We need a whole different way to do ethics. A very old one, really.
In part I of this essay we have examined the so-called “repugnant conclusion,” the idea — as explained by Torbjörn Tännsjö in a piece that appeared in Gawker — that we should have as many children as possible, even though this may (indeed, very likely will) lead to a planet where life is “barely worth living.”
I have explained that this, which in honor of Jeremy Bentham I renamed “the nonsense-on-stilts conclusion,” stems out of utilitarian reasoning and its flawed on a number of levels.
To recap: i) pace the arguments of influential philosopher Derek Parfit (who originated this whole “repugnant conclusion” business), it’s debatable whether we have moral duties toward generic “future generations” (while I have argued that we do have moral duties toward specific individuals that we purposely decide to bring into the world); ii) it isn’t clear why the utilitarian definition of happiness should be the one to prevail in moral discourse; iii) even if we did agree with such definition, it is hard to see how it could sensibly be operationalized (i.e., how one would go about actually quantifying and comparing the happiness of different hypothetical worlds); and iv) philosophers have proposed plenty of objections to the whole idea of utilitarian ethics anyway (of which the repugnant conclusion was actually originally one!).
But I also ended part I with fairly strong words: “I will argue that the sort of reasoning that leads to the repugnant conclusion is nothing less than a clear telling sign of the corruption of the entire contemporary concept of moral philosophy. Rather than accepting the conclusion, we should reject the very way moral discourse is currently being carried out.” Time to deliver on this particular promise.
Modern ethical theorizing is full of thought experiments and appeal to intuitions with regard to highly simplified, and most extreme, hypothetical situations. Besides Tännsjö’s “Small happy World vs Big Bad World,” which we have seen last time, we also have Peter Singer’s famous “would you ruin your new Italian leather shoes in order to save a child?” question, not to mention a cottage industry of thought experiments about runaway trolleys, so much so that people have (rather disparagingly) started talking about a new branch of moral philosophy known as “trolleology.”
This rather debatable state of affairs is due to the fact that moral philosophy has turned into a beast that seems more interested in making outrageous claims about our alleged duties than to actually do what it is supposed to be doing: help real people navigate their real lives in a philosophically more informed manner.
This, in turn, is the result of the fact that in modern philosophical parlance “ethics” is the study of whether action X is right or wrong, and the answers sought are “universal,” i.e., independent of actual individuals. Utilitarianism isn’t the only culprit here, though it is arguably the major one. John Rawls’ famous communitarian “veil of ignorance,” which is supposed to help us figure out how to build an ideal society, is yet another entirely abstract notion with pretty much no connection to the real world. And sure enough, most people (and policy makers) have blatantly ignored trolleys, veils, and hypothetical Italian leather shoes while still engaging in ethical decision making, every day, the world over.
It wasn’t always like this. When it started out, in ancient Greco-Roman times, Western ethics was concerned with an altogether different question, and it took an entirely different viewpoint: instead of taking the view from nowhere, it began with real individuals as its focus, and its overarching question was not “what is the right thing to do?” but rather “how am I to live?” Ethics (a word that comes from the Greek êthos, meaning character), or morality (from the Latin moralis, meaning habits, or customs) was the fundamental discipline within philosophy, and it came with an associated concept of happiness, eudaimonia, which roughly translates to “flourishing.” The concern, then, was how to live a just and fulfilling life, one upon which you could look back on your deathbed and justifiably feel good about it. There was definitely concern for others, including the next generation, but this concern was very concrete, grounded in the here and now (hic et nunc, as the Romans put it) of the human condition — not in hypothetical thought experiments and intuition pumps.
Some modern philosophers are returning to the eudaimonic concerns of moral philosophy. Philippa Foot, Alasdair MacIntyre, and Martha Nussbaum, to mention some of the most prominent ones. One of these, William Irvine, bluntly put it: “The obvious place to look for a philosopher of life is in the philosophy department of the local university. … But unless we are at an unusual university, we will find no philosophers of life in the sense I have in mind.” And that’s a real shame.
And as Epicurus famously said: “Vain is the word of a philosopher which does not heal any suffering of man. For just as there is no profit in medicine if it does not expel the diseases of the body, so there is no profit in philosophy either, if it does not expel the suffering of the mind.”
Isn’t it time to make the word of modern philosophers a little less vain and a bit more useful to the rest of society?
MASSIMO PIGLIUCCI IS THE K.D. IRANI PROFESSOR OF PHILOSOPHY AT THE CITY COLLEGE OF NEW YORK. HIS BACKGROUND IS IN EVOLUTIONARY BIOLOGY AND THE PHILOSOPHY OF SCIENCE, THOUGH HE HAS RECENTLY DEVELOPED A KEEN INTEREST IN STOICISM. HIS MOST RECENT BOOK (CO-EDITED WITH MAARTEN BOUDRY) IS “PHILOSOPHY OF PSEUDOSCIENCE: RECONSIDERING THE DEMARCATION PROBLEM” (UNIVERSITY OF CHICAGO PRESS, 2013). HIS OTHER WRITINGS CAN BE FOUND AT PLATOFOOTNOTE.ORG.