Thursday, February 18, 2010

Edenic Ethics and the Triumph of Teleology

Stories from the lives of Thomas More, Nephi, and Adam all suggest a specific ethical approach: deontology as a first line of defense, then shift to teleology when one's deontology is challenged.

Deontology ("Do your duty, that is best- leave unto the Lord the rest)
Teleology (rightness of a choice is measured by its consequences)

I cite three stories to illustrate.

First: Nephi was exceptionally deontological (specifically, he adhered to the species of deontology known as "divine command theory" e.g. 1 Nephi 3:7 I will go and do, returned to get the plates, built the boat, kept the record without knowing why [1 N 9:5], etc.). However, when God commanded him to slay Laban, instead of performing his deontological duty, he hesitated. Only the angel's teleological argument persuaded him (see my post on this topic).

Second: Okay, I'm going to cheat and cite two Adamic stories here which support the same characterization of Adam's behavior as fitting the ethical approach I identify. Adam, like Nephi behaved in accordance with divine command theory. He offered sacrifices- why? "I know not save the Lord commanded me." Did he condition his behavior on consequences while in the Garden? You may remember he said yes to Eve's question about whether he intended to obey all of the Father's commandments (so the answer is no). However, when his adherence to divine command theory was challenged by Eve's offering of the fruit he, like Nephi, capitulated on teleological/consequentialist grounds (he agreed to partake that man may be).

Third: Thomas More acted in Kantian (deontological) ways as evidenced by his refusals to endorse the King's divorce, accept a bribe, and engage in secretive counsels (see my essay below for More elaboration). However, at one point, his ethical position was challenged by Chancellor Wolsey: "when Wolsey’s initial persuasions fail, he turns to consequentialist persuasion: if an heir is not produced, bloody dynastic wars will result... Wolsey argues that a regrettable (duty breaching) means should be employed to avert the more horrific fate that will result if an heir is not produced." Like Nephi and Adam, when challenged, More devolved to teleology, choosing to maintain his position on the grounds that violating private conscience would have ill effects in excess of maintaining private conscience: "when statesmen forsake their own private conscience for the sake of their public duties they lead their country by a short route to chaos."

All three figures used deonotology as a first line of guidance in ethical decision making, but relied on teleology when the chips were down.

-Does the ethical approach of these three heroic figures suggest that deontology is merely a practical basis for the ethical behavior of cognitively limited mortals, but that the value of duties rests on consequentialist likelihoods? Can a duty bereft of this foundation be a moral basis for behavior? If duties are founded in teleological justifications, does that mean that an ethical person must develop the discernment to know when to question the duty and instead/additionally analyze the likely consequences of an act (else she would sometimes act unethically, such as by refusing the fruit in the garden)? Is a purely teleological or purely deontological approach more susceptible to confounding pluralism? If so, would the less-susceptible theory be a better basis for decision making?

- It seems difficult to conclusively valorize or vilify Eve's choice to partake of the fruit. I recall hearing it both ways (some say Eve's choice was wicked and brought net negative consequences; others say Eve should be honored for her choice). The gospel principles book says some people believe Adam and Eve committed a serious sin, but that latter-day scripture helps us understand that their Fall was a necessary step in the plan and a great blessing to us all. This implies one of two things: 1) that actions which are necessary and bring great blessings to others are never sins or 2) the Fall was both necessary and a sin. The first implication doesn't allow for vilification; the second prohibits valorization. When morally evaluating Eve's choice should one look at her culpable mind or only the effects of her action? How about both? It seems that a deontological evaluation and a teleological one will come out differently when applied to Eve's choice to partake. As has been shown, heroic figures employ both approaches: therefore, the difficulty in conclusively denigrating or extolling Eve's choice.

Dr Peck's Tips for Improving Personal Ethical Decision Making:

- Use all the information you can.  Ask for evidence, gather information, seek to reduce emotional interference
- Question/examine assumptions
- Use ethical theories to provide a framework
- Try to understand others' perspectives
- Do not be afraid to change your mind
- Remember ultimately that only you are responsible for your ethical response and choices

Is it possible that we'll be resurrected as we were for most of our lives; the body we are most familiar with--shortly before judgment?  And then, only later (and perhaps gradually) are our bodies glorified and resurrected?  It seems like a big transition to go through (having a perfected body after being disembodied preceded by mortally embodied), and the Alma scripture says: "both limb and joint shall be restored to its proper frame, even as we now are at this time; and we shall be brought to stand before God, knowing even as we know now."  Perhaps our recollections are heightened, but the full capacities of a celestial or terrestrial bodies aren't yet realized?  I'm just struggling to think of the magnitude and suddenness of the change.

Law and Literature Winter 2010-

A Man for All Seasons: The spectrum of moral reasoning

If you could just see facts flat on without that horrible moral squint
With a little common sense,you could have made a statesman.. –Wolsey
When this semester began, I was so excited. I had just finished the MPA program’s ethics class, and I was enrolled in three ethics classes at the law school: law and literature, professional responsibility, and biomedical ethics. Additionally, I lead a couple discussion sections of the bioethics class for undergraduates each week. Therefore, I knew this would be THE semester for me for ethics! I determined to increase my ethical sophistication and behavior. Bolt’s A Man for all Seasons auspiciously brings into relief the contrasting virtues and vices of some of the key currents in ethical theory. Below I show how the motifs of deontology, teleology, and morality as a discrete rather than continuous concept are highlighted in the play.

Kant and the categorical imperative

"Act only according to that maxim whereby you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law." – Immanuel Kant
Though I would like to research Kant’s ideas in greater depth, I will limit the analysis in this section to my rudimentary understanding of Kantism because of the direction to avoid extensive external research for the purposes of this paper. Kantism is a species of deontological thought and is one of the few ethical theories which is bold enough to propose black and white recommendations for behavior in certain situations because of the universalizability of its maxims. I will now show that More is a paragon of Kantism by illustrating several instances in the play of More’s compliance with certain categorical imperatives.
The first instance takes place when More and Cardinal Wolsey have their famous “private” meeting. Wolsey assures More that they are alone, implying that More should be more candid. To Wolsey’s claim that no one was there, More replies: “I didn't suppose there was, Your Grace.” An appropriate maxim for this instance would be that an individual when speaking with an authority or peer on a formal/business matter should manifest a lack of duplicity. Stated affirmatively, an individual in that category of circumstance should speak the same whether or not an audience of greater than the two interlocutors is listening. If that maxim holds, then More’s conduct complied with the maxim, and his conduct was therefore right. I might also mention that More’s behavior in this circumstance would also be valorized by a “public disclosure” ethical analysis, which asks whether people would approve of conduct in a situation if the conduct and its context were objectively portrayed on the 5 o’clock news (or, to use a scriptural phrase, “revealed upon the house-tops:” Mormon 5:8). In this instance, a hypothetical reading or watching audience would almost certainly approve of More’s refusal to change his behavior in a secret or private setting.
A second instance takes place in More’s home when Richard enters and pleas for More to employ him. Richard: “Employ me.” More: “No.” R: “Employ me!” M: “No.” R: “I would be faithful.” M: “You couldn't answer for yourself even so far as tonight.” There are two germane maxims with which More complies in this instance. The first is that, absent a persuasive reason to the contrary, an individual should be consistent in his or her decisions. Here, More denied the first request; mere repetition of the request, though it applied social pressure, did not add a persuasive reason upon which basis an individual in that situation should reverse his or her first denial. More maintained his position. The second apposite maxim is that, when making decisions, one should give greater credence to the relevant past behavior of the individual than to that individual’s attestations. Here, Richard promises to be faithful. His past conduct, however, indicates a propensity towards infidelity. Thus, assuming no other dispositive factors, More made the decision most consistent with the conclusion suggest by the maxim, namely that he should deny Richard’s request.
The third instance, again, occurs during the private dialog between More and Wolsey. During their conversation, Wolsey emphasizes the problem of the barrenness of the king’s wife. Wolsey challenges More: “The king wants a son. What are you going to do about it?” Somewhat surprisingly, More replies that he prays for a miracle, citing biblical precedent for the reversal of barrenness. The maxim here would be to place faith in God and prayer, especially in circumstances where a miracle seems requisite.
The fourth and last instance I will highlight comes from More’s trial, when More says that “The world must construe according to its wits.” The maxim here is to ensure that responsibility is distributed justly. For More to assume responsibility for the world’s judgment would be unethical because a judge alone is responsible for his own acts of judgment. I could detail a fifth instance of when More refuses to voice his approval of the king’s infidelity while in prison, but I stop here. In sum, all these four instances paint a picture of a man with a deontological conscience.

Utilitarian motifs

"The consequences of a particular action form the basis for any valid moral judgment about that action." –
When Nephi breached his deontological duty of following God by hesitating to obey His commandment to slay Laban, the Lord tried the alternative tactic of applying a utilitarian argument: “better that one man should perish than that a nation should dwindle and perish in unbelief” (1 Nephi 4:13). Similarly, when Wolsey’s initial persuasions fail, he turns to consequentialist persuasion: if an heir is not produced, bloody dynastic wars will result. In a Machiavellian form of common sense (remember the very first quote on page 1 above), Wolsey argues that a regrettable (duty breaching) means should be employed to avert the more horrific fate that will result if an heir is not produced. Here’s a significant test: will More stick to his deontological guns or will he instead compete on teleological turf? More does indeed take Wolsey’s assertion to task, arguing the deleterious consequence of chaos: “when statesmen forsake their own private conscience for the sake of their public duties they lead their country by a short route to chaos.”
This example points to the conclusion that More’s conscience is about half teleological and half deontological. One more piece of evidence bolsters this deduction: the contrast provided by the “common man” characters in the play. From the servant to the boatman to the jailor to the jury foreman, each common/base man acts with an eye only to those consequences that will affect self-interest while ignoring consequences that accrue to other stakeholders. They perform their duties with moral blinders on and therefore look increasingly guilty and morally inferior compared with More, who seeks to do the right thing irrespective of personal consequence (up to and including losing his life). Additionally, even in his more Kantian moments, it could be argued that his conduct will result in a net positive in the long-term if his views of God and eternal reward/punishment bear out, making his deontological conduct susceptible to re-categorization as utilitarian.

The Spectrum of Morality

Having illustrated the two main bases of More’s ethics, I will now evaluate whether More’s conscience and conduct engender a discrete rather than a continuous conception of morality. Like the martyr valorized by both Maimonides and Maimonides’s object of criticism, the offending rabbi, More took a stand on an issue of personal conscience at the expense of his life. This taking a stand seems to make morality discrete: i.e. to not take a martyr’s stand as More did would be immoral, while reacting as More did in the situation would be moral. By way of comparison, In Maimonides’s Letter, Jews had to decide whether to speak the Mohammedan oath; in More’s situation, he also had to choose to swear a false oath or die. If More had chosen to take the oath in order to seek other ends, such as fulfilling his wife’s preference that he live, his capitulation would seem to suggest the existence of a moral gradient (the contours of which would be defined by the net consequence bundle of competing alternatives). By choosing to live, he could bring about many positive consequences he would be otherwise incapable of. This is similar to Maimonides’s arguments to make ethically acceptable efforts to minimize/ameliorate apostate speech and behavior in lieu of martyrdom. The relatively extreme costs More was willing to pay in order to maintain his fidelity to principle expose a more black and white attitude opposed to strategic compromises with evil.


More’s conscience reflects a high level of ethical development containing about equal parts Kantism and consequentialism. His conduct suggests a binary rather than an incremental morality. More also demonstrated a maxim worthy of emulation: remain true to yourself and your beliefs “under all circumstances and at all times, despite external pressure or influence.”

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