Dialling 911 to get your ethics? Stop right there.

Peter Cresswell's picture
Submitted by Peter Cresswell on Thu, 2006-02-23 19:17

University ethics classes and late-night bull sessions are replete with discussions of hypothetical and unikely moral dilemmas. Whose responsibility is an abandoned baby in the woods? Should I dive into a turbulent river to save a dying woman? What should I do if I my boat sinks and I wash up on a desert island only to stumble across a locked but well-stocked hut -- can I break in and use the food and shelter? What if there are two if us in a lifeboat but only food for one? What if (for a dose of humour) we're a brain in a vat driving a runaway trolley down a rail line with with only two forks with five people standing on one and nine on the other but... Etc. Etc. Ad nauseum.

You get the picture. Bogus dilemmas and fantastic situations discussed as if such things are the whole of ethics. They're not. One is invited to draw the conclusion from these discussions that life is as contingent as these situations describe; that general principles are useless for living; that life is simply a succession of emergencies and lifeboat situations with which we're presented and from which we need to somehow extricate ourselves. It isn't. If it were -- if life was just a series of emergencies -- then for a start we wouldn't have the concept of 'emergency' to describe such out-of-the-ordinary situations; and nor would we be able to function or to plan ahead.

Generally, the number-one task that faces us in emergencies is to get the hell out of them with ourselves and our loved ones intact -- there's not much in that on which to found a system of ethics. As Ayn Rand says in her article 'The Ethics of Emergencies,' "The fact is that men do not live in lifeboats-and that a lifeboat is not the place on which to base one's metaphysics."

If normal daily life was truly as contingent as the moral dilemmas suggest, then we'd be justified in declaring like Job that the universe is against us and devising moral principles or any system of ethics for such a universe would be pointless, since any crisis could emerge at any moment to knock our principles into a cocked hat.

If we did that we'd be foolish. Moral dilemmas are not the basis on which to build and establish any system of ethics -- they may help us to understand the context within our ethics work successfully, or to perhaps to discover the hierarchical structure of our ethical system, but they are not the place from which to begin devising such a system. A proper ethics looks at goals or values, and the long-range actions and virtues needed to achieve them. Lifeboat situations and the short-term actions needed to deal with them form only a very small subset of such a science.

From Peter Cresswell's blog Not PC


Utility's...Arithmetic-Utilitarianism

Rowlf's picture

No, it was not an 'ad hominem'; it was a logical argument implying that I induced the last line of your responding post...before you sent it.

"It's simple arithmetic [I'm not petty on typos]. Heartless, but that's the way ethics should be."

"...should be..."? Really? I'd ask how you determined the 'should' part, but, I don't think this is the place to debate the ethical utility (or worth) of any of the various versions of Utilitarianism.

Suffice to say that we shall stay disagreed from here on out...re the subject of morality/ethics...and all implied 'shoulds'. Ie: no point in continuing this. --- Maybe another subject...another time.

P.S: Your phrasing of 'valuing' ONLY in terms of 'feeling' or 'psychological fact' shows that we're not on the same page in terms of context re O'ism's definition/meaning of 'value.' Hence, expect a lot of arguments (from others) based on mis-understandings. --- Best of Luck, though.

>>Indeed, I'd say that the

Utility Belt's picture

>>Indeed, I'd say that the one finding the point debateable may not have the 'loved ones' around that debater much longer...assuming they had any to begin with, of course.

Is that an ad hominem in your pocket, or are you just pleased to see me?

I will elaborate on my original point. Most people, myself of course included, feel that their loved ones are more valuable than strangers. They are indeed more valuable, to them. This is a psychological fact. It does not mean that they are, in fact, any more valuable than other people.

If there were a man, who found himself in a situation such that he had to choose between saving the life of his wife and 2 children, or the lives of four strangers, he should choose the latter option. 4 is greater than 3. It's simple artithmetic. Heartless, but that's the way ethics should be.

'Utility' logic

Rowlf's picture

To a point (re the 'lab' comment), I agree with your (and Frizzy's) characterization of the usefulness of such hypotheticals. Not to the point of creating/'eliciting' an ethics per se , but, pointing out some conundrums that really, properly (as in 'paradox' puzzles), need to be addressed...one way or another...re an application (or pointing out the irrelevence) OF an established ethics

O-t-other-h, I agree with Ciro re the USUAL 'reasons' such hypo's are not only brought up, but really, inordinately focused upon.

However, my main point here is your quote "...one's loved ones should be protected over and above strangers,...is debateable at best."

That such is 'debateable' is itself an ethical/moral ('meta'-, if you wish, but, ntl, still self-referential within THAT philosophic-category) point which shows where one's basic ethics premises already are. --- I think that each of the 2 groups of 'loved ones' on each side of the debate may view their representative debater quite differently than the other group views theirs. Indeed, I'd say that the one finding the point debateable may not have the 'loved ones' around that debater much longer...assuming they had any to begin with, of course.

Frizzy logic.

Utility Belt's picture

Frizzy is correct. Hypothetical situations are the laboratories of ethics. They may be unnatural and unlikely to ever happen, but that's the whole point. They're controlled conditions under which you can examine the differences between ethical situations and see if they hold up under pressure.

Of course you shouldn't try and build a moral code entirely based on emergencies. But woe betide you if your moral system doesn't handle extreme situations. It's no good saying "Generally, the number-one task that faces us in emergencies is to get the hell out of them with ourselves and our loved ones intact", because for one thing, most hypothetical moral dilemmas aren't like that, and secondly, that statement is based on the moral point that one's loved ones should be protected over and above strangers, which is debateable at best.

 Moral dilemmas are not the

Ciro D Agostino's picture

 

PC:Moral dilemmas are not the basis on which to build and establish any system of ethics--they may help us to understand the context within our ethics work successfully, or to perhaps to discover the hierarchical structure of our ethical system

 

Mr. Cresswell, I agree! Moral dilemma are, and have been, only used for those reasons, but then, once we have a better understanding of our hierarchical structure ethical system, we make the appropriate adjustment, if an adjustment is needed. I don’t know any ethical system based on moral dilemmas alone.

 

CD

 

 

 

Ciro D'Agostino

Ethics is ethics.

Frizzy's picture

I thought people derived and decide their ethics (consciously and without direct conscious thought) before they need to apply their ethics for a given situation. The situation is unlikely to influence ethics, but the situation will elicit use of ethics.

For the regular everyday situations, most peoples ethics are in agreement, i.e. you will see little difference between a Christian, Muslim, Jew, atheist etc... given a specific "home" or "work environment" ethical scenario. The reason for using extremely unlikely situations (or fictional) is to be able to see contrast between peoples ethics systems, and help one decide for themself if they see a contradiction in the specific way they define their ethics.

It might be a fictional situation to you, but it does not mean that your ethics system cannot tell you right or wrong for that particular thought experiment.

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