Thursday, October 1, 2009

Philosophy: Our Lack of Moral Imagination

In the thought experiments we create for the purposes of ethics, we show a disturbing lack of moral imagination. Indeed, this utterly famished faculty might itself be called immoral, and it certainly has the potential to lead to horridly evil acts on our part. Let me give an example. 

One question that gets brought up to challenge any moral system is rather, if given the chance, you would kill Hitler as a child to prevent the Holocaust. Now, apart from any consideration of the grim consequences that might arise from this act, this simply shows a disturbing trend in our philosophy. Note that the question does not say "What would you do if you had access to Hitler as a child?" No, it simply asks would you kill him. The thought experiment jumps straight to murder. The problem creates a dichotomy, a strict dichotomy, and teaches us to think in fixed terms, making it out that there are only two, utterly grim options. But how often does life really boil down to this kind of simplicity? How often are there really only two choices? I suggest, that with a better developed moral imagination we might think of far richer solutions.

So what if you had access to Hitler as a child? Why not redeem him? Why not do the things necessary to make the man Adolf Hitler grow up to be a good man? A man of justice and equity. Imagine a man of Hitler's charismatic powers working to make the world a better place. Now, you might think this impossible, you might say that evil was Hitler's innate nature, and that he could have been nothing other than what he had been. That may be the case, and I'm not going to get into an argument here about determinism, that's beside the point. What is the point is that we didn't even think of it, and that is a moral problem on our part.


  1. I think hindsight plays into this (obviously) and a modern day Hannibal's Code too. We think that since Hitler killed lots of people we must kill him in return. I don't entirely think its morals. . .its more a 'needs of the many' in which we kill one to save millions. . .but 'knowing' without a certain action something will happen. I support your viewpoint BUT I also feel that it isn't inherent immorality just a defense mechanism: kill the killer in self defense. I think we could use your viewpoint though.

    I, on the other hand, think of it from a quantum viewpoint. Sure, Htiler did awful things but if we snuff out his existence then certain countries don't unite, certain technologies aren't built (or are built later), people live, people die. . .the flap of the butterfly wing, blah blah. I wouldn't do anything to preserve history (unless it ends up defending itself). Is that a moral problem?

  2. Is it a moral problem?

    That's a complicated question. Are moral questions based on consequences? Or are they based merely on the action itself?

    Do I think it's a moral question? I suppose in some sense, but I do not think it nearly as important a moral as the point that we are willing to call it just kill an innocent.

    Much modern philosophy, by the way, is consequentialist (such as Utilitarianism) and considers only the foreseen consequences of an action, and not the content of the action itself. This is famously discussed in G.E.M. Anscombe's "On Modern Moral Philosophy".

  3. I'm merely offering some food for thought...

    This is difficult, as there is no objective basis for determining morality. In my own haughty opinion, a moral calculus along the lines of Immanuel Kant's categorical imperative would seem to be the ideal way to proceed with determining morality. Namely, we should try to judge morality according to the maxims on which one acts. I think the consequences of an action are important only in terms of how cognizant the agent is OF those consequences.

    Moreover, we should try to avoid claims such as moral or immoral. Reality (as we perceive it anyway) seems to seldomly be so black or white. It might suffice to say that meeting Hitler and adamently trying to dissuade him is the most moral choice one could make. At the same time, however, killing Hitler might also be a moral action (though not AS moral as trying to dissuade him). Moreover, if one tries to dissuade Hitler and is unsuccessful, killing Hitler AFTER trying this would thus be a far more moral choice than having simply killed him in the first place.

  4. Remember, we're not just talking about killing Hitler, we're talking about killing hitler as a child.

    Also, you're claim that there is no objective basis for determining morality is quite the claim to make without any evidence to it. I know of several moral systems that claim an objective basis, these would be (1)divine command theories, (2)Kantian intuitionist theories and (3)Neo-Aristotelian virtue ethics.

    (1) God exists, what is moral is declared by His law. End of story.

    (2) What you would make a universal maxim by the power of reason is made a moral claim. This is known as the categorical imperative.

    (3)Claims that there are genuine objective features of human life that constitute the flourishing life, that reason can determine these features and that it is objectively true that these are goods just as it is objectively true that eating carrots is good for your eyes.

    My own view is close to (3), though naturally with a Christian (Neo-Thomistic) twist.

    Rather morality is relative is one of those metaethical questions that makes Will's question difficult.

  5. 1. The idea of god and everything connoted by the concept is of our own creation. Through him we can justify whatever we want.

    2. I agree with Kant's claim that we can know nothing of things in themselves (Critique of Pure Reason). Our senses and intellect are subjective (I'd like to discuss this in greater detail and show you some interesting stuff I've found that confirms this conviction, but it would take quite a bit of time, and I should be studying as is at the moment anyway. Perhaps when next we meet, however)

    3. As much as I'd like to... I'm not going to go into the metaphysical nature of carrots and the manner in which we perceive them and their effects. It suffices to say, however, that objectively analyzing morality is a tad bit more difficult than analyzing the carrot.

    Undoubtedly this is a point over which we disagree. (The fact that I hail from a far more continental viewpoint certainly doesn't help much either). You might note that the fact that I regard morality as so utterly relative and subjective is precisely the reason that I feel trying to offer more "evidence" is entirely futile.

    Getting back to the matter at hand... the fact that Hitler is a child plays a far smaller role than does our cognizance of the crimes he will commit if left unattended. There are just so many factors that come into play... how easily would we be able to dissuade Hitler? How can we know that he is actually dissuaded? Wouldn't we have to spend an extensive amount of time with him in order to affect this sort of change? Though you might say that this sort of thought takes us out of the field of morality and into the field of political implementation, it is none the less something would likely enter the mind of a would-be assassin of Hitler. It is inevitably a moral consideration.

    Keep in mind, most of the things that really strongly set Hitler into the direction he went occurred around the time that he was a soldier in World War I. Child Hitler may have found adult Hitler to be repulsive if asked. All these sorts of difficulties aside, it comes down to us weighing the consequences of our inaction with those of our action. I don't think that you need a particularly strong utilitarian viewpoint to advocate in favor of killing Hitler in order to stave off the consequences of his survival.

    As for trying to dissuade him as opposed to killing him... the inherent degree of difficulty in dissuading him (and being sure that you've succeeded) does lend a great deal of support to your killing him.

  6. I'm afraid when it comes to psychological theories and the people who wrote them I have to bow out of the discussion. . .I have no background in that field of study though I appreciate the explanations so I could (pretend) to keep up. Haha.

    I think my question, in its very Star Trek way, was is it moral (or if we want to avoid that word) 'okay' to let the rise and fall of Hitler to happen so, from a timeline perspective, the world continues to grow as it does. I think, on a quantum level, the universe would be changed by such a domineering figure being killed, changed, or whatever and future civilization would thus change: technology wouldn't exist or created later, certain countries would rise while others fell, another Hitler might takes Hitler's place, etc.

    The arguments we are making, both in philisophy and psychology, are fallible because they are unprovable but its fun to discuss quantum morality/philosophy because, hell, maybe someday this discussion WILL have merit. I just was curious if taking NO action (killing, dissauding, etc) is correct since there is, if time travel was possible, GUARANTEED existence of a future crime.

  7. The idea of god and everything connoted by the concept is of our own creation.

    Again, huge claim. More important to our discussion here though is the huge mistake you're making here and elsewhere that's so common in continental "philosophy" - you're making perspective into reality. The fact is, if some sort of Natural Law exits, it exits, even if no one practices it, just as a stone in the middle of an uninhabited desert exists even if no one sees it. Certainly, senses and perspective are important, and can deceive us, but that doesn't give us the warrant to pretend there is no truth.

    Through him we can justify whatever we want.

    I do, however, agree with you here. People can justify any moral system, claiming it rests on divine command. Understand, however, that this isn't the same thing as there not being a divine command.

    As much as I'd like to... I'm not going to go into the metaphysical nature of carrots and the manner in which we perceive them and their effects. It suffices to say, however, that objectively analyzing morality is a tad bit more difficult than analyzing the carrot.

    Of course the analyzing of a carrot is easier than the analyzing of morality, but the fact that you bring metaphysics into this clearly demonstrates that you missed what virtue ethics is saying. Virtue ethics isn't claim a transcendent moral OBJECTIVE platonic good, but objective truths about human nature that make it healthy/beneficial/good to behave a certain way.

    Now, there's problems with all of these, but none of it gives us any reason to say that morality is relative. We can say moral practices are relative, and we may claim that morality itself has no existence beyond those practices. However, the fact of diverging moral practices is not enough justification to say that morality itself is relative. Remember, morality questions what we "ought" to do, not what is.

    the fact that Hitler is a child plays a far smaller role than does our cognizance of the crimes he will commit if left unattended

    I really cannot agree with you here. Hitler committed atrocities, but not as a child, as a child he was still an innocent.

    The arguments we are making, both in philisophy and psychology, are fallible

    All knowledge, or almost all of it, is fallible, my Continental friend is at least right about that much.

    As to whether it would be okay to let Hitler live for the sake of progress (that is what I think your saying) I would say no. Of course, my natural inclination is to loath Utilitarianism. I think the same principle that makes killing baby Hitler to prevent the Holocaust wrong makes it wrong to let him live merely for the sake of progress. Motivation matters.

  8. I meant to say that our arguments are kind of pointless because, at this point in time, we can't conduct experiments to prove them. Unless time travel does exist, someone has already changed history and all tha JJ Abrams malarchy has come true and there is more of me out there having this discussion in mulitple universes! Ha! (Just kidding).

    I, personally, would be morally confused if I was given the option to go back in time. Personally, I would have trouble killing someone so though I, myself, think it would be a good idea child or not (and I may lack imagination or, let's face it, morality for saying that) I would never pull the trigger (or what not). I also stand by my 'progress' theory because, like telling your pregnant wife 'if I could carry your child I would', it CAN'T happen. So, who knows. . .if I did travel back in time I might end up raising Hitler as my own child and say 'my world be damned!' at least in the name of progress as I know it now.

    Plus if I changed my world and my own existence I'd never know that I did it so. . .maybe the question is, in regards to the progress question, is a blank memory still an immoral one? Souls perhaps. . .jeez, my head hurts!