Sunday, September 28, 2008

Nonlinear Morality

I've recently become a guest of Harvard's Justice Online philosophy courses. A recent discussion posed the case of Dudley v Queen of England. The case describes a ship that sunk leaving the captain, a crew member and the cabin boy...maybe one the life boat drifting in open ocean. They had meager food supplies and no water. Soon they ran out and began to starve. The captain suggested they all draw straws and the short straw gets eaten by the rest. However, the cabin boy had already drank sea water and was very ill. In his weakened state, he became the victim of cannibalism to sustain the rest. The remaining crew was eventually picked up without having to kill and eat another member.

A cut and dry utilitarian perspective - the greatest good for the greatest number - suggests that their actions were completely morally acceptable. For objectivism, I've left out some details of the argument that would reinforce the utilitarian viewpoint. The question is: Is the utilitarian perspective correct?

The arguments for and against the case all have an underlying understanding of morality; one that is not so easy to define but rather somewhat universally understood. If it was, then philosophy would be objective and completely understood. The application of what essentially is the same definition of morality produces differences in option when different personal perspectives objectively weigh the means and ends of the decisions. We come to the first observation of nonlinearity. Morality is not deterministic. Presenting the same case to different people with always produce some variation in either the means or the ends.

Lets change the scenario. Only two people are in the boat and one eats the other to save himself. Is it morally objectionable? There is nothing known about either individual that might weigh on their worthiness to live. I think many/most people would find it objectionable. What if there were 6 people? One dies for five to live. The answer becomes less definitive. What if it is 21 people so 1 dies and 2o live? It becomes apparent that utilitarianism becomes more relevant once the prospering majority becomes proportionally larger. This is the second nonlinearity. Utilitarianism becomes disproportionatly relevant as the prospering majority becomes proportionatly larger.

I've already illuded to a conclusion I've made. Morality is not definable, yet is universal. It is the nondeterministic nature of moral application and interpretation that produces differing opinions on right and wrong. For example, in extreme situations we glimpse true humanistic nature in that self preservation becomes the driving factor and can be projected to apply to others. Self preservation is instinctual, primative, yet it allows us to justify extreme actions in extreme situations. With that justification we are exempt from the pain of guilt and remorse and utilitarianism still rules. However, in the case where only two people are involved and one is killed to save the other rather than 21, we can expect a level of remorse even though self preservation ruled; the second nonlinearity exists.

To understand morality I seems that we must consider human behavior on a much more primitive level. Even with that, I doubt that morality will be definable simply because of it's nonlinear characteristics

And now a deep thought...
If we consider guilt to be a primitive human characteristic, perhaps we must examine guilt before we can attempt to define morality.

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