The Philosophy of Choosing Between Bad Options How would Aristotle, John Stuart Mill or Immanuel Kant decide what to do in Iraq? Daniel Robinson, a member of Oxford University's philosophy faculty, discusses their moral theories.
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The Philosophy of Choosing Between Bad Options

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The Philosophy of Choosing Between Bad Options

The Philosophy of Choosing Between Bad Options

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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No matter what your position on the Iraq War, it's pretty clear that all the choices for what should happen now have serious downsides. Pullout troops and people left behind die, keep troops there and more deaths. Thorny problems like these make leaders and generals, not to mention you and me, search their souls to consult their deepest held beliefs. It's a philosophical question. How to choose between bad options?

Now Daniel Robinson is a professor of philosophy at Oxford University and he's joined me now to explain how the great philosophers would have his approach to this problem. How are you, sir?

Professor DANIEL ROBINSON (Philosophy, Oxford University): Well, I'm fine, of course, it's an awkward position to expect philosophy to answer a question once and for all. I mean if we could answer questions once for all, we would be out of business once we turn the answers in.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Prof. ROBINSON: If I'm to be guide toward good decision making, I fear that many will be, not only frustrated at the end, but confirmed in their suspicion that philosophy's limits are nerve racking.

SEABROOK: Well, we'll take that risk today and ask you where you might start when you're picking say, a philosopher to start with. Which ones of those might we go to for moral decisions?

Prof. ROBINSON: Well, the three classical ones - Kant, of course, was persuaded that what makes a decision a moral decision is that it adheres to a moral principle. And he expresses the principle in the form of what he calls a categorical imperative. It is an imperative. It says do this. And it's categorical in that it is entirely indifferent to consequences. It's do this, come what may.

And he gives us three forms of that imperative. One of them is quite common - do unto others, as you would have them do unto you.

SEABROOK: The golden rule.

Prof. ROBINSON: The golden rule. There's a different version of it in which he says no man is ever to be use merely as a means to an end but always as an end on to himself. You never use another rational being as if that being were merely an instrument of your purposes.

SEABROOK: Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm.

Prof. ROBINSON: The third version is the textbook version. It's act in such a way that the maxim of your action would, if you could make it so, be a universal law of nature.

So on Kant…

SEABROOK: Oh, my. I'm not sure I can live up to expectations like that.

Prof. ROBINSON: Well, as…

(Soundbite of laughter)

Prof. ROBINSON: One of my Oxford colleagues said many years ago, he said, you know, Dan, we all know that categorical imperative is right. It's just that nobody can live according to it. And that is one of the problems with Kantian theory. You can't think of so many real life situations in which a decision has to be guided by consequences.


Prof. ROBINSON: And so you move to another theory. In this case…


Prof. ROBINSON: Or on another version of utilitarianism.

SEABROOK: Okay. So forget Kant.

Prof. ROBINSON: Well, let's hold him in reserve for a moment…


Prof. ROBINSON: …because we're going to have to bring him back if we let the utilitarians get away with too much.


Prof. ROBINSON: Utilitarianism has very good philosophical credentials. Jeremy Bentham is one of the modern day advocates of it. John Stuart Mill. The argument goes like this. Bentham put it this way. He said we are born under twin masters - pleasure and pain. And so moral decisions are decisions that can either increase or decrease the net suffering in the world. And what you're trying to optimize is pleasure. Not the vulgar nearly…

SEABROOK: Not hedonism.

Prof. ROBINSON: Not hedonism but the overall good that can be made to obtain. Now, put Kant next to Mill in a real life situation. You've apprehended someone that's been charged with a vicious crime - a murder, following of rape, et cetera.


Prof. ROBINSON: That person is in custody. A crowd has formed outside the jailhouse and it wants vengeance. Meanwhile, the authorities have discovered that the person they apprehended actually is innocent of the crime. The crowd shouts out, turn this person over or we'll burn down the town. Do you turn over one you know to be innocent whether your alternative is the elimination of the town, a nation, the planet? Are we really to be so indifferent to consequences?

Now, remember what the utilitarian is going to say here. The morally right course of action is the death of an innocent person known to be innocent because given the calculus, this is the only course of action that satisfies them. Yeah.

SEABROOK: Save the hide(ph), the film and the others.

Prof. ROBINSON: And then the third…

SEABROOK: Wait a second. And so we've gone Kant. We've gone John Stuart Mill, which is the utilitarianism. And now…

Prof. ROBINSON: And now, we're going all the way ahead to the future to Aristotle, who died at 322 B.C. And his ethical writings continue to inform moral philosophy. Sometimes, Aristotle's position is described as perfectionism. It's a virtue-based theory of morality. Understanding virtue to be the midpoint between extremes, which are vices.

The classic example is courage. At one extreme, the fear is so overwhelming as to be paralyzing and this creates cowardice. At the other extreme, there's no fear at all, and this creates heedlessness.


Prof. ROBINSON: Courage is the midpoint where one overcomes one's fear to do what ought to be done. And the other virtues ought to be developed in the same way. And if you get it right, you've actually developed such a habit of virtue that Aristotle refers to it as a second nature.


Prof. ROBINSON: So the right decisions to be made now are the decisions that conduce to that kind of perfection. All right. Now, we face…

SEABROOK: Yeah. How do you - okay.

Prof. ROBINSON: Now, we face Iraq.

SEABROOK: I'm much more confused ever since the beginning. I'll have to say that.

Prof. ROBINSON: Well, here's the good news from philosophy. Every one of the major moral theories will give you a course of action to take with respect to war.


Prof. ROBINSON: Here's the bad news. Just about any reasonable position you want to take on the situation in Iraq will find support from each one of those theories. You said when you set this up, if we leave, many, many people will die. If we stay, many of our own soldiers will die.

SEABROOK: And many innocent people.

Prof. ROBINSON: And many innocent people. Well, you might say that on a utilitarian calculus - let me put it crassly over the long haul. You stay. Oil is cheaper. It supports a certain kind of progress, which improves medical science, which saves millions of - it's a drift.

SEABROOK: (Unintelligible), yeah.

Prof. ROBINSON: You could also say would you universalize your course of action here if, in fact, you've subscribed to a Kantian view, would you establish, as a law of nature, the same decision-making that was made in the process of entering this and carrying it on?

At the same time, there is this Aristotelian summons. You ask yourself is the principle that I'm about to act on, the principle that I would urge others to follow, something that is going to render them better persons, better in that fundamental sense of richer, fuller, flourishing of just what it is that defines their very humanity?

Philosophy, I'm sorry to say, is not a textbook of answers. It's a textbook of guides that tell you maybe you're asking the wrong question, maybe the method you're using to address the question is a very good method but not for questions of that kind. So it forces you to be, perhaps, a little more deliberative and to trust your passions less, your reasons more, and your limits most.

SEABROOK: Daniel Robinson is a philosophy professor at Oxford University. Thank you so much for joining me.

Prof. ROBINSON: Thank you very much.

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