The history of moral philosophy in the West hinges principally on a handful of questions: Is there a God of some sort? An afterlife? Free will? And, perhaps most pressingly for humanists, what exactly is the nature of our obligations to others? The latter question has long occupied philosophers like Immanuel Kant, whose extreme formulation—the “categorical imperative”—flatly rules out making ethical decisions dependent upon particular situations. Kant’s famous example, one that generally gets repeated with a nod to Godwin, involves an axe murderer showing up at your door and asking for the whereabouts of a visiting friend. In Kant’s estimation, telling a lie in this case justifies telling a lie at any time, for any reason. Therefore, it is unethical.
In the video at the top of the post, Harry Shearer narrates a script about Kant’s maxim written by philosopher Nigel Warburton, with whimsical illustrations provided by Cognitive. Part of the BBC and Open University’s “A History of Ideas” series, the video—one of four dealing with moral philosophy—also explains how Kant’s approach to ethics differs from those of utilitarianism.
In the video above, Shearer describes that most utilitarian of thought experiments, the “Trolley Problem.” As described by philosopher Philippa Foot, this scenario imagines having to sacrifice the life of one for those of many. But there is a twist—the second version, which involves the added crime of physically murdering one person, up close and personal, to save several. An analogous but converse theory is that of Princeton philosopher Peter Singer (below) who proposes that our obligations to people in peril right in front of us equal our obligations to those on the other side of the world.
Finally, the last video surveys one of the thorniest issues in moral philosophical history—the “is/ought” divide, as problematic as the ancient Euthyphro dilemma. How, asked David Hume, are we to deduce moral principles from facts about the world that have no moral dimension? Particularly when those facts are never conclusive, are subject to revision, and when new ones get uncovered all the time? The question introduces a seemingly unbridgeable chasm between facts and values. Moral judgments founded on what is or isn’t “natural” flounder before our terror of much of what nature does, and the very partial and fallible nature of our knowledge of it.
The problem is as startling as Hume’s critique of causality, and in part caused Kant to remark that Hume had awakened him from a “dogmatic slumber.” What may strike viewers of the series is just how abstract these questions and examples are—how divorced from the messiness of real world politics, with the exception, perhaps, of Peter Singer. It may be instructive that political philosophy forms a separate branch in the West. While these problems are certainly difficult enough to trouble the sleep of just about any thoughtful person, in our day-to-day lives, our decision making process seems to be much messier, and much more situational, than we're probably ever aware of.