other for the camera, for the sake of monetary gain. But Kant would condemn an act of using someone as a tool, even if the purpose is good—such as creating happiness for a large number of people. For Kant this is just another way of expressing the categorical imperative. What made him think this? For one thing, when you use the categorical imperative, you are universalizing your maxim; and if you are refusing to treat others merely as means to an end, you are also universalizing a maxim, and a very fundamental one. Second, both maxims may be interpreted as expressions of the Golden Rule. This statement about the immorality of treating other humans as means to an end was, for the eighteenth century, a tremendously important political and social state- ment. In Kant’s era (although not in Kant’s country), slavery was still a social factor; abuse of the lower classes by the upper classes was commonplace; Europe was just emerging from a time when monarchs and warlords could move their peasants and conscripted soldiers around like chess pieces with no regard for their lives and happi- ness. Then Kant clearly stated that it is not social status that determines one’s stand- ing in the moral universe, but one thing only: the capability to use reason. As one of the leading lights of the Age of Reason, Kant stated that any rational human being deserves respect. Rich and poor, young and old, all races and peoples—all are alike in having rationality as the one defi ning mark of their humanity, and none deserves to be treated without regard for that characteristic. Here it must be interjected, in case
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we get carried away with our praise, that Kant himself expressed doubt as to whether women were actually rational beings, or as rational as men; he may have had the same reservations about people of color (see Box 6.3), but we will be generous and look at the implications of Kant’s theory for human rights, regardless of whether or not he himself saw as the goal that every human being deserves respect. Why are rational beings intrinsically valuable? Because they can place a value on things. What is gold worth if nobody wants it? Nothing. Humans are value-givers; they assign a relative worth to things that interest them. However, as value-givers, humans always have an absolute value. They set the price, so to speak, yet cannot have a price set on them. We do, however, constantly talk about people being “worth money.” A baseball player is worth a fortune, a Hollywood actress is worth millions. What does that mean? Have we set a price on humans after all? Not in the appropriate sense. It doesn’t mean we can buy the Hollywood actress for a couple of million. (Well, we might, but in that case she is treating herself as a means to an end only, by selling her body.) What we usually mean is that she has a lot of money. And the baseball player? He certainly can be “bought and sold,” but hardly as a slave; he retains his autonomy and gets rich in the process. It is his talent and his services that are paid for. Under nor- mal circumstances we don’t refer to people as entities that can be bought for money, and if we do, we are usually implying that something bad is taking place (slavery and bribery, for instance). Thus people are value-givers because they can decide rationally what they want and what they don’t want. That means that rational beings are persons, and the second formulation of the categorical imperative is focused on respect for per- sons: Act in such a way that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of another, always at the same time as an end and never simply as means .
FOR BETTER OR FOR WORSE © 1996 Lynn Johnston Productions. Dist. by UNIVERSAL UCLICK. Reprinted with permission. All rights reserved.
Immanuel Kant says we should never treat another rational being as merely a means to an end; although extreme cases of reducing another person to an instrument for someone else’s purpose, such as slavery or sexual abuse, are today recognized as morally unacceptable, we still have many everyday examples in which people treat one another as tools for their own agenda—as, for ex- ample, in this situation from the comic strip For Better or For Worse .
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RATIONAL BEINGS ARE ENDS IN THEMSELVES 297
Notice that Kant is not talking about not mistreating just others. You have to respect yourself too, and not let others step on you. You have a right to set values of your own and not just be used by others as their key to success. But what ex- actly does it mean not to treat anybody simply as means to an end? We know that blatant abuse is wrong and that a subtler kind is no better. But what about using
Over the years, Kant has been considered a pri- mary source of the idea of human rights and equality because of his view that any rational being should be treated with dignity and never merely as a means to an end. This view has in- spired Western thinkers, writers, and politicians to the point that we can actually say now that, even if the ideal has not yet been reached, the Western world is denouncing regimes that do not recognize all their citizens as equals, re- gardless of gender, income, race, ethnicity, re- ligion, and nationality. (See the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights at the end of Chapter 7.) But was that the goal Kant had in mind? It is rather discouraging to fi nd out that it wasn’t. Kant himself, as much as he has inspired today’s quest for equality, had no philosophical goal of either gender or racial equality. Kant believed himself to be drawing on the cutting edge of biological research (he actually taught more classes in geography than in philosophy); in a rarely quoted text, “On the Different Races of Man” (1775), Kant voices the opinion that there are substantial differences in “natural dispositions” among what Kant sees as the four predominant human races of the world. For Kant and many other eighteenth-century Western thinkers, the European race was more intelligent than other races, and males were more intelligent than females. With no sound scientifi c evidence, some of the most important thinkers of the Western Enlightenment—which did usher in the fi rst stages of global equality— decided that some humans were more advanced than others. This of course raises suspicion that Kant’s “rational beings” may not have included
all humans , but primarily white males. However, ten years later Kant specifi ed, in Grounding , that all of humanity should be treated as ends in themselves. It would be grossly unfair to assume that Kant thought only white males were “per- sons.” But Kant’s rule of “ends in themselves” only protects humans against abuse—it doesn’t guarantee social equality. Old heroes sometimes topple in the light of new research, and according to some critics this is what is happening to Kant: He may not be the champion of human rights we thought he was. We are even justifi ed in calling him a racist, if we use today’s view of racism as discrimination against individuals or groups of people solely based on their race. In my view, however, we should never forget that Kant was, for his day, indeed a champion of human rights. Europe was a place of serfdom, where peasants were treated as the property of the great landown- ers. Kant’s writings did help set in motion the process that we all today have benefi ted from: the philosophical sea change that resulted in the concept of inalienable human rights. So Kant himself may have been locked in the racial big- otry of ignorance common for his day and age, but his ideas of a kingdom of ends in which ev- eryone is treated with respect and dignity have today survived to become a Western political and philosophical ideal. He may fall short of the “minimum qualifi cations” considered necessary for an open-minded thinker today, but he did leave a legacy that can’t be overestimated: the ideal of social and political dignity as a human birthright. That credit should not be taken away from him.
Box 6.3 K A N T , T H E E N L I G H T E N M E N T , A N D R A C I S M
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someone’s services? When you buy your groceries, there usually is some person who bags your items. Truthfully, are you treating that person as a means to get your groceries bagged? Yes, indeed, but not simply as a means; he or she is getting paid, and you presumably don’t treat these workers as though they were put on this earth just to bag your groceries. Everyday life consists of people using other people’s services, and that is just the normal give-and-take of social life. The danger arises if we stop respecting people for what they do and reduce them in our minds to mere tools for our comfort or success. As long as the relationship is reciprocal (you pay for your groceries, and the bagger gets a paycheck), then there is no abuse taking place. Indeed, students use their professors as a means to an end (to get their degree), but the professors rarely feel abused, provided that they receive a salary. Likewise, the professors use students as a means to their ends (to receive that salary), but the professors surely don’t imagine that the students were put on this earth to feed them or pay their mortgage. However, when people truly use others as tools for their own purpose and nothing else, from the phenomenon of “suicide by cop” to sexual abuse and terrorism, we are talking about treating others as a “means to an end only.” Many critics believe that John Stuart Mill was right when he pointed out that Kant, despite his own insistence that consequences are irrelevant for a good will, ended up including a reference to possible consequences in his categorical imperative in the universalization of the maxim: What happens if I do X? However, when we ex- amine Kant’s principle of never treating people simply as a means to an end, we have to conclude that this principle indeed does exclude any consideration of good or bad consequences: Nobody is supposed to reduce another, or themselves, to a mere tool or stepping-stone, regardless of whether it is for a good or a bad purpose, or whether it is based on mutual consent (which is why Kant was also against prostitution). So now we can return to the question raised in Chapter 5 about torturing terrorists to obtain vital information that may save lives. We saw that a utilitarian might agree that under specifi c circumstances it could be the right thing to do. For a Kantian, however, no amount of good consequences would justify the abuse of anyone, including serial killers, enemy POWs, or terrorists. Within a classical Kantian moral system, torture could never be allowed, even if it might save the life of your child, your spouse, your parents, or your country; it is better to suffer with common dignity and respect for other humans than it is to buy the safety and happiness of some with the suffering of others. That doesn’t mean we can’t punish criminals, including terrorists, with impris- onment or even execution, but the purpose would be justice rather than creating good consequences. Indeed, Kant was a strong proponent of capital punishment, and we will take a look at his arguments in Chapter 7 and Chapter 13.
Beings Who Are Things
Any rational being deserves respect. We assume that humans fall into that category, but what if there are rational beings who are not human? It is not unthinkable that humans might encounter extraterrestrials who are rational enough to know math, language, and space science; and how about the possibility of AI, Artifi cial Intelligence? Would Kant respect a thinking android or computer, or a rational alien, or would he advocate
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BE INGS WHO ARE THINGS 299
treating them like things? If these beings are rational, they qualify as full members of our moral universe, and humans have no right to treat them as tools to achieve knowledge or power. Aliens and androids would likewise have no right to cart humans off for medical experiments, because all humans are generally rational beings. There are beings on this earth who are not rational in Kant’s sense of the word— animals, for example. In Grounding he presents his theory in this way:
Beings whose existence depends not on our will but on nature have, nevertheless, if they are not rational beings, only a relative value as means and are therefore called things. On the other hand, rational beings are called persons inasmuch as their nature already marks them out as ends in themselves. . . .
That means that nonhuman animals don’t belong in the moral universe at all; they are classifi ed as things and can be used as a tool by a rational person because ani- mals can’t place a value on something—only humans can do that. And an animal is not worth anything in itself; it has value only if it is wanted for some purpose by a human. If nobody cares about cats, or spotted owls, then they have no value. Is it true, though, that animals can’t place a value on things? Most people with fi rsthand knowledge of animals will report that pets are capable of valuing their owners above all and their food bowl second. (Or is it the other way around?) And animals in the wild place extreme importance on their territory and their young. Many people today categorize animal interests as just different in degree from human interests and not different in kind (Chapter 13). Although Kant and most of his contemporaries (with the exclusion of Bentham) believed that the moral universe is closed to non- human animals, it is just possible today that we not only might include animals as “creatures who deserve respect” but, as you read in Chapter 4, we should also be pre- pared to encounter instances of animal morality . Could the self-sacrifi ce of a baboon to save her tribe from the leopard be the result of a conscious choice? Did Binti Jua, the gorilla who came to the rescue of the little boy at the zoon, consider her options? (See Box 6.4 for further discussion.) Whatever we think now, the day could be near when dolphins, elephants, and the great apes are included in a category of rudimentary rational beings. For our purposes here, we simply should remember that for Kant it was not just a matter of being able to think—one must also be able to show that one has autonomy and can set up universal moral rules for oneself and others; and although certain animals may have some thought capacity, it is doubtful whether they ever can be considered morally autonomous in the Kantian sense of the term. Numerous scholars have pointed out, however, that there is a serious problem with Kant’s own classifi cation of humans as rational beings, for suppose someone who is genetically human can’t think rationally? There are many humans who aren’t good at thinking or can’t think at all because they are infants, toddlers, mentally dis- abled, or in a coma—or have Alzheimer’s. Does that mean that all these people aren’t persons and should be classifi ed as things? As some scholars (such as Peter Singer) have remarked, there are animals who are more like persons (that is, rational beings) than newborn infants or severely mentally disabled humans are. Would Kant really
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say that such humans are no better than things? The trouble is that Kant never made provisions for any such subcategories of “persons” in Grounding . It is either-or. As you may remember from Chapter 1, this is what we call the fallacy of bifurcation, or a false dichotomy: assuming that there are only two options, whereas there may be three or more. And that is precisely what Kant himself realized. There is no denying that problems arise if you divide the world into persons (with rights not to be abused by others) and things (that persons have a right to use). But twelve years after writing Grounding, in his long-awaited The Metaphysics of Morals, Kant addressed the question of an intermediate category: people who have absolute rights as ends in themselves but who also, for various reasons, “belong” to other persons. Kant calls it “the right to a person akin to a right to a thing”—such persons are legitimately treated as if they were possessions, although they cannot be owned as slaves. An exam- ple would be a small child: She is a person with the right to personal freedom; the child’s parents can’t destroy her, even if they brought her into the world; but the child does not have full self-determination either, because she is still regarded as a pseudo-possession of her parents until the day she is grown. (If someone takes her, her parents can demand to have her back.) The parents have a duty to raise the child properly, and the child has no duty to repay them. Similarly, servants of a household belong in the intermediate cat- egory of being pseudo-possessions: They are free persons, but because they have signed contracts they can’t just take off whenever they feel like it, Kant says. On the other hand, they can’t be bought and sold either, because then they would be slaves, and slavery is reducing someone to merely a means to an end. Some scholars believe that with this intermediate category between a person with full freedom and a thing with none, Kant has opened the door for the modern category sometimes called “partial rights”: A being
From the previous chapter you may remember that Descartes didn’t believe animals had any mental activity because, according to his theory, they consisted of matter only. Kant does not deny that nonhuman animals have minds; he just does not believe them to be rational minds but, rather, instinctive—in his own words, “de- pending on nature” ( Grounding ). In The Meta- physics of Morals he explains further: Although animals and humans all have wills that propel them toward their goals, only humans have free choice; animals making choices about what to eat, with whom to mate, and where to sleep don’t make use of moral laws, and so their choice is merely brutish (as some people’s choices of the same type may be). But when a person makes a choice based on a rational
principle of universalizability, then Kant calls it a free choice. Today the issue of animal intelligence is still controversial. Some ethologists (animal behav- iorists) continue to believe that human and non- human animal intelligence are different in kind; others now lean toward the assumption that they are different in degree . Close observations in ex- perimental situations over years of research and coexistence with animals have led many mod- ern biologists and behaviorists to conclude that at least certain animals, such as great apes, dol- phins, and orcas (killer whales), have a rudimen- tary capacity for rational thinking and even for linguistic comprehension (as humans defi ne lan- guage). In Chapter 13 we take a closer look at the issues of animal intelligence and animal rights.
Box 6.4 C A N A N I M A L S T H I N K ?
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BE INGS WHO ARE THINGS 301
who is not a rational, human adult may be granted some rights but may still be regarded as under the guardianship of other humans. Vilifying Kant for poisoning philosophy to- ward the rights of partially rational beings hardly seems fair under these circumstances. But in The Metaphysics of Morals we also hear in no uncertain terms from Kant that ani- mals are not rational and have no rights, because for us to have duties to other beings, they have to be capable of having obligations to us. (See Chapter 13 for a continuation of this debate.) Classifying an animal as a thing seemed reasonable to Kant, but, even so, he was concerned that some readers might take that as permission to treat animals any way they saw fi t, including being cruel to them. Kant was very specifi c about condemning cruelty to animals; however, he took that stance not so much for the sake of the animals themselves as for humans, because someone who hurts animals might easily get used to it and begin to hurt people. It appears that Kant was more right than most of his readers could have known at the time; although Kant is not the fi rst person to have claimed that cruelty to animals may lead to cruelty toward people (St. Thomas Aquinas had said the same thing in the thirteenth century), the depth of the connection became apparent only in the late twentieth century, when criminal profi ling established that just about every serial killer questioned through the late 1990s turned out to have tortured small animals when he was a child. (That investigation focused on male serial killers, since there have been very few female serial murderers so far.) In addition, such individuals would also engage in setting fi res and were chronic bed wetters—a confi guration known as the “Macdonald triad.” That does not mean that a boy who wets his bed, sets fi res, and tortures animals will invariably grow up to be a serial killer, but those behaviors are considered warning signs that should be attended to while the child is still young. The point Kant wanted to make, which criminal profi ling has corroborated, is that desensi- tization to—or even enjoyment of—animal pain can lead to deliberately infl icting pain on human beings. In Kant’s words (from The Metaphysics of Morals ):
It dulls his shared feeling of their pain and so weakens and gradually uproots a natural predisposition that is very serviceable to morality in one’s relations with other men. Man is authorized to kill animals quickly (without pain) and to put them to work that does not strain them beyond their capacities (such work as man himself must submit to). But agonizing physical experiments for the sake of mere speculation, when the end could also be achieved without these, are to be abhorred.
It is interesting that Kant, having over the years acquired the reputation of being insensitive to the plight of animals, himself argued against causing needless pain to them. Contrary to Descartes, Kant never thought animals couldn’t feel pain; he just thought that within the context of human moral issues it was only marginally rel- evant. Some issues are thus resolved in The Metaphysics of Morals, but not all issues. Even so, the idea that rational beings should never be treated merely as means to an end has been a powerful contribution to a world of equality and mutual respect because it is such a remarkable expansion of the moral universe described in previ- ous moral theories, which tended to exclude social groups that somehow weren’t considered quite as valuable as others. Furthermore, Kant placed the foundation of morality solidly with human rationality and not with the state or the church. But for the astute reader it is also interesting to notice that Kant allows for the existence of a “natural predisposition” to avoid causing harm to other human beings. That is what
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you have encountered elsewhere in this book as “moral intuition” or “fellow-feeling,” and Kant is famous for insisting that moral deliberation ought to be exclusively ratio- nal, not emotional or intuitive. But that doesn’t mean that he completely discounted the notion that we have, embedded in us, a reluctance to hurt other humans—which is what social psychologists and neuroscientists have verifi ed recently.
The Kingdom of Ends
That brings us to the third major theme in Kant’s Grounding, the “kingdom of ends.” Applying the categorical imperative is something all rational beings can do—and even if they can’t do it exactly the way Kant uses it, the logic of it should be compelling for all people who can ask themselves, “Would I want everybody to do this?” Kant calls this moral autonomy: The only moral authority that can tell us to do something and not to do something else is our own reason. As we saw previously, if all people follow the same principle and disregard their own personal inclinations, then all will end up following the same good rules, because all have universalized their intention. In such a world, with everyone doing the right thing and nobody abusing anyone else, a new realm will have been created: the kingdom of ends . “Kingdom” poetically describes a community of people, and “ends” indicates that the people treat one another as ends only—as beings who have their own goals in life—never merely as means to other people’s ends. Every time we show respect and consideration for one another, we make the kingdom of ends a little more real. In Kant’s words from Grounding,
By “kingdom” I understand a system of different rational beings through common laws. . . . For all rational beings stand under the law that each of them should treat himself and all others never merely as a means but always at the same time as an end in himself. Hereby arises a systematic union of rational beings through common objective laws, i.e., a king- dom that may be called a kingdom of ends (certainly only an ideal), inasmuch as these laws have in view the very relation of such beings to one another as ends and means. A rational being belongs to the kingdom of ends as a member when he legislates in it universal laws while also himself being subject to these laws. He belongs to it as sovereign, when as legislator he is himself subject to the will of no other. . . . In the kingdom of ends everything has either a price or a dignity. Whatever has a price can be replaced by some- thing else as its equivalent; on the other hand, whatever is above all price, and therefore admits no equivalent, has a dignity.
Here we see how Kant combines the fi rst part of his book, the categorical imperative, with the second part, the idea that nobody should be used merely as a means to an end. People who adhere to the method of the categorical imperative are autonomous lawmakers: They set laws for themselves that, when universalized, become acceptable to every other rational being. When we use that approach, we realize that we can’t allow ourselves to treat others (or let others treat us) as merely a means to an end, but recognize that other people should be treated with respect because they are rational be- ings with dignity, irreplaceable beings. We all belong in the kingdom of ends, the realm of beings with dignity. But whatever doesn’t qualify as rational has a price and can be replaced with a similar item. (That of course means to Kant that any human being has dignity and is irreplaceable, whereas your dog has no dignity and can be replaced.)
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PRIMARY READINGS AND NARRATIVES 303
Some readers of Kant believe that he shows a more humane side in his theory of ends in themselves, and indeed we might take this idea and apply it to the problem of whether to lie to the killer who has come to murder your friend. The categorical imperative tells you to speak the truth always, because then you can’t be blamed for the consequences. But is that really the same as saying we should treat others as ends in themselves? Perhaps there is a subtle difference; if we apply this rule to the killer who is stalking our friend, would we get the same result? Might we not be treating our friend as merely a means to an end if we refuse to lie for her, whether it is for the sake of principle or just so that we can’t be blamed for the consequences? If we are sacrifi cing our friend for the sake of the truth, it might rightfully be said that in such a case we are treating her as a means to an end only. So even within Kant’s own system there are irreconcilable differences. That should not cause us to want to discard his entire theory, however; since the nineteenth century, philosophers have tried to redesign Kant’s ideas to fi t a more perceptive (or, as Kant would say, more lenient) world. Some of those ideas are working quite well—for example, allowing for general exceptions to be built into the categorical imperative itself, and allowing for animals to be considered more rational than Kant ever thought possible.
1. Evaluate the following statement: “Actions are morally good only if they are done because of a good will.” Explain what Kant means by a “good will.” Do you think the statement is correct or incorrect? Explain your position.
2. Analyze the following statement: “Man, and in general every rational being, should be treated as an end in himself, never merely as a means.” What are the moral implications of that statement for humans, as well as nonhumans?
3. Explain Kant’s position on lying: Is it always morally wrong to lie? What are the implications for the question raised in Chapter 5, “Should we lie to Grandma about something if the truth will distress her?”
Primary Readings and Narratives
The fi rst Primary Reading is an excerpt from Kant’s famous Grounding for the Meta- physics of Morals in which he explains the structure of the categorical imperative. The second Primary Reading is an excerpt from Kant’s less frequently quoted book, The Metaphysics of Morals, in which he explains why lying is wrong. The Narratives are all summaries. Two Westerns each explore the concept of doing the right thing as a matter of principle: the famous High Noon, in which the town marshal chooses to face three gunmen alone after having been rejected by the community he is trying to defend, and 3:10 to Yuma, in which a destitute rancher tries to make a fast buck by putting an outlaw on the train to prison, but ends up making a choice about doing the right thing. The third narrative is a summary of the fi lm Abandon Ship about a life- boat full, to the point of sinking, of survivors from a shipwreck. In order for some to survive, others will have to go overboard—but who? The last summary is of Woody Allen’s fi lm Match Point, in which a young man with ambitions resorts to lying to his well-connected wife in order to keep seeing his girlfriend.
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304 CHAPTER 6 US ING YOUR REASON, PART 2 : KANT’S DEONTOLOGY
Grounding for the Metaphysics of Morals
I M M A N U E L K A N T
In this passage Kant introduces the categorical imperative and links it with the concept of the good will as an understanding of doing one’s duty in accordance with reason.
Thus the moral worth of an action does not lie in the effect expected from it nor in any principle of action that needs to borrow its motive from this expected effect. For all these effects (agreeableness of one’s condition and even the furtherance of other people’s hap- piness) could have been brought about also through other causes and would not have required the will of a rational being, in which the highest and unconditioned good can alone be found. Therefore, the preeminent good which is called moral can consist in noth- ing but the representation of the law in itself, and such a representation can admittedly be found only in a rational being insofar as this representation, and not some expected effect, is the determining ground of the will. This good is already present in the person who acts according to this representation, and such good need not be awaited merely from the effect.
But what sort of law can that be the thought of which must determine the will with- out reference to any expected effect, so that the will can be called absolutely good with- out qualifi cation? Since I have deprived the will of every impulse that might arise for it from obeying any particular law, there is nothing left to serve the will as principle except the universal conformity of its actions to law as such, i.e., I should never act except in such a way that I can also will that my maxim should become a universal law. Here mere conformity to law as such (without having as its basis any law determining particular ac- tions) serves the will as principle and must so serve it if duty is not to be a vain delusion and a chimerical concept. The ordinary reason of mankind in its practical judgments agrees completely with this, and always has in view the aforementioned principle.
For example, take this question. When I am in distress, may I make a promise with the intention of not keeping it? I readily distinguish here the two meanings which the question may have; whether making a false promise conforms with prudence or with duty. Doubt- less the former can often be the case. Indeed I clearly see that escape from some present diffi culty by means of such a promise is not enough. In addition I must carefully consider whether from this lie there may later arise far greater inconvenience for me than from what I now try to escape. Furthermore, the consequences of my false promise are not easy to foresee, even with all my supposed cunning; loss of confi dence in me might prove to be far more disadvantageous than the misfortune which I now try to avoid. The more prudent way might be to act according to a universal maxim and to make it a habit not to promise anything without intending to keep it. But that such a maxim is, nevertheless, always based on nothing but a fear of consequences becomes clear to me at once. To be truthful from duty is, however, quite different from being truthful from fear of disadvantageous conse- quences; in the fi rst case the concept of the action itself contains a law for me, while in the second I must fi rst look around elsewhere to see what are the results for me that might be connected with the action. For to deviate from the principle of duty is quite certainly bad;
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but to abandon my maxim of prudence can often be very advantageous for me, though to abide by it is certainly safer. The most direct and infallible way, however, to answer the question as to whether a lying promise accords with duty is to ask myself whether I would really be content if my maxim (of extracting myself from diffi culty by means of a false promise) were to hold as a universal law for myself as well as for others, and could I really say to myself that everyone may promise falsely when he fi nds himself in a diffi culty from which he can fi nd no other way to extricate himself. Then I immediately become aware that I can indeed will the lie but can not at all will a universal law to lie. For by such a law there would really be no promises at all, since in vain would my willing future actions be professed to other people who would not believe what I professed, or if they over-hastily did believe, then they would pay me back in like coin. Therefore, my maxim would neces- sarily destroy itself just as soon as it was made a universal law.
Therefore, I need no fear-reaching acuteness to discern what I have to do in order that my will may be morally good. Inexperienced in the course of the world and inca- pable of being prepared for all its contingencies, I only ask myself whether I can also will that my maxim should become a universal law. If not, then the maxim must be rejected, not because of any disadvantage accruing to me or even to others, but because it cannot be fi tting as a principle in a possible legislation of universal law, and reason exacts from me immediate respect for such legislation. Indeed I have as yet no insight into the grounds of such respect (which the philosopher may investigate). But I at least understand that respect is an estimation of a worth that far outweighs any worth of what is recommended by inclination, and that the necessity of acting from pure respect for the practical law is what constitutes duty, to which every other motive must give way because duty is the condition of a will good in itself, whose worth is above all else.
1. What does Kant mean by a good will?
2. Explain the structure and purpose of the categorical imperative.
3. Can you think of a situation in which it might actually be counterproductive to do a good or a harmless thing if everyone did the same thing? How might Kant respond?
The Metaphysics of Morals
I M M A N U E L K A N T
Excerpt from Book I, Chapter II, 1797.
This book was actually printed separately in two parts but is considered one book today. The fi rst part is The Doctrine of Right, and the second one is The Doctrine of Virtue . This section on lying from The Doctrine of Virtue illustrates Kant’s talent for careful analysis of even an ordinary kind of experience in order to argue his points that you should not
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make choices you couldn’t wish to become a universal law and that you should not make choices that diminish the dignity of others or yourself.
Man’s Duty to Himself Merely as a Moral Being: This duty is opposed to the vices of lying, avarice, and false humility (servility).
On Lying: The greatest violation of man’s duty to himself regarded merely as a moral being (the humanity in his own person) is the contrary of truthfulness, lying (aliud lingua promptum, aliud pectore inclusum gerere) . [“To have one thing shut up in the heart and another ready on the tongue.” Sallust, The War with Catiline X, 5.] In the doctrine of Right an intentional untruth is called a lie only if it violates another’s right; but in ethics, where no authorization is derived from harmlessness, it is clear of itself that no intentional un- truth in the expression of one’s thoughts can refuse this harsh name. For the dishonor (being an object of moral contempt) that accompanies a lie also accompanies a liar like his shadow. A lie can be an external lie ( mendacium externum ) or also an internal lie. By an external lie a man makes himself an object of contempt in the eyes of others; by an internal lie he does what is still worse: He makes himself contemptible in his own eyes and violates the dignity of humanity in his own person. And so, since the harm that can come to other men from lying is not what distinguishes this vice (for if it were, the vice would consist only in violating one’s duty to others), this harm is not taken into account here. Neither is the harm that a liar brings on himself; for then a lie, as a mere error in prudence, would confl ict with the pragmatic maxim, not the moral maxim, and it could not be considered a violation of duty at all. By a lie a man throws away and, as it were, an- nihilates his dignity as a man. A man who does not himself believe what he tells another (even if the other is a merely ideal person) has even less worth than if he were a mere thing; for a thing, because it is something real and given, has the property of being ser- viceable so that another can put it to some use. But communication of one’s thoughts to someone through words that yet (intentionally) contain the contrary of what the speaker thinks on the subject is an end that is directly opposed to the natural purposiveness of the speaker’s capacity to communicate his thoughts, and is thus a renunciation by the speaker of his personality, and such a speaker is a mere deceptive appearance of a man, not a man himself. Truthfulness in one’s declarations is also called honesty and, if the declarations are promises, sincerity; but, more generally, truthfulness is called rectitude.
Lying (in the ethical sense of the word), intentional untruth as such, need not be harmful to others in order to be repudiated; for it would then be a violation of the rights of others. It may be done merely out of frivolity or even good nature; the speaker may even intend to achieve a really good end by it. But his way of pursuing this end is, by its mere form, a crime of a man against his own person and a worthlessness that must make him contemptible in his own eyes.
It is easy to show that man is actually guilty of many inner lies, but it seems more diffi cult to explain how they are possible; for a lie requires a second person whom one in- tends to deceive, whereas to deceive oneself on purpose seems to contain a contradiction.
Man as a moral being ( homo noumenon ) cannot use himself as a natural being ( homo phaenomenon ) as a mere means (a speaking machine), as if his natural being were not bound to the inner end (of communicating thoughts), but is bound to the condition of using himself as a natural being in agreement with the declaration ( declaratio ) of his moral being and is under obligation to himself to truthfulness . Someone tells an inner lie, for example, if he professes belief in a future judge of the world, although he really fi nds
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no such belief within himself but persuades himself that it could do no harm and might even be useful to profess in his thoughts to one who scrutinizes hearts a belief in such a judge, in order to win His favor in case He should exist. Someone also lies if, having no doubt about the existence of this future judge, he still fl atters himself that he inwardly reveres His law, though the only incentive he feels is fear of punishment.
Insincerity is mere lack of conscientiousness, that is, of purity in one’s professions before one’s inner judge, who is thought of as another person when conscientiousness is taken quite strictly; then if someone, from self-love, takes a wish for the deed because he has a really good end in mind, his inner lie, although it is indeed contrary to man’s duty to himself, gets the name of a frailty, as when a lover’s wish to fi nd only good qualities in his beloved blinds him to her obvious faults. But such insincerity in his declarations, which man perpetrates upon himself, still deserves the strongest censure, since it is from such a rotten spot (falsity, which seems to be rooted in human nature itself ) that the evil of untruthfulness spreads into man’s relations with other men as well, once the highest principle of truthfulness has been violated.
Remark: It is noteworthy that the Bible dates the fi rst crime, through which evil entered the world, not from fratricide (Cain’s) but from the fi rst lie (for even nature rises up against fratricide), and calls the author of all evil a liar from the beginning and the father of lies. However, reason can assign no further ground for man’s propensity to hypocrisy (esprit fourbe), although this propensity must have been present before the lie; for an act of freedom cannot (like a natural effect) be deduced and explained in ac- cordance with the natural law of the connection of effects with their causes, all of which are appearances.
Casuistical Questions: Can an untruth from mere politeness (e.g., the “your obedient servant” at the end of a letter) be considered a lie? No one is deceived by it. An author asks one of his readers, “How do you like my work?” One could merely seem to give an answer, by joking about the impropriety of such a question. But who has his wit always ready? The author will take the slightest hesitation in answering as an insult. May one, then, say what is expected of one?
If I say something untrue in more serious matters, having to do with what is mine or yours, must I answer for all the consequences it might have? For example, a householder has ordered his servant to say “not at home” if a certain man asks for him. The servant does this and, as a result, the master slips away and commits a serious crime, which would otherwise have been prevented by the guard sent to arrest him. Who (in accordance with ethical principles) is guilty in this case? Surely the servant, too, who violated a duty to himself by his lie, the results of which his own conscience imputes to him.
1. Why does a liar annihilate his or her own dignity? Is there a connection to the categorical imperative and∕or the theory of respect for persons?
2. What is the difference between an external and an internal lie? Is one more acceptable than the other, according to Kant? And according to you?
3. Discuss Kant’s own “study question,” “Is the servant guilty?” Why? Compare this example with the example of the killer at the door.
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From High Noon to 3:10: Two Deontological Films
The following two narratives are both Westerns; in both fi lms the basic theme is a man who chooses to do the right thing against overwhelming odds, facing a gang of outlaws, all by himself. But otherwise the stories are very different, as are the lead characters. What I suggest you focus on in discussing these two movies is what motivates Marshal Will Kane ( High Noon ) and rancher Dan Evans ( 3:10 to Yuma ), and whether it is ap- propriate to call their commitment “Kantian” in spirit.
C A R L F O R E M A N ( S C R E E N W R I T E R )
F R E D Z I N N E M A N ( D I R E C T O R )
Film, 1952. Summary.
This fi lm may be the most famous Western of all time, and yet it is not a “true” Western. There is very little riding, no troops or Indians, no cattle, no cowboys—but much talk about the right thing to do. This fi lm was made in the early days of McCarthyism in Hollywood, and Fred Zinneman (the director) has admitted that it is an allegory of the general attitude in 1952 Hollywood of turning your back on friends who were accused (mostly falsely) of “un-American” (Communist) activities and who might have needed help. When it was produced, it was not considered to have any potential as a classic, but it has soared in public opinion ever since then. It is a Western—but a Western of a differ- ent sort—a Western about the problems of a budding civilization in the midst of an era of violence. The fi lm also is very well crafted. The amount of time that elapses from the moment Marshal Will Kane realizes he will have to face four gunmen alone because the whole town worries about the consequences of siding with him to the moment the actual gunfi ght takes place is the exact amount of time you spend watching it in the theater or in front of your TV: an hour and a half. The plot is simple. Five years before, Kane brought a killer, Frank Miller, to justice. Miller was sentenced to hang, but “up North they commuted it to life, and now he’s free,” as the judge says. He is coming in on the noon train to have it out with Kane. Word of his intentions comes just as Kane is marrying his Quaker bride in a civil ceremony. He has already given up his job and is leaving town with his new wife when he turns around to face the gunmen coming in on the noon train. His wife, Amy, asks him why he is turning back—he doesn’t have to play the hero for her, she says. He answers, “I haven’t got time to tell you. . . . And if you think I like this, you’re crazy.” In town, Kane tries to get his former deputies to join him, but everyone is afraid of Miller, except the deputy, who is the boyfriend of Helen Ramirez, Kane’s former girl- friend. Helen is the only one who understands Kane’s problem because, as a Mexican, she has always felt like an outcast herself—and besides, she used to be Frank Miller’s girlfriend too. When Amy leaves Kane because she can’t stand the threat of violence, she
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seeks out Helen because she thinks it is because of her that Kane is staying in town. Amy begs Helen to let him go, and when she hears that he isn’t staying because of Helen, she asks, bewildered, what then is making her husband stay. Helen tells her, “If you don’t know, I can’t tell you.” Helen’s boyfriend, the deputy, fi nds Kane and tries to force him to leave town so that he can take over as town marshal. He also asks Kane why he is staying, and all Kane says is, “I don’t know.” Desperate, Kane makes for the little church where the Sunday service is still going on, and we remember that an hour ago he was married in a civil ceremony. The service comes to a stop as he enters, and the minister asks him what could be so important since he didn’t see fi t to be married in church. Kane explains that his wife is a Quaker, and not a member of the town’s Protestant congregation, and he knows he is not a churchgoing man, but he needs help. Some of the same men who were deputies with him when they arrested Miller are attending the service—don’t they feel the call to duty? Democrati- cally, the congregation plunges into a debate: Why is Kane still here if he is no longer marshal? Why hasn’t he arrested the men at the depot? Why must private citizens pitch in every time law enforcement can’t handle the situation? But Kane also has supporters who remember that he cleaned up the town and made it a place fi t for civilized people.
In High Noon (United Artists, 1952), Will Kane (Gary Cooper, left) has just been married and has resigned as marshal of Hadleyville, but a killer he helped put in prison and three other gunmen are now looking for him. He tries to get the townspeople to stand by him the way they did when he captured the killer fi ve years earlier, but now they all turn their backs on him, preferring not to get involved. In this scene a former friend, Herb (James Millican), is backing out of his promise to help Kane, having found out that nobody else is coming along.
NARRATIVE: H I G H N O O N 309
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310 CHAPTER 6 US ING YOUR REASON, PART 2 : KANT’S DEONTOLOGY
In the end, the mayor speaks: We owe Kane a great debt, he says, so we, the citizens, ought to take care of the situation—and Kane ought to get out of town so there will be no bloodshed. Because (and this is obviously the mayor’s real concern) with bloodshed in the streets, investors from up North will shy away from putting money into the town. The support Kane was hoping for evaporates in light of fi nancial concerns. The “good citizens” want Kane to leave town so there will be no deterrence to progress. The former sheriff wants him to leave, saying that keeping the law is an ungrateful business. Everybody wants him to leave, and at the train depot Frank Miller’s three gunmen are wait- ing for the train that will bring Frank. But Kane feels compelled to stay, even with nobody to side with him. The last man to abandon Kane is his friend Herb. When he realizes that it will be just he and Kane against Miller and his gang, he pleads with Kane, “I have a wife and kids—what about my kids?” And Kane responds, “Go home to your kids, Herb.” The train arrives, a gunfi ght ensues in the dusty streets of the town, and two of Frank’s gunmen are killed. In the end, Amy comes to Kane’s rescue and kills the third gunman; Kane kills Miller, and together he and Amy leave town—but not before Kane has thrown his marshal’s star in the dust.
1. What makes Kane stay? Is he serious when he says, “I don’t know”? Why might we say that this is a “Kantian” Western?
2. Is it fair of Kane to place Amy in a situation where she has to give up her own moral principles?
3. What is meant by the line “If you don’t know, I can’t tell you”?
4. How would a utilitarian judge Kane’s feeling of conscience and duty?
5. Are the townspeople who refuse to help primarily deontologists, utilitarians, or ethical egoists?
3:10 to Yuma
J A M E S M A N G O L D ( D I R E C T O R )
H A L S T E D W E L L E S A N D M I C H A E L B R A N D T ( S C R E E N W R I T E R S )
Film, 2007. Summary.
There is more than half a century between High Noon and our second Western, 3:10 to Yuma, but 3:10 is actually a remake of a fi lm from the same decade, the nineteen fi fties—a decade where fi lms often dealt with big moral questions. It opened to enthusiastic re- views in 2007, proclaiming that the Western movie was back! A good plot, well acted, well directed, with an intriguing good guy∕ bad guy dynamic. The fact that it was a
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remake didn’t seem to detract from its freshness. (For those of you who may know the 1957 version, this one is quite different in signifi cant ways that I won’t divulge.) So what was so appealing about the 2007 version? Could it be that both the good guy and the bad guy are sympathetic characters, played by attractive “leading men”? Or that the plot doesn’t go where you think it is going to go? Or perhaps that good Westerns are few and far between? You be the judge of that. 3:10 to Yuma is a tale about right and wrong but also, in a secondary way, about good and evil. It is about a man deciding to do the right thing, fi rst for selfi sh reasons, and then, apparently, just because it’s right. Therefore, we can call it a “Kantian” Western. Dan Evans is a small-time rancher with a wife, two sons, and a ranch outside Bisbee, Arizona. The little family is eking out a miserable existence on land without suffi cient water for their cattle, since the river is being diverted by the big rancher upstream who is offering Evans water rights for the enormous sum of two hundred dollars. All the while, the rancher’s cowboys are harassing the Evanses, stampeding their cattle and burning down their barn. The Evanses are facing impending doom; without the two hundred dollars, they will have to leave their land and everything they have worked and fought for. In addition, Evans is challenged by the fact that he lost a leg in the Civil War—not even in battle, but from “friendly fi re,” something he hopes to keep from his sons. They have very little respect for him as it is, especially the older boy, who is fourteen.
In 3:10 to Yuma (2007) the outlaw Ben Wade (Russell Crowe) is being taken to the Yuma train in Contention by a posse of deputies, but at the end of the trip only small-time rancher Dan Evans (Christian Bale) is determined to see it through and do the right thing. An example of the categorical imperative? You decide.
NARRATIVE: 3 : 1 0 T O Y U M A 311
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312 CHAPTER 6 US ING YOUR REASON, PART 2 : KANT’S DEONTOLOGY
But by chance, Evans gets the opportunity to make two hundred dollars, which would save his land and his cattle: While rounding up his cattle, he and his boys wit- ness a holdup of the stage by a gang of ruthless men who gun down everyone and take the Southern Pacifi c Railroad’s payroll. One man, a bounty hunter hired by the Pinker- ton Agency, survives with a bullet wound to his stomach. The leader of the outlaws scatters Evans’s cattle and takes his horses to prevent anyone from riding for help, but we sense immediately that the gang leader is not without a sense of fairness: He prom- ises to leave the horses on the road where Evans and the boys can get to them. And we learn that this unusual bandit is the legendary Ben Wade, a man who has escaped justice over and over again. Dan and the boys manage to recapture their horses, and they transport the bounty hunter to Bisbee so he can get medical attention. Meanwhile, Wade and the gang have made it to Bisbee, where they report that they have witnessed the holdup. While the mar- shal rides off toward the holdup spot, the gang members ride off in the opposite direction with the loot—all except Wade, who fi nds time to have a sexual interlude with a saloon girl he recognizes from another town. He turns out to be a silver-tongued romantic, utterly confi dent in himself and his own ability to get out of any situation. But his esca- pade costs him dearly: The marshal has encountered the bounty hunter, Dan Evans, and the boys, and realizes that the man who reported the holdup was one of Wade’s gang members—and that Wade is still in town. So Wade is arrested, just like that. But now the local marshal has a tiger by the tail, because once Wade’s gang fi nds out he is captured, they’re bound to come after him. So the marshal and his deputies hatch a plan to get Wade to justice, and railroad representative Grayson Butterfi eld promises two hundred dollars to any man who will help out. Evans, seeing an end to his fi nancial worries, volunteers to go along with Butterfi eld, the local veterinarian who doubles as a doctor, the bounty hunter who feels well enough to ride, and one of the rancher’s cow- boys on the cross-country trail to the town of Contention, where they will put Ben Wade on the train to the Yuma State Prison. There he will be given a perfunctory trial before he is hanged. The plan consists in a switcheroo to fool Wade’s gang: They will make a big show out of putting Wade on a stagecoach with guards. Then, when the stage has reached Dan Evans’s place outside town, they’ll feign a wheel accident and, in the confusion, switch Wade with one of their own men and spirit Wade away to Dan’s ranch. The switch hap- pens seamlessly, the stage takes off again with the fake “Wade” on board, and Wade, in handcuffs, is now a prisoner∕dinner guest at the Evans place. During dinner he charms Alice, Dan’s wife, and looks utterly heroic to Dan’s older son, William. Wade also manages to hide a dinner fork up his sleeve. Although Dan is disturbed by the fascination Alice and the boys have for Wade, he seems to accept, meekly, that he is not a hero to his own boys. Dan himself fi nds Wade intriguing, and deserving of respect, because earlier, Wade paid him for the afternoon he and his boys spent looking for their horses and rounding up their cattle a second time. Dan tells his boys to stay behind with their mother, and rides off with the little posse and Wade toward Contention, hoping to earn the money that will save his ranch. On the trail they are joined by William, who has run away from home to join the posse—and we sense it is also because he feels drawn to the magnetism of Ben Wade. Even so, William
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comes to the aid of his father and the rest of the little posse when Wade makes a move to escape, so his loyalty is not in question. A strange camaraderie develops between Evans and Wade. They don’t understand each other’s motives, but they like to talk. Wade derides Evans for believing in a moral code, but Evans realizes that the outlaw Wade has his own very strong values: He has a sense of fair- ness, and he will not suffer stupidity, even in his own gang. But Wade emphasizes to Dan that he never does anything unless it benefi ts himself. Dan can expect no human kindness from Wade. The outlaw proves himself to be a formidable ally as well as a formidable adver- sary: When a band of Apache Indians attacks in the middle of the night, Wade’s battle expe- rience saves them—but with the fork he has stolen, he also kills the deputized cowboy (who, we learn, was the man who set fi re to Dan’s barn), takes his gun, and succeeds in throwing the bounty hunter off a cliff before he takes off, still handcuffed. The remainder of the posse follows his tracks up into the mountains, through a newly blasted tunnel where the railroad is being pushed through, to the railroad workers’ camp. They arrive just in time to rescue Wade from a painful death at the hands of an irate railroad guard who has recognized Wade as his brother’s murderer. But during their escape the doctor is shot and dies. As they approach Contention, the danger of a showdown becomes clear: Wade expects his men to show up any minute, because they will by now have seen through the stagecoach ruse (and we, the audience, have already seen them kill the guard and the “fake” Wade, burning them alive inside the stagecoach). The remaining posse— Butterfi eld, Dan, and William—take Wade to the hotel to wait for the train, and Butter- fi eld goes to the local marshal’s offi ce for reinforcements. Three or four well-armed law-enforcement offi cers arrive at the hotel, and it looks as if Evans and Butterfi eld will succeed in putting Wade on the train. But now Wade’s gang rides into town, led by his second-in-command, Charlie Prince, a mean-spirited, sadistic character who has 100 percent loyalty for Wade and for nobody else. Prince promises a reward to anyone in town who will kill a member of the posse. The marshal assesses the odds and backs down, telling his deputies that their job guarding Wade isn’t worth dying for. But as they exit the hotel, Prince and the gang gun them down in cold blood. Butterfi eld himself has no intention of dying, so he also leaves, and hides out in the hotel. Evans fi nds himself reassessing the situation: Rain clouds are forming over the Bis- bee range, which means that his ranch will get water. That means he really won’t need the two hundred dollars anymore, so there is no fi nancial reason for Evans to try to get Wade on the train. Now Wade starts bargaining with Dan: He will offer him one thou- sand dollars in cash, from the stagecoach robbery, if he will let Wade go. For one brief moment Dan considers the offer; then he declines. Wade asks Dan why. Why is it so important to him to keep a promise when everyone else has chickened out? Dan’s answer is that when you’ve been in the war and the only action you’ve seen is a retreat, and then you lose your leg to friendly fi re, that isn’t much of a story to tell your boys. Dan, fearing that he won’t make it out alive, sends William away, telling him to remember that his father was the only one who stood up for what’s right. Dan also calls Butterfi eld back and makes him promise that if he doesn’t make it back to Bisbee, then his family will receive a thousand dollars as a reward from the railroad. Meanwhile, Wade is watching, and we get a sense that he actually cares whether Dan lives or dies. He makes it clear to Dan that he has been imprisoned in Yuma twice before, and escaped.
NARRATIVE: 3 : 1 0 T O Y U M A 313
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314 CHAPTER 6 US ING YOUR REASON, PART 2 : KANT’S DEONTOLOGY
It is 3:00, and the train will be in shortly. Wade’s gang is spread out from the hotel to the train and the cattle pens. William is waiting by the cattle pens with a rifl e. Surpris- ingly, Wade now seems to cooperate, running and dodging bullets with Dan to get to the station, over rooftops, down alleys, along the cattle pens, until they get to the station— but the train is late! What will happen? Will Wade get on the train of his own volition? Will Dan survive to get home to his family and the ranch? And what happens to William? As the train pulls up, the gang is approaching . . . You’ll have to watch the ending for yourself!
1. Why is Dan Evans doing what he is doing? Is he just trying to impress his son, or does he have another motive? Why is this called a “Kantian” Western in the introduction?
2. Compare Evans’s choice to stand alone, doing what is right, with Will Kane’s ( High Noon ). Is there a difference? Explain.
3. Why do you think Wade is cooperating with Evans toward his own imprisonment? If you have seen the fi lm, fi ll in the blanks and evaluate all Wade’s actions, including the moment when he whistles for his horse.
4. Would you say that Evans’s boys have good reason to be proud of their father? Why or why not? Did Evans make the right choice? Does it depend on whether he lives or dies? What does Evans mean by saying to Wade that until now, he hasn’t had a good story to tell his sons? Explain.
5. A “spoiler alert”: In a scene that takes the audience aback, Wade guns down members of his own gang. Remember Wade’s comment that he will not put up with fools—might it be that the outlaw Wade has principles? Can a truly selfi sh person have principles?
R I C H A R D S A L E ( S C R E E N W R I T E R A N D D I R E C T O R )
Film, 1957. Summary.
Based on a true story, this fi lm opens during the aftermath of an explosion on a luxury liner far from shore. The ship sank so quickly that no S.O.S. signal was sent, and no lifeboats were lowered. Now, some twenty survivors are clinging to the one lifeboat that was launched. It is the captain’s dinghy, and it can hold fourteen people maximum. The captain is dying, and he transfers his authority to his fi rst offi cer, Alec Holmes, admonish- ing him to “save as many as you can.” Holmes is hopeful that help may arrive, but when he realizes that no S.O.S. has been sent, he knows that their only option is to row for the coast of Africa, fi fteen hundred miles away. Kelly, an offi cer and a friend of Holmes,
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Facing a hard decision, Captain Holmes (Tyrone Power) surveys the situation after the shipwreck in Abandon Ship! (Columbia Pictures, 1957). Soon he must decide which passengers are fi t to row to Africa and which must be thrown overboard, sacrifi ced so that the others have a chance to survive. The story of Abandon Ship! is an illustration of a clash between utilitarian and deontological views.
himself mortally wounded, tells Holmes that he won’t be able to make it if he tries to keep everyone alive—he must “evict some tenants” in order to save others. When Holmes wants to break the tedium by having the survivors tell their stories, Kelly advises him not to get to know everyone too well—because Kelly knows that sooner or later, Holmes will have to choose who will live and who will die, and such a decision will be much harder if everyone has bonded. To set an example, Kelly throws himself overboard, because he would only be a hindrance to the survival of the “fi ttest.” Holmes at fi rst will hear nothing of this plan, but when a storm approaches, he realizes that he must choose between the death of them all and the death of those who already are hurt and can’t pull their weight. When desperate passengers plead with him to at least draw lots, or save the women and children, or call for volunteers, he refuses to consider all approaches other than his own choice: The survivors must be able to row and bail and must be strong enough to stay alive. Under protest and at gunpoint, the others comply by forcing the wounded pas- sengers and crewmen, who are wearing life preservers, overboard, setting them adrift in shark-infested waters. One professor remarks, “This is an interesting moral problem,” and insists that it is barbarism—the civilized thing to do would be to choose to die together. Another passenger, moved by seeing a young boy lose both his parents to Holmes’s weeding-out process, breaks out a knife and tries to force Holmes to turn around and
NARRATIVE: A B A N D O N S H I P ! 315
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316 CHAPTER 6 US ING YOUR REASON, PART 2 : KANT’S DEONTOLOGY
look for the ones that were adrift. Holmes kills the man in self-defense, but not before the man succeeds in wounding Holmes with his knife. Now the storm hits, and all through the night the remaining passengers and crew struggle to keep afl oat. When dawn breaks, and the storm dies down, everyone on board has survived, and there is a general feeling of goodwill toward Holmes—but he is suffering severely from his knife wound. Now Holmes applies his rule to himself and slips overboard so as not to be a burden, but the others rescue him and bring him back on board. Just as the passengers are getting ready to thank him for his foresight and effort, a ship is spotted on the horizon. Miraculously, help has arrived, “too soon,” as a feisty woman passenger remarks—too soon for everybody to have decided to support Holmes in his plan to force some of the passengers overboard. The people on the boat are rescued (it is hinted that some of the evicted passengers are rescued too), and Holmes goes on trial for murder. The fi lm concludes with the question, “If you had been on the jury, would you have found Holmes guilty or innocent?”
1. Can this fi lm be seen as a defense of utilitarianism! Explain why or why not.
2. Do you agree that it would have been a more civilized thing for all of the passengers to die together?
3. Would you have convicted Holmes of murder? (In actual fact he was convicted, but he received a short sentence because of the unusual circumstances.)
4. How might Ayn Rand have evaluated Holmes’s solution?
5. Can you think of another way of solving Holmes’s problem?
6. What was Holmes’s intention? Might a Kantian accept that as morally good?
W O O D Y A L L E N ( D I R E C T O R A N D S C R E E N W R I T E R )
Film, 2005. Summary.
The fi lm Match Point, a term borrowed from tennis, where it indicates the point at which a game might end, is primarily about luck . To be sure, Lady Luck was not one of Kant’s primary interests, but the main character in Match Point, Chris Wilton, epito- mizes what Kant thought was wrong about lying: He lies to save his own hide, even if he knows that what he is doing is wrong. This is, in essence, a basic story about someone who lies to get out of trouble and lives with one idea in mind: to look out for number one. So this fi lm might also be used in Chapter 4 to illustrate fundamental selfi shness. And I need to issue a “spoiler alert” at this point: I will be revealing elements of the ending in this summary.
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The fi lm opens, in Chris’s voice, with the following message, and with an image of a tennis ball teetering on the top of the net:
The man who said “I’d rather be lucky than good” saw deeply into life. People are afraid to face how great a part of life is dependent on luck. It’s scary to think so much is outside one’s control. There are moments in a match when the ball hits the top of the net and for a split second it can either go forward or fall back. With a little luck it goes forward and you win. Or maybe it doesn’t and you lose.
We’ll see a similar image much later in the fi lm, and we’ll get the meaning. Chris is a British former tennis champion who is now a tennis coach at a fancy Lon- don club. He comes from a working-class background and has ambitions to do something good, to make a difference, but above all to leave his modest background behind and work his way out of poverty. One of Chris’s clients is young, wealthy Tom Hewett, and they soon strike up a friendship, sharing a love for tennis and for the opera. Chris is invited to the opera and meets Tom’s family, including his sister Chloe. Friendship develops rapidly, and Chris is invited to the family’s country estate that same weekend. Feelings are already developing between him and Chloe, but it is obvious that Chloe is more in love with him than he is with her. As luck will have it, one of the other weekend guests is a young, sassy, sexy woman from America, Nola Rice. When Chris encounters her, sparks immediately fl y
In the fi lm Match Point (DreamWorks, 2005) young, ambitious former tennis pro, Chris ( Jonathan Rhys Meyers, left) wants to marry into a rich and powerful family, but he falls in love with Nola (Scarlett Johansson), the fi ancée of his girlfriend’s brother (Matthew Goode). Here Chris meets Nola for the fi rst time. Since he is not about to give up on either his wealthy girlfriend Chloe or beautiful Nola, he marries Chloe and entangles himself in a web of lies so he can keep dating Nola. Eventually he starts lying to Nola, too.
NARRATIVE: M A T C H P O I N T 317
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318 CHAPTER 6 US ING YOUR REASON, PART 2 : KANT’S DEONTOLOGY
between them. (Chris reveals himself to be something of a cad already at this point.) But Tom arrives and introduces Nola, an actress from Colorado, as his fi ancée. Chloe asks her father to fi nd Chris a job in the family business, and he does, seeing in Chris a future son-in-law. Chloe’s mother is disturbed by Chris’s lack of breeding and is downright opposed to Nola coming into the family, but the father shows more under- standing, seeing the potential for happiness as well as for good business. The two couples start double-dating, but soon Chris doesn’t want to do anything with Chloe unless Nola and Tom are there too. At one of their dinners Chris expresses his philosophy: Life has no purpose, no design; life is on this planet by chance, and luck is the only thing he believes in. Chloe, on the other hand, believes in hard work. A chance meeting between Chris and Nola—she is on her way to an audition— develops into a confi dential talk, and it is obvious that Chris is extremely attracted to Nola. During a weekend at the Hewitt estate, Tom and Chloe’s mother starts ragging on Nola for wanting to be an actress. Nola bolts from the living room out into the garden in the rain, and Chris follows her in sympathy. Sympathy turns to passion, and they make love in the fi eld of grain. After that incident, Nola is distant—she regrets what she has done, and focuses on the fact that they are about to become brother- and sister-in-law. Chris’s ambitions are about to be realized—he and Chloe do get married, and Hewitt fi nds them a spectacular apartment with a view of the River Thames and the houses of Parliament. Chloe wants to become pregnant as soon as possible, which puts a strain on their sex life, and Chris starts dreaming about Nola—Tom has broken up with her and is dating someone else. And Nola has disappeared. Months later, Chloe is still not pregnant, and Chris runs into Nola at the Tate Mod- ern art gallery. At the fi rst opportunity, he goes to her apartment, where they resume their brief affair. From now on Chris sees Nola as often as he can—during lunch breaks, after meetings, before work, after work—and lies to Chloe about where he has been. When a friend shows up and catches Chris in a lie, he begins to realize that the situation is getting complicated. Chloe suspects nothing yet, but is upset that he is absent so much. Nola is getting upset that he still hasn’t told Chloe that he is leaving her—and, of course, we know that he has no intention of doing so; his life with a fancy job and a fancy apart- ment is much too attractive for him to divorce his wife for Nola. But now Nola gets pregnant, and life becomes hell for Chris, because she demands that he tell his wife; if he doesn’t, Nola will: Chris begins to lie not only to his wife but also to his lover: He claims that he will tell his wife and get a divorce, but he has no intention of leaving the upscale life he has gotten used to. But Chloe is beginning to suspect that he is having an affair. She asks him, “Don’t you love me anymore?” and with a hint of veracity, he says to her, “I feel so guilty.” She thinks he feels guilty be- cause she isn’t pregnant yet, but we, the audience, know that even if he feels guilty, he has no intention of doing the right thing. And that is precisely what Nola wants him to do—the “right thing.” For her, it would mean leaving his wife, marrying her, and rais- ing their child together. (She has no intention of getting an abortion—she has already had two.) When he tells her he is going away to Greece with his wife and her family but she catches him in town, things come to a head. Screaming “Liar!” at him, she makes a scene
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outside his workplace. He manages to put her in a cab and take her home, where she threatens to tell Chloe. Chris promises Nola that now he’ll do the right thing. The “right thing” turns out to mean something quite different for Chris than for Nola: He goes into his father-in-law’s gun collection, steals a shotgun with shells, and puts it in his tennis bag. He arranges with Chloe to meet her that evening to attend a musical (which he hates), then calls Nola to tell her he has good news and will come by after work. With the shotgun in his tennis bag, he goes to Nola’s apartment building before she returns from work: Under the pretext of checking her television, he persuades Nola’s elderly neighbor Mrs. Eastby to let him in, and the old lady suspects no foul play until he turns the shotgun on her and shoots her down. Then he ransacks the apartment and takes her medication and jewelry, making it look like a drug-related robbery. His nerves are about to fail him, but he keeps going. He waits for Nola on the landing. When she steps out of the elevator, he shoots and kills her at point-blank range, and leaves as fast as he can, going straight to the musical with Chloe. Sure enough, next day the newspapers are full of the story of the double murder. The police theorize that it was a drug-related robbery gone bad and that Nola must have just gotten in the way. Chris manages to put the shotgun back and dispose of the shells, and he throws the jewelry and the medication into the river. For one moment the camera follows one item, Mrs. Eastby’s ring, which doesn’t fall into the river but instead teeters on the top of the fence, like a tennis ball . . . Luck is about to happen. But is it good or bad luck? After fi nding Nola’s diary, the police question Chris, who tells the offi cers that “it might not be the most honorable thing to cheat on your wife, but that doesn’t make me a murderer.” He begs them not to tell his in-laws, and they seem sympathetic, but the detective has a hunch—that Chris is the murderer. I will leave the fi nal wrap-up for you to experience for yourself: Will Chloe get preg- nant? Will there be any justice for Nola and Mrs. Eastby? Will Chris have to pay for his crimes and his selfi shness? Which way will the irony cut?
1. Is this a realistic fi lm? Is it a tragedy? Is it a comedy? What is the “moral of this story”?
2. What would Kant say is wrong with Chris’s choice of actions? Would the fi lmmaker, Woody Allen (who wrote and directed the movie), agree? Why or why not?
3. What, in your opinion, would have been “the right thing” for Chris to do? Would it depend on the outcome? Explain why or why not.
4. Is there such a thing as a justifi able lie? Might such a question apply to Chris? Explain.
5. If one doesn’t think there is a higher power, and one believes that life on earth is here by accident, does that mean one has no moral obligations—that anything is permitted? Explain.
6. What did Sophocles mean by saying that not being born may be the greatest boon of all?
7. The fi lm seems to indicate that “luck” is opposed to “justice.” Do you think that is true? Explain.
NARRATIVE: M A T C H P O I N T 319
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