Saturday, April 07, 2007

Uncertainty and imagination

Bryan Appleyard recently advocated, as a personal ethic, the combination of uncertainty and empathic imagaination: "I believe in uncertainty...and the imagination, not least because the combination of the two makes killing people almost impossible."

Whilst it may not have been Bryan's intention, might one be able to use this as the fundamental principle for a fully-fledged ethical theory? As an ethical principle, it is methodological rather than substantive, but I see no reason why one couldn't apply this principle to a variety of moral issues to arrive at substantive principles. I do see two possible problems though:

(i) Moral dilemmas. These tend to be used by moral philosophers to test, and often to break, moral principles. Now, uncertainty entails the hedging of bets, and moral dilemmas are often framed in a manner which prevents such hedging. For example, should a pregnant teenage girl, who has been the victim of rape, have an abortion or not?

(ii) Game theoretic situations. These are situations where the decision one takes is dependent upon one's belief about the decisions that other people will take. If the morally uncertain and imaginative individual or society is faced with potentially threatening agents, individual or societal, who possess high levels of certainty and low levels of empathic imagination, how should the former respond? This, of course, is a question of high contemporary relevance, given the Islamist threat to Western societies. It is a question which always applies in times of war, when uncertain and imaginative individuals may still choose to kill other humans.

I don't necessarily regard these problems as irresolvable, but I certainly think they need to be grappled with.


Neil Forsyth said...

Bryan's is not your typical moral principle (if it is a principle at all), such as Mill's utility principle or Kant's categorial imperative. But what it suggests to me is some form of moral particularism, and as such, is best left as it is, rather than using it as a stepping stone to arrive at more substantive, universal principles. Universalist moral principles, like Mill's and Kant's, are useful guides, as are the Ten Commandments, but when faced with particular cases, hard cases, moral banana skins, then it really does comes down to moral reasoning and plain old judgement. There is no way out of it. And it is risky. But the people who cause the most trouble in this world are those who are certain of their own moral superiority and/or those who follow moral principles blindly.

Bryan Appleyard said...

Thinking about this.