03 February 2010

The problem with tools

In the preceding post, we suggested that utilitarianism existed primarily as a piece of "ethical technology" designed to provide mechanisms to remove ethical issues from the complicated web in which they actually exist and produce quantifiable "scientific" solutions (the "felicific calculus" of Bentham). However, for a number of reasons, this turns out to be impossible, and the usefulness of utilitarianism becomes transformed into a monstrous uselessness.

Exhibit A in this transformation is the work on the highly popular modern "ethicist," Peter Singer. Professor Singer holds a prestigious chair at Princeton and his books are published by the presses of the leading universities of the world. He considers himself a utilitarian, and assumes the utilitarian premises to be self-evident, paying a scant 15 pages of his work Practical Ethics laying out his groundwork (and 7 of these 15 pages are in a subsection entitled "What Ethics is Not.") This does not seem to bother Mr. Singer, since he has set out to try the "application of ethics or morality -- I shall use the terms interchangeably -- to practical issues." Evidently the practical application of ethics requires a scant 15 pages of prologue. How much wiser Mr. Singer must be than the legions of philosophers who have written thick tomes on the topic of ethics or morality; how much wiser still than the billions of men and women whose consciences force them to wrestle with right and wrong! Now that such a great master has arisen, let us examine an early conclusion of his inquiry:

"I shall suggest that, having accepted the principle of equality as a sound moral basis for relations with others of our own species, we are also committed to accepting it as a sound moral basis for relations with those outside our own species - the non-human animals."

Thus begins the section entitled "Equality for Animals?" Yes, incredibly the cutting-edge conclusions of ethical technology are that human beings are in no way intrinsically superior to animals. This leads him to the perfectly reasonable conclusion that one may as well use mentally disabled adults or orphaned children for medical experimentation as an animal.

It was at this point that my disgust forced me to put down the work; thus I cannot share any of Professor Singer's further brilliant discoveries. I in no way am in favor of causing needless suffering to animals, but the very fact that I can consider whether or not I ought to kill and eat an animal seems to point to a manner in which I am superior to the animal. Mr. Singer does consider this point but is (I think willfully) unable to see how the intellectual differences between humans and animals are not simply quantitative but qualitative.

And thus the commonsense usefulness of utilitarianism finds itself transformed into something completely repugnant to common sense. This transformation was necessary from the very beginning; by abandoning any system of value that (to use a word that has been worn away almost completely) possesses a transcendent dimension, the mind degenerates into the madness of ratio being turned back upon itself and analytically removing more and more of itself until all that is left is the dark raging of an empty voice preaching to increasingly emptying classrooms. The attempt to use philosophical thinking as a means to some end is always doomed to failure. Just as the "broken drinking goblet like the Grail" in Frost's "Directive" is spelled so that "the wrong ones can't find it," the attempt to technologize ethics into a tool is doomed to failure.

I will hope in the near future to finish this trilogy with some very brief notes on what ethical philosophy ought to consist in, drawing from the example of Plato's Republic.

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