Showing posts with label utilitarianism. Show all posts
Showing posts with label utilitarianism. Show all posts

Thursday, 29 May 2014

What Inspires My Theology? Part I: Grace

See Introduction here.

Whilst I think I came closer than most, it is hard to become Christian for purely intellectual reasons. This is because Christianity is not primarily about conveying a cognitive content; its message can only with approximations be put into propositions. Christianity has as its cognitive content Jesus Christ, and as any biographer knows, converting a person into words is not just difficult, it is impossible. For me, that non-intellectual reason was the central Christian concept of grace. I quoted the full transcript of the testimony I gave when I was baptised in a previous blog post, and a section of it I can transcribe here:

"There have been many times these past few months when the significance of grace has hit me – a power that reduced me to gasps and wowing. The universe is a rather large place, and I am rather small. So to have the same person who made all that existence has to offer care about me, was a laughable proposition. That the almighty God who powers the stars, upholds the world by His Word and keeps ever atom in place would care to know me? How silly!

Unless it’s true. I have a very hard time grappling with what it means to be forgiven by God sometimes. God actually knows me, and I thought that would be enough to put any sane person off! But instead of removing me, instead of deleting me from existence, that He would care so much for us that He would confine Himself to flesh, give us the everlasting truth and humble Himself further to hang helplessly and painfully on a cross? There are no words for that.

Well, that’s peachy. I think I’m great, and God thinks highly of me, too, right? By no means! Until I grasped that grace was required I am not worthy, I was not God’s own. And it has made all the difference. Grace sets the tone for everything I do. Grace properly understood, lights my day with the Lord, frees me from my transgressions, uncovers my wrongdoings and alleviates my worries. God’s gift in the death of Christ affects my life like no other event in history, because the death of God’s Son is not trivial.

And that would be enough. That would be more than enough. But it’s not all. Forgiveness bestowed upon me despite the blackness of my heart frees me from resentment against others too, for how could I hold their sin accountable if God does not consider mine? Brothers and sisters, if we would punish for a penny, why should God not punish us for the whole pound? I am forgiven, so I cannot help but forgive. I am loved, so I am to love. That is the Gospel in me."

That was quite an eloquent way of putting it, but I did not explain on that day the particular path that had led me to have, to this day, such a grace-centred approach to theology. At its heart, of course, it is because I experienced grace and found it to be a good of inestimable wealth. It is because I recognised a dual problem in myself: I did not do what I thought the right thing was, and so I needed forgiveness, and I did not think I was capable of doing the right thing - not because of physical incapacity (because "should" implies "[physically] can") but because I was weak of will.

My parents know I am fairly rotten in a moral sense because they have to live with me. Others, however, thought I was a decent enough person. This was no-where near enough, because I was not a decent-arian, I was a utilitarian. This is crucial to understand: utilitarians are often pressed with what is known as the demandingness objection, which goes that utilitarianism cannot be correct because it demands too much of people. As Famine, Affluence and Morality (a famous essay in applied ethics) argues, one cannot justify spending an amount of money on oneself unless one is improving one's well-being comparably to how much somebody else could benefit from it.

Let me illustrate this. I carry round in my wallet a card, a cut-out from the back of one of Caritas' Project Compassion donation boxes which tells me what money can do if donated to Caritas: $5 could buy a chicken for a children's centre in Mozambique to raise and sell for food, medical supplies and school uniforms. $10 could provide a family with a water filter to access clean, safe water and reduce waterborne diseases in Cambodia. And so forth, up until $250. Since the benefit someone else can get from $5 is more than I would get from, say, buying one of those ridiculously priced coffees with a macaroon on the side, it would be wrong for me to spend the money on myself, rather than donating it to the work done in Mozambique. Of course, there comes some point where spending it on myself really is better, but chances are that comes when I am spending the money on my survival, rather than my pleasure.

Yet, whilst I do not buy ridiculously priced coffees for simple lack of money in general, I would indulge other whims where I could. My conscience, informed as it was by utilitarian precepts, was aghast at this. Probably not as much as I should have been, because I had not realised quite how much utilitarianism demanded of me, but I was nonetheless horrified at my actions. The problem was that I felt powerless to change it. Not powerless in the sense that someone forced at gun point is powerless, but rather incapable because of something within. I have never found anyone else explain it better than my dear St Paul:

I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. Now if I do what I do not want, I agree that the law is good. So then it is no longer I that do it, but sin which dwells within me. For I know that nothing good dwells within me, that is, in my flesh. I can will what is right, but I cannot do it. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do." (Romans 7:15-19)

In becoming a Christian, then, I found the grace of God in twofold way: not only the forgiveness of wrongdoings past, but also the promise of transformation. The former is important, yet the latter is perhaps even more so, since without transformation the forgiveness would need to be replicated ad infinitum and ad nauseum.

It was equally important, and I think this is the major thrust of my thinking on grace, that it be entirely and wholly a free gift. Of course, if it is earned, it is no longer grace, but desert. Which is why St Paul also says: "But if it is by grace, it is no longer on the basis of works; otherwise grace would no longer be grace." (Rom. 11:6) This, I think, is crucial. The Christian idea of grace requires a radical rethinking of what can and cannot be considered desert. Certainly, when Catholics talk about their own theological version of desert, that is, merit, they mean it in the way St Augustine used it, and the Council of Trent elaborated dogmatically on: "The merits of our good works are gifts of the divine goodness." Or as the Missal puts it: "in crowning their merits you are crowning your own gifts." We see clearly how the Christian perspective on desert is that, in a way, it involves some doublethink. God must bestow grace in order that there be any good, and yet, God freely associates humans with the works arising from that grace, counting it as deserved.

Grace forgives, justifies, sanctifies, and all this completely freely. In a shortened form, I had already discussed this in Time in the Evangelical Church. Perhaps some would think that such a high view of sin and grace, with such a strong sense of culpability, would lead me to affirm with Martin Luther the doctrine of sola fide, with its essentially cognitive sense of faith. However, I was convicted of the fact that grace required something of me, not so much in return so as to repay a debt, for I knew that such a feat was not even possible to contemplate, but merely as a response to grace and of grace.

In other words, I was convinced that grace came as a package deal, and that if I was not transformed, nor was I forgiven. Bonhoeffer, in a book I discovered later (and wrote about here) writes of the fake sort of grace, "cheap grace":

"Cheap grace is that grace we bestow upon ourselves...It means forgiveness of sins as a general truth; it means God’s love as merely a Christian idea of God. Those who affirm it have already had their sins forgiven. The church that indulges in this doctrine of grace hereby confers such grace upon itself."

It is entirely true that in a more complete sense, it was the challenge of John Henry Newman that led me to become Catholic. Still, in a smaller sense, it was that I was only really being fed cheap grace as a Protestant, yet affirming costly grace in my innermost, that led to my openness for me to explore what I then thought of as the most distasteful form of Christianity, if it could be called that.

This doctrine of grace has, I think, powerful implications. It means I can write posts like "Loving the Lovely and Unlovely", which certainly sounds nice, but is really based on the premise that when one is loving another person, one must reject all notions of desert, ignore whether the person could be said to "deserve" love or not. This is simply based on the conviction that God loved me, and I did not deserve it, so I cannot count desert as relevant for someone else. It affects my political philosophy, where again I consider grace to be a central and guiding principle, and why I can write with general approval about the philosophy of John Rawls, or at least his second principle of justice, and link this directly to grace in the aptly titled essay "John Rawls and Grace." It has many other implications, and in fact, I think that because "God is love", grace lies at the very heart of who God is, not just what God does.

Tuesday, 22 April 2014

In Defence of Christian Vegetarianism? Introduction

For a very long time in human history, there have been people who did not eat animal flesh. The ancient Greeks referred to vegetarianism as "ἀποχὴ ἐμψύχων", or "abstinence from beings with a soul", and one of the more famous Greeks, Pythagoras, was a vegetarian. In the East, both the Hindu and Buddhist traditions have strong vegetarian tendencies. Among the Christian saints, St John Chrysostom and St Basil the Great seem to have been vegetarians. More generally among Christians, St Augustine of Hippo (certainly not a vegetarian himself) notes that Christians who abstain from meat are "without number" (cf. On the Morals of the Catholic Church).

Still, neither humanity nor Christianity have by any means been traditionally vegetarian. Even the many other Christians who abstained from meat have typically not done so for ethical reasons, but as part of some form of asceticism. Nonetheless, it is necessary to examine our practices, even those which have been practised for thousands of years, and ask: is this ethical?

Having thought about this issue on occasion for about a month now, I think there are about twelve arguments of varying strength for being a vegetarian, and about a dozen objections to Christians being vegetarians, each of which is worthy of note, but none of which are, in the end, successful. Not all the arguments for Christian vegetarianism are explicitly Christian, and I would not consider them all to be entirely convincing - for instance, I do not believe in human rights, so I am far from accepting the "extension" of these to animals. However, since talk of human rights is frequently found in Christian parlance, I have included it in the list. On the other side, I doubt most Christians will readily accept explicitly utilitarian arguments, even though I tend to find these more convincing than the rights-based ones.

Allow me to briefly summarize my position: the ideal for human life is to live in a world without death, both of animals and humans, where we live at peace with each other, creation, and God. However, whilst the coming kingdom of Heaven is like that, this is not the world we live in yet. Right now, there is death, pain and suffering, and the way we live our lives must recognize this fact. However, where possible, we should try and minimize unnecessary death and pain. Hence, we should avoid eating meat. More generally, however, our food (and other) choices should take into consideration the amount of suffering that is required to produce that food, and the meat industry, in general, produces more suffering than can be justified. It is therefore not right to eat meat, since this constitutes formal cooperation with the evil of that suffering. This is a position taken in light of current meat-rearing practices, and cannot necessarily be projected onto the past.

Friday, 21 March 2014

Epistemology is Prior to Ethics

I am currently doing a course about writing from a philosophical perspective on social ethics, and it is beginning by the usual, and frankly overdone, introduction to different ethical theories. There is consequentialism (used essentially synonymously with utilitarianism, which has a few brands that are mentioned), deontology (of which nobody but Kant is mentioned), virtue ethics (of which it seems Aristotle is apparently the only expert, despite giants in 20th century ethics being virtue ethicists) and the occasional mention of other theories – sometimes it is pragmatic ethics, this time it was feminist ethics.

Now, when feminist ethics was introduced, I found it bizarre because it was more of a critique, instead of a form of ethics in itself. It seemed essentially an aporia, a negative philosophy, attacking traditional ethical theories and replacing them (when they actually got that far) with a brand of situational ethics that seemed to either subtly re-introduce essentially the same values, or otherwise was so unspecific that it did not give any practical guidance. The feminist ethicists challenge the older theories as being products of patriarchy, enshrining male-dominated values into theories - which is all well and good, but what next? The tutor said that they rejected absolutes, but like most rejection of absolutes, I suspect what that means is that there is some absolute that is meant to trump the others.

Sitting later on in the day in a talk where I was challenged to not view things solely from within the context of my own mix of cultures (it was in the context of missions), I was reminded of that critique. Originally I had discarded it for the most part - sexist as the major thinkers behind these ethical theories might be, their arguments required no assumption of male superiority, for the most part, and in fact, results we consider should have been condemned can largely be ironed out now. Sure, Aristotle tried to argue that slavery could be moral, and yet it has not been missed by later minds reading Aristotle's ethics that the justification for slavery sits uneasy with his philosophy, suggesting that Aristotle was perhaps trying to argue himself out of the position that seemed to be demanded by his system. No doubt Kant would be considered sexist by today's standards, but his arguments concern things related to men and women: freedom, self-determination and autonomy, rationality, etc. And so on with other philosophers in these ethical traditions.

No, it was not the feminist critique itself that was convincing, as a feminist critique, but as a reminder of how our rationality is shaped by culture, and particularly so in the case of ethics. Let me consider utilitarianism, the system I know the best of the three (which is not that well regardless): it makes no sexist assumptions, and in fact, it was the utilitarians that originally alerted the world to another form of unjustified discrimination, that of speciesism (the favouring of one species over another without justification). It seems to require no assumptions which are not common-sensical, no unjustified discrimination...and yet it arose when and where it did for the most obvious of reasons. Britain was the standard of empiricism in the world, and utilitarianism is, at its root, simply the empiricist approach to ethics.

A similar story can be told about Kantian ethics and its backdrop in rationalist Germany. Kant's theory of deontological ethics is a masterpiece in rationalist ethics (even if I do think he makes a mis-step, pointed out by Bernard Williams). The point that becomes increasingly clear is not that culture informs, perhaps even dictates, our values – that point has been made over and over again, and is said better by MacIntyre than by the feminist ethicists – but that our cultural backdrop effectively dictates what one considers a rational approach to ethics. In short, before we worry about cultural subjectivity in virtues, we must be concerned with being objective in the case of epistemology. In short, epistemology is prior to ethics, and epistemology is not any less bound to particular traditions, particular cultures and particular people.

What does it mean for me to say that I think utilitarianism, generalized as I explained elsewhere, provides a coherent theoretical framework for ethical deliberation? Perhaps it means nothing more than that I am a sort of empiricist (generalized, again, as Lonergan has done). It is not in the slightest bit surprising, once I think about it, that my system of ethics depends explicitly and implicitly on foundations given by my epistemology.

The first question that arises is whether or not this is a problem. Certainly, living in a cultural context and studying in an academic context tightly linked to the analytical and empiricist traditions, I have epistemological views that seem foundational to my ethical views – but this is only a problem if there is some invalid step between epistemology and ethics, some sort of know-do gap that I am unaware of. Hence, whilst it is certainly the case that there is links between the two fields, it appears that it only implies that to be correct in epistemology means to be well-guided to pursue ethics.

Maybe this is only an issue for persons like myself, but there is another issue that arises: coherence. Suppose I know that ethical proposition E is true. If my epistemological theory implies an ethical theory that dictates that E is not the case, then I have evidence that my epistemological theory is flawed. For most people, epistemology to ethics is a one way street, but as a Christian reliabilist, I consider myself justified in knowing ethical propositions, in a sense, before elaborating an epistemological theory. Or in other words, whilst most people have no conceivable way of knowing E, and so no way of using E to falsify their theory, I do.

These questions, and various others, lead me to think that I should hold my tongue for the most part on ethical issues until I explore ways of getting around or accounting for the subjectivity inherent in developing an ethical theory as a particular person, in a particular cultural setting, at a particular time and place. Alasdair MacIntyre's work is probably the best place to start.

Friday, 17 January 2014

Issues with Utilitarianism

In the past few weeks, I have been developing an ethical theory that works within a fundamentally utilitarian framework (some of which can be seen in the past weeks' blog posts), but instead of equating utility to happiness or pleasure (as in classical utilitarianism) or preference (as in modern preference utilitarianism), I gave a somewhat vague idea of utility as the valuable, which would include things that are self-evidently valuable (like happiness or pleasure) as well as values which might be considered to be theological (like the value of life, for instance). I have begun to refer to this conception of utility as "generalized utility" or GU.

In generalizing utility this way, I think I have overcome one of the emotional objections to utilitarianism, which is the charge of shallowness. "Surely ethics is more than mere pleasure or mere happiness" the objection goes, and with Generalized Utility Utilitarianism (GUU), indeed it is. Still, there are other problems of a general sort, and I will refer to them as the problem of finitude, embodiment and depersonalization.

The last of these I will not comment on much here because I think a proper application of GUU solves it, though I will mention what it is: in classical utilitarianism, people are not valuable in themselves, but they are valuable because of their function as sentient beings. This produces some problems, most of which can be dismissed by classical utilitarians as moral squeamishness, but others jar our moral intuitions to such an extent that due consideration must be given. John Rawls points out one such consequence, that of telishment, which takes its root from the word punishment. The idea is this: if punishment for some crime, say rape, is to be justified in utilitarian grounds, then it must be the case that it maximizes utility overall. However, if such a thing as punishment (the inflicting of some suffering to reduce suffering overall, in utilitarian terms) is to be justified, then in some cases scapegoating innocent people will also work. If punishment is to act as a deterrence, then it only matters if the person is not responsible in the case that others know, so if nobody knows that someone else is in fact responsible for the rape, then telishment can act as a deterrent in much the same way. In short, the utilitarian framework justifies punishment only insofar as it deters others from committing the crime, not as an act of justice or of retribution. There is no room for people "getting what they deserve" in this classical utilitarian framework, unless it happens to be the case that it maximizes happiness, which leads to punishment-as-deterrence being non-specific to who actually committed the crime.

As I said, GUU seems to solve this problem quite comfortably, even if it can be criticized that it does so too comfortably: other values other than happiness make up Generalized Utility, and so Rawls' criticism falls flat if one were to add some value like justice to the mix.

The other two issues are far more substantial: embodiment refers to the fact that humans are situated in one place, at one time, living in concrete circumstances, such as particular familial and societal bonds. On the classical utilitarian view, absolute impartiality is demanded, so the difference between one's child and a stranger, or a baby child and a pig, is simply their capacity for utility. Failure to recognize this reality may lead to ethically erroneous results from utilitarianism.

Finitude is the term I will use to refer to the epistemic problem inherent in utilitarianism: an action that might usually have good results leads ultimately to a bad result, and so the person is said to have done the wrong action. Whilst a smile is usually harmless or brightens another person's day, for instance, smiling at some particular person may, in an unusual case, make them consider that everyone else must be much happier than they, and so lead to a cycle of self-harm and eventual suicide. Clearly a negative result came about from what is generally considered a good action, but nonetheless, since negative results ensued from the particular action of smiling at that particular person, the action must be condemned as morally wrong. How was the smiling person to know that their action would lead to a negative result? The essence of the problem of finitude is that the consequences of one's actions are ultimately unknown, and so the utilitarian is left with rules of thumb for acting, at best, and incurs the risk of doing wrong all the time.

These are real problems, even if in some sense they are not absolute: one can easily say that indeed, our intuitions about what follows from the fact of our concrete circumstances as individuals (as opposed to utility-containers) are flawed, and it is the case that one's duties towards one's consideration of one's children, as well as consideration of strangers, should be the same, that there is no moral difference between feeding one's child and the child of a stranger. The infamous ethicist Peter Singer seems to take this view in his well-known paper "Famine, Affluence and Morality", and his discussion of the drowning child story (as well as talk of the so-called "expanding circle") show that he at least cares little for geographical closeness. Considering this line of reasoning, the problem of embodiment is a form of the demandingness objection.

The finitude problem is also not absolute, in the sense that it is practical and not theoretical - the arguments for GUU could succeed without the practical capacity of actually being able to determine right from wrong in any given case. If that is the case, then one remains with the crucial question of trying to understand how to act morally, and then if the finitude problem proves unresolvable, then we are left conclusively in the dark, having proven that we cannot know what to do, morally speaking.

And yet, I do need to answer these objections, because GUU must result in, to put if quiantly, some sort of set of "family values", where my child and someone else's is counted differently, as well as being at least semi-practical in answering questions of "what ought I do?" In fact, just as with Rawls' telishment objection, I think family values can be incorporated into GUU. The more values get added to the calculation, however, the more difficult it becomes to solve the epistemic finitude problem, and here I am currently left to flail my arms, suggesting tentatively that a sort of rule GUU be used at present. Except, I cannot see how one is meant to justify that step in theoretical terms: if I really should maximize the good, then surely following some rules all the time will lead to actions which must be condemned. I cannot foresee how to solve the finitude problem.

Wednesday, 8 January 2014

Why I am a Utilitarian and a Catholic

For a blogpost titled for what I am, it might be odd to start with what I am not. I am not an ethicist. The only reason I know anything about ethics is that ethics deals with how one ought to act, and I, like everyone else, have to act in some way or another. I would like to think that I have as much ethical expertise as business professionals have mathematical expertise: not that much, but enough to do their jobs. Some sort of ethical knowledge is necessary for humans, which are generally moral agents, and therefore I must be acquainted with ethical precepts to do “my job.” But I am not an ethicist.

I have often said that utilitarianism is the only potential candidate for a secular theory of ethics, a position I have held for many years, even when I was an atheist, even when I was willing to act in
Henry Sidgwick, often held
to be the greatest utilitarian.
accordance with my utilitarian values. Utilitarianism is, I think, the first and only truly empiricist theory of ethics, and I would defend it thus: I perceive self-evidently that pleasure is better than pain, indeed, that pleasure is good (hence pleasurable) and pain is bad. I infer that pleasure is better than pain for all sentient beings. I draw the conclusion, then, that what is right is that there be more pleasure and less pain, and finally, that an action is right when it maximises pleasure and minimises pain.

This reasoning solves what I will refer to as the “value problem” (how to jump from a set of empirical data to a value) by empiricist means: I know pleasure is valuable because I experience pleasure as good. It has a positive phenomenal quality. I should note that pleasure is being used in a pseudo-technical sense, because I do not necessarily mean simple pleasures (like eating a good piece of chocolate) but holistic pleasure (which might include reading a good book, or beating a personal best in the pool, or discovering some new fact about the universe). The reverse is true for justifying that pain is bad. This seems to be a solution to the value problem, and if one supposes that other beings are also capable of experiencing pleasure and pain, then I think an objective moral duty follows: ceteris paribus, one must increase pleasure and decrease pain.1

When I became a Christian, and more importantly, when I became (of all stripes of Christian) a Catholic, I had to re-evaluate my position. Nonetheless, the argument that I have proposed for utilitarianism does not become unsound (supposing it was sound in the first place) simply because of the large set of other justified beliefs I now had.2 None of these other beliefs negate the truth of the empirical premise (that pleasure has positive phenomenal qualities, and pain has bad) or the assumption that other sentient creatures are capable of experiencing pain and pleasure. Still, the Church believes in moral rights and wrongs that do not make sense on a utilitarian framework – in most of those cases, the Church is closer to our natural moral intuitions than utilitarian theory is. How was I to make sense of this?

Since I am not an ethicist, and because utilitarian theory and Christian ethics accord on plenty of points, it took me a while to even bother to try and solve this problem. I told everyone that I was a virtue ethicist, although I half meant that I held to the virtue of maximising the good, which is a very utilitarian way of thinking about virtue ethics.

The solution I propose to harmonise both positions seems to me to be remarkably simple, and maybe somebody came up with it before me, even though I did not take it consciously from anywhere else. Because I study mathematics, and because utilitarianism lends itself naturally to discussions of moral calculus, this solution might sound overly mathematical and complicated, but the principle is very simple: experience shows that pleasure is an intrinsic good. What being a Catholic adds is consideration of other intrinsic goods. Being Catholic does not so much negate the previous solution to the value problem that utilitarianism offers, it expands it, and in many cases, it may well overshadow the value given to pleasure.

Take the almost canonical example to illustrate the non-intuitive aspects of utilitarianism, the fat man on the bridge who could be pushed over to stop a train and save the lives of a group of five people working on the train rail tracks: utilitarian theory says that pushing over this “innocent” bystander is the morally obligatory act – not only justifiable, but morally obligatory. It is a simple calculation, ignoring for a moment variables such as capacity of happiness of each person: killing one saves five. Easy as that. I would have nodded my head at this morally non-intuitive result, all the more happy to be accepting the logical conclusion of an argument without reference to how I feel about it.

The difference being a Catholic changes is not to devalue pleasure (or utility, or happiness, etc.) but to value human life. Perhaps it might be objected “but that was the problem, one life for the sake of five”, except that sort of calculation only works for finite values on human life. Suppose human life were to be valued infinitely. Then the moral calculus makes no sense, the set of allowable transfinite calculations does not include operations like subtraction to yield a useful quantity for moral calculus.3

Were this a proper article, I would be obliged to discuss and work out how theoretical calculations could be computed in light of these difficulties. However, my purpose is more conservative: to explain both my utilitarianism, duly modified to incorporate newly found truths, with an ethical system that seems opposed to it. Unless unassailable difficulties arise which I cannot foresee, I will remain comfortable in this position as an orthodox Catholic who accepts the basic utilitarian argument.

1 I am aware that pleasure and pain are related, but not mere opposites, and so the moral calculus may need some more thought and refinement, that is, decreasing pain and increasing pleasure may, in some rare cases, pull in different directions, and in such cases the principle is inconclusive. I am also aware that situations where some pain leads to greater pleasure are not entirely clear on this basic principle. Ask me, if you want to know about my solutions to these problems.

2 One thing that did change is that, as beings who will have an eternal future, the moral calculation would have to include the afterlife. But that is readily understood in terms of utilitarian theory, and it still leaves (indeed, probably exasperates) the question of why some things were wrong in an of themselves.

3 If I were talking about a ratio, then I might be able to do the calculation, using l'Hôpital's rule, which some high school students and all first year mathematicians learn about. But that would complicate the otherwise simple point.