Ethics: notes

I’ve had philosophy courses before. A “Philosophy of Religion” course in 1995 completely dismantled in 5 minutes my then strong belief in the fine tuning argument of God’s existence (the Anthropic Principle) — in fact, it wasn’t even treated as a contender since it’s so clearly flawed. A “Philosophy of Science” course in 1996 disabused me of the notion that Science is a clean and tidy pursuit directed by facts of nature. And “Women’s Studies” and “Black Studies” courses helped me see how much my views of the world, and the USA in particular, are coloured by privilege. I never did have a course in ethics, however. Now that I am reading up on the subject (because I am reflecting on “the ethics of research in music generation” … more on that below) it seems to me to be as basic to philosophy as water is to life.

Ethics, or moral philosophy, deals with how humans should behave (normative ethics), and the nature of moral judgement (metaethics). Moral philosophy strikes at the heart of what it means (or not) to say something is “good”, and how one may (or not) claim it to be “true”. These are, maybe more than any other, fundamental questions about human existence. They have remained relevant since the ancient Greeks and before. And the questions are still not settled — which may be more of a testament to the conditions of human existence and the imperfection of language, than anything to do with philosophy being a flawed method for seeking truth and testing claims.

Anyhow, over the past few weeks I have been reading about ethics in preparation to write a case study for a manuscript. I am looking at the ethical problems with work that builds statistical models of music transcriptions in order to generate more like it. Put that way, it doesn’t seem such behaviour is particularly “bad” — but this can be a problem with language. One can also describe such research as forcing wholly unqualified participants into a community. Or, exploiting a collective resource in ways that were not intended by the community. There’s also arguments that the research aims may not be “bad”, but that the research could lead to “bad” things, e.g., musicians losing work, music becoming even more under-valued, etc. (There’s also legal implications, but that’s a question for law and not ethics.)

So far, I have read three texts: D. Robinson and C. Garratt, “Introducing Ethics: A Graphic Guide“, 2005; S. Blackburn, “Ethics: A Very Short Introduction” (2003); and H. J. Gensler, “Ethics: A contemporary introduction“, 1998. Each one has it’s merits. Robinson and Garratt’s illustrated guide gives a quick overview of the variety of questions in moral philosophy, and a chronological review of the many schools of thought from the Greek stoics to post-modernism. Blackburn provides a nice introduction to ethics, but casts aside the chronological approach for one addressing the skeptic’s claim that Ethics is impossible (we cannot agree). Gensler’s work goes deeper than the other two texts, and shows strong insight into the varieties of views of ethics.

Gensler’s book discusses several views of ethics and metaethics. He discusses the merits and problems with the following theories of ethics:

  1. Cultural relativism: What is “good” is defined by the majority in a society. Just do that which the majority approves of.
  2. Subjectivism: What is “good” is defined by my likes and feelings. Just do that which you feel is good.
  3. Idealism: What is “good” is that which one would like were they fully informed and impartial in their concern about everyone. Just do that which such an “ideal observer” would do.
  4. Supernaturalism: What is “good” is that which God desires. Just do what God wills.
  5. Intuitionism: The term “good” is undefinable, but there are objective moral truths. Just follow your moral intuition.
  6. Emotivism: The term “good” is just an exclamation of emotion. Moral statements are not genuine truth claims. Just follow your feelings.
  7. Prescriptivism: Moral judgements aren’t literaly true or false. Instead, what one “ought to do” is a prescription of what everyone should do in similar cases (universal). Use moral reasonsing to emphasise consistency.
  8. Consequentialism: Do that which has the best consequences, regardless of what that is.
  9. Nonconsequentialism: Some things are bad because they are, not because of their consequences. There are certain duties everyone ought to follow.

Gensler devotes several chapters to discussing consistency principles, and its many properties. He claims that consistency is fundamental to moral rationality. The “four basic consistency principles” he presents are:

  1. logicality: consistency of logic in beliefs
  2. ends-means: consistency in will, keeping the “means in harmony with our ends”
  3. conscientiousness: consistency between moral beliefs and actions and desires
  4. impartiality: consistency of evaluations in similar conditions regardless of individuals involved.

He derives the following four “derivative principles” from these:

  1. Golden rule: “Treat others only as you consent to being treated in the same situation”
  2. self-regard: “Treat yourself only as you’re willing to have others treat themselves in the same situation”
  3. future-regard: “Treat yourself (in the future) only as you’re willing to have been treated by yourself (in the past)”
  4. Universal law: “Act only as you’re willing for anyone to act in the same situation, regardless of imagined variations of time and person”

What I have really come to appreciate from this reading is how clear the pitfall of language becomes. For instance, Matthew 7:12 in the King James version of the Bible gives a version of the Golden Rule:

Therefore all things whatsoever ye would that men should do to you:
do ye even so to them: for this is the law and the prophets

As stated, this has the following problem: it permits a sadomasochist to humiliate and demoralise others. It also tells a hospital patient who wants their appendix removed to remove the surgeon’s appendix. It’s the law! (God is not a good logician, and doesn’t appreciate the distinction between the law and what is good. Why He chose flawed human language to reveal Hisself to His creation is another strange mystery.) The Golden Rule formulated by Gensler (“Treat others only as you consent to being treated in the same situation”) asks one to ponder a hypothetical situation as they are now, and not as they would be in that situation. An example Gensler gives is an adult watching a child about to stick a knife in an outlet. Imagining myself as the child, I don’t desire to be spanked (or electrocuted). So spanking is against the Biblical version of the Golden Rule unless I want to be spanked as an adult. However, knowing the situation as an adult, knowing the consequences of sticking a knife in the socket, I would then consent as a child to have the shock of being spanked rather than the shock of electricity. (I’m not entirely sure I agree with this, and looking around I can see that Gensler’s statement of the Golden Rule has its criticisms. For instance, what does he mean by “consent”?)

Anyhow, the end of the text synthesizes all the ideas together in a chapter discussing abortion. Gensler makes an argument that in order to be consistent in our moral rationality, one must be against abortion. His argument goes as follows:

  1. “If you’re consistent and think abortion is normally permissible, then you’ll consent to the idea of your having been aborted in normal circumstances.”
  2. “You don’t consent to the idea of your having been aborted in normal circumstances.”
  3. Therefore, “If you’re consistent, then you won’t think that abortion is normally permissible.”

The first premise results from Gensler’s derivative consistency principle, the Golden rule, which he derives as follows:

  1. “If you are consistent and think that it would be all right for someone to do A to X, then you will think that it would be all right for someone to do A to you in similar circumstances.”
  2. If you are consistent and think it will be all right for someone to do A to you in similar circumstances, then you will consent to the idea of someone doing A to you in similar circumstances.”
  3. “”If you are consistent and think that it would be all right to do A to X, then you will consent to the idea of someone doing A to you in similar circumstances.”

The truth of the second premise in his argument depends on the individual. If both premises are true, then the third follows. Gensler illustrates this with an interesting hypothetical situation. Consider a sadist pregnant woman who injects herself with a drug that will not harm her but make the fetus blind for the rest of their life. Would I think it right, and consent to, that being done to me when I was a fetus? Now consider the drug is one that causes death then and there instead. Would I think it right, and consent to, that being done to me when I was a fetus? If at some stage of development one’s answer to the first question is yes, and the second is no, then one is not thinking consistently. One cannot reject the blindness drug but accept the abortion drug and stay consistent.

One aspect of this argument that I find neat is that it doesn’t turn on the problematic definition of “human being”. However, it’s got its share of problems, and Gensler even admits it “leaves some of the details fuzzy.” A minor problem is that if I had a choice to be brought into the world under the care of a sadist mother or to be aborted, I would definitely choose the latter because of what I know now (one of the notions that Gensler emphasises is important about his formulation of the Golden Rule). Consider instead that the mother is not a sadist, but for some reason injected herself with the blindness drug because she believes that is best way for her child to live in the world. Would I then say this is wrong, or that I do not consent to it? Who am I to say that experiencing the world being blind is deficient or incomplete? Hence, I am cannot outright reject consent of being injected with the blindness drug.

This gets to the fuzzy meaning of “consent”, which is the fatal problem identified in Boonin-Vail “Against the Golden Rule argument against abortion” (1997). If Gensler means “consent” literally, then how can I consent to an idea of something that has already happened in the past? If “consent” means “approving of”, then Gensler’s argument runs into the problem that there is no inconsistency if one believes something is morally permissible, but does not approve of it (for example, a legitimate President of the USA may not approve of the news but still believe the news is morally persmissible). If “consent” means “morally permissible”, then the second premise becomes, “You find morally permissible the idea of your having been aborted in normal circumstances”, which is what is trying to be proven. If “consent” means “desire”, then the second premise in Gensler’s Golden Rule derivation becomes: “If you are consistent and think that it would be all right to do A to X, then you will desire the idea of someone doing A to you in similar circumstances.” This reduces Gensler’s Golden Rule to the defective form he attempts to fix, however (it does not prohibit sadomasochism).

Another problem is we can rewrite Gensler’s argument in another way:

  1. “If you’re consistent and think abortion is abnormally permissible, then you’ll consent to the idea of your having been aborted in abnormal circumstances.”
  2. “You don’t consent to the idea of your having been aborted in abnormal circumstances.”
  3. Therefore, “If you’re consistent, then you won’t think that abortion is abnormally permissible.”

The second premise is not necessarily true, and so for the conclusion. It depends on what “abnormal” means. Would it be that my mother would otherwise die in childbirth? Why should I now say, “I consent to the idea of being born  knowing that my mother will die because of it.” Knowing what I know now, that seems exceptionally selfish. It would have robbed my siblings of a mother, and my father of his wife. (That’s a bit utilitarian.)

Another more tortured possibility is:

  1. “If you’re consistent and think contraception is normally permissible, then you’ll consent to the idea of your having never been born in normal circumstances.”
  2. “You don’t consent to the idea of your having never been born in normal circumstances.”
  3. Therefore, “If you’re consistent, then you won’t think that contraception is normally permissible.”

How can I apply what I know now to a time and place in which I don’t exist? Hence, the second premise seems meaningless.

Anyhow, even if much of the above doesn’t apply to my forthcoming writing, it is timely reading because it has helped me realise some important things about the current situation of political discourse in the USA and the world:

  1. No one has all the answers. No one has a monopoly on morality. Every moral argument has its merits and weak points.
  2. There are good reasons why many ethical issues are unresolved, and will continue to be debated (since the time of the Greeks and before): every new participant in the conversation has to learn from the beginning, language is imperfect, and it’s easy to become distracted.
  3. Too often people take criticism of an argument as a criticism of themselves. If I perceived someone attacking me, I would assume a defensive mode. This can reduce my receptiveness to thinking critically. So, when I talk with people about moral views that I find questionable, I try to do so without invoking a personal battle.
  4. Discussing ethics is not about proving who is right or wrong, but discussing together the merits and weaknesses of moral arguments. Discussion, not “truth”, is the “end”.
  5. Looking into the assumptions and premises leading to one’s moral judgements can actually be fun but a bit scary. But it is necessary.
  6. To be a rational person, I must admit to the weak points in my moral judgements. These weak points will always exist.
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