Saturday, December 02, 2006

black and white (not the computer game)

The singaporean blogosphere is hardly an appropriate place to discuss academic philosophical questions, yet one can't help but feel that a good deal of the philosophy (sufficiently simplified and well-articulated) might be able to help bloggers think better about their own views, and perhaps help them to think better about the decisions they make in everyday life. (Or perhaps this is just wishful thinking). It is for this purpose that I will briefly discuss some ethical and meta-ethical questions in this post. And since this is not really an academic post (a "popular philosophy" post, if you will), I will sacrifice some precision and clarity (such as not forming clean definitions) for a more informal style, which is hopefully more accessible and intuitive to my intended audience.

Most of us are familiar with the term "Ethics". In philosophy, it is basically the branch of philosophy which talks about morality. These include concepts such as "right", "wrong", "good", "evil", "responsibility" and "justice". Normative Ethics, or the study of "how do we determine what is right or wrong?", was mainly what moral philosophers were interested about since the time of Aristotle up early 20th century. There are primarily three schools of normative ethics: Consequentialism, Deontological and Virtue Ethics.

Consequentialism is basically the view that what makes an action right or wrong, is the consequences of that action. The most well known version of consequentialism is Utilitarianism, which basically is the view that the right action is basically the action which promotes the most overall happiness and minimizes the most harm.

Deontological ethics contrasts with consequentialism in the sense that it places more importance on the type of action more than the consequences of the action. In order words, Deontologists generally believe that ends do not justify the means. The means are more important.

Virtue Ethics contrasts from Deontology in that it is not primarily concerned about "what is the right action" but "what makes a good person". Virtue Ethicists place importance on the character and the motivations of the moral agent, instead of the particular action of the moral agent, or it consequences it produces.

I've recently watched the movie Swordfish when it was shown on TV. In that movie, John Travolta plays a rogue agent who needs to commit a series of crimes (including rob a bank, and hacking) to gain funds to supply his war against terrorism. A consequentialist might say, John Travolta was doing the right thing, because at the end of the day, preventing and stopping terrorists leads a greater happiness for the overall good, even if you had to rob a bank or kill an innocent. A Deontologist might say, John Travolta was doing the wrong thing, because it is not just about whether or not you defeat terrorism, but what you do to fight terrorism. A virtue ethicist might say, the question lies in John Travolta's character and motivations. Was he trying to be a virtuous person?

During the early 20th century, there was a boom in development in the area of Formal and Mathematical logic. This prompted some philosophers (such as A.J.Ayer) to try and apply some of these rules of logic into ethical statements and notions. This resulted in a "new wave" of moral philosophy called Logical Positivism, which generally debunks all talk about morality on the basis that it cannot be "proven", unlike the sciences and mathematics. The argument between logical positivists and their detractors would form the historical basis of what we now call "meta-ethics".

Meta-ethics, is the debate on whether or not there is such as thing as a "real" morality. There are two broad categories of views: those who say "yes there is" and those who say "no, there really isn't, there only exist illusions". Meta-ethical views are much more complicated and hence difficult to explain as compared to ethical views. [I had previously blogged a short post explaining the difference between moral realism and relativism.] Generally, if you hold any of the 3 views explained above (consequentialism, deontology or virtue ethics) you are probably a moral realist. If you hold a view such as "there is no such thing as a fixed right or wrong. It all depends on the individual or the culture in question", then chances are you are a moral anti-realist, in particular, a moral relativist. Due to post-modernist influences, moral relativism (or other forms of moral anti-realism) have been popular culturally, and remains so till today, or so it appears to me.

We probably have heard the saying that some decisions of right and wrong are "not black and white" but have "shades of grey". This could mean several different things. This could be said by the consequentialist criticizing a deontologist, indicating that sometimes one needs to do compromise some "morals" to produce what is in the greatest good. This could also be said by the ethical relativist, indicating how ethics is general is so full of disagreements, claiming that therefore these exist no such thing as a "fixed" morality. Or it could be said by a consequentialist, to indicate that even though "true morality" does exist, most of the time, individuals lack sufficient information about the consequences of their actions and hence have no clear cut decision.

Now where does the singaporean blogosphere fit into all of this? Say for example, blogger A criticizes the government for being immoral based on deontological grounds (perhaps, criminalizing gay sex is wrong because it is marginalizing homosexuals, hence it is wrong), then (hypothetical) blogger B responds by saying that criminalizing gay sex still provides the best consequences (for example, homosexuals are not persecuted, stable and reliable government enjoys approval of the conservative majority and remains in power resulting in the betterment of everybody, hence it is right), How does blogger A engage in a moral argument with blogger B? If blogger A keeps repeating his deontolgical point, and blogger B keeps reiterating his consequentialist point, then the argument would just remain stationary, and perhaps they end up flaming each other.

My point is this, if your detractor subscribes to a different system of morality than you subscribe to, just asserting your own argument is perhaps not a very useful. Two more useful argumentative strategies would be to 1) for the purpose of argument, adopt your opponent's system of morality and show that it still doesn't work, or 2) argue why your system of morality is more appropriate (perhaps for the specific circumstances) than your opponent's system of morality. In order to do this of course, you would first need to identify and understand, both your own and your detractor's systems of morality.

In practise, I suspect most of us haven't thought deeply enough about our own ethical views to know which specific theory of ethics we subscribe to. Chances are, we are moved by all three (or more) different schools on what makes something right or wrong. Which is fine, until we end up disagreeing with each other, and realize some of these schools of morality conflict with each other some specific issue or another. What then do we do?

I suggest we try to understand ourselves first. Try to figure out why you believe in your current views, what are the values that influenced you, and how you would defend those values. I am probably overly optimistic for thinking so, but I do think the blogosphere can be a much more fruitful medium if we all do a little introspection now and then.


Anonymous said...

hey xiao di,

i like this post. coincidentally i just had six singaporeans over at my place last night discussing a lot of issues that the blogosphere is currently obsessed with.

i completely agree with you that we should do some introspection, and figure out where we stand on issues. when i meet someone new and discuss issues with them, in my mind i am sorting them out in my mind... conservative vs. liberal, republican vs dem, etc etc..

one of my friends recently protested against this. 'why are you constantly trying to label me?' was the question, to which i had no good answer to. i agreed that there was no sense in trying to figure out what he is, because i cannot get into his head and know what he's thinking. he was also not often self-consistent.

the moral of the story being, i think labels such as moral relativists are useful, but only up to a certain extent.

Fearfully Opinionated said...

Hey da jie,

Thanks for dropping by. The main purpose of my post was to help people identity WHEN they are "talking past each other" and WHY. It's a phenomenon I see happen very often, not just in the blogosphere, but also in academic circles.

I do believe most people don't like to be labelled. This usually leads them to think that they are sterotyped, and somehow biased against. The key thing is to know how to label their VIEWS and not label THEM.

Then again, as I was discussing with BL in the comments of my previous post, perhaps our views and our identity is something as humans we cannot effectively separate. And hence, on some level, we are all guilty of sterotyping, and being biased. This does not actually pose a big problem to me, because I believe none of us were ever "objective" to start with.

BL said...

Hi Fearfully Opinionated,

I guess that it might be easier to address your article by pointing you to the latest post of mine: It Takes all Sorts to Make a World.

In short, my view is that it is possible to seperate the person from the issues, but it requires a cultural change from the Asians.