Saturday, May 28, 2005

A short exposition on dual morality

Peter Thurley runs a nifty blog entitled "Dinner Table Donts" (for some reason, I always think of 'Donuts' in place of 'donts,' but I digress). Part of the interest I have in his blog is in the thoughtful exposition he gives to various thoughts of his. The blog is properly a philosophy blog, where Peter posts his running ruminations on this or that topic. Most recently (today, in fact), Peter asks utilitarians to answer some difficult questions. I gave him a response from a utilitarian position, although I'm not a utilitarian.

Except, it turns out, in one sort of important respect: at the level of absurd and extreme theory, I guess I cling to some sort of utilitarianism. More properly, it could be called antidisutilitarianism (I think I coined that word. At any rate, I've never read it anywhere else). Other than being terribly clunky, it does capture an interesting distinction between itself and utilitarianism. Namely, utilitarianism seeks something like the 'best for most,' and different versions will hang their hat on different accounts of 'best,' 'for,' and 'most.' For instance, will we take the sum absolute total? Or will we be taken with the average weighted sum? This is a positive account, in the sense that we are striving to get at something, to act in particular ways. Antidisutilitarianism isn't seeking to maximize something but, rather, to prevent disutility. So we don't do stuff to improve the lot of someone or a few someones, we try to prevent their losing utility.

I'm not sure how much I follow that, or if I would consider myself that just yet. I had the thought recently, and am just now considering the consequences. I doubt I'll cling to this view, although I might write about what it might end up meaning, and what impact it might have.

At any rate, there is at least one sense in which I follow a version of utilitarianism, or antidisutilitarianism--at extreme ends of moral questions. I've never been comfortable with examples like the following: Suppose you are a non-consequentialist about morality (take a deontological, natural rights sort of libertarian--which I'm not). Now suppose you have the option of violating what you see as a right in this one instance, but saving the rest of the world. Suppose you were asked to torture this guy here and, as a consequence, the rest of the world will be spared and, oh, this guy here too (who will be scarred, but will live). Exactly what are you to make of strict rights-talk in cases like this? It seems like patent nonsense to respond that in cases that are sufficiently dire you wouldn't agree that you are justified in violating a right, or something like that. In cases like this, I think I prefer to side with the utilitarians.

In other cases, however--the regular, every day sort of cases, and anything that can plausibly be expected and anticipate in our real world--I fall into a sort of contractarian/conventionalist view of morality. Forget the long exposition or explanation of these views, that isn't what interests me here. What does, however, is whether or not it is possible to hold two separate moralities over two separate domains. Over the domain of regular, every day sorts of things, I'm a conventionalist/contractarian. Over the domain of extreme cases, I'm a utilitarian (or antidisutilitarian, since I don't think it's justifiable to torture this one guy here to make everyone else blissfully happy, while believing that it is all right to torture this guy here to prevent some terrible calamity).

Is there something wrong with this? What is it, exactly, that requires me to hold just one view of morality over all possible domains? Can't there by special cases where we apply a different moral criteria? Consider, by way of analogy, the Newtonian physics/Quantum physics distinction. Newtonian physics appears to apply perfectly well for medium-sized, every day sorts of objects, but breaks down at a quantum level (incidentally, this is about all I know about this. So don't get caught up on the example. Quantum physics is esperonto to me, and I don't speak esporonto). Can't we say the same of morality?


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