"You shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you odd." ~Flannery O'Connor

Friday, December 01, 2006

Educated moral imbecility

Sorry about not posting yesterday, folks. My job's hours being unpredictable, I didn't get home till four this morning. (That's one of the many reasons I'm always looking for a better job. Friends please take note.) Since I was too tired to write, I contented myself with perusing my favorite blogs by PhDs. I thereby found instances of a phenonomenon that used to bedevil me during my glorious days as a professor: the moral fallacies of PhDs. While it's hardly news to anybody that PhDs are no wiser in moral and spiritual matters than less privileged folk, I continue to be struck by how commonly one encounters outright moral imbecility in people who ought to know better. Still, it's some comfort that other PhDs can and do expose them. Here I want to draw your attention to two instances.

In a post entitled Moral Reasoning and the Fallacy of False Cause, Dr. Scott Carson notes how depressingly common utilitarianism is even among students. Of course the students get it from our culture, which in turn harbors it in no small measure because of the writings of moral philosophers, most of whom are the dreaded dead, white males. Scott writes:

The English philosopher Bernard Williams once critiqued utilitarianism by telling a story along the following lines. Consider a man who is hiking in the jungles of some Central American military dictatorship when he suddenly finds himself in a clearing where there is a village. The local military commander has rounded up 20 villagers and is preparing to execute them one by one in order to make instill fear and obedience in the others, but when he sees the hiker he says to him: "I will offer you the opportunity to shoot one of these villagers yourself, and then I will let the others go free. If you prefer not to shoot any yourself, I will just go ahead and execute all 20, as I originally planned." Suppose this hiker is a pacifist, to whom violence of any kind is abhorrent. What is he to do? Williams claims that a utilitarian in this situation would argue that it is morally obligatory upon the hiker to shoot somebody himself, since that will spare the lives off 19 others, whereas if he shoots no one, 20 people will die. Williams says that this is problematic, since it has the effect of eliminating the military commander's moral autonomy.

As a critique of utilitarianism it is not bad, but there is some wiggle room for the utilitarian, since he might be able to argue that adherence to a nonviolent principle is one of the hiker's highest values, or something along those lines. But as an example of some pretty bad moral reasoning it's a great illustration of the fallacy of the false cause. We're supposed to believe that if the hiker chooses to shoot no one, then the hiker will somehow be morally responsible for the 20 deaths that follow when the military commander goes ahead with his plans. The first time I read this argument by Williams I thought to myself that it was not going to cut much ice against the utilitarian, because it seemed to me to be something of a straw man: who on earth would seriously maintain that the 20 deaths due to the military commander's orders are the moral responsibility of the hiker who has chosen to shoot no one? Imagine my surprise, then, when I began teaching this text in my ethics classes and found that, year after year, a majority of students consistently maintained that it was the fault of the hiker if 20 people died because of his choice not to shoot anybody. Not only did a majority of students think that, but strong arguments against that idea had no effect on their opinion.

As Scott goes on to show, this sort of problem is not merely fodder for unthreatening philosophy classes. The same kind of utilitarianism affects how we approach the biggest external threat to our civilization: Islamic militancy. Thus it's often said by Muslims and the Western left that, when Muslims kill or riot as a protest against this or that critical statement by a Western public figure, it is that figure and, by extension, our rotten imperialistic society that is to blame. Therefore, if we don't mute our criticism of Islam, we're morally responsible for the ugly reaction to it. Of course nobody would suggest handing out to Christians a pass similar to the one Muslims are granted thereby, and I've written about that double standard before. But when any sort of serious effort to justify the double standard is made, what one sees is a kind of reflex utilitarianism.

Sometimes called "consequentialism," a term coined by the late Catholic philosopher Elizabeth Anscombe, utilitarianism's core idea is that the primary rule for judging actions is whether or not they maximize net utility in their consequences. Thus if, on balance, the probable consequences of a given action would somehow be "better" than those of the available alternatives would be, then other things being equal, that action is right and the alternatives wrong. Of course that doesn't tell us exactly what our standard of better and worse should be, and utilitarians have often disagreed about what it should be. But if minimizing violence is higher on on your scale of values than aligning with those who are, in fact, correct, then truth-telling will always have to take a back seat to keeping down the casualty rate. And those who don't share that scale of values are to be considered blameworthy when they behave accordingly, even if they are not the ones doing the killing or rioting and wouldn't react to relevantly similar provocation that way themselves.

Scott is of course correct in identifying "the fallacy of false cause" in such moral reasoning, which in my view barely rises to a level of critical thought that could qualify as reasoning. But it's very common, and what makes it so plausible to so many is its implicit utilitarianism. Now I have found that, once utilitarianism is made explicit and brought up for critical reflection, most people end up questioning if not abandoning it altogether. For it requires that actions be morally assessed from a global, impersonal point of view that is both unattainable in principle and would be question-begging even if it were attainable.

It is unattainable in principle because, save only in the smallest and least controversial sorts of cases, we cannot know all we would need to know in order to make the relevant and necessary calculations of utility. How can we possibly know that it would be "better" to shoot one villager oneself than to refuse and thereby allow others to shoot twenty? In the grander scheme of things, the integrity one shows by refusing might be better for humanity as well as oneself. But utilitarianism is also irremediably question-begging because there is no way, in utilitarian terms, to justify the criteria of utility one employs. Those have to be taken as givens, but in the controversial cases the problem is often precisely what the given "pre-moral" goods ought to be. Certain other philosophies, such as the natural-law approach that Catholicism has done the most to develop, at least have more effective answers to that question.

One might well sum up the problem with utilitarianism by saying that it's a heresy: it takes one aspect of the truth, which is that we must often assess proposed courses of action in terms of their probable consequences, and makes it the unique and supreme criterion of moral judgment. But sometimes one finds that PhDs don't even rise to that level of error.

In an erudite rant entitled Putting the "Psycho" in Psychoblogging, Dr. Robert Godwin delightfully exposes the problems with the reflex worldview of one of his colleagues. That worldview is worth exposing for the trash it is because it's so common on secular academia, where I came of age physically and intellectually. I'm sure you'll enjoy it as much as I did. As a way to discredit moral imbecility, it's more effective then abstract moral philosophy.
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