Saturday, October 23, 2010

Responses 010 (2011-2012)

Well, after being more cryptic than usual for this round of responses to the latest list, I am happy to be at the end of yet another season of Fun With Epistemology. Kidding... but I will still leave a complete link-list at the end of this post for everyone's greater ease-of-use.

Here's Question 10, the last of the season: " 'Through different methods of justification, we can reach conclusions in ethics that are as well-supported as those provided in mathematics.' To what extent would you agree?"

Ah, this one is a tricky one, make no mistake. Note the phrase 'different methods of justification'. Immediately, this centres the question around the issues of how one supports conclusions in different areas of knowledge, supports them in different ways, and yet is able to claim that they are conclusions that are equally well-supported.

First, we need to define 'ethics', something which is vaguely and variously defined no matter how you look at it. The problem with defining 'ethics' is that we speak English, but 'ethics' came from the Greeks. Roman culture produced 'morals' as a sort of synonym, but the two are not the same. A simple test shows this to be true: we speak of medical ethics, but not medical morals nor medical morality; we speak of legal ethics, but not legal morals nor legal morality.

I first said something about ethics in the context of such discussions here. The last paragraph of that post talks about how the grounds for an ethical basis arise. A better place to look is this post, in which I clearly outline the difference with support from an empirical (frequency-of-usage) approach.

Once we can define ethics, we can start thinking about how we reach conclusions about ethics. One of the most straightforward ways is some form of Kantian argument, in which we ask the question, "What if everyone in the world saw action X as a morally good thing compared to action not-X?" and figure out the consequences. This would make murder an unethical thing because if everyone committed murder, there wouldn't be enough of a society left to have any ethics. This is also true of many things, but it leads to logical consequences like thinking of contraceptive technology as morally evil — and also things like eating Big Macs. I'm sure you can see what else could be problematic.

However, if we don't say 'everyone', the problem goes away and is replaced by another one called 'relativism', in which we might have to argue that anything can be good if done in the right context, or that there are no such things as good or evil — merely optimal and suboptimal solutions. This was where utilitarianism led us, to the idea that something called a 'moral calculus' exists — a kind of situational mathematical solution for the determination of what the most moral action should be.

Lines of reasoning like this are not necessarily supported by mathematical approaches such as statistics, algebra, or formal logic. However, they can be treated (by philosophers especially) as equivalent in support to some areas of mathematics; just as math can have conjectures, so too can ethics.

One interesting way of comparing math to something related to ethics can be found here. In a way, that post suggests the possibility of treating areas in the two domains the same way.

I would conclude that conclusions in ethics can (not 'will') be as well-supported as some conclusions in mathematics. I'm not sure that this is extensively true; ethics is a less closed system than mathematics is, and it is hard to consider ethics without metaphysics.


Here's the list of links:

Question List for 2011-2012

Response to Question 1
Response to Question 2
Response to Question 3
Response to Question 4
Response to Question 5
Response to Question 6
Response to Question 7
Response to Question 8
Response to Question 9


Again, I have to remind everyone that these posts are just my personal responses, somewhat off the cuff and sometimes with loopholes I've overlooked. If you are going to quote any of my elegant prose (haha), please ensure you cite the material appropriately and check its validity by your own research. Thanks!

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

The last one is a right head-wringer. Congratulations on another good series, teacher!

Sunday, October 24, 2010 5:37:00 am  
Blogger Trebuchet said...

Cuthbert: thank you very much; I hope to get better every year! :)

Tuesday, October 26, 2010 5:45:00 am  
Blogger Barry said...

I don´t think Kant´s universal law idea mean contraception must be immoral, it depends how you phrase it-
I accept that "should I use contraception all the time" leads us to, "everyone uses contraception all of the time, so soon there will be nobody to use contraception", thus an immoral act. However, if I say "should I use contraception to prevent unwanted pregancies", this leads us to a world that only contains parents who wanted children, which can exist, so it´s a moral decision.

Tuesday, May 31, 2011 11:28:00 pm  
Blogger Trebuchet said...

Barry: "Should I use contraception to prevent unwanted pregnancies" assumes that you would know whether you wanted a particular item before you had the opportunity to try it out. This is the hidden problem with all proactive defences, actually — are you sure you're doing the right thing before it happens?

Sometimes, yes. Sometimes, no. Your outcome might be something like: "A world that only contains people who had children by contraceptive failure, had lots of resources to support any eventual children and thus had them, wanted children and then found out otherwise afterwards, or who didn't care about contraception; and the children who resulted from these possibilities. And of course, people who wanted children but didn't get any, and children who were genuinely wanted and were born."

Complicated, right? :)

Wednesday, June 01, 2011 3:36:00 pm  

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