Monday, July 09, 2007

When Is Good Enough, Good Enough?

The deep questions are often not the technical, complex ones, but the simple ones that challenge the technical complex answers that arose from earlier "simple" questions. In grad school, I was very lucky to study ethics with Susan Wolf, a philosopher who made a reputation by considering a "simple" question, "how good is good enough?"

Consider two of the most famous attempts to work out what we mean by an act being morally right. Immanuel Kant's duty-based notion rests on the rule that rules over all rules, what he calls "the categorical imperative:"

Act in such a way that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any other, always at the same time as an end and never simply as a means.
Act ALWAYS so that you NEVER...

Or the "principle of utility" that plays the central role in the systems of Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill:
Always act so that you maximize the overall good.
Maximize? Suppose I create an overall balance that produces lots and lots of good, but not quite as much as possible?

Do we always have to be perfect to be good? Is there an ethical version of "good enough for government work"?

On the one hand, the line is, "no, the purpose of ethics is to define 'ought,' to set out the ultimate picture of perfect human behavior, of what a human life could be at its best." To lower the bar would be to undermine the very purpose of ethics, we want to know how to live a good human life not just a good enough human life.

On the other hand, the argument is that ought needs to entail can. If we are talking about how people should live, then it must be possible for people to actually live that way. If not, then what is the point of ethics? If everyone begins by knowing that they can't live up to expectations, then there is no sense in condemning anyone's actions since they had to fail to meet moral muster. Morality loses its teeth.

So is there an ethical sense of good enough where it would be nice if we did more, but are not require to do so?