This is an essay I wrote over the last few days for my Media Ethics subject. I wasn’t sure exactly how it would turn out, but I think it is reasonable. If only in that I can’t currently see anything wrong with it. Which may be to do with my sleep deprivation…
“When dilemmas such as ‘Jim and the Indians’ demand an ethical choice, is deciding by dice throw: better; just as good; or worse than: deciding via Kant’s Categorical Imperative and Bentham’s Hedonistic Calculus? Why?
When faced with a situation such as that in ‘Jim and the Indians’, the ethical choice demanded, is by no means a simple one. The different epistemological elements that come into play confuse even the most morally apt; as it is far from clear what is the best way to respond. Several options are open to us, however correctly making the decision that leads to the least moral ambiguity seems almost impossible due to the potential gravity of each choice.
Upon reading the dilemma outlined by Williams and Smart, there seem to be two potential courses of action that Jim is able to take, which can be separated into the dominant epistemologies that they fall into; that is, to accept, or not to accept the offer of the captain. Does Bentham’s deontology convince us with his Utilitarian ideology of acting in reference to a Hedonistic Calculus, or is Immanuel Kant more persuasive with his teleological notion of acting via a Categorical Imperative?
The first option open to Jim would be to agree with Pedro, the sweat stained military captain, and shoot one of the protesters in order to save the other 19, thus favoring Bentham’s moral framework. This framework can be summed simply in the more commonly used phrasing: “the ends justifies the means”. Or basically, that if the outcome of an action is perceived to be more beneficial than failing to perform the action, then the action used to achieve this outcome is justified. So for Jim, the act of killing one protester would be seen as justifiable as the result is the saving of 19 lives. But more specifically, Bentham argues that any moral question can be answered by establishing what will generate the most pleasure (good) and conversely, the least pain (bad). As, surely, the totality of happiness after the action is more important than the action itself?
In contrast to this, we see Kant favoring motive rather than outcome in order to establish what is the most moral route through an ethical quagmire. To sum his argument more simply: “don’t do bad to produce good”. Kant based his theory on the thought that ethics was too serious a subject to be left up to probability or chance. He means that by justifying the means with the ends, the protagonist is leaving their decision up to what might happen, or what they suspect is the most likely consequence of their action, which is by no means a certain thing. The projection of a probably future was, for Kant, not enough to base a moral groundwork on. What if Jim chose to kill one protester in the hope of saving 19 other lives, but the captain failed to honor his word, and proceeded to kill the remaining 19 as well as Jim? Even if Jim refused the captains offer, and he killed all 20 before executing Jim too, at least the last moral choice Jim made was not one that resulted in him actively ending the life of an innocent stranger. Or so argues Kant. His argument is that an ethical decision must remain “good”, regardless of the eventual empirical consequences. Not only this, but that the ethical decision must apply to both specific situations, and also universally to all situations. He says this most famously in chapter two of his work, Groundwork of Metaphysics of Morals.
“Act only on that maxim through which you can, at the same time, will that it should become a universal law.” (Smith, 2013)
If Jim were to follow a Kantian process of decision-making, and he chose to kill one protester in order to save 19, he must also will a world where he is happy to be killed by someone in order to save 19 others. This is Kant’s test for ethical maxims; that the M-I (maxim applied individually) must match without contradiction to the corresponding M-U (maxim applied universally). Kant would argue that if a contradiction is found between the M-I and M-U, then the maxim cannot be used, as it is seen to be ethically invalid. This is Kant’s adaptation of the Golden Rule, the ancient moral principle that has been seen across both centuries and cultures, which suggests it to be one of humanity’s only common ethics. It is seen to exist in all major religions, from Christianity to Buddhism, Islam to Taoism. It is from these common principles that Kant derives his Law of Non-Contradiction, from which stems his Categorical Imperative, and thus his motive focused method for overcoming ethical dilemmas.
However, supposing that Jim had either a coin or a dice in his pocket? What if there was in fact a third option for deciding how Jim should act in his difficult situation? Could it be ethical for Jim to toss a coin in order to decide if or not he should kill one to save 19, or refuse the offer, and walk away? This broadens the dilemma significantly, as it takes the decision process out of the hands of Rationalism, for which both Kant and Bentham argue (though admittedly from opposing sides), and puts it firmly within the grasp of Chance. As reason through logical deduction has proven to be flawed in significant ways, even when argued from both sides, perhaps it is better to avoid logic and its inherent failures to provide a clear moral path, and it is better instead to remove it as a variable completely when making such a difficult decision. As French writer Antoine de Saint-Exupery argues, logic is self-validating, but does not always produce consequences that sit at moral ease.
“If your purpose is to understand man and his needs, to know what is most essential about him, you must not set the proof of one man’s truth against another’s. Yes, you are right. Everyone is right. Anything can be demonstrated by logic. The man who blames the ills of this world on hunchbacks is right. Let’s declare war on hunchbacks and all get carried away.” (Saint-Exupery, 1995)
Logic, by its very nature, serves as a finite explanation of the world. Perhaps logic is not equipped to answer all of the problems we might face in life, as Jim has found. The conclusion that the moral action is to kill one in order to save 19 is based on a firm logical foundation, but so it the conclusion that the only moral path is to never kill. Both arguments are valid as they are both logically consistent, however they are derived from different first principles, thus creating their stark opposition. Even Wittgenstein, the maser logician and philosopher admits in the introduction to his first major work, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, that thought is limited by both language and logic, with anything remaining outside of logic to be purely absurdity.
“…the aim of this book is to draw a limit to thought, or rather – not to thought, but to the expression of thoughts: for in order to be able to draw a limit to thought, we should have to find both sides of the limit thinkable (i.e. we should have to be able to think what cannot be thought).
It will therefore only be in language that the limit can be drawn, and what lies on the other side of the limit will simply be nonsense.” (Wittgenstein, 1961)
Perhaps these kinds of logical dilemmas sit outside of what Rationality is capable of overcoming, and instead sits in a realm of absurdity? One example of a clear rejection of morality formulated via logic is in the novel by Cormac McCarthy, No Country For Old Men. The character of Chigurh does not appear to behave consistently with any traditional form or rational morality, instead, preferring to use his own word as his final and absolute truth. When he feels like this may not be adequate, he uses coins to decide if or not he should keep his word (usually in regard to if or not he should kill someone). The catch, however, is that the person who he intends to kill must call the toss of the coin.
“None of this was your fault.
She shook her head, sobbing.
You didn’t do anything. It was bad luck.
He watched her, his chin in his hand. All right, he said. This is the best I can do.
He straightened out his leg and reached into his pocket and drew out a few coins and took one and held it up. He turned it. For her to see the justice of it. He held it between his thumb and forefinger and weighed it and then flipped it spinning in the air and caught it and slapped it down on his wrist. Call it, he said.
She looked at him, at his outheld wrist. What? She said.
I wont do it.
Yes you will. Call it.
God would not want me to do that.
Of course he would. You should try to save yourself. Call it. This is your last chance.
Heads, she said.
He lifted his hand away. The coin was tails.
She didn’t answer.” (McCarthy, 2005)
This scene is an example of pure chance deciding the result of an ethical decision. Is this morally right? This method purer than anything that human reason is capable of. It is distilled morality, the essence of what we strive to achieve with every decision we make, for human reason creates morality in order to strive for fairness and equality. When a judge sits in his chair at the top of a courtroom, his purpose is to pass a sentence that is the fairest response to whatever the crime may have been. However the very fact that the judge is human, who thinks, feels, worries and gets hungry makes this job impossible to complete to perfection. All of those things detract from the seriousness of the decision that the judge is required to deliver. Albert Camus saw this and highlighted it as an absurdity in his novella, The Stranger.
“The fact that the verdict was read out at eight P.M. rather than at five, the fact that it might have been quite different, that it was given by men who change their underclothes, and was credited to so vague an entity as the “French people”—for that matter, why not to the Chinese or the German people? —All these facts seemed to deprive the court’s decision of much of its gravity.” (Camus, 1946)
These fluctuating variables take much away from the seriousness of life and death that these dilemmas commonly deal with, and chance nicely avoids these protean aspects. Chance is unaffected and remains immaculate, unlike Rationality, which is inevitably muddied by the logic of mankind, forever relying on itself to justify its own first principle. It is similar in the differences in scoring places between running and gymnastics at the Olympic Games. While gymnastics is based on a grading system out of 100, with judges scoring the athletes for their performances, running remains forever objective as it is ranked via the incorruptible clock. Time, just like Chance, is an unbiased platform from which to accurately and fairly judge a situation. For these reasons, chance should be used in favour of either Rational Deontology or Teleology as a basis for making ethical decisions as it exists independently of human alteration, allowing for a higher position of objectivity to be taken.
If: The most objective motivation to act in a situation is the most moral motivation to act
And: Chance is the most objective motivation
Then: Chance is the most moral motivation to act”
So what do you think? Agree? Disagree? Anything I messed up as far as reasoning or argument goes? Let me know!