Recall from my last blog, that human beings ask questions about nature of morality. In the process of prescriptive inquiry, we employ a technical vocabulary. We also invoke theories to explain the nature of morality. All moral theories address the questions of what is Good, why it's Good, and where the Good is located? If there is anything "easy" about moral inquiry it's the fact that there are only three basic kinds of prescriptive moral theories: teleological theories, deontological theories, and virtue-based theories. Unfortunately, they often (but not always) provide different and mostly conflicting answers to these basic questions. In this blog I'll focus on Teleological Moral Theories.
Teleological moral theories locate moral goodness in the consequences of our actions and not the action itself. According to teleological (or consequentialist) moral theory, all rational human actions are teleological in the sense that we reason about the means of achieving certain ends. Moral behavior, therefore, is goal-directed. I have ice in my gutters right now. I am deliberating about when and how to get that ice out in order to prevent water damage inside the house. There are many strategies (means) that I might employ to remove that ice (end). Should I send my oldest son, Eli, up on the icy roof today? After careful deliberation I finally decided not send him on the roof because it is slippery and he might fall. How did I decide? Well, I took into account the possible consequences. There is nothing inherently wrong with climbing on the roof. What made roof climbing the morally wrong thing to do at this particular time and place were the possible consequences. The issue has moral significance in so far as it affects persons. So from the teleological point of view, human behavior is neither right nor wrong in and of itself. What matters is what might happen as a consequence of those actions in any given context. Thus, it is the contextualized consequences that make our behavior, good or bad, right or wrong. In the case of roof climbing in the winter, I decided to climb up on the roof myself, because it's dangerous. Eli might fall off and get hurt. If that happened, my wife would blame me and so would the community. But if I fell off the roof, I would be judged to be imprudent, but not necessarily immoral.
From a teleological standpoint, stealing, for example, could not be judged to be inherently right or wrong independent of the context and the foreseeable consequences. Suppose I am contemplating stealing a loaf of bread from the neighborhood grocery store. Many moral theorists would argue that morality requires an analysis of my motives (or intent) that brought about that behavior. However, from a teleological perspective, motives really have nothing to do with the rightness or wrongness of the act. What really matters lies in the potential pains and pleasures associated with the short-term and long-term consequences. If my children were starving, and if stealing a loaf of bread would immediately prevent them from starving, then I might seriously consider stealing.
But I'd have to know if the consequences would significantly harm the grocery store? What would be the odds of getting caught? If I got caught, what would happen to me? Would I go to jail? Get fined? If I went to jail, who would take care of my children? Therefore, even if my motive (preventing my children from starving) was praiseworthy, the act of stealing might still be wrong because other actions might be more cost-effective in bringing about the desired consequences. Perhaps I'd be better off signing up for food stamps or asking the storeowner to give me day-old bread. On the other hand, suppose that there were no other options and that I invented a foolproof system for stealing bread. Would I be wrong for doing it? If you think about the consequences of your actions when you make moral decisions, you are applying teleological moral theory.
Teleological moral theories must somehow connect the consequences of human behavior to the foundational moral concepts of good and bad, right and wrong, and moral and immoral. The hallmark of most teleological moral theories is that they identify these moral concepts with pleasure and pain, or happiness and unhappiness. Hence, moral acts are considered good, right, and/or moral in so far as they lead to pleasurable consequences; and bad, wrong, or immoral if they lead to painful consequences. This longstanding moral doctrine is called hedonism. Now once we accept the hedonist doctrine that the good=pleasure and bad=pain, we find ourselves faced with a number of interesting philosophical dilemmas.
If there is a compelling reason to accept hedonism, it is the fact that all human beings have the ability to differentiate between pain and pleasure. When we experience pleasure or pain, we are immediately aware of that fact. We are also immediately aware of the fact that pain and pleasure are subject to greater or lesser degrees. In general, we universally seek pleasure, and avoid pain. According to many hedonists pleasure and pain can be quantified and therefore, they argue, that it open to objective, descriptive scientific inquiry.
Many hedonists observe that pleasures and pains can be measured in quantitative terms such as: intensity, duration, fecundity, and likelihood. Today, the intensity of pleasure and pain can be indirectly measured with the use of state-of-the-art brain imaging technology. We now know that certain kinds of pleasures light up specific parts of the brain and that intensity correlates with the degree to which the brain lights up. The human orgasm is generally acknowledged to be one of the more intense pleasures that human beings can experience. Scientists have observed the brain activities that accompany orgasms under scientific conditions, and know what specific parts of the brain light up. Interestingly, it is the same part of the brain that lights up when human beings have another intense experience; that is religious experiences. Most adults have had orgasms, few have had religious experiences. As a general rule, the intensity of the pleasure associated with eating pizza is much less intense than orgasm. However, if you get a bad pizza, or if you eat too much of it, and subsequently, throw up, that can be a pretty intense pain. And, some human beings are physically incapable of having an orgasm. Naturally, they tend to rank pizza higher on the pleasure scale.
The duration of pains and pleasures can be accurately measured with the assistance of a much older technological device; a simple clock. The duration of the pleasure associated with pizza eating is contingent upon how much pizza is available, and how tasty your pizza is, and how fast you eat it. In general it's probably true that if your brain generates pleasurable experience while you are eating pizza, that pleasure usually lasts about thirty minutes, at best. If you stretch that experience much more than that the pleasure diminishes proportionately. If you eat it one molecule at a time you will not experience intensity at all, but it would take a long time to eat the pizza. If you eat it too fast, you might also miss out on a lot of the intensity.
At best the human orgasm lasts only a few seconds, although the sensual experiences that lead up to orgasm are also pleasurable. Depending upon your sexual prowess these lower-level sensual activities can last quite a while, but that orgasm will still only last a few seconds. Although I haven't checked out the research, I'd estimate the average duration of pleasurable sexual activity and pizza eating to be about thirty minutes. A skilled hedonist learns how to maintain maximum intensity and duration of the experience of pleasure.
The experience of pleasure and pain is very complex. Sometimes pleasurable experiences lead to painful consequences and sometimes painful experiences lead to pleasurable consequences. Some pleasures are more likely to lead to other pleasures. The fecundity of a pleasure, therefore, refers to the probability that it will lead to future pleasures. Admittedly, the pleasures associated with reading Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics registers low on the intensity scale (it may occasionally even fall into painful zone) and it takes about a week to read it, and therefore it has more duration than sex or pizza eating.
However, the intensity, duration, and fecundity of pleasure are often subject to the laws of probability; that is to say; there is often a quantifiable likelihood that some human acts that one would anticipate to be pleasurable turn out to be painful, and some normally painful acts turn out to be pleasurable. Generally speaking, if you like eating pizza, it is usually a reliably pleasurable experience. But sometimes you do overeat and/or get a lousy pizza. Female orgasms are dependent up acquired skills, and therefore are less likely than male orgasms. But females also have the capacity to experience multiple orgasms, whereas males a refractory period between orgasms. The likelihood, of having a child after having unprotected sex is fairly low, depending on whether there is a fertilizable ova present. And, pregnancy can be interpreted as being either good (pleasurable) or bad (painful), depending upon the context. If you do have children, both the pains and pleasures can have a long of duration: your entire lifetime.
Some hedonists distinguish between higher intellectual pleasures and lower physical pleasures. The physical pleasures that typically light up our spinal cord and the inner regions of our brains tend to score high in intensity and likelihood, but rather low in duration and fecundity. Intellectual pleasures involve the pleasures associated with higher-level thinking that result from exercising the cerebral cortex. These pleasures typically lack in intensity, but often register high in duration and fecundity. I've read Aristotle's Ethics many times and have experienced new (low intensity) pleasures every time. But if you happen to read at a third grade level, the likelihood of you ever "cashing in" on the experience of reading Aristotle is remote. Nevertheless, most (but not all) hedonists argue that "higher" intellectual pleasures are somehow quantitatively superior to "lower" physical pleasures.
Other philosophers, argue that even if it turns out that the higher pleasures are quantitatively inferior to lower pleasures, they are nevertheless, qualitatively superior. What exactly this means is beyond my philosophical acumen. Is classical music really qualitatively superior to bluegrass music or rock and roll? Nevertheless, the vast majority of practicing hedonists acknowledge that the "Good Life" ultimately consists in a good mix of both higher intellectual and lower physical pleasures. After all, even philosophers occasionally eat, drink, and have sex. On the other hand, if you live life wallowing like a pig in the lower pleasures, and never experience the higher pleasures, your life will probably be shorter and the variety of pleasures experienced will be very limited. If you neglect the lower pleasures you probably won't have many friends and you'll probably not live very long either.
Finally, the intensity, duration, fecundity, and likelihood of experiencing pleasure can be predicated over the long-term and short-term. There are many pleasures such as smoking tobacco that are highly pleasurable over the short-term, but highly painful over the long term. Other pleasures, such as vigorous physical exercise and practicing violin scales can be painful over the short-term, but tend to pay off over the long run. The basic problem with managing our personal pains and pleasures over the course of our lifetimes is that it is usually much easier to predict the intensity, duration, fecundity, and likelihood of short-term pains and pleasures. Unfortunately, that's why most of us tend to overly indulge ourselves in short-term pleasures like smoking, having unprotected sex, and running up credit card debt, often at the expense of our long-term pleasure.
So, hedonists argue that morality consists in choosing pleasurable consequences over painful consequences. If this is true, the next question we have to deal with is "Whose pleasure counts?" There are two moral traditions egoism and altruism. Both theories are subject to descriptive and prescriptive philosophical analysis.
Egoism is the hedonistic doctrine that holds that the "Good Life" consists in the optimal experience of personal pleasure. Altruism is the hedonistic doctrine that states that the "Good Life" consists in cultivating the experience of pleasure in others. Of course, both doctrines are subject to philosophical debate. Descriptively, we might ask, "Are human beings, in fact, selfish or altruistic by nature?" Prescriptively we might ask, "Is human selfishness and/or altruism good?"
First of all, let's be honest and admit that the descriptive question of whether human beings are selfish or altruistic can be resolved fairly easily based on empirical observation. When we objectively observe human behavior over the long course of history it's hard to ignore the fact that we humans do, more often than not, pursue personal pleasure, and often do so at the expense of others. So let's provisionally designate egoism as the default position. But let's also admit that human beings also often sacrifice personal pleasure, and even endure pain, for the sake of others. But we're much more likely to exhibit altruistic behavior toward our close relatives and friends than toward strangers. Therefore, in human nature we find a lot of egoism and kin altruism. Finally, let's also observe that most religions and moral codes encourage their believers to increase altruistic behavior and decrease egoistic behavior. In short, human nature propels us toward egoism and kin altruism while human culture propels us toward altruism.
Descriptive egoism states that human beings are, as a matter of fact, selfish and that we are more often prone to serve our own interests than the interests of others. Prescriptive egoism takes the view that selfishness morally good. The most cogent defense of prescriptive egoism can be found in Western economics, which is based on the premise that when human beings act out of self-interest, it's good for everyone. Free market capitalism, which is based on reciprocity, provides the most efficient and humane way to distribute resources. When two rationally self-interested human beings cooperate with one another based on mutual self-interest, we call it reciprocal altruism. Is that really altruism, or is it just egoism? We'll talk more about that later.
Descriptive altruism says that human beings are programmed by nature, to sacrifice their own self-interest in order to advance the interests of others. Prescriptive altruism says that, even if it is true that human beings are naturally selfish, it is not good. Good human behavior, they argue, must intentionally address the pleasure and pains of others. Prescriptive altruism is contingent upon knowledge of what others regard as painful and pleasurable and the capacity to avoid pain and promote pleasure for others. We can't assume that everyone likes pizza.
In sum, teleological theories generally require that we anticipate how pleasure and pain (or, happiness or unhappiness) will be distributed as a consequence of our actions. Therefore, teleological moral theorists, are usually hedonists who believe that all morally good acts promote pleasure and that all morally bad acts promote pain. In the social context, the obvious question is whose happiness counts in this cost-benefit analysis? Again, an egoist believes that moral decisions ought to be based on how one's personal happiness or pleasure is affected by that decision. An altruist thinks that moral decisions ought to take into account how other people are affected.
TERMS TO REMEMBER: Teleological, Consequences, Short-Term Consequence, Long-Term Consequences, Cost-Benefit Analysis, Egoism, Altruism, Descriptive Egoism, Prescriptive Egoism, Descriptive Altruism, Prescriptive Altruism.