Sunday, April 21, 2013

The Prioritization of Moral Duties


Moral duties or obligations are requirements to perform actions in order to comply with given principles of morality. They are imperatives that must be satisfied in order for given moral standards to be fulfilled. Moral prescriptions, on the other hand, are directives to perform actions that are advised or recommended but not necessarily required or obligatory. Compliance with moral duties presupposes compliance with moral prescriptions; if actions are obligatory, then they must at least be advised or recommended. However, duties are more binding and stringent than prescriptions insofar as they require, rather than merely recommend, actions to be performed. The more binding nature of duties as compared with prescriptions also accounts for the fact that the moral consequences of failure to perform actions that are obligatory may be worse than those of failure to perform actions that are merely advised or recommended.
      If compliance with moral duties is by nature obligatory, then how do we choose among them when they conflict or compete with each other? For example, is it more important not to harm an individual’s well-being than it is to promote her well-being? Is the duty to respect the moral autonomy of an individual more important than the duty not to let her harm herself? Should the degree of harm that an individual may do to herself be the decisive factor in determining whether or not to interfere with her autonomy and prevent her from harming herself?
      Should the nature of our relation to the person to whom we owe a duty be the most decisive factor in determining the priority of that duty? For example, should the duty owed to a family member be considered to be of a higher priority than that owed to a non-family member? This is in fact what the ancient Chinese philosopher Mengzi (Mencius, 371-289 B.C.E.) says, that the duty to love one’s own parents is the most basic moral duty, and that this duty is more important than the duty to love other persons.1
      Should the duty to promote the good of other persons be assigned a higher priority than the duty to promote one’s own good (if there is such a duty)? Should the duty owed to a friend be considered more important than the duty owed to a stranger? 
      One way of prioritizing moral duties is to divide them into primary and secondary duties. Another way is to divide them, as proposed by W.D. Ross (1930), into prima facie duties (apparent duties, or duties at first appearance) and duties proper (duties in the final analysis, or actual duties). Examples of prima facie duties, according to Ross, are the duty of fidelity (the duty to keep promises), the duty of gratitude for the kindness of others, the duty of reparation for wrongful acts, the duty to promote justice, the duty of beneficence (the duty to promote the greatest possible amount of good), and the duty of non-maleficence (the duty not to harm others). Ross admits that it may be difficult to establish any general rules for the proper prioritization of all these duties, but he does say that non-maleficence is a more stringent duty than beneficence.2
      Another way of prioritizing moral duties is to divide them into relative and absolute duties. Thus, Immanuel Kant (1785) divides moral imperatives into conditional (hypothetical) and unconditional (categorical) imperatives. Hypothetical imperatives are necessary for the attainment of ends beyond themselves, but the categorical imperative is necessary in itself, apart from its relation to any further end.3 According to Kant, the categorical imperative is the only moral imperative that is applicable to all situations, and it contains the principle of all duty.4
       Kant also divides moral duties into duties to oneself and duties to others, and into perfect duties and imperfect duties.5 Perfect duties must always be complied with, but imperfect duties allow some exceptions to compliance (if perfect duties must be complied with). However, these different kinds of duty are never actually in conflict, since the categorical imperative is the supreme principle of all duty.
      Another way of prioritizing moral duties is described by John Rawls (1971), who says that the duty not to infringe on the basic rights of individuals should be assigned a higher priority than the duty to promote the greatest possible amount of good for the greatest number of individuals. While utilitarianism may try to justify infringements on the basic rights of some individuals if these infringements produce a greater total amount of good for a greater number of individuals, Rawls rejects this position, saying that acts of injustice toward particular groups of individuals are never justified, unless those acts are necessary to prevent even greater injustice.
       According to Rawls, the duty to comply with “the principle of greatest equal liberty” (the principle that each individual should have an equal right to as much liberty as is compatible with the rights of other individuals) should be assigned a higher priority than the duty to comply with “the difference principle” (the principle that any social or economic inequalities that occur between individuals should be designed to benefit every individual) and the duty to comply with “the principle of fair equality of opportunity” (the principle that any social or economic inequalities that occur between individuals should belong to positions that are equally available to all individuals). Thus, the failure to comply with the principle of greatest equal liberty cannot be justified on the grounds that the difference principle and the principle of fair equality of opportunity have been complied with. Similarly, the duty to comply with “the principle of fair equality of opportunity” has a higher priority than the duty to comply with “the difference principle.” Thus, the failure to comply with the principle of fair equality of opportunity cannot be justified on the grounds that the difference principle has been complied with. The first principle of justice (the principle of greatest equal liberty) must be complied with before the second principle of justice (the difference principle and the principle of fair equality of opportunity) can be complied with, and the first part of the second principle of justice (the principle of fair equality of opportunity) must be complied with before the second part (the difference principle) can be complied with, if justice is to be attained.
     From a utilitarian standpoint, the prioritization of moral duties is governed by the principle of utility: the duty to perform an action A has a higher priority than the duty to perform some other action B if A has a greater utility (will produce a greater amount of good) than B.
      From the standpoint of moral relativism, the priority of a moral duty is always relative to the particular moral agent for whom compliance with that duty is obligatory, and is also relative to the particular situation in which that moral agent is a participant. From the standpoint of moral absolutism or intuitionism, however, there are absolute moral duties (such as the command, “Thou shalt not kill”) that are not relative to the particular moral agent or situation.
      Is it more important not to do harm than to do good? If so, then perhaps negative moral duties (such as “Thou shalt not kill”) are more important than positive moral duties (such as “Honor thy father and thy mother”).6 
      The admonition, primum non nocere (“first, do no harm”), is a principle of biomedical ethics that indicates the priority, for healthcare professionals, of the negative duty of not doing harm over the positive duty of doing good.
      A (personal, social, professional, moral, or religious) code of duty may in some cases be formulated in order to prioritize a set of duties, but in other cases it may simply list a set of duties and identify those individuals who must comply with those duties. Thus, the attempt to prioritize duties may be necessary even for someone who adheres to such a code.     
      The fact that positive duties (such as the duty of beneficence) may not necessarily have priority over negative duties (such as the duty of non-maleficence) means that moral judgment is always necessary in order to properly evaluate the relative importance of competing or conflicting moral duties.       
      The proper prioritization of moral duties requires that we be able to recognize and acknowledge our moral duties and that we be able to properly define and evaluate the relations between them. Thus, compliance with some moral duties may require that we not only recognize and acknowledge those duties, but also properly define the relations between those duties and other duties, and evaluate the relative importance of those duties as compared to other duties.
      A question that is raised by the attempt to prioritize moral duties is whether each duty that is prioritized will be complied with to the same degree or whether some duties will be complied with to a greater degree than others. It would be expected that the higher the priority assigned to a duty, the greater would be the importance of strict compliance with that duty, and thus the greater the incentive to strictly comply with that duty. It would similarly be expected that the lower the priority assigned to a duty, the less incentive there would be to strictly comply with that duty, and thus compliance with that duty would be expected to be less strict.
      The prioritization of moral duties may not be a problem for the moral intuitionist who holds that judgments about the relative importance of competing or conflicting duties can be made intuitively. However, it may be argued that if duties are seen as moral rules or principles of conduct, then there must also be rules or principles for the application of those moral rules or principles of conduct. Logical consistency may require that if we are going to assign importance to a given set of moral principles, then we must try to find the best way to apply them to the kinds of moral situations with which we will be confronted.
      The prioritization of duties may also not be a problem for the moral egoist who holds that the highest priority should always be given to those duties that promote his own personal advantage or gain, regardless of the needs and concerns of other individuals. For the moral egoist, the duties he owes to himself (if there are such duties) will always be of a higher priority than the duties he owes to others.
      The prioritization of duties may be a means of determining the proper amount of blame to be placed on persons who fail to comply with their moral duty, insofar as the higher the priority of a duty, the greater the amount of blame that may be placed on persons who willfully or negligently fail to comply with that duty.
      The amount of blame that may be properly placed on persons for noncompliance with moral duty may also be determined by whether they actually recognized their moral duty. Failure to recognize duty may be due to defects in moral intuition, reasoning, judgment, and understanding (all of which may contribute to a person’s sense of moral duty).
      Given that a person may only to able to fulfill a limited number of obligations or commitments within a given amount of time, it may be important to be able to prioritize them so that those obligations or commitments considered to be of highest priority can be attended to before that person finds herself unable to attend to those of lower priority. In this way, the amount of blame that she may incur by not being able to fulfill all of her obligations or commitments may perhaps be kept to a minimum.

FOOTNOTES

1Mencius, translated by D.C. Lau (London: Penguin Books, 1970), Book III, Part B, Ch. 9.
2W.D. Ross, The Right and the Good (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1930), p.22.
3Immanuel Kant, Groundwork of the Metaphysic of Morals, translated by H.J. Paton (New York: Harper & Row, 1964), p. 82.
4Ibid., p. 92.
5Ibid., p. 89.
6Ross, The Right and the Good, p. 22.


REFERENCES

Kant, Immanuel. Groundwork of the Metaphysic of Morals. Translated by H.J. Paton. New York: Harper & Row, 1964.

Mencius. Translated by D.C. Lau. London: Penguin Books, 1970.

Rawls, John. A Theory of Justice. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1971.

Ross, W.D. The Right and the Good. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1930.

Sunday, April 14, 2013

A Possible Misunderstanding of Modality in Kant's Groundwork


A phrase in Kant’s Grundlegung zur Metaphysik der Sitten (1785, Groundwork of the Metaphysic of Morals) that I think might have been more aptly expressed is the following:

“Alle Imperativen werden durch ein Sollen ausgedrückt” — "All imperatives are expressed by an ‘Ought'" (Chapter 2, 14th paragraph),

which I think might have been better expressed as “Alle Imperativen werden durch ein Müssen ausgedrückt” — "All imperatives are expressed by a ‘Must.’" That is to say, if an action is imperative, it not merely “ought to” or “should” be performed, it “must” be performed, if a moral duty to perform that action is to be complied with.

Friday, April 5, 2013

The Concept of Futility


It may be important for us to carefully examine the concept of futility, insofar as such an examination may enable us to more clearly define the conditions under which it is morally permissible, advisable, or necessary to concede defeat in a given endeavor or field of activity. If we have made personal or moral commitments to try to achieve success in a given field of activity, then it may be necessary for us to be able to recognize when we should admit failure and concede defeat. If we have failed in a given endeavor but have fulfilled all our personal and moral commitments to try to achieve success, then we may in good conscience be able to terminate our participation and be free to turn our efforts to a different (and perhaps more productive) field of activity.
      How do we know when it is morally permissible, advisable, or necessary to surrender, admit defeat, or “throw in the towel"? How do we know when it is morally right or wrong to struggle against overwhelming odds? Can it be heroic in some cases to refuse to admit defeat when there is no chance of victory? Can a kind of nobility and dignity in some cases be achieved by refusing to surrender to inevitable defeat, and by continuing to struggle against overwhelming odds? When does such perseverance become reckless, foolhardy, or irresponsible?
      With what degree of certainty must we know that an action is futile before we describe it as such? What is the minimum likelihood or threshold of utility of an action that must be met in order for us not to consider that action to be futile?
      When is it acceptable, advisable, or justifiable for us to concede defeat in a game of chess, poker game, bicycle race, wrestling match, boxing match, research project, legal proceeding, advertising campaign, or political election?
      Futility may be described as an inability to produce any successful result, effect, or outcome. Futile actions are incapable of producing any benefit or accomplishing any useful purpose. They are useless and of no value by any reasonable standard of utility. They have no chance (or an extremely low likelihood) of being useful, effective, beneficial, or successful.
      The principle of futility may be roughly converse to the principle of utility. While the principle of utility may hold that actions are morally right or justified insofar as they are useful and promote good results, the principle of futility may hold that actions are morally wrong or unjustified insofar as they are useless and incapable of promoting good results. Futile actions may be actions for which there is no logical basis, practical rationale, or moral justification from the standpoint of the principle of utility.
      It is not the case that it is just as well not to perform futile actions as to perform them, because the performance of futile actions may often entail an expenditure of (physical, intellectual, emotional, psychological, social, material, or economic) resources that could be used for more productive purposes. Futile actions lack the utilitarian and consequential value that belongs to useful and consequential actions, and from a utilitarian or consequentialist standpoint they are therefore not worthy of being performed at all. Furthermore, the performance of futile actions may in some cases not only be unhelpful, but also potentially harmful. Such actions may promote an inability to adapt to a given situation, rather than promoting the capacity to rectify or remedy that inability.
      An interesting question to consider, with regard to the concept of marginal utility, is whether the consumption of a product or service may have a progressively increasing marginal disutility, corresponding to its progressively decreasing marginal utility. That is to say, if the utility of each unit of a product or service becomes progressively less as more and more of the product or service is consumed, then the disutility of each unit may also become progressively greater.
      Similarly, if an action is futile but is performed repeatedly, then it may become more and more futile the more often it is performed. Repeated performance of that same useless action may increasingly become an exercise in futility.
      If an action is futile, then why should it be performed at all? If there is anything to be gained by performing the action, then it is not in fact futile.
      The performance of actions that are known to be futile may be counterproductive insofar as it may enable us to delude ourselves that we are doing something that is helpful or useful. Refusal to perform futile actions may in some cases be a means of asserting our moral integrity, rationality, agency, and decision-making capacity. However, it may in other cases be merely a refusal to comply with unreasonable requests or demands made by others that futile actions be performed (our refusal being based on our compliance with reasonable standards of moral conduct and our recognition of those cases in which requests or demands for futile actions to be performed are logically, morally, and legally unjustified).
     The nature of futility is an important object of investigation for medical ethics. A situation in which the possibility of futility must unavoidably be confronted is that in which a patient who is in complete cardiopulmonary arrest has not responded to extended attempts at CPR. Medical responders must at some point decide whether further CPR has any chance of success or whether it will be futile.
      The nature of futility is also an important object of investigation for military ethics. Assessment of the probability of military success is an element of just war theory, which questions the justification for a nation to engage in war if such engagement will clearly be futile. Some ethical questions that may need to be considered in relation to the nature of futility in military combat include: Does a soldier have a duty to perform futile actions ordered by his/her commanding officer if those actions will clearly result in the unnecessary deaths of fellow soldiers and civilians? Is the nature of futility, in some cases, merely a matter of personal viewpoint or subjective opinion?
      Some kinds of futility that we may have to confront in everyday life include

  • the futility of trying to engage in a rational discussion with someone who does not want to engage in a rational discussion
  • the futility of trying to negotiate with someone who does not want to negotiate
  • the futility of trying to convince people to agree with all of our opinions
  • the futility of trying to recall every sentence of a magazine article that we’ve just read
  • the futility of trying to repair, rather than replace, an electrical system that has repeatedly broken down
  • the futility of trying to start the engine of a car when the car’s battery is dead.
      One response that we can make to being confronted with the futility of trying to control things that we have no power to control is to adopt a stoic attitude. The philosopher Epictetus (c. 55-135 C.E.) says that wisdom is defined by a capacity to distinguish between those situations that are within our power to change and those situations that are not within our power to change. In order to attain harmony with the world, we may have to reconcile ourselves to those situations that are not within our power to change, but we do not necessarily have to reconcile ourselves to those situations that are within our power to change. Wisdom is defined by an ability to adapt to situations that are not within our power to change, while folly is defined by an inability to adapt to situations that are not within our power to change.
      Other responses that we can make to being confronted with the futility of trying to control things that we have no power to control are to trust in providence or to adopt a fatalistic attitude. Still other responses that we can make are to turn to religious faith or metaphysical skepticism. We may decide to put our faith in teachings such as that of Ecclesiastes 3:1, “To everything there is a season, and a time to every purpose under heaven,” or we may decide to be skeptical about any teachings that say there is a metaphysical purpose to things.
      Franz Kafka’s novel The Trial is, in part, concerned with the futility of our trying to convince ourselves that uncertainty is not an inherent aspect of our existence. The protagonist of the novel, Joseph K., is arrested one morning at his apartment, for some unknown offense, without any formal charges having been brought against him. He is later released and returns to his job as a bank clerk, but he is unable to discover what crime he is accused of having committed. He is unable to obtain any direct answer from the court as to whether he has any legal rights. Despite his continued efforts to resolve his case, he learns that no one who has been accused of an offense has ever received a definite acquittal. The most he can hope for is an ostensible acquittal or an indefinite postponement of his case. Eventually, he is again arrested, and he discovers the futility of trying to avoid his cruel fate.
      An action may be described as futile if it cannot possibly produce any benefit and cannot possibly be effective or successful. We may therefore need to examine three criteria for the futility of an action: the action’s inability to be beneficial, its inability to be effective, and its inability to be successful. The inability of an action to be beneficial, effective, or successful may be a sufficient ground for describing that action as futile.
      The effectiveness of an action may be defined as the action’s ability to do whatever it is intended to do, and the successfulness of an action may be defined as the action’s accomplishment of whatever it was intended to accomplish. If there is no chance of an action’s being beneficial, effective, or successful, then the criteria for futility are fulfilled.
      It should be noted that the effectiveness of an action is here defined as its ability to produce its intended effect, and not just any effect at all. Actions capable of producing an effect other than their intended effect may therefore be futile if they cannot possibly produce any benefit or accomplish any purpose.
      It should also be noted that some actions intended to be beneficial turn out to be harmful or detrimental. Such actions are not futile if there is actually some benefit they could have produced, had they been successful.
      It should also be noted that some actions that are unsuccessful in producing any benefit or effect are merely of no consequence. But they are not futile if they could possibly have been beneficial, effective, or successful.
      The futility of an action is always dependent on the circumstances under which that action is performed. An action that is useful under a given set of circumstances may be futile under another set of circumstances. An action may also be absolutely or relatively futile under a given set of circumstances. In declaring that an action is futile, we should always be careful to verify that we have considered those circumstances under which that action could have been beneficial, effective, or successful.

REFERENCES

The Discourses of Epictetus. Edited by Christopher Gill. Translation revised by Robin Hard. London: J.M. Dent, 1995.

Kafka, Franz. The Trial. Translated by Willa and Edwin Muir. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1956.