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A Way of Thinking About Ethics

Philip Badger on a classroom philosophy experiment and the ideas it provoked.

The ideas in this article have their origin in a difficulty I was having in teaching a course in Ethics to my students. I wanted to put into action the idea that philosophy is something in which you actively participate and something which can help you gain a greater understanding of your own ideas. At the same time, I wanted to introduce my class to some of the major perspectives in moral philosophy in a way which would help them appreciate their various strengths and points of conflict. It occurred to me that the best way of doing this was to build on a thought experiment suggested by the American philosopher, John Rawls.

Rawls, famously, suggested what he called ‘the original position’ – an imagined situation in which disembodied souls consider the requirements of a just society while waiting, in a state of ignorance about their eventual identities and characteristics, to be born into the world. Rawls hoped that his thought experiment would enable us to see past our particular interests as people with specific identities (e.g. ‘white’ and ‘male’) so that we could consider the principles which would govern a truly just and fair society.

Rawls’ thought experiment was controversial for several reasons but one was that it seemed, in a way, implausible, to his critics, to ask us to distance ourselves from any specific cultural values we might hold. Thus, one of the many criticisms levelled at Rawls by philosophers was that the demands placed upon his participants were psychologically implausible; the abstract, rational, individual that he imagines is no individual at all.

The Experiment

Reflecting on Rawls’ ideas, it struck me that I could give his thought experiment an empirical twist and do so without requiring any psychologically implausible efforts on the part of my students. I asked them to play the role of a new UK Supreme Court which would rule on the merits of a series of cases. However, before the court could start looking at specific cases, it had the additional job of selecting, in order of priority, the principles it would be using to judge the merits of each case. In other words, I asked the members of the court to begin by writing their own ‘constitution’. I provided a series of possible principles and gave the students time to debate their merits and order them. However, I stipulated that, once they had settled on a set of principles, they could not change any of them until they had looked at at least five cases. I did this because I anticipated that, when faced with practical cases, they would rapidly come to question the merits of their original ideas.

Thus began a fairly exceptional experiment in what I’ll call ‘empirical’ philosophy. I realised that what I’d got was a kind of philosophical laboratory in which I could test an important hypothesis. I hoped we might be able to demonstrate the possibility of a liberal ideal; that people of different cultures, genders, class backgrounds etc, might be able to come to some kind of workable consensus of core values. Indeed, from Rawls’ perspective, such a consensus, attained between ideally rational agents, is what constitutes moral knowledge.

Most of my students thought some principle about ‘preventing suffering’ was very important and several of them considered it to be the most important principle of all. In philosophy, this is what is called a ‘consequentialist’ moral viewpoint because it suggests that the intended or foreseeable consequences of our actions are the most important criteria for deciding if an action is morally permissible or not.

The problem with this point of view, as my new Supreme Court found out when they were faced with ‘real life’ cases, was that it tended to lead to consequences with which they were not at all happy. I gave them one dilemma to consider in which they had to decide if they should allow involuntary euthanasia in the case of a man who was ignorant of his own terminal condition, in great pain and terrified of death. In my fictional case, the man’s family had asked that he be administered a lethal dose of painkillers under the pretence that it was a routine jab.

The students thought that this would be a gross infringement of what they called the man’s ‘human rights’ but felt obliged to accept that it would be the best way to minimise suffering. This case highlights a very important problem with consequentialist moral positions and that is that there are other things, apart from their consequences, which we recognise as making our actions right or wrong. This was the viewpoint taken by those of the students who placed a principle about ‘respecting the autonomy of autonomous beings’ at the top of their ‘constitutions’.

Various versions of this principle are at the heart of what are called ‘deontological’ moral theories. Deontological theories begin from the premise that some actions, such as deciding for another rational being that it would be better for them to end their life, are absolutely wrong regardless of their otherwise good consequences (in this case, the alleviation of suffering).

However, those students who wanted to put a deontological principle about ‘respecting autonomy’ at the heart of their ‘constitutions’ were soon, like the consequentialists, met by difficulties in applying it in fictional cases that I devised. In particular, they were forced to agree that seatbelt use had to be made optional in the front seat of cars and that we should make class ‘A’ drugs freely available to those adults who wanted to use them. The problem was that, once they accepted the ‘autonomy’ of autonomous beings, they had no way to argue for paternalistically enforcing any rules intended to prevent suffering. Their position led, in other words, to a kind of libertarianism in which the only function of the law was to protect the rights of individuals to be left alone.

Most of my students were unwilling to accept either that the state should play the role of parent in deciding, in every case, what was best for us, or that it should never interfere to enforce our safety. A few ‘libertarians’ demanded to know if the ‘paternalists’ wanted to ban hang-gliding on the grounds that it was dangerous. The ‘paternalists’ retorted that thousands of people had been saved from death and suffering by seatbelts and by tax revenue-supported health services (tax was something else a few of the libertarians seemed to consider an infringement on autonomy). For the most part, though, my students didn’t want to be either totally libertarian in their outlook or totally paternalistic.

Suggesting Another Principle

It occurred to me that there was a novel way of allowing them to take the elusive ‘third way’ for which they were looking. Rawls talked about what he called the ‘lexical ordering’ of his principles of justice so that some could be given more weight than the others. Indeed, I had built this into my experiment by allowing the students to list principles in order of priority. The problem was that, in placing either an absolutely consequentialist or absolutely deontological principle at the head of their constitutions, they were effectively making any subordinate principles redundant. There was no point in, for example, placing a principle about ‘preventing suffering’ second in a list where ‘respecting autonomy’ was first. Such an ordering would never lead to seatbelt wearing or tax-funded health care.

In this context, I suggested that they might want to consider the possibility that they make ‘respecting the autonomy of autonomous beings with regard to their large scale concepts of the good’ the first principle of their constitutions. I explained that by ‘large scale concepts of the good’, I meant those kinds of choices and the systems of meaning which inform them, without which life would become meaningless for us as individuals. My idea was to prohibit interference in our ‘big’ life choices without ruling such interference out, on specific grounds, in other areas. These ‘big’ choices should be free from coercion by any party, including the state, and include things such as our choice of life partner, our choice of career, our religion or lack of it, and our right not to be ‘put to sleep’ by well-meaning doctors without our consent.

This list is, of course, partial and open to discussion, but the principle remains that, whatever conversation we might have about its content, there is still a point to saying that some things are so central to our own sense of our lives as having meaning that it is intolerable that the state or anyone else should interfere with them. Conversely, it might be argued that there are some things that are too trivial for us to permit the interference of others. My decision to paint my living-room orange might not induce my guests to return but should hardly be the subject of criminal or civil action!

However, and this is the point my students picked up with relish, between those things which are too important for state interference and those things which are too trivial, there lie a vast number of ‘medium scale’ choices upon which the meaning of our lives do not turn but which might be interfered with on the grounds that, for example, doing so might prevent suffering. Consequentialism survives, but in a restricted form.

Making us wear seatbelts does not render our lives meaningless but does, potentially at least, promise to make them longer. This doesn’t imply that the state should be able to require us to refrain from activities, such as hang-gliding, which are dangerous but which we freely and deliberately enter into in order to enrich our existences in particular ways.

Similarly, paying taxes to fund health care, pensions and other benefits does not negate the meaningfulness of my life to me unless the taxation is so punitive that my incentive to work is entirely destroyed. The debate will continue about when that point might be reached but the general principle that we should not be able to ‘opt out’ of the cost of reducing the suffering of our fellow beings is preserved.

Thus far, the ‘constitution’ I proposed to my students contained two elements and, possibly, the solution to some long-standing philosophical problems. Firstly, it is clear that we can maintain that there are some things that are right or wrong regardless of their consequence (we refuse the request of a family to give the dying man involuntary euthanasia even though our action will prolong his suffering). Secondly, we can give proper place to the moral value of ‘preventing suffering’ when we know that doing so does not contravene anyone’s ‘large scale’ freedoms. We are not morally compelled, in the name of negative liberty, to repeal our seatbelt laws or give people tax refunds on the money we’ve spent on kidney machines.

At this point, I decided to introduce to my students a third ‘constitutional’ principle, subservient to but consistent with the first two. This principle states that we should ‘aim to promote the autonomy of potentially autonomous beings’. Like the second principle, this is a positive principle in that bids us to do things and not just to leave people alone. Note also that it makes no reference to ‘large scale’ choices but is a statement of the moral significance of autonomy as such. I included it because it seemed to me that there needed to be some acknowledgement that certain people, for example children and the disabled, are not always in a position to exercise autonomy fully. In the case of disabled people, this may not be because of any intellectual incapacity but because society does not afford them physical access to resources that most of us take for granted. It is nonsense to suggest that a person has a ‘negative right’ to a university education (a right not to be formally prevented from taking up a place) if there is no possibility that such an individual’s positive access needs be taken into account. A person using a wheelchair needs a lift if they are going to be able to attend a lecture on the third floor and a ramp to get into the building at all. In a similar way, it is absurd to suggest that a child might grow to exercise autonomy if he or she is denied the opportunity of education.

All of this is apt to sound a little too left wing – or perhaps a little too Scandinavian – for some people. Many old-fashioned liberals and libertarians will claim, at this point, to be able to detect old style Soviet totalitarianism just around the corner. Any mention of promoting ‘potential’ autonomy has tended to be regarded as dangerously authoritarian by traditional ‘negative’ liberals (Isaiah Berlin is one philosopher who thought this way). They suspect that the state will want to take a role in shaping what those ‘potentially autonomous beings’ are going to think. Others will worry that, in our efforts to reduce suffering, we risk reducing those people who are the recipients of welfare to the level of debased dependents free-riding the system (this is a view taken by the American writer Charles Murray). However, it is unreasonable to suggest that making people wear seatbelts, paying them unemployment benefit or making children learn about the principle export crops of Brazil is tyrannical (arguing that the latter is unnecessary is to engage in a quite different debate – one about what content education needs to have in order to promote autonomy). The point is that the ‘lexical ordering’ we have been doing makes laudable aims, such as preventing suffering and promoting autonomy, secondary and non-injurious to the ‘big’ negative liberties which traditional liberals are, rightly, anxious to defend. We might have to reform welfare provision to make it more ‘participatory’ – perhaps more generous but also more demanding of the recipients (another Scandinavian idea) but we don’t have to consider abolishing it.

A Hard Case

However, this should not be taken to mean that the ideas outlined in this article do not have implications that are deeply disturbing to our conventional moral viewpoints when they are applied to what philosophers call ‘hard cases’. One example, albeit an extreme one, will have to suffice.

Recently, there have been cases of conflict between the parents of very ill babies and doctors about their continued care. Doctors have claimed that some of these children will suffer badly if, sometimes quite invasive, treatment is continued. Parents have counter-claimed, based on their ‘large scale concepts of the good’, that treatment should continue. In Britain, courts have so far mainly ruled in support of the doctors in these cases.

Similar debates are taking place in Holland. There, however, the debate is not about the withholding of treatment but about active euthanasia for children. It is these kind of cases which most starkly demonstrate the implications of the moral position outlined in this article.

Let’s take the case of a child suffering from an incurable and agonising condition, which palliative care has failed to alleviate. We have to acknowledge that the child may not be an ‘autonomous being’ capable of developing a ‘large scale concept of the good’ (the extent to which a child may be said to have such a ‘concept of the good’ will depend on a variety of factors including his or her age and mental abilities). In this situation, the prevention of suffering becomes the imperative moral principle according to my principles. If so, it seems that there is an argument, as proposed in Holland, for active non-voluntary euthanasia, as this is likely to be much more effective in preventing suffering than the simple withdrawal of treatment. This is controversial enough in its own right – I’m proposing that children in circumstances of hopeless suffering be given active euthanasia – but this is not the end of the matter. We must envisage occasions where the Dutch experience might, in the future, come together with ours in the UK. Imagine a situation in which the parents of a suffering child are opposed to active euthanasia on the grounds of their ‘large scale concept of the good’ but the doctors believe that it is by far the kindest way of ending the child’s suffering. In that case, we have a choice between assuming that the ‘large scale concept of the good’ of the parents can somehow be thought to ‘spread’ to the child, in which case euthanasia is not justified, or assuming that it does not, in which case it is.

The general argument of this article would seem to point to the latter conclusion. If it did not, then we would have to acknowledge that those parents who object on religious grounds to life-saving blood transfusions being given to their children have the right to do so. The basic principle that has been defended here is that we have a right, as autonomous beings, to decide whether we want to bring our life to an end (with the help of a consenting doctor if necessary) but that others do not have any right to make that decision for us. One person’s ‘large-scale concept of the good’ does not spread over to or negate another’s in this case. However, in the case of a being who is incapable of entertaining such a concept of the good but who still has the capacity to suffer, limiting that suffering becomes the moral imperative. Thus, there seems to be a case for active euthanasia for children suffering hopeless pain, even when this is against the wishes of their parents.

© Philip Badger 2005

Philip Badger is a teacher of Psychology, Sociology and Philosophy in a school in Sheffield.

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