Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Human Society in Ethics and Politics, Chapter III

Chapter III (pages 44-50), “Morality as a Means”

Though there are various ethical codes, people do not believe that one is just as good as another. Ethics cannot be reduced to the admonition to do what the ethical code of your community recommends. This realization does not rule out the view that ethics consists of (everywhere) following the moral code of my community – many of the theologically inclined take this approach. There are conflicting theologies, however, so philosophically minded people still need a reason (beyond proclaimed revelation) to prefer one moral code to another. An appeal to the priority of individual conscience suffers from the same detriment, given that consciences vary.

Rules such as “thou shalt not kill” are very coarse, and admit some exceptions – though people might disagree about when homicide is justifiable. It seems that the only resolution is to posit some end that behavior should serve. Behavior that serves a good end is then proper behavior. The utilitarians take this approach, where good behavior is that which serves a useful end; further, for the utilitarians, the useful end is the greatest happiness. But their consequentialist approach can be adopted even if the goal of happiness is replaced with some alternative criterion. Most ethical codes, perhaps implicitly, are of this nature. Breaking a taboo is wrong because bad consequences will ensue. (Later [p. 50], Russell notes that some taboos [such as that against masturbation] outlive the belief in the dreaded consequences that once were associated with their violation.) Being meek will lead to inheriting the earth. Even those codes that assert divine revelation as their basis often provide additional consequential arguments. If not, the codes could state the opposite, requiring murder as much as prohibiting it. Theologians assert that divine decrees are good, and this assertion indicates that goodness is a more primitive concept for them than is divine promulgation. “God could not have enjoined [required] murder, since such a decree would have had evil consequences [p. 48].” Aquinas (consequently!) defends Christian morality through utilitarian arguments.

The Stoics and Kant both argued that virtue was an end in itself, and not desirable only because it served other desirable ends. For the Stoics, adverse conditions were those best suited to promoting virtue. Nevertheless, Stoic leaders such as Marcus Aurelius did not seek out adverse circumstances for their subjects. Instead, Aurelius, for instance, labored intensely to ensure his subjects’ happiness, even though his philosophy claimed that happiness was immaterial. Kant thought that a good deed done to promote some end (other than being virtuous itself) was not praiseworthy. Helping someone because you like him is morally indifferent, but helping someone you despise because the virtuous act consists of such help is laudable. Nevertheless, Kant holds out the prospect of an eternal afterlife where good people will be rewarded with happiness. “If he really believed what he thinks he believes, he would not regard heaven as a place where the good are happy, but as a place where they have never-ending opportunities of doing kindnesses to people whom they dislike [p. 49].”

Russell concludes by adopting (somewhat less-than-wholeheartedly) the consequentialist approach. Some ends are good, others are bad. Proper behavior is that which promotes, on net, desirable consequences. “If this view is accepted, the next step must be to investigate what can be meant by ‘good’ and ‘bad’ [p. 50].”

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