14 February 2008

Last thursday I attented a lecture in a series of lectures on ethics and evolution. Since I thought it was a wonderful experience, entertaining as well as informing, I wanted to share it.

The central theme of the series of lectures is the relation between ethics and evolution. The series are multi-disciplinary with dimensions ranging from philosophical, cultural historical, political, biological, game theoretical to anthropological. A seemingly impossible task, but if one can do it, it will be Herman Philipse, philosopher and jurist.

The first lecture sketched the crisis in the foundations of moral in the nineteenth century. Philipse addresses the three main systems of morality, of which there are still adherents today. Those are godcommandtheory [godsgebodtheorie], Kant's categorical imperative, and Mill's Utilitarianism. Philipse discussed the pro's and con's of every theory.

The first theory insists on doing what God commands, which is naturally good. It is a simple, explanatory theory. Problematic, however, is how we should know what God wants. There are a multitude of religions, from which to choose? How thrustworthy are revelations? The immorality of theonomy [God's law] in certain bible passages was recounted [Elijah on the mountain Karmel 1 Kings 18:20-46]. The most interesting critique of theonomy was the Euthyphro dilemma [Plato]. Is (x) something good because God wants it, or (y) does God want what is good? The first (x) makes God arbitrary, the second (y) makes God superfluous. Added to this is that God has revealed nothing that humanity did not know already. The ten commandments for example are basically universal. Maybe we should find out for ourselves what is good and moral.

Kant thought we should impose on ourselves moral laws/maximes. His autonomical ethical system is based on the categorical imperative. It states that 1) we should act according with that maxime, which we can want at the same time to be a general or universal law, and 2) we should not use people only as a means to and end, but at the same time as an end in themselves. In the case of a liar, he can not want everybody to lie, because lying is a parasitical act on people's believe in thrustworthiness. This makes it impossible to want lying to be universal. Problems with Kants ethics are cases that apply to the two rules, but we would not consider moral and the possibility of a conflict of norms. In the first case, the misantropic (self)killer wants to kill all of humanity. If the whole of humanity wants that too, his goal can be accomplished. In the second case, can we lie to save a mans life? According to J.S. Mill: "Kant... fails grotesquely".

Mill tried to find the criterion of right and wrong and the foundation of morality. He found it in Utilitarianism which applied the greatest-happiness principle/ the principle of utility. "Actions are right in proportion as they tend to promote happiness, wrong as they tend to produce the reverse of happiness". What's more, the happiness of "the whole sentient creation". Not only humans are thus taken into account, which makes a first problem. Should we want to improve the happiness of bugs and flies, as they provide the greatest amount of biomass? And how to justify the greatest-happiness principle? Mill argues "questions of ultimate ends are not amenable to direct proof. The only proof capable of being given that an object is visible, is that people actually see it... In like manner, I apprehend, the sole evidence it is possible to produce that anything is desirable, is that people do actually desire it." Philipse strikingly noted the double fallacy of this argument. 'Visible' and 'desirable' are not the same words. The first implies a 'can', the second an 'ought'. Second, people wish the happiness of their loved ones, not "the whole sentient creation". The problems become worse when seeing the implications of utilitarianism. Can we kill one man to save hundred animals? In which term should happiness be calculated? Should we save hundreds of people in Africa from hunger now, which will make the problems of overpopulation worse later, or should we not? What to do?

The conclusion is that no (the three) attempt to found ethics works. They all have their merits, but also serious downsides. Next lecture will be on the historical Darwin and his ethical system for humanity [the Descent of Man 1871]. Herman Philipse combined linguistic eloquence, rethorical elegance, academic skill, good humour, erudite knowledge, sharp analysis, and profundity into a masterpiece of a lecture. Next time I'll be attending again.


Ruben said...

Thanks for sharing! Studium Generale often has some great lectures. I've put the link on the blog.

Paul said...

Hello. I just thought you might like to read this article:
"A Christian Answer to the Euthyphro Dilemma" (link).

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