Thoughts on fairness and morality.

I recently submitted this essay as part of my Uni coursework, so I thought I’d share it 🙂

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In this paper, my main argument that I will justify will be that Utilitarian ethics leads to more fairness than Deontology will. I will also assess Kant’s ‘Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals’ and Rawls’s teachings to support my conclusion. I will begin by briefly explaining the philosophy of utilitarianism for the sake of clarity. I will then offer a justification as to why utilitarianism leads to fairness and will then progress by revising my thesis by taking some objections of it and other philosophies into consideration. This essay will focus mainly on explaining why deontology and Rawls’s theory fail as a substitute for utilitarianism.

One assumption I will be making in this essay is that morality and fairness are the same thing. Fairness is doing what you consider moral, however relative that may be. My definition of morality will be explored in this essay. So in summary: I use fairness to be a part of the fundamental criterion for morality, for the same reasons as Fredrik Bendz does in this article here.

My view is that an action is deemed moral if it is for the greater good of the greatest number of people. This is a core principle of utilitarianism. My belief is that following the utilitarian doctrine will lead to a fairer society. An example would be that, in the case of having to give away one hundred pounds and either choosing between splitting the money between five people or just giving to one. Utilitarianism dictates splitting the money because it leads to more happiness from the greater number of people. Another more extreme case would be where a psychopathic axe murderer knocked on your door with the intention of murdering the innocent child in your care. In this case, you are morally obligated to protect that child because doing otherwise would lead to greater pain and suffering. I find these examples are convincing enough to support the conclusion that utilitarianism is a fair system, particularly considering the deontological[1] response to the problems. In response to the first problem, it is difficult to apply deontological philosophy to it. In recognition of the second example, deontologists would argue that you are morally obligated to reveal the location of the innocent child in your care to the psychopathic axe murderer, and thus to put her in harm’s way.

It also seems to be a rather counter intuitive and unfair action. You could argue that if it seems unfair, then it probably is. I can justify this because the action itself does not lead the greater good of anything or anyone, and an action for the benefit of someone is what is widely considered to be fair. In this case, the deontological response of surrendering to the axe murderer does not fit the criteria of leading to the greater good of anything, and is, therefore, unfair.

Briefly, I will convey the argument that makes deontologists reach this conclusion before explaining how utilitarianism earns the title of fairness. How Deontologists like Kant define morality and fairness is doing your duty for the sake of duty. This means that you should abide by the Laws if they are universally binding[2]. A more analytical reading of this philosophy highlights many of its flaws. One fault is that it cannot be a legitimate system because of Hegel’s non-contradiction theory[3], meaning that statements cannot be simultaneously true and false at one given moment. Hegel bases this on Kant’s argument that it is contradictory to universalise acts that are considered ‘perfect duties’[4]. Acts including murder and lying should be considered wrong because they cannot be universalised without it being a contradiction. For example, if I were to kill someone else, then it would be justifiable (by this logic) for someone to kill me, and this progresses until there is no one left to kill, meaning everyone would be dead. Whilst I agree with the premise that murder and lying should be considered immoral and unfair, I am persuaded by Hegel’s point that there is nothing contradictory about absence. In this case where everyone might be dead if murder were universalised, then the act of murder would no longer exist. To summarise my point, Kant’s point that murder and lying is wrong is justifiable, but his means of achieving that conclusion is faulty.

Utilitarianism fits the concept that what is done for the greater good of the majority and for the benefit of the people is fair. I am in favour of utilitarianism because it avoids the problems deontology raises.

Another Kantian perspective on ethics is Rawls’s ‘Veil of Ignorance’ theory. I will outline this argument in detail and then I will give reasons as to why this theory is not as strong as a utilitarian one. What the ‘Veil of Ignorance’ essentially does is strip people of identity and then allowing them to hypothetically form their ideal version of society. This runs on the presumption that people will create a just society that is fair for all. There is a lot of emphasis on the use of justice here because Rawls’s theory relies on the idea that ethics should be based on justice, which is Kantian in its essence.

The first issue I take with it is that you cannot practically apply this to the real world. What I mean by this is that it is impossible to achieve the complete ignorance, as Rawls describes, to foster the best environment to create a just society. There is no possible method of enforcing a system where everyone is completely ignorant of identity. One counterargument to this is the idea that the situation could be entirely hypothetical, but this also fails how to rule out implicit bias. It is impossible to determine whether a person truly is ignorant in this situation.

But even if could, how do you know that people would not take risks? One example would be a case where three-quarters of the population could be “the masters” and the rest had to be “the slaves”, and had no freedom whatsoever. It is undeniable that at least a small percentage of people would take that risk based on the likelihood that they’ll be one of the lucky 75%. My point here is that Rawls fails to consider human nature, and therefore this leaves a flaw in his theory. Based on these two problems, I reject Rawls’s theory as a substitute for utilitarianism as a means of achieving fairness and equality.

Following a review of the counter-arguments of Kant and Rawls, as well as measuring Utilitarianism, I can conclude that a fair and moral act should always be done for the greater good of the larger number of people. I, therefore, add that Utilitarianism does not lead to unfairness.

 

 

[1] Deontologists tend to agree that obedience to objective law is what should be regarded as moral.

[2] What I mean by this is that they work in favour of humanity.

[3] Boer K. ‘Hegel’s Account Of Contradiction In The Science Of Logic Reconsidered’. 1st ed. Gronigen; 2017:347. Available at: https://www.academia.edu/3686796/Hegels_Account_of_Contradiction_in_the_Science_of_Logic_Reconsidered?auto=download. Accessed May 8, 2017.

[4] This is defined as any act that is blameworthy if they are not met. Honesty may be considered as an example. This is opposed to ‘perfect duties’, where this encourages you to cultivate a particular talent or skill you have, such as painting.

Further reading on the subject:

  • Boer K. ‘Hegel’s Account Of Contradiction In The Science Of Logic Reconsidered’. 1st ed. Gronigen; 2017: 347.
  • Kant I, Paton H. ‘Groundwork Of The Metaphysic Of Morals’. 1st ed. New York: Harper Perennial Modern Thought; 2009.
  • Pyle A. Utilitarianism. London: Routledge/Thoemmes Press; 1998.
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Short story review, ‘The Defence of the Book’ by Julian Barnes

The Defence of the Book is a visualisation of an alternative future of England.  So in this short story despite England’s deprivation of moral and economic success, books have increased in value and importance. This happens subsequently when the government deems libraries ‘valueless’ and plans to destroy them. Towards the end of the story we learn that the survival of the books were crucial if the ‘culture of learning were (to be) kept alive’. Also it is heavily suggested that the Government’s decision to bring an end to libraries was to remove all future political threats in order to maintain power.  Thus the message that Barnes wanted to convey was how fundamentally vital books are to us and that they’re undervalued in our society.

Barnes titled his short story The Defence of the Book to exhibit themes of passion and rebellion, specifically among the working class. The author may have wanted to convey the idea that if England were to ever break away from Britain and isolation from Europe and the rest of the world, the Government would become very totalitarian and less democratic as a result of poverty. This would instinctively create rebellion as the lives of people would become less valuable and political decisions would generally be made to not benefit the people. The theme of passion is presented through the peoples’ will to preserve the books. The people are striving to maintain them, and the youths begin to appreciate and value them because the authority illegalises them.

The story begins in exposition, an extract of an article in which the story was set, and this gives us the general context and setting. England, now ‘Old England’, gives the story its futuristic setting. We see a vulnerable England after Scotland and Wales have voted for independence, evicted from Europe and rejected by every other country, including the USA.

There are no characters that are discussed in great detail and we know nothing of the narrator or his opinion of the events, but few specific names are mentioned in relation to the English authority and the preservation of the books. Angela Merkel, who is in reality the current German leader, is the ‘European President for life’ in the story. There is also mention of a ‘book-loving milkman’, who is responsible  for the first ‘secret underground library’, which subsequently led to the multiplication of the books and the increase of value among youths as they were ‘forbidden by authority’.

The short story format is incredibly effective to this plot. He allows it to be fast-paced and, in some cases, more convenient to read because of its length. In The Defence of the Book, emotion and tension builds up around the chronological order of information, ‘Trade collapsed, and the nation’s infrastructure with it. The Health Service, long privatised…’, this allows a more vivid scenery of ‘Old England’ by emphasising the need to preserve knowledge and culture.

The Defence of the Book is a compelling and thought-provoking story. We get the idea of a futuristic, yet completely realistic version of Orwellian-style way of life and political setting.

A link to the short story can be found here:

http://www.theguardian.com/books/2012/feb/03/julian-barnes-defence-of-the-book