Eric Massengill's Ethics Class Blog

Degrees of Contractual Morality

November 23, 2008
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According to Hobbes, morality comes from breaking one’s social covenant; specifically, he has the idea of the covenant of citizens in mind. This introduces the problem, though, that almost every person on earth in reality lives under a government and society that they did not choose. It is the inevitable nature of things, unless you stopped children from being born. This introduces the problem that societies are made up of people that are not under any moral obligation, since most countries were founded generations ago. This seems counter intuitive.

The other option is that everyone is born into their respective contracts, but this seems unjust: can someone be held under a contract signed for them, before they were even born? Still, we could assume this to be true if we adopted the principle: you can leave whenever you want, so your remaining is tacit concent. This introduces the problem that for most people (those who are not rich) it is hard to leave their country. Certainly a millionair or a billionair could leave their country and move whenever they wanted. But how consentual is a poor person, who would possibly have to hitch-hike or even walk to get our of their country? And some countries are larger than others, and take longer to leave. Does this mean that there are degrees of concent? That seems wrong also. And then there is the problem that ultimately, how much free choice can you have, when you are limited to only those countries that exist on earth? This seems like a situation of coercion; it is possible that the country you live in is terrible, but if every other country is terrible too, does your remaining mean you like your country?

Any way one looks at it, it seems wrong. If you tried hard enough, you could bite the bullet on certain things, but really it just falls appart in practical application. One has to admit that, at least in this regard, Hobbes is wrong.


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The Morality of the Government

November 19, 2008
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The reason Hobbes runs into the issue of Government being above morality is that he only concentrates on the social contract formed between fellow citizens. There is also another (whether explicit or not) contract between citizens and their government, which is usually how we judge the morality of government actions (are they living up to their promise to protect us, etc.).

Though I think it is easier than not to defend his theory. The government itself is immoral, but one is only acting as “the government” if one is acting in the duty of the government, which is to defend the contract (think of how Kant says that the Will of humans must follow duty, so I say so too must government follow duty). It can be argued that it is hard then, to determine whether someone is acting as the government, or as a citizen, since it depends on the motivation of their action, which is very hard to determine. Honestly, I don’t think that makes Hobbes’ theory wrong, just bad law, and as we’ve discussed, law and morality are different. Kant’s theory is legistically rediculous, but that doesn’t make it wrong, just legistically rediculous. So too, determining the morality of individuals in the government (of the “Sovereign”, I suppose) is hard, but isn’t that true in real life? If determining motivations and morality was ever easy, wouldn’t trials cease to exist?

(I won’t argue here about redefining Hobbes’ idea of social contract, because that would take forever and no-one would read it, and I probably wouldn’t get it in on time.)


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The State of Nature

November 16, 2008
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I agree with Hobbes’ conception of the natural state, though only generally, since he has some problems. Primarily it’s that he’s too extreme. Maybe, in the rare case that civilization collapsed and all of your friends and family – your social network – was killed, then there would be a period of time where you would have no connection whatsoever with anyone else, and since they’d just be strangers to you, you’d be in the State of Nature. But the idea that the State of Nature occurs at all in the absence of government is a little weak.

A) People have social standards that are programmed into them, and sure, one can unlearn those standards, but they still inform the way people act to a degree (maybe lessening their readiness to kill, etc.); I don’t think it would eliminate those impulses towards survival that create the State of Nature, but it counts for something.

B) We are animals, sure, and that means we do what’s necessary to survive, but we are, by definition, social animals. We instinctually form at least small social groups. The idea that in the State of Nature it would be every-man-for-himself is unrealistic. If we went to the State of Nature now, with the current world overpopulation, then there may be a period of death, but once we reach a stable population people will start to become more relaxed, if just for the fact that we’re less likely to run across each other. All we have to do is look at solitary animals: they are hardly in a “constant” state of war with one another, even the dominant omnivores. Take bears for instance. Bears are not social animals, and the only true social groups are those of mothers and cubs. Sometimes, when in direct competition they will fight, but their population is at such a level that they don’t fight that often. They even congregate during fishing season in the same river, ten feet from each other. Creatures only come into competition when there is a true overpopulation (there is a little equation going on in our heads when we come into conflict over resources, whether the struggle is worth the expenditure of energy; given enough space, it will be worth forgoing expansion every once in a while), which doesn’t happen often.

This also, in some ways, supports Hobbes though. We do have a natural instinct to bond, and in chaotic situations, given enough time, humans will form groups, but this is, I think, due in large part to our unconscious knowledge – so well known we never have to think about it – that life is easier when we work together to eliminate competition. It’s why we’re the dominant species on Earth. Just to clarify: just because the State of Nature isn’t as bad as Hobbes argues, doesn’t mean it isn’t desirable to avoid it. You can consider it in the way Mill considered those who argued happiness was unattainable: thing fled from or moved towards may be impossible to sustain or reach, but you can move towards or away from it; essentially, just because the State of Nature is too far down for us to ever be in, that doesn’t mean there’s no value in being as far away from it as possible.

Also, my criticism in no way supports the whole idea that humans are somehow ‘better than that’. At the end of the day, we’re like everything else: we want to live. Moral considerations are nice, but there’s a reason we consider “uncivilized” people immoral (usually – it has those negative connotations), and “civilized” people moral. It’s easier to hold a very strict moral code in a highly socialized environment, especially when you consider our morals support group cohesion (don’t kill; don’t steal; don’t lie; etc.). When there is no group though, group-cohesive actions become burdensome. Sure, one may choose in that environment to do the right thing, but the likelihood of one dying because of it is much greater, so eventually only those who were willing to do the “immoral” things to survive will live on.

Given the circumstances of absolutely no social networking, and extreme competition, it is absolutely true that humans would act the way Hobbes describes. Even if those exact extremes don’t come around, one has to admit it is in human nature to do what is necessary to survive. It seems naive to me to think otherwise.


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Utility vs the Will

November 12, 2008
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Both Kant’s theory and utilitarianism have holes in them, holes that Kant and Mill seem to at least subconsciously recognize, and gloss over in their arguments. Between the two of them though, Kant tends to do much more glossing over, and is much less specific than Mill, because the issues with his theory are much harder to defend.

The only real, contradictory problems with utilitarianism are the issue of time (which is easilly solved), and Mill’s argument for the superiority of intellectual pleasures. As far as subjective problems, he has to deal with the issue that sometimes actions seem to us (humans) to be good for their own sake, not because of their consequences, or that someone’s intention may reduce the morality of their action. This only comes up occassionally though. Another hole brought up is the moral potentiality of people, that utilitarianism essentially says that the more powerful you are, the more potential you have for good or evil. Boone doesn’t like this, but I actually think this is in many ways true, and in international court and in society we treat the intentional creators of immoral institutions (the gestapo, etc.) as being more evil than the every-day murderer.

Kant has much bigger problems. His theory itself can be very loose at times, and he never attempts to rectify this. On top of this, his moral theory fails at the one, most essential duty of all: telling people what to do; specifically, how to determine between two actions when both are wrong. Kant allows no moral degrees, only absolutes (opposite of utilitarianism) which makes actions unnegotiable, and actually seems to not reflect real life, where things can be morally gray, or be more good or bad than other actions. In an atempt to combat the relativism in utilitarianism, Kant has just blindly grabbed onto the problem of moral fundamentalism. Kant also has problems with his Laws, in that some of the justifications actually might contradict the whole principle of his moral theory (frequently sneeking in utility to justify the existence of laws), and in these and other cases he seems to be trying a little to hard, sometimes looking backwards to justify, trying to use his theory to back moral Laws he already follows or thinks people should follow, instead of starting from scratch and figuring out the moral theories that way (because it’s always possible that the morals one follows are wrong). Also, without seeing a better argument for his thoeries, Kant’s meandering and frequently insubstantial arguments, that gloss over some very real issues, I have to assume that it is a result of Kant’s theory being weak, and not simply him being an inconsisten philosopher.

Between the two of them, I think Kant’s theory has much larger and more frequent holes, and he is the much less consisten arguer. His theory seems to me to fit in a much wider number of situations than Kants whose justifications feel like they correspond with our internal justifications. Utilitarianism is far from perfect, but it is vastly less imperfect than Kant’s theory. So, I give the nod to Mill on this one.


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Kant’s Rationality

November 10, 2008
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Kant’s theory of morals is dependent entirely upon human rationality, and I think it the most appealing thing about his conception. He concieves morality as a selve-evident concept, a basic property of the universe. And of course to see this, once has to be capable of thinking rationally. It also ties in deeper with his conception of laws: if only rational beings can percieve morality, only rational being can act on morality; only rational beings can be moral, thus: the only universal thing is a Good Will.

Kant’s uses Natural Law, essentially saying that the universe is rational, we are rationally constructed, our faculties have purposes, and we should act towards those purposes or else we’re being irrational, and thus going against the order of the universe. Rationallity is his whole justification for why the universe somehow mandates that we act a certain way, and so all of the justifications for “laws” of morality have to be centered around rationality. If they’re justified in any other way, they: a) do not follow a rational structure, and so the theory of a rational universe becomes weaker; b) they cannot be immediately and (possibly) rationally recognized, being based on irrational motives, which weakens Kant’s idea of a Good Will.

If a Good Will is acting as a rational being, and it is the only universally good thing, then morality have to be things that only a rational being can enact, otherwise things besides a Good Will can be used to act morally (I think he would say this against Mill, that Mill is allowing animals to be agents of morality). Thus, all rules of morality have to be recognizable by rational thought, otherwise it cuts the Good Will out of the loop, or at least delegates it to a shared possition.


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Categorical Imperative

November 1, 2008
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According to Kant’s theory of categorical imperative, an action can only be deemed moral if it would be possible for everyone to do the action at once, without the rule becoming self contradictory or self destructive. This is easily applied to cheating.

In order for it to be moral to cheat on a test, the statement behind it (to get a good grade, cheat) would have to be universalizable (everyone would have to be capable of doing it at once, at the very least). If you think about it, this isn’t possible with cheating. If everyone cheated at the same time, then at the very least the teacher would fail everyone, which would prevent anyone from getting a good grade. Thus, the statement is self contradictory, so no moral rule could be made from it. Or, what would happen is if this happened long enough tests would be eliminated, and so you could not cheat on them to gain a good grade. Thus the statement is self contradictory, so no moral rule could be made from it. Essentially, the rule is proved to be incomplete, since it only works when a few do it, and so it is incomplete, and not universal. Kant, Mill, and most moral philosophers, argue that a moral rule has to be able to be applied to everyone equally, but if only 1% at a time could follow the rule without it canceling itself out, then it isn’t much of a moral rule at all.

This ultimately comes down to equilibrium. Human social interaction, and survival, is based on maintenance of equilibriums: if we farm every single plant and animal off of the planet, then we ourselves will die, etc. Actions like cheating are leaching actions, that take something but provide nothing in return to the general group. Such actions cannot be sustained, in the same way that if one person hunts an animal then it is alright, but if everyone hunts them then the animal dies out. Everyone can’t cheat at once; cheating requires a majority to be doing the right thing, which the cheater leaches off of. Kant’s argument against ever performing such an action is essentially: what makes you so special? Why would you be allowed to cheat and no-one else? But if everyone cheats then it becomes pointless, so to be fair, no-one must cheat.


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I am a person. I am alive. I am capable of mechanical motion. My respiratory system is functional, as is my digestive, and circulatory system. My neurons operate.

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