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Posts Tagged ‘Epistemological Humility’

In the previous post, I suggested that Chomsky’s answer to the voter’s dilemma, otherwise known as “Lesser Evil Voting” or LEV, can be challenged from at least three directions. Here, I want to consider the first of these challenges.

The LEV strategy is based on the moral significance of personal responsibility. If my action produces a foreseeable outcome, then I am not only responsible for the action but also for causing that outcome. Whether or not I intended that outcome is irrelevant; I am responsible either way. As applied to the voter’s dilemma, this viewpoint says that not voting for Biden makes me responsible not only for Trump’s victory but also for all the evil that he will unleash in his second term, and the fact that I do not intend either of these outcomes is irrelevant. That, in a nutshell, is Chomsky’s defense of LEV.

The first challenge to the LEV strategy comes from those who believe that a person is only responsible for his/her own actions. According to this approach, my responsibility in any situation is to act in a manner that I believe to be right. The only thing I can control is my own behavior, and my responsibility does not extend into matters over which I have no control. Consequently, I cannot be held responsible if the world is organized in a such way that my action leads, indirectly, to outcomes that I neither intend nor approve.

Weber

It is critical to note that both viewpoints are rooted in a long history of ethical deliberations and both are supported by good arguments. It would therefore be a mistake to think that one of these viewpoints is right and the other is wrong. Max Weber, for example, recognized the difficulty involved in choosing one or the other of these viewpoints as the basis for practical conduct. Weber addressed the sharp distinction between the two approaches in his famous lecture on “Politics as a Vocation.” The lecture was delivered to a group of students in Munich on January 28, 1919.

Here’s how Weber introduces the problem:

We have to understand clearly that all ethically oriented action can follow two totally different principles that are irreconcilably opposed to each other: an ethic of “ultimate ends” or an ethic of “responsibility.” This is not to say that the ethic of ultimate ends is identical with a lack of responsibility, or that the ethic of responsibility is identical with lack of conviction. There is naturally no question of that. But there is an immeasurably profound profound contrast between acting according to the maxim of the ethic of ultimate ends—to speak in religious terms: “The Christian does the right thing and leaves the outcome in God’s hands,” and acting according to the ethic of responsibility: that one must answer for the (foreseeable) consequences of one’s actions.

By “ultimate ends,” Weber does not mean any particular outcome or goal; rather, he is referring to values. By definition, all true values are ultimate, in the sense that they are not pursued as the means to achieve some other end; rather, values are desired for their own sake and pursued as ends in themselves. This means that values do not have to be justified; in fact, anything that can be justified is not a value. Consequently, if I explain one of my actions by referring to a value that I hold dear, you may ask whether or not my action really does serve that value; that’s a fair question. However, you cannot ask why I am committed to that particular value in the first place, for values are “ultimate” in the sense that they cannot be rationally defended.

The key point is that, according to Weber, the ethic of ultimate ends cannot be harmonized with the ethic of responsibility because of the “profound contrast” between the two. This means, I think, that a specific action in a specific situation can satisfy either the requirements of one or the other of these two approaches, but it cannot satisfy the requirements of both. Notice Weber’s insistence that the ethic of ultimate ends is not about lack of responsibility, just as the ethic of responsibility does not entail a lack of commitment to values. Here’s how I understand Weber’s point: While the ethic of ultimate ends requires each individual to be fully responsible to his/her own conscience, the ethic of responsibility requires us to take into account whether or not the actual consequences of our actions will be in alignment with our values.

Consider the following question: If someone acts according to the dictates of conscience, but the consequences that flow from those actions are deemed evil, who is to be held responsible? Weber quotes Martin Luther, who had said: “Do your duty, and leave the outcome to God.” A Christian, according to Luther, is responsible for doing the right thing, not for ensuring that the world becomes right as a result of one’s actions. The world is God’s responsibility, not mine. This is another way of saying that I am only accountable in front of God, or in front of my conscience, for doing my part. I don’t make the rules that govern society, and there is nothing I can do to control or manage the consequences that may result from the fact that I did my duty. According to Weber, the person who follows the ethic of ultimate ends takes the position that the responsibility for any negative consequences of fulfilling one’s duty does not belong to the conscientious actor but to “the world, the stupidity of other people, or the will of God, who created them like that.”

In contrast, the person who follows the ethic of responsibility takes into account the fact that the world is ordered in a way that good actions do not necessarily produce good consequence. According to Weber, the world is ethically irrational. It does not guarantee that doing the right thing will make everything right for you, or anyone else. In fact, very often the exact opposite happens. The person who follows the ethic of responsibility is acutely aware of this fact. For Weber, such an individual “does not feel himself to be in a position to shift the responsibility for the consequences of his actions, as far as he can foresee them, on to others. He will say: These consequences are attributable to my actions.”

Let’s extend this line of reasoning. If we are responsible for the foreseeable consequences of our actions, then it follows that we may have to put aside the question of whether our actions are moral in themselves; rather, we must always act in ways that would produce the most morally desirable outcomes. That, however, can push us onto a slippery slope, as Weber points out.

No ethic in the world can get around the fact that in many cases the achievement of “good” ends is linked with the necessity of accepting ethically dubious or at least risky means, and the possibility or even the probability of evil side effects. And no ethic in the world can predict when and to what extent the ethically good end “justifies” the ethically risky means and side effects.

That is not a trivial problem. The ethic of responsibility says that we must take responsibility for the consequences of our actions. To ensure that good consequences appear in the world as a result of our actions, we would have to judge our actions not on the basis of whether they are right or wrong in themselves, but whether they lead to moral or immoral consequences. But when our focus is on outcomes, there is a very real risk that we may choose morally questionable actions—and perhaps even immoral actions—whenever we believe that these actions are necessary for producing the outcomes we desire and that the outcomes we desire are, in fact, morally superior. This creates the likelihood of bad faith rationalizations. At the same time, we are prone to become less and less concerned about the unintended but negative consequences of using morally questionable means.

The possibility of self-deception is real, for one can find more or less satisfactory ways to defend and rationalize almost any course of action. Once we have convinced ourselves that a certain end is moral, and that a certain action is necessary to achieve that end, it is easy to disregard the morality or immorality of the action as irrelevant. The end will then be enough to justify virtually any means. This is not just a hypothetical danger, for history is full of cases where morally justifiable ends—such as freedom or equality—led many people to justify and commit all sorts of atrocities. If it’s true that good actions do not guarantee good consequences, it is also true that the road to hell is paved with good intentions.

Weber is sensitive to the problem of unintended consequences, or “side-effects.” The consequences that flow out of our actions are not always the ones we intended. There is, of course, no ethical problem if an action inadvertently produces morally desirable results. But what if some of the unintended consequences are immoral? Even when we anticipate that certain consequences that we neither intend nor approve are likely to flow from our actions, the “ends justify means” approach would cause us to view such a risk as worth taking. This sort of reasoning is found, for example, in the concept of “collateral damage,” where foreseeable civilian casualties are viewed as the acceptable cost we must pay for a morally desirable end, such as “eradicating terrorism” or “making the world safe for democracy.” Of course, whether that end itself is moral is an open question.

As I write this post, some  people are pushing the idea that the loss of a few million lives is a risk worth taking for the sake of restarting the U.S. economy in the midst of a deadly pandemic. They obviously do not intend to kill millions of people, nor do they believe it to be a positive or desirable outcome. Their reasoning is based on the “ends justify means” approach, and indirectly on the ethic of responsibility. They want to ensure that the world is set right. They believe—sincerely, I think—that nothing in this context can be a higher ethical priority than maintaining economic growth. In their view, a particular end (i.e., maintaining the health of the U.S. economy) carries such immense moral weight that an otherwise horrible “side-effect” of pursuing it (i.e., millions of deaths) appears to be a perfectly acceptable risk—or even a perfectly acceptable part of the cost that society must pay for returning to business-as-usual.

It is critical to recognize that neither the ethic of ultimate ends nor the ethic of responsibility can easily deal with unintended consequences. The problem emerges because the future is mostly unknowable, which means that it is impossible for human beings to foresee all of the consequences of their actions. Our capacity to know in advance how a particular action will affect the world in the long run is somewhere between extremely limited to nonexistent. Modernity makes this problem progressively worse. As society becomes more complex, it also becomes less predictable; as a result, we face an ever increasing amount of uncertainty and ambiguity when making even small decisions, let alone morally momentous ones.

People who want to follow the ethic of responsibility, such as Noam Chomsky, would insist that their decision is based on the sense of responsibility they feel in relation to the foreseeable consequences of their actions, and that they cannot be held responsible for any unforeseeable consequences that may flow from their choices. There are two obvious issues with this position, which I consider below.

First, there is no way of knowing the true proportion of foreseeable and unforeseeable consequences of any particular action we might take, especially when we try to consider both the direct and indirect impacts of that action into the long term future. People who want to follow the ethic of responsibility do so by assuming that only the foreseeable consequences matter. This may be a reasonably valid assumption in cases that are simple and straightforward, but it is clearly unwarranted in more complex cases, such as the voter’s dilemma. Assuming that only the consequences that I am able to see at the present moment are worthy of consideration amounts to giving oneself too much credit. We can’t even say that the foreseeable consequences of a particular action will outnumber the unforeseeable ones, let alone know for sure that the foreseeable consequences will be decisive.

Second, individuals who want to follow the ethic of responsibility cannot be certain that the consequences they do foresee will in fact materialize. While this is always true to some degree, most of the time this effect is so negligible that for all practical purposes we safely ignore it. It does become significant, I think, when it comes to voting in a Presidential election. There are so many variables involved in the politics of a large country, such as the U.S., that allocating the correct amount of evil to each candidate is beyond the capacity of mere mortals. For example, is Trump really more evil than Joe Biden? What if that turns out to be true in the short term only? What if his policies end up shaking millions of Americans out of their complacent slumber, who then go on to create a more fair and just society? Far fetched, but not impossible. Chomsky is right that Trump is really bad in terms of climate policies, but our experience with eight years of Obama doesn’t give us any confidence in Joe Biden’s ability to turn this ship around. Biden might be marginally better than Trump on climate, but would that stop the ongoing collapse of the planet’s ecosystems? Hardly, given that Biden is promising that “nothing will fundamentally change” under his administration. It is true that Trump has put some terrible policies into effect, and perhaps Biden would reverse them, which would be nice. But what about the bigger picture? Who can say that a return to pre-Trump policies in a post-Trump world would make things better on the whole? None of us can even see the whole picture, let alone know how it would change.

We are all making guesses—and we should acknowledge, both to ourselves and to the world at large, that that’s what we are doing. This will make us humble. The only way to judge as to which candidate is a lesser evil and which one the greater evil is to rely upon countless assumptions about the future as well as the prejudices we have inherited from the past, not to mention our fallible and finite minds that only give us a hazy and fragmentary view of reality.

None of what I have said here renders the ethic of responsibility untenable, especially as it relates to voting in a U.S. Presidential election. It still remains a valid viewpoint, though I think I did problematize it a little.

It seems to me that the ethic of responsibility does not warrant the high level of confidence and certainty that many Biden voters are demonstrating when they claim to know what the right choice is. I would recommend epistemological humility to anyone who feels completely, absolutely, one hundred percent sure that all options other than voting for Joe Biden are immoral or irrational. I would, of course, recommend the same thing to those who are completely, absolutely, one hundred percent sure that the right thing to do is to not vote for Joe Biden.

Let me reiterate that I am not asking anyone to change their mind about whom they should vote for; I am only asking everyone to be thoughtful and reflective about how they make this decision.

There is more to come. Stay tuned.

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