Saturday, February 21, 2009

Theory vs. Practice

Let me preface this by admitting that my formal training in philosophy, ethics, values, and logic is extremely limited. So while I often pretend to know what I’m talking about, really all I’ve got is a bare-bones understanding and an overinflated sense of my own abilities and knowledge. Now that I’ve got that out of the way….

I’m having a real difficulty grasping apparent disparity between theory and practice when it comes to ethics and belief systems. The comments on the last post regarding deontological versus consequentialist philosophies got me thinking about how what we say and how we act are often two totally different things (the old “do as I say, not as I do”). This is fine, of course, and probably just a natural course of events. I suppose it’s to be expected, given the extreme difficulty of living up to ideals.

However, if we do decide to accept that a) we aren’t perfect and b) we’re going to do less than ethical things in our lives as a matter of course (and I suppose we don’t absolutely have to accept these terms and we can continue to strive and live the Good Life, as in Socrates’ vision, but I personally don’t know of anyone who can or will do this), I don’t see how we can escape the curse of “justification” or the “lesser evil.”

[Real-life example: Let me lay out a scenario and see if it makes any sense. I’ll use something I’m familiar with, just to make it easier on me.

Claim: Causing pain to living beings is wrong. Agree? Seems pretty reasonable, I think.

All right, so let’s say medical research is being done, testing a new cancer drug. This has the potential to save human lives and ease suffering. However, we need subject to test this on before we can get into human trials and introduce the medicine to the medical community. So we’re going to run trials, first on mice, then dogs, then apes. Or whatever—it doesn’t really matter. The point is that during this process, many of these lab animals—some of whom are extremely intelligent and very sensitive to pain and emotions—are going to suffer.

Now, as far as I can tell, the only way to consider this scenario and judge its “rightness” appropriately is through some sort of do-the-ends-justify-the-means mindset. You may decide that yes, the potential to save human lives outweighs the negative side effects of causing pain to animals, or you may say that no, there is no excuse to justify such inhumane treatment. Needless to say, the former option is the much more accepted and prevalent one in our society. Regardless, however, you’re going to have to step outside the constraints of idealism and pure theory as you make your decision. In the end, I think the choice must (almost) necessarily be made out of consequentialism.]

So, while the theory of the ideal life is something that is excellent and that we should all try to live up to, I don’t think that it’s always exercisable in practice. Sometimes I think we’ve got to stoop to “lower” methods of thought when sorting out difficult, no-real-right-or-wrong problems.

Does this make sense? Am I totally off-base in my assumptions? Care to enlighten me?


Mark said...

I think in general if you find a problem with a philosophical theory (especially ethics), you're right. Philosophy is built on the pillars of tuition and theory, so you can train yourself to know that when you're irked by a problem, it's worth looking into.

As for your dilemma, I don't think it's a false one. There are lots of ways to resolve it, but the problem remains and if you want to remain a consequentialist, you're going to have to bite the bullet somewhere along the way. Maybe you'll say that thinking beings are worth more than non-thinking beings (but then what about the mentally retarded and the animals?), or maybe you'll say that across the board the ends justify the means (but, again, what about examples like slavery?). It kind of comes down to a personal choice.

I choose to frame the argument differently. I don't much care for consequentialism anymore. It's too problematic, and it seems to take the "good" and "bad" out of everything and exchange it with values and numbers. It's really impersonal.

You should look into Virtue Ethics. It's made a pretty big comeback recently, and for good reason. It's tough to understand at first, but it grabs more intuitions at the end of the day for me.

Charles said...

Spot on, Mark! - very nicely done! (no surprise there).
The interesting, additional, nice point - we're going over Book I of the Republic, _very_ slowly, precisely in order to be as clear as possible regarding (precisely) the central importance of always doing what sustains and enhances the excellence/virtue of the _psyche_ - specifically, the rational component with its specific functions of deliberation, calculation, and (ta-da!) _phronesis_, practical (ethical) judgment.
As we've already seen in the Crito, and in the opening sections of Book I, it's on this basis that Socrates argues for a virtue ethics - perhaps always only the morality of the few, not the many - that says that the good will never harm another, even an enemy, because to do so will only make both the self and the other worse, rather than better. (Shanna's also heard me quote Gandhi: do you want to punish your enemy, or change them?) All of this also comes along, as we've seen, with a clear rejection of consequentialist ways of thinking - e.g., Crito's effort to persuade Socrates to escape jail by painting a picture of all the positive consequences (which he later counter-balances with an even larger list of negative consequences, including damage to the _psyche_), and Trasymachus' equally extensive picture of all the goodies the tyrant gets through practicing perfect injustice.
So Shanna, you'll have a good - indeed, far more in-depth than I'm usually able to do in a Value class - exposure to the virtue ethics Mark describes. Enjoy!

Mozart said...

Thank you both.

When I'm reading your responses, I think to myself, "I agree completely! What a fool I've been!" Yet when I return back to the example I outlined, I remain unconvinced.

This, I think, is the major quandary I have with theory versus ethics in practice. It all sounds fine and good and perfect and noble, but how can you really use it?

I don't want to define myself as a consequentialist or a dualist. I don't want to define myself as anything, really. I'm still learning and figurin' stuff out (obviously!).

So, I ask: from a pure deontological perspective, how would you treat/solve/act on the example I outlined (medical research on "unwilling" nonhuman subjects)? I realize that this may not be the best scenario to practice on, but I'm not quite ready to venture into unfamiliar territory yet--this at least is something I can understand.

Thanks again for playing!

Mark said...

WELL, I think it's important to first point out a few things.
Firstly, there are three major branches of ethics. The first is consequentialism (like Utilitarianism), the second is Deontology (think Kant and the Categorical Imperative), and the third is Virtue Ethics. Whereas a consequentialist would ask themselves, "Mathematically, does the good outweigh the bad here?" a Deontologist would consult their rule book and see what it has to tell them. Alternatively, a Virtue Ethicist would condition themselves in order to simply be able to ask themselves, "What is the right thing to do here?"

Ethics is tough, especially when you get down to the nitty-gritty stuff like ethical frameworks and then meta-ethics (augh!). By the way, you should be a philosophy major. Then the REAL fun starts!

The other thing I really wanted to point out to you is on a more personal level. Ethical quandaries like this are perplexing because we've got a few different faculties at work. We've got our reason, which here in the Stoic West we think should guide everything, and then we've got our intuition, our hearts if you will. The two don't always sync up.

I know how much it bothered me when I was studying this stuff that even if I could wrap it all up in a tidy little box and put a bow on top I still never felt satisfied. My Existential friends will tell me that this is because life can't be put in a box. Often times theory and practice don't mesh the way we'd like them to simply because the world doesn't work in those terms. It's bigger, faster, and crazier than we can create ethical theories to capture.

I've found that the longer I do it, the more I perplex over dilemmas like this, the easier it becomes. For one thing, I become more comfortable not knowing. And for another, the more I mature the more comfortable I am looking at the world through situational lenses and not necessarily black-and-white terms, you know? Maybe there isn't ALWAYS one prescribed way to handle the situation outlined in your post. Maybe you've got to learn to roll with it and improvise (though surely with ethical guidelines).

I for one have learned to find comfort in the fact that the world isn't black and white and I can't figure it out. At least that way there's some surprise to living, right?

Mark said...

By the way, hi Dr. Ess! I had no idea you were in the blog-o-sphere. Lovely surprise!

Mozart said...

OK, so I've got a third option. I like that much better! It makes much more sense. Actually, I think that may be what I was pointing to all along--not the mathematical formulas you say the Utilitarian fiddles with or the ne'er-do-wrong of the true idealist, but a sort of "happy medium" (and if you know me well, you know I'm all about happy mediums).

Virtue ethics, huh? I guess I was confusing that with perfection/idealism/deontology. Eh, terminology isn't exactly my forte. Either I missed that key point in Alpha or we haven't gotten to it yet. I dragged Dr. Ess into this because we're reading Plato's Republic right now and my questions very relate to the issues we're studying in class.

I appreciate you both taking the time to tutor me!

Robin said...

theory is like knowledge... and knowledge is so easy to get everyday .. if you google,you can get anything.

but practice is the tough part. and only through practice, you can put the knowledge to use and benefit yourself and all sentients beings.