Gideon's Blog

In direct contravention of my wife's explicit instructions, herewith I inaugurate my first blog. Long may it prosper.

For some reason, I think I have something to say to you. You think you have something to say to me? Email me at: gideonsblogger -at- yahoo -dot- com

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Sunday, April 14, 2002
A website I've had a lot of fun with: The Ethical Philosophy Selector. Basically, the site asks you a bunch of questions about ethical philosophy and, based on your answers, tells you which philosopher you are most like. I intended to cite this earlier; heard about through The Corner at NRO last month, where the various NRO-bloggers had a lot of fun with it. I actually think the engine is terrible; it gives absurd answers a lot of the time, like matching me 100% with both Mill and Kant, which should be impossible. Anyhow, go the website, and then read on for my answers and brief explanations for them.

1. MORAL STATEMENTS Moral statements are primarily:
a) statements of fact or truth (e.g. "Murder is wrong" means "It is a fact that murder is wrong").
b) statements of the speaker's desire/emotion?(e.g. "Murder is wrong" means "I hate murder").
c) statements of command (e.g. "Murder is wrong" means "I say: don't murder").
d) Doesn't matter/Dislike all answer choices

My answer: (c), statements of command. Morality is fundamentally a matter of authority. You accept an authority that determines right and wrong and then you obey that authority. That authority could be reason, it could be revelation, it could be convention, but the essential point is that it is an authority, and disobedience is acting immorally. The other answers collapse morality into something else, and make it impossible to talk about different systems of morality. There is, after all, only one reason (otherwise it's not reason), so if moral statements are statements of fact then there can be no moral disagreement. At the other extreme, if moral statements are statements of desire, then morality and immorality are indistinguishable; axiomatically, no one acts contrary to desire, therefore no one acts immorally. This is absurd.

2. PURPOSE TO LIFE Does each person have a moral purpose/morally ideal way to live?
a) Yes, the ideal life exists outside of one's preferences and is the same for all people
b) Yes, but the way to live in order to meet that purpose is unique for each individual
c) Yes, but following moral law is the only standard that a person must meet
d) No, yet there are ways to act that are inherently more conducive to the self-interest of the person who is acting
e) No, yet there are logically consistent ways to act and logically inconsistent ways to act
f) Doesn't matter/Dislike all answer choices

My answer: (c), there is an ideal way to live but following the moral law is the only standard that a person must meet. I don't think it's a question of morality whether one lives one's ideal life; that's a different question. It might be good to fulfil one's purpose, but one can't be required to do so. Saying that one has to live purposefully in order to live morally suggests that people who have not undertaken a philosophical journey to determine their purpose (whether that is individual or universal) cannot live morally. That sounds very wrong to me, contrary to my experience of moral behavior and my observation of moral individuals. Moreover, is seems to be a confusion of categories. That takes care of answers (a) and (b). (d) and (e) imply that there is no such thing as morality, reducing it on the one hand to self-interest and on the other to reason, so they are easily dispensed with.

3. PROPER ORIGIN OF MORALITY Where does the proper distinction between "good" and "bad" come from?
a) A moral realm that is completely unique, transcendent.
b) Every individual, through their choice to pursue that which they desire.
c) God's will
d) From holistic forces of the universe (may involve divine power or not).
e) Human nature, with the natural interests of people
f) Human intellect, with the natural capabilities of human thought
g) Doesn't matter/Dislike all answer choices

On balance, I choose (e). But this is a chicken-or-egg problem, because then you have to ask where human nature comes from, and how it is discerned. I choose to read the question to mean, how to we, at bottom, know that there is a difference between "good" and "bad" in the first place, and I think that is instinctual. We know in our gut that there is such a thing as morality, and if we deny or suppress that instinct we're unlikely to ever wind up behaving morally. But all sorts of other things come into play - tradition, revelation, reason, etc. - when we try to understand how to behave morally, when we try to make moral decisions when it is not obvious what is moral.

4. SOCIETAL INFLUENCE Must a person be coerced/ influenced at some level by societal powers in order to live morally/virtuously?
a) Yes, people will be good only when ruling forces of society use the power of force to make them be as such.
b) Yes, people will try to be good when they have knowledge of the virtuous life, but societal guidance and reinforcement (sometimes forceful) is necessary.
c) Sort of, society doesn't have to coerce a person to find morality, but the interest/rights of others in society must conveyed to a person in order for that person to determine right from wrong.
d) No, society should be not be an influence on a person when one is trying to find virtue.
e) No, society must be physically abandoned in all its forms in order to find virtue.
f) Doesn't matter/Dislike all answer choices

My answer: (b). Most of the other answers just strike me as silly. (e) is the silliest; morality is absurd in the absence of society, since morality is about relating properly to other beings. (d) is second-silliest; we are none of us Adam in the morning, and it is perverse Romanticism to wish to be. (a) strikes me as extreme and unduly pessimistic. Most people are good on instinct, not because they are forced to be. Force must be used to subdue evil, not to compel good. (b) and (c) both have elements of truth, but on balance I prefer (b) because it gives more of a sense of how one is educated to behave morally. As one gets into moral habits, morality requires less external reinforcement. (c) suggests that morality is something learned first in adulthood, when a calculus of rights and interests can be undertaken with dispassionate reason, but morality is in fact learned first in childhood, and not primarily on the basis of reason.

5. VIRTUOUS LIFE To be virtuous/live morally, we should primarily make moral distinctions according to:
a) our passions, desires, and sentiment.
b) our reasoning that is used to achieve our will.
c) our inherent knowledge (what we know without experimentation).
d) our empirical knowledge (what we know with experimentation).
e) our intellect in general, but not to achieve desires.
f) religious revelation and spiritual reflection.
g) Doesn't matter/Dislike all answer choices

My answer is (c), largely for the same reasons I gave for my answer to question #3 above. Obviously, we should make use of all of these. But without accessing our inherent knowledge that there is morality, that there is a distinction between good and evil, I think all these other elements will be insufficient.

6. HAPPINESS Will using morality properly necessarily result in maximization of our own happiness?
a) Yes.
b) No, not necessarily.
c) Doesn't matter/Dislike all answer choices

The only sensible answer is (b). It takes a real romantic to think that no criminals are happy, or it takes a tendentious definition of happiness. Happiness itself must be learned, and it is true that living morally is consistent with and necessary for living in the greatest happiness. But necessary and sufficient are not the same thing. One can live morally but not have sufficient understanding to be happy doing so, and one can live evilly but be so spiritually stunted to be, nonetheless, vulgarly happy - and more so than one would be living morally. Again, answer (a) seems to imply a blurring of categories that is dangerous to a proper understanding of morality.

7. UNIVERSAL LAW Should I act as if the maxim (principle) with which I act were to become the universal law for all rational people?
a) Yes, and any deviation from this rule is wrong.
b) Yes, but in a very loose manner, evaluating the unique specifics of the situation is essential.
c) No, there is a consistent morality that applies to all, but their methods may differ greatly.
d) No, one's own actions are not morally equivalent to the actions of others.
e) Doesn't matter/Dislike all answer choices.

I think the right answer here is (b). (a) and (d) seem very extreme. I'm not sure I properly understand either (b) or (c). What I think is true is that one must act as if one's decision would be true for anyone in one's situation, or as if you would be convinced of the morality of your decision even if you were on the opposite end of the decision, assuming one could be truly rational. But I think that every situation presents a unique moral puzzle; rules cannot be applied in a vulgarly uniform manner.

8. END, MEANS, INTENT Which is the most important, morally?
a) The intent (the choice to do something or the will).
b) The means (the way something is done).
c) The ends (the results from the action).
d) None of them are significantly more important than the others.
e) Doesn't matter/Dislike all answer choices

I answered (d) to this. There's a counter-example to any other answer. If you say (a), intent, then what about the following. Who is more immoral, a man who, in a drunken rage, kills his wife (not realizing that he is killing her, thinking he is only giving her a good beating that she deserves) or a man who, convinced his wife is cheating on him, fully intends to kill her, but is hit by a bus and, in the hospital, finds out that his suspicions are unfounded. The second has the more evil intent, but the first commits the more evil act. I think everyone would say that the first is the more immoral. If you answer (b), the means, then what about the following. One man steals to save the life of his starving child. Another man prosecutes the first man to have him put in prison for theft, fully aware that the child will die without protection. The former commits a crime to do good; the latter upholds the law to do evil. I think we would all say that, while the former uses worse means than the latter, the latter is the less moral. If you say (c), then what about the following. A man launches a war in order to save the world from degeneracy and filth. He kills millions of people. However, in response to his war, not only to other nations unite to crush him and, in the aftermath, preserve peace, but all nations are forced to curb their degenerate ways in order not to provide the war-monger an ideological opening. As a result, his war ushers in a period not only of peace but of moral uprightness. Is he, therefore, to be judged moral, for having caused an ultimately positive result in spite of all the evil that he perpetrated directly? I don't see how any coherent system of morality could say yes. In the end, the whole question of ends, means and intent is a red-herring. There is no simple rule of this sort that one can use to make moral decisions.

9. INDIVIDUAL & OTHERS Is the self-pleasure or self-preservation of the individual ever in conflict with the same type of interests of others?
a) No, and virtuous living is consistently beneficial to the individual and the community.
b) Yes, and it is wrong to be selfish, one should lean towards benevolence.
c) Yes, and neither the interest of own self nor the interest of the other is more important.
d) Yes, and acting in one's own self-interest is fine.
e) Yes, and acting in one's own self-interest is morally essential.
f) Doesn't matter/Dislike all answer choices

My answer: (e). This is worse than a red-herring. Selfishness is in no way opposed to morality. No one gets moral points for self-denial unless self-denial serves some moral purpose in the specific instance. Moreover, no one gets demerits for pursuing self-interest unless that pursuit does a moral wrong in the specific instance. And, in fact, if one is unable to be selfish, then one is unable to be moral, because part of morality is about respecting other people's rights and interests, and you cannot do that except by understanding that they are also selves with rights and interests like yourself. If you do not experience those rights and interests yourself, then you cannot imagine them in others, and cannot behave morally. The Biblical command is: love your neighbor as yourself. Being moral is about expanding the self to embrace others, not about contracting the self.

10. LIBERTY Would it be ideal to maximize pleasure for all people even at the cost of liberty for some?
a) Yes
b) No, we need liberty
c) No, maximization of pleasure for all people has nothing to do with morality.
d) Doesn't matter/Dislike all answer choices

My answer: (c). First, pleasure is not happiness. Perhaps the maximization of happiness has something to do with morality, but not pleasure. Second, morality is not about the utilitarian calculus; as noted, means and intent are also essential to any moral calculation, and utilitarianism recognizes only ends. Third, what's this business about "all people"? Who said that you only know when an action is moral when you have evaluated the effects on all people? Such calculations can never be completed, and so positing that they must be either mandates inaction or, alternatively, gives rhetorical support to theories that over-sell their predictive capacity (e.g. Marxism).

11. ASCETIC LIFE Is ascetic living (simple life with a minimum of physical comforts) conducive to being virtuous?
a) Yes, it is essential to live this way
b) Pretty much, but it isn't particularly essential to live this way
c) No, physical comforts are fine, they may even be rewarding
d) Doesn't matter/Dislike all answer choices

My answer: (c). Given my answer to question #9, I don't think any other answer would make sense. Part of happiness is contentment, but contentment is not the eradication of desire but its taming, training oneself to desire what one has. And virtuous people seem to me to come from all walks of life, from monks to millionaires. I guess this whole question just has nothing to do with how I think about virtue.

12. VIRTUOUS PERSON A virtuous person can be described best as:
a) Strong, powerful and passionate
b) Strong, powerful and rational
c) Humble, restrained and spiritual
d) Humble, restrained and rational
e) Caring and loving
f) Concerned with others, yet very rational
g) Doesn't matter/Dislike all answer choices

I really don't like any of the answers here, so I pick (g). I would say that a virtuous person is strong, humble, spiritual, rational and loving. I suppose I'd have to pick (f) if forced to, but I'm not sure why. I think being rational is very important, as is being concerned with others. The choices seem odd to me. I don't view strong as opposed to humble, or spiritual as opposed to rational, or caring as opposed to rational. The only answers that I know are wrong are (a) and (b), because they don't seem to be talking about moral behavior at all. (e) would also be a problem, because strong character and rationality are important parts of being a virtuous person, and they are missing here. (c) and (d) seem to be focused too much on the order of the soul of the individual rather than on positive behavior - humble and restrained are negative qualities with respect to behavior; they tell me what you won't do, not what you will. It is with respect to internal order that they may be positive. But morality is about dealing with others. So I'd have to go with (f) above the other choices, but I don't really like the choice.

Anyway, I thought it was a fun site.