Tuesday, April 20, 2010

The bind of responsibility...

As I've been thinking about ethics, especially with Bonhoeffer and Kierkegaard looming in the background, it's become fairly obvious to me (though I may be clueless! :-D) that the struggle to find a universal ethic is ultimately a dilemma that humans are unable to escape. It is a goal that we will never reach. The mildly interesting example in my previous post can serve to highlight this. If we have a responsibility to make sure we are always treating our friend the best way possible, and we are also attempting to live responsibly with regard to 1) our personal worldview and 2) the cultural ethics in which we are enmeshed, well... sooner or later, something has to give.

This is one reason why pragmatism is such a seemingly simple solution: We can't possibly know the outcome of every possible ethical choice, and so we make assessments based upon probabilities and ratios. At one level, this is all that we can do - There is no way to know all the factors that, say, may make one life more valuable than another, and so, as the old story goes, if we have to allow 10 people to die to save 1,000, that is our only ethical option. Of course, no one is really happy about this, but what else can we do?

What's interesting, and rather unsettling, about Bonhoeffer and Kierkegaard, is that both of them, in different ways, seem to say something else: There may be a time when, for a higher purpose that cannot be ethically/rationally quantified, it may be right to allow 1,000 to die for the sake of 10. This is not because the 10 are kings or generals, or something like that. That is just another form of pragmatism or utilitarian thinking. No, it is because, in God's 'economy', numbers don't really matter. And neither do ethical principles, at least the way we conceive of them in our human logic.

This is, to say the least, troubling... and deserves more discussion... which I will hopefully have time to do in the near future.

1 comment:

BenMc said...

We have to deal with probabilities because we're stuck in time. Scientists in particular have trouble with big life decisions sometimes because you can't "run the experiment" multiple times and do what has the best outcome. You can't both ask the girl to marry you and not ask. You can't both accept the job offer and reject it. Because we're not omniscient and stuck in time we can't entirely depend on ourselves, or our own judgment, or moral calculus. So science is great but has its limits when applying to the actual decisions that matter most.