Friday, September 23, 2011

A Couple of thoughts on not watching Justice

In the background as I have been blogging, the television has been playing Justice: What's the Right Thing to Do?, the televised lectures on philosophy from Harvard University. A couple of things occurred to me in the process.

Students were asked whether it was right to sacrifice one person's life to save several with various examples illustrating that the decision often depends on the circumstances. In some of the circumstances, the decision maker could have in principle sacrificed his/her own life to save that of others rather than sacrifice the life of an innocent bystander. None recognized the alternative of self sacrifice. Yet we honor soldiers in battle who make just that sacrifice, sometimes with the Congressional Medal of Honor.

There was also a discussion of utilitarian theories of justice. It occurs to me that the way to determine the just course of action may well depend on the institutional location of the decision maker.
  • People in the White House and the Congress may well find cost-benefit analysis, seeking the greatest benefit for the greatest number to be an important tool in the search for justice. Of course, cost-benefit analysis is often done badly, and there is little moral justification for badly done analysis.
  • Google has a policy "Don't be evil". Not a bad approach to justice for a corporation, except of course it is often difficult to determine whether a course of action is evil. Still, corporations that do cost benefit calculations based on corporate profits and risks rather than the benefits and risks to their public are likely to do evil.
  • An individual seems well advised to follow his/her conscience and avoid the merely expedient. We admire those who rise to courageous self-sacrifice, but we seldom criticize those who fail that test, especially in the heat of the moment.
I suspect that ethics depend fundamentally on our evolved being. Ethics for a tiger must be different than for a rabbit, and both for a man. We are evolved to make snap decisions in times of immediate peril, and we must recognize that such decisions may well appear less than ethical were they made in leisure. I find it hard to think that it is "right" to act in a way that we feel is morally wrong because of an abstract argument about the right. Indeed, I think a lot of ethical arguments are based in bringing principles into line with feelings.

In this respect, we are social animals, evolved to live in communities. Even other primates seem to have feelings that the right thing to do is in some cases to promote the common good. The extreme libertarian arguments that seem based on maximizing one's private good run into the reality that we have evolved to value our families and our communities.


I quote from The Economist magazine:
(T)wo researchers gave 208 undergraduates a battery of trolleyological tests and measured, on a four-point scale, how utilitarian their responses were. Participants were also asked to respond to a series of statements intended to get a sense of their individual psychologies. These statements included, “I like to see fist fights”, “The best way to handle people is to tell them what they want to hear”, and “When you really think about it, life is not worth the effort of getting up in the morning”. Each was asked to indicate, for each statement, where his views lay on a continuum that had “strongly agree” at one end and “strongly disagree” at the other. These statements, and others like them, were designed to measure, respectively, psychopathy, Machiavellianism and a person’s sense of how meaningful life is. 
Dr Bartels and Dr Pizarro then correlated the results from the trolleyology with those from the personality tests. They found a strong link between utilitarian answers to moral dilemmas (push the fat guy off the bridge) and personalities that were psychopathic, Machiavellian or tended to view life as meaningless. Utilitarians, this suggests, may add to the sum of human happiness, but they are not very happy people themselves.
Of course, as Machiavelli suggested, and I did above, people who make public policy may be well advised to base them on utilitarian principles. Perhaps the Machiavellian undergraduates will be those who in the future with be "the princes" of their time, making public policy.

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