Does Frank Underwood have reason to be moral?

Anyone who has seen the House of Cards knows that Frank Underwood is a thoroughly nasty piece of work; he kills people who get in his way; he throws them in front of trains; locks them in gas-filled cars; he lies, cheats and kills his way to the top.

Doubtlessly Frank Underwood is a pretty horrible sort of person. But does Frank Underwood have any reason to be more moral?

One approach is to argue that Frank Underwood has a reason to be moral because being moral is rational. Of any action you should consider whether everyone else in the world could act in this way and if the answer is no, it is irrational to do it. So when he throws Zoe Barnes in front of the train, Frank is being irrational; if he were to think correctly he would realise that he could not condone everyone throwing people in front of trains.

Such a view is Kantian and argues that being moral and being rational are closely related and given that people have a reason to be rational, Frank Underwood certainly has a reason to be moral.

The problem with this view is that it doesn’t seem that Underwood is irrational. One of the most alarming things about Frank Underwood is the calm and rationality that goes into his actions. He is cool, calculated and rational in his horrible actions, and it seems philososlothically heroic to argue that he is being irrational.

Another way of arguing that Frank Underwood has a reason to be moral is to argue that his actions somehow impair him as a human. The fact that it is wrong to kill another person gives Frank Underwood a reason not to push Zoe Barnes in front of the train. He violates his human nature by doing this because it goes against what it is to be a human.

This view seems more promising, however, again, there is a problem: Frank Underwood does very well for himself. He has reached the pinnacle of power, and his evil actions have helped him make it to the very top. It doesn’t seem that damaging his humanity is providing him with any incentive to be more moral.

This comes back to the age old problem: Why do good things happen to bad people? If Frank Underwood was cuddlier and nicer I doubt he would have made it so far. Are we forced to conclude that his nasty actions pay off?

In the last post I presented a view which argues that reasons for action are closely tied to what can motivate a person. A person’s desires, cares, projects and commitments are arguably the only thing that gives him reasons.

But what can we say of Frank Underwood? His desires, cares, projects and commitments certainly do not lead him to moral reasons. But does that mean he has good reason to push Zoe Barnes in front of that train? Or indeed that he has no reason not to kill her, given what he cares about?

This is one of the most interesting areas of moral philosophy and it is the branch the philososloth enjoys sitting on and contemplating the most. What do you think?

Does Frank Underwood have a reason to be moral?

If so, is this a reason that he doesn’t understand?

If he doesn’t understand being moral as a reason, is it a reason for him?

Do let me know your thoughts on the matter: drop me a comment or connect @ThePhilososloth


A solution to the thought experiments?

Thus far in our exciting jaunt into the realms of moral dilemmas we have considered three thought experiments:

We considered one in which you have the choice to pull a leaver to kill one person or not pull the leaver and let five people die. Another in which you have the choice between shooting one person or allowing 19 people to be shot. And a third in which you are asked to choose whether you should accept a job which goes against your principles or reject the job, which will lead to better chemical weapons being created.

It became clear that there are two recurring positions in response to thought experiments such as these. The two responses are broadly Utilitarian or Kantian.

A Utilitarian argues that the right thing to do in response to all these thought experiments is to maximise happiness in the world. They would argue that it is right to pull the leaver and kill one person to save five; right to shoot one person to save 19, and right take a job which goes against your principles if it will lead to less death and destruction.

A Kantian, on the other hand, would contend that you should not pull the leaver and instead let the five people die, you should not shoot one person, even if it saves 19 others, and that you cannot accept a job that you think is wrong, even if taking it would cause better results.

These positions are well established and there are many advocates on either side. However, there is a criticism of both these approaches, one which follows the ideas of Bernard Williams (I told you he was a big philososloth).

He argues that the Utilitarian and the Kantian are wrong to provide a single answer to the question “What should you do?” Regardless of what sort of person you are the Utilitarian thinks you should maximise happiness and the Kantian thinks you should only act only in the way you wish everyone else should act. But the problem with answering the question “What should you do?” with a “one-size-fits-all” response is that it ignores the most important aspect of the question. “What should you do?”

By providing an answer which is supposed to be true for all people, Utilitarianism and Kantianism ignore you and your most fundamental concerns, interests, wishes, wants, projects and commitments. If we accept their position your deepest and most important sense of self could be lost by simply surrendering to what some system of morals tells us is the right thing to do.

Williams argues that both Utilitarianism and Kantianism ask us to defy who we are. What if your feelings against taking the job are particularly strong? Is Utilitarianism right to insist that it is morally right for you to take the job even it defies a deep sense of who you are?

What if you could not live with yourself if you knew you could have prevented the deaths of five people, by simply pulling a leaver and killing one? Is Kantianism right to insist that people who pull the leaver do the morally wrong thing, if they are unable to live with not pulling it?

Williams would most certainly say “No”. It is what you decide that matters and gives you reason to act, not some moral theory which might not speak to you.

What do you think? (This, as Williams would insist, should be what you think, not what anyone ought to think under the circumstances)

A further juicy moral conundrum

So far we have considered two moral thought experiements. Here is the last one in this series of juicy conundrums.

Imagine that you have recently completed a Ph.D. in chemistry and are finding it difficult to get employed. Unfortunately, you are a rather puny, academic creature and the heaviest thing you have dealt over the last years is a Bunsen burner. Your partner is struggling to find work too and, with two young children, money is tight.

You are, however, acquainted with an older chemist who says that he has a project which is decently paid in a laboratory where you can use your chemical expertise. The job is a project on chemical and biological warfare to which the government is giving generous and enthusiastic funding.

You have qualms about chemical and biological warfare to say the least and you inform the older chemist that you cannot accept this post. He responds that he is not so keen on the project himself, but that you saying no is not going to make the job go away. In fact he happens to know that the job will go to a contemporary of yours, who has no scruples about the project, and is likely to work at developing the weapons with particular zest and energy.

Indeed, the older chemist confides, he is hoping you will take the job to prevent this zealot from working day and night to create the very best chemical and biological weapons, which will kill many people.

Your partner has no particularly strong feelings either way about chemical weapons, and you clearly need the money.

What should you do?

As you might have guessed from the previous posts, there are two general responses to this thought experiment. Those who say “take the job” and those who say “don’t take the job”. Again they fall broadly along the lines of a Utilitarian response and a Kantian response.

The Utilitarian would argue that you clearly ought to take the job, whatever your feelings of reticence might be. The fact that there is a keen chemist in line for the job means that more people are likely to be killed than if you take the job. Also, your partner and children need you to take the job for the extra money it will bring in.

A Kantian, on the other hand, would argue that you ought not to take the job. Given your personal feelings against chemical and biological weapons it would be wrong for you to accept the position. You are responsible for your actions and the chemist who will do a better job, is responsible for his actions. You cannot condone acting in such a way, because your work will directly cause death and destruction. What the eager chemist does is out of your hands.

Again, there are two basic and conflicting intuitions at play here. Should you to maximize general good outcomes by accepting the job, after all fewer people are likely to die from your efforts? Or should you to stay true to you principles and not take on a job that goes so thoroughly against your scruples?

Again these intuitions seem hard to shift and both have a kernel of truth in them. Which position so you adopt?

(Again this thought experiment is adapted from one by Bernard Williams. I have a funny feeling we will be revisiting his views shortly)

Another moral dilemma to chew on

Having started our foray into the domain of thought experiments, let’s try another one.

Imagine you are exploring a forest and in the middle of it you come across a small town. Tied up against a wall in the town square is a row of twenty captives. They are being held at gunpoint by several armed men.

A large man in a sweat-stained uniform is clearly in charge and after a good deal of questioning you find out that the prisoners are villagers who have been protesting against the government’s plan build real-estate on a local sloth habitation. The prisoners are about to be killed to warn people of the dangers of protesting against the government.

Since you are an honoured visitor and a famous explorer, the captain offers you a special privilege; you may kill one of the captives yourself. If you accept, the captain will mark the occasion by letting the other prisoners go.

However, if you refuse to kill the prisoner then the captain will do what he was planning to do anyway and kill all twenty. It is clear that any attempt on your part to disarm the captain or the other guards instead will be unsuccessful.

The prisoners up against the wall are, of course, begging you to accept the offer.

What should you do?

In this thought experiment, like the previous one, there are two general responses. Some say you should kill one and allow 19 to live. Others say that you should not kill the prisoner. You are not responsible for the actions of the captain, but you would be morally responsible for killing another person.

Thought experiments like this one help to illustrate the differences of two important approaches to ethics; Utilitarianism and Kantianism. (I will explain these more fully in a later post).

Very broadly a Utilitarian argues that the right action is the action which causes the greatest utility, or greatest amount of happiness. In this case it seems that killing one person to save 19 people is not only permissible, but it is the right thing to do.

A Kantian, on the other hand, would say that it is impermissible to kill one person to save 19. It is the captain and the captain alone who is morally responsible if he kills the twenty prisoners. You are only responsible for your actions and how you lead your life. It seems that controlling your life in a good way should include not killing anyone. That would impair you as a person.

Typically a Utilitarian would respond that it is rather self-indulgent of you to take the moral high ground by refusing to act to save 19 people. Sure, it will be awful for you to kill one person, but it’s the right thing to do in order to save the lives of 19 others.

A Kantian would retort that you have no reason to affront your human dignity by killing a person. What the captain does is not your responsibility.

You now have the sort of cantankerous and uncompromising debate that could ruin any decent pub-trip. Both sides are equally entrenched on their core intuition; 19 lives saved is better than one versus the idea that it is wrong for you to kill.

What do you think?

Feel free to drop me a line and let me know what you think is the right thing to do. The philososloth thrives on conundrums (as well as shoots and leaves).

(This thought experiment was inspired by one that Bernard Williams thought up. There will doubtlessly be more posts about Williams later, as he is a key philososloth)