mercredi 6 mai 2015

On the ignorance of moral philosophers

 Over the years my online reading has expanded to encompass several philosophical blogs. Of course we all love (phil) knowledge (sophy). So I suppose by a philosophical blog I mean a blog written by someone formally engaged in the activity promulgated by university philosophy departments.
Now in the course of this, I've started to note a pattern in philosophical discourse, in which the author feels free to devise some fairly simplistic example,* and then uses it to reason towards some questioning of a universal value. Here is a recent example, written by Richard Chappell, a philosopher interested in morality at the University of York. In it, he questions the idea that people are equally worthy of moral consideration by inviting us to consider our actions faced with Gandhi and Hitler (as personifications of good and evil presumably) and a single dose of a painkilling drug. I didn't like this, and submitted the following comment:

1) Who was responsible for stock control of the analgesic drugs? Poor job. Most well-established analgesics are cheap. Even with more resource-intensive treatments, there are usually ample rational criteria for selecting patients in whom the treatment would be most beneficial, other than their wealth or putative moral status.
2) The safest, most practical, and most moral course of action is to treat everyone, Hitler, Gandhi (who was no saint), Gilles de Rais, whoever, with as much professional élan as you can muster. In the British Army Medical Corps, for example, there is a certain ethical pride in treating all casualties optimally, whether friend or foe. It's called respect for the Geneva Convention. Would you like to rescind it? And more generally, to do otherwise, in the healthcare domain, is potentially an assault on the patient's right to life. Or perhaps you're planning to do away with human rights as well?
3) In a world in which even professors of moral philosophy question the moral equality of every human being, it is particularly important to be known for trying to treat everyone as well as possible, should you yourself need treatment one day. Imagine a judgmental doctor who considered moral philosophers worthless blowhards and treated them less favourably in some way. That would be awful.

Of course, M. Chappell has no obligation to publish any remark of mine, though I note that he has posted ten other comments, all more cosy to his way of thinking. Setting this comment up has proved somewhat tedious, but I post it here anyway on the general principle that such rejected comments are the most important ones to publish. And Chappell's ideas must be classed in that flora of delicate organisms which survive only under laboratory-controlled conditions, with little, if any, relevance to contemporary problems.

*Stevan Harnad posted a particularly objectionable example of the genre on his Google+ profile recently, inviting the following "thought experiment":
"You are a driver of a runaway train hurtling towards a set of points. You have a switch that can send the train one way or another, but you can't stop. On one track your child has been tied to the rails. On another, someone else's child. What do you do?"
This was presumably designed to evoke contemplation of justice and family values, but my first reaction was: "Well, who's going around tying children to railway lines?" and "err, given the supposèd urgency of the situation, how come you've got this perfect information on the identities of the children ahead?"
But such refusal to join in the philosophical game I fear makes me an unsuitable playmate in this playground.
I dislike all this for the useless waste of time and energy it represents. It is misguided. There is no shortage of real world ethical and moral problems. Why not use your talents and energy to discover and describe real things that have actually happened, then reason about them?
Update 28/1/19 The trolley problem is everywhere. I suspect people are finding it a useful pre-packaged discourse on the problems of self-driving cars. I doubt if it's the most effective way into consideration of road danger reduction issues. Still, cars that respect all road traffic rules? Bring 'em on.
I particularly liked this quote, by an engineer working at X, Google's autonomous vehicle division: "the answer is almost always ‘slam on the brakes'". To which one might add: "Don't go too fast in the first place."

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