ETHICAL THEORY: THE RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN THE MORAL GAP/DEMAND AND UTILITARIANISM

Ethical Theory is a subject that has had many debates and discussions, but it is also something that is seemingly very important to our ethical lives. In this paper, I want to do several things. First, I’m going to discuss two ideas from two philosophers respectively. The authors are Dr. Brink and Dr. Hare. Dr. Brink’s idea is about consequentialism, particularly utilitarianism. While Dr. Hare’s idea is about the “moral gap” problem, particularly with utilitarianism. I’m going to give a summary of these two ideas from these two authors. Secondly, I’m going to point out a potential tension between these two ideas and explain the tension. Thirdly, I’m going to question how each author might respond to this tension. Lastly, I’m going to give my own view of how to resolve this tension.
Dr. Hare’s book, The Moral Gap, identifies a problem in ethics. Dr. Hare first notes the problem early on. The problem is that we as finite creatures don’t seem to be able to meet the demand, of morality.[1] If there’s a moral code whose demand is too high for us to reach, then how can we meaningfully take normative ethics (and even applied ethics) seriously anymore? After all, doesn’t “ought” presuppose “can”? If I can’t do X, then it seems bizarre that I would be obligated to do X.[2] Hare’s book specifically talks about how utilitarianism, or at the very least certain forms of utilitarianism, can’t solve the moral gap problem. I should note that Hare doesn’t think utilitarianism is the only candidate that fails.[3] However, for the purpose of this paper, we are going to stick with his chapter on utilitarianism.
Hare doesn’t think that there is not solution to the moral gap because it seems that Hare thinks his own view will solve the problem; his own solution will come later in this paper.[4]
But what exactly is so demanding about utilitarianism? Well, it doesn’t seem too controversial to say that there are some forms that appear to be pretty demanding. Hare focuses on what we call Impartial Unitarianism.[5] Utilitarianism is a consequentialist theory of ethics, and as such, it evaluate moral actions in terms of consequences.[6] Specifically, utilitarian theories are focused on maximizing the best consequences for the greatest number of people.[7] Upon closer inspection, we see the demandingness coming out. Hare gives the illustration of a person who can pay to go to a movie, or that person use that money to feed some people in Africa for several days.[8] Now we really start to see a potential problem.

Maybe we can adopt a different form of utilitarianism or a form that isn’t so impartial, but there is, at least, a problem for the version we’re looking at. The problem seems to get worse when Hare claims that, “…the demand for impartiality is not consistent with the human tendency to give more weight to the agent’s own interests than the utilitarian principle allows.”[9] Given our own interests, how can we meet the demands of morality? Also, Hare seems to think that utilitarianism only increases the demand. If this is true, then it looks like we really do have a moral gap at play. When we think about Utilitarianism, one can see how demanding it can be. Just think about all the actions we could have taken in our lives that would have been aimed at increasing the happiness of the greatest number of people. In addition, just look at how demanding the impartiality is. What about duties to our parents? What about our close friends? What about our own goals of bettering our lives? Utilitarianism, especially impartial utilitarianism, has a lot to answer.[10]

Dr. Brink appears to at think that a form of impartial utilitarianism that takes seriously the notion of partiality is a plausible utilitarian theory; hence, Brink thinks this conception of consequentialism is, at the very least, a viable option; however, he doesn’t think it’s without any problems.[11] He responds to various objections to it. What are some of the objections that he responds to? Well, looking at the end Brink appears to grant that there is a potentially huge problem with the demandingness objection to utilitarianism, which includes impartiality. Brink notes that the world contains a great amount of suffering that could be reduced by blessed people making sacrifices[12]. Brink also notes that it seems that the demand will be greater on certain individuals if some people aren’t doing their part. Brink notes a potential way to get out of this problem[13]. The problem seems to be compounded by the fact that it seems that the demand of impartiality could become so great that it interferes with our special obligations or our own pursuits.

But Brink, nor many people, want to give up special obligations because it’s at least somewhat counter-intuitive.[14] Brink talks about the benefit-cost ratio of a lot of relief organizations. In other words, one can give a little money and help many. But Brink seems to be aware that this sort of example doesn’t cover all cases or isn’t generalizable. One reason is because of associative-bias.[15] Brink thinks that the bias would have to be pretty high because it’s hard to see how, in general, this would apply across the board. This is especially true in regards to partiality. But then Brink notices that if too much emphasis is placed on partiality, then how can we salvage impartiality?[16] After all, it seems that we want impartiality to play some role in any plausible utilitarian theory because maximization of the good is virtually contained in the definition. Brink concludes by noting that the solution he laid out has promise, but that further study is going to be needed to reach some conclusions for a fully satisfactory moral theory.[17]

One solution to all of this that Brink talks about is “self-referential altruism”[18]. He says that this allows us to combine partiality with impartiality. Brink says, ”Though self-referential altruism gives priority, other things being equal, to the claims of those to whom an agent stands in special relationships, it recognizes the claims of anyone, regardless of the relationship in which he stands to the agent.”[19]. Brink notes that there is a sort of intuitiveness about this solution. But as mentioned before, what if the associative bias is too much? Then impartiality becomes irrelevant. Brink says that an option is to find a “device” or link to match up the partial with the impartial. In other words, we get a problem when we try to diverge both of these concepts[20]. Brink explains this device when he says, “One way for the consequentialist to respond is to argue that the limits of beneficence under conditions of partial compliance should be set by the amount of beneficence that would be optimal under conditions of full compliance”[21]. Hence, we have consistency across the board.

So, it appears that we have a tension between Hare and Brink. Hare wants to say that the demand of a system like impartial utilitarianism (or similar conceptions) is too high, while Brink doesn’t want to grant that all forms of utilitarianism, specifically accounts that deal with impartiality. However, it does seem that Brink at least admitted that there are some worries, specifically with an account only dedicated to impartiality and no focus on special obligations. Hare seems to think a pure impartial account has too many problems. Brink also seems to grant that there are some potential huge problems with a pure impartial account, but it’s not obvious that Brink thinks there is no account of impartiality that will suffice, such as an account that takes seriously the notion of partiality. Brink at least thinks impartiality is a necessary condition for any moral system; Hare doesn’t really say impartiality is a necessary condition.

In addition, Hare doesn’t seem to see how the impartial dimensions of morality can be reconciled with special obligations… at least on an account that’s not his own (Hare). This is evidenced by the fact (as we saw) that he cites examples that appear to take away from partiality. But on the other side, Brink grants that there is a potential problem that must be dealt with. The difference is that Brink thinks there are solutions, particularly in the “device” or link that he talks about. What follows is that Brink and Hare address the moral gap differently. Hare thinks that nothing can bridge the moral gap on something like impartial utilitarianism, except God. Brink doesn’t appeal to God once, and given everything else he said, it seems he doesn’t think the God is required to meet the moral gap. Hence, it seems that Brink and Hare have contradictory views.

How might Hare and Brink respond to this apparent tension? Let’s start with Hare. Hare might note that Brink grants that there is a potential problem with the demand of utilitarianism being too high. Hare might be saying that Brink is granting too much here. Hare could go on further to refute or cast doubt on Brink’s solutions to the demandingness objection. Hare might then respond to Brink’s point about placing too much emphasis on partiality. Brink responds by talking about “self-referential altruism”. Hare could respond that this doesn’t work. But how? Well, this would be done by responding Brink’s “device” that links the impartial to the partial such that we have consistency. But Hare might question why we should think there would be a sort of link from the demands in situations regarding partiality to situations regarding impartiality or vice-versa? Might we even expect this to not be the case? And Hare might note that one area might be so demanding that all we are doing is making the problem worse. For if the demand of impartial morality is counter-intuitive, then it seems like it would also be counter-intuitive for partial morality. Certainly it seems bizarre in the reverse order. So while we’re being consistent, this consistency doesn’t help. After all, for example, someone can consistently murder someone, consistently fail a test, or consistently fail to tell the truth.

How might Brink respond to the tension? Brink might start out by noting that it’s not obvious that God is required to bridge the moral gap. Is it impossible? If so, what argument is there to think that? Brink may not that this seems bizarre, especially given that fact that most moral philosophers probably wouldn’t agree to Hare’s proposal.

Perhaps, there is a conceptual solution to Hare’s argument that we haven’t thought of yet. Brink might note that even if Hare knocked down all his reasons for thinking utilitarianism can be construed in a certain way as to avoid the demandingness objection, that wouldn’t be the same thing as Hare’s conclusion being true. Nor would it mean that there aren’t other solutions outside of consequentialism. Brink might note that the burden of proof is clearly on Hare. This would mean that Brink doesn’t have to give accounts of morality that meet the supposed moral gap problem. Brink might also respond that one doesn’t have to sign up to utilitarianism of the impartial variety.

Furthermore, Brink could argue that what Hare is arguing is simply special pleading. Brink could say that even if there really is a moral gap and even if Brink’s account doesn’t suffice, that doesn’t mean that Hare’s account works. It could be a fact that even if God gives us a grace of sorts, this grace can still be rejected insofar as we still have freedom of the will. Given free will, we still have selfish desires that make it demanding for us on theism. In addition, Brink could note that it’s not like it is impossible (or nearly impossible) for humans to meet the moral demand unless someone buys into the theological concept of total depravity or utter depravity. But Brink would probably ask, “Why think those doctrines are true?”. So perhaps the demand is not quite as high as Hare would think, according to the hypothetical response of Brink; perhaps, Hare might be begging the question in assuming that the demand is so high, and perhaps Hare might not be looking at all the various forms of utilitarianism and various forms of impartial utilitarianism.

How would I resolve this apparent tension before us? Well, Brink and Hare’s views are incompatible so at least one of their views are false if both views aren’t also false. However, I don’t necessarily think both views are false. With Hare, overall, his position strikes me as at least somewhat plausible. As a result, I lean toward rejecting Brink’s view. Brink’s view has at least implicitly assumed that God is not required to bridge the gap between the demand of morality and our ability to meet the demand. However, I somewhat agree with Hare that it at least seems that God is required to bridge the gap, for the reasons that Hare has laid out. Hence, I also tend to agree with Hare that the demand of morality seems to be too high such that systems like utilitarianism can’t solve the problem. It seems that God is going to have to be in our ethical system in at least one important sense.

I could argue that God is at least a sufficient account for the moral gap problem. This could be a way I could resolve the conflict. In fact, I’m tempted to take this approach to deal with the issue. It doesn’t seem too controversial to say that God is a sufficient to explain the gap between our abilities and the demands of morality. Of course, just because something is sufficient, doesn’t mean it’s necessary. This solution might be seen as somewhat of a compromise, and I’m not intending to use “compromise” in a pejorative sense. Notice that God being a sufficient account of morality is not the same thing as saying God exists. One can make the more modest claim of saying, “If God exists, then God provides a sufficient account for meeting the demands of morality.” Well when we consider the concept of “God”, what about that concept makes God a sufficient account? Well, God is all-powerful and all-good, which means that God has the power to help us meet the moral demand. Also, God is all-good, which means he would have the desire to help us meet the moral demand. I could also argue from an abductive standpoint-inference to the best explanation. So perhaps it’s not impossible that the gap can be bridged without God, but it’s not the best explanation would be God. Similarly, one could argue inductively and say that it’s not likely or it’s implausible that the moral demand be met without God. Once again, I’m tempted by this approach and the IBE approach.

Hare and Brink both seem to think that there is a potential huge problem with consequentialist theories of the impartial variety. One way I would solve this myself is that I’d give up a strict form of impartiality, if I were a consequentialist. At some point I could say, “You know what? The impartiality here really is too high of a demand. In fact, it’s counter-intuitive. I’m going to change my ethical views such that this isn’t a problem.” So on my view, even if impartial consequentialism/utilitarianism conflicts with the demands of morality, that wouldn’t mean that all forms of consequentialism are too demanding; we can conceive of different variations of consequentialism/utilitarianism that might not have this problem. I might even go so far as to give up all forms of utilitarianism or consequentialism. This would be if I were a utilitarian or consequentialist. As of right now, I don’t find consequentialism convincing; however, I am open to changing my mind.

But suppose I were not a theist, how might I respond then? Well I could give arguments that God doesn’t exist. If God doesn’t exist, then God can’t be used to bridge the moral gap in the actual world. Hare might respond by noting that this would mean the moral gap is not solved. Well assuming that is true, all that would mean is that we have to live with this unfortunate problem. It’s not fun or nice, but that doesn’t make it false. The worry here is that it also seems like we want to say that we can meet the demands of morality. Maybe it does seem that way to some. I could just “bite the bullet” and be done with it (assuming there really is a bullet). But if I’m on Hare’s side, I don’t think I have to argue for God’s existence (maybe the “moral gap” just is an argument). Rather, I could just that that IF God doesn’t exist, then we can’t make sense of the moral demand. Insofar as accepting Hare’s position, I needn’t go as far as claiming that it is false; I can simply reject it. What’s the difference? Well when somebody rejects a claim they are saying they do not see any reason to think the claim is true, which isn’t the same thing as saying the claim is false. Therefore, I could say that I do not see any reason to think Brink’s view is true. However, if Hare has given plausible reasons for accepting his claim, then I must argue why these reasons are insufficient if I am to remain rational.

In conclusion, we discussed Brink’s idea about consequentialism, particularly utilitarianism, and we discussed Dr. Hare’s idea about the “moral gap” problem, particularly with utilitarianism; there was a summary of the two ideas from these two philosophers. Secondly, I pointed out a potential tension between these two ideas and explained the tension. Thirdly, I questioned how each author might respond to the tension. Lastly, I gave my own view of how to resolve the tension.

References:

Brink, David. “Some Forms and Limits of Consequentialism” in The Oxford Handbook of Ethical Theory. Kindle Edition.

Hare, John. The Moral Gap: Kantian Ethics, Human Limits, and God’s Assistance (Oxford Studies in Theological Ethics) (Kindle Location 1258). Kindle Edition

[1]John E. Hare. The Moral Gap: Kantian Ethics, Human Limits, and God’s Assistance (Oxford Studies in Theological Ethics) Kindle Edition. Pp 61; 522-532

[2]Ibid. 1269-1282

[3]Ibid, 522-532

[4]Ibid., 1257

[5]Ibid., 1269

[6]Ibid., 1246

[7]Ibid., 1246

[8]Ibid., 1246-1257

[9] John E. Hare. The Moral Gap: Kantian Ethics, Human Limits, and God’s Assistance (Oxford Studies in Theological Ethics) (Kindle Location 1258). Kindle Edition.

[10]Ibid., 1259

[11]David Brink. “Some Forms and Limits of Consequentialism” in The Oxford Handbook of Ethical Theory. 393-407; 414-418

[12]Ibid.,416

[13]Ibid., 416

[14]Ibid.,416- 417

[15]Ibid., 416-17

[16]Ibid., 417

[17]Ibid., 418

[18]Ibid., 406-407

[19]Ibid.,407

[20]Ibid.,416

[21]Ibid., 416

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