Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Empowerment Ethics: A criticism.

'Empowerment Ethics' is philosopher Dan Fincke's attempt at an objective naturalistic ethics. I offer a criticism here.

If it could be shown that ethics could be grounded within a naturalistic framework in such a way as to supply objective principles of moral conduct, what would follow? One thing is that we would have a way to counter potentially socially corrosive views of morality such as moral relativism, whilst retaining naturalism. 

For example, suppose an atheist who also rejects the concept of the 'supernatural', wants to assert that torture for fun is wrong. What account can they give of 'wrong'? Can they offer a counter to challenges like: 'that's just your subjective opinion', or 'that's just what your culture at this time has led you to think, other cultures at different times have had different moral standards that were valid for them'.

I think Finke's Empowerment Ethics (EE) does well in drawing distinctions between concepts that can get muddled, for example 'subjective' and 'relative'. It also goes a long way in explaining how there can be objective aspects to value judgements and hence to morality.

In terms of the relatively modest goals of elucidating rational objective components to morality and pointing out formal constraints such as consistency and conditions for fairness, I think Empowerment Ethics succeeds. Fincke seems to pursue a more ambitious goal however, which is to show that given his naturalistic definition of 'good' an agent would be rationally compelled to behave morally. I think this is where EE over-reaches.

According to EE, 'good' is defined as a kind of effectiveness which is an objective relation in the world, so to say that 'x is good at bringing about y' is to say that x is effective in the bringing about of y. The next important premise is that a human agent not only has powers, such as social, technological, creative and many other powers, but that the human agent is these powers. An agent acting in such a way as to diminish their own effectiveness in instantiating their powers is therefore not being 'good' at being human. The move EE then makes is to say that the way for anyone to make the most of their powers is to empower others. Hence moral good is equated with a kind of instrumental good, in which agents behave optimally to be themselves, and realise their own potential via facilitating other agents to realise their own powers.

Although some of the obvious objections are dealt with, such as the impossibility of reconciling competing powers, I do not think the attempt to bridge the is/ought gap is successful. The premise that the way to flourish is to empower others is either circular or supported by cherry-picked evidence. You might want to argue that the stereotype of a powerful individual, say a dictator, isn't really flourishing despite all the power and lavish lifestyle, but then again how can the charge of sour grapes be met without circular reasoning?

On a more fundamental level, equating moral good with an instrumental good that preserves bundles of powers (humans) by the happy by-product of empowering other humans fails in much the same way as any of the categorical imperatives yet devised have: it fails to track our use of 'good' in the moral sense. Consider what is of value in the bundle of powers that comprises a human within the EE paradigm. If it is the set of powers for it's own sake, and maximising these is taken to be 'good', then EE seems to have the following counter-intuitive result. If a posthuman entity came about that could maximise its powers and those of its progeny by eliminating humans, and these sets of powers were greater than those of humans, it is difficult to see how EE could do other than endorse this.

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