The proposed situation as a whole is exceedingly difficult to deal with in terms of ethics, because these is very little information to go on, and must take into account not only ethics, but also the cultural situation of a particular philosopher. For instance, Kant – not a modern Kantian, but Kant himself – would reject the whole idea as ridiculous and a hoax belonging to the old metaphysics system, to be renounced altogether with all of the old-style metaphysics, as evidenced by his treatment of his contemporary, Swedenborg, and his reports of dealing with supernatural creatures. Moreover, both Kantian ethics and utilitarianism have sub-divisions which might give different answers. Even worse, the term “elf” is so particularly ill-defined, having a place in so many various mythologies and at least several dozens of interpretations – from Tolkien’s elves to pixies – that a single solution seems practically impossible. However, we will try to resolve these technical problems by assuming that these are folklore-style elves, and the hypothethical Kantian and Utilitarian are both modern-day Americans. The preliminary analysis a person passingly familiar with ethics would be that, assuming the Keebler company statement was true and the elves were truly not abused, the Utilitarian would be pro-elf labor and the Kantian vice versa. My thesis, however, is that the end result would be exactly the opposite: the Kantian would argue for the preservation of elf labor and the utilitarian would argue for their freedom..
As it is well-known, the utilitarian ethic is hedonistic, assuming either a maximum of happiness or a minimum of misery. The first-seen solution for a Utilitarian would be to make an investigation into whether these elves are actually happy. If they are, then there is, in truth, no problem – the humans are happy with their production and the elves are happy with the way they are treated. In fact, a similar relationship has been known to folklore for centuries – the “house elves” , made popular by Harry Potter and a memorable example, have roots in the age-old brownie tradition, where little people worked for clothes and food. This is traditional and kept everyone quite happy. It would seem that the correctly utilitarian thing to do would be to make sure the treaties between humans and elves are made correctly as due to tradition and not interfere into the natural process of cultural treaties, as utilitarian ethics rarely interferes in international treaties.
However, one of the most influential Utilitarians of the age, Peter Singer, is also well-known as an animal rights activist. Moreover, he – and other modern Utilitarians – poses the question as not, to rephrase his animal rights statement, “The question is not whether they are human, but whether do they suffer?” And, naturally, Singer and his adherents think of suffering not as a culturally variable issue, but, indeed, almost as an ontological one, despite Levinas’ almost fifty-year old warning against the ontologization of ethics. This means that human values will be applied to essentially a non-human ethos, and that will, at the very least, disturb a homeostasis in inter-species relationships in the name of the greater good. Possibly – possibly – in the long run it might lead to the greater good, but in the short term, it will almost certainly cause discomfort for all parties involved. The question here is what will produce either more happiness or less harm in the long run – and the answer to that is less than predictable from the problem specifications. If the elves are essentially malevolent and bound only by oath, as in some myths – then the question would become more interesting.
A Kantian’s position is simpler here, if also duplicit. Assuming the elf is classified as a sentient creature – if it were an automata or an animal, there would be no problem, as the prevention of excess cruelty would deal with any ethical problems that might arise – the first thing a Kantian would do is try to understand whether an “elf” is somehow a human being: by reason, by feelings, by basic categories of its existence et cetera. If, for instance, it is termed that time and space are not apriori categories for these beings, then that will bring about a humongous revision of Kantian philosophy as a whole, and the Kantian will be too busy solving that, rather than dealing with the practical applications of his philosophy. If these beings are assumed to be human, then the solution would be easy – they would be freed from forced labor as being human, and thus self-justified in their existence. As Kant put it: “Act to treat humanity, whether yourself or another, as an end-in-itself and never as a means.” But the problem specifications clearly state that these beings are not human. This is where the difficulties begin, as the first question any Kantian would ask here is: “How much of a threat to humanity are they?”
If a Kantian approaches this problem from the perspective of safety, and if we remember the malevolence of mythological elves, then he might well opt for leaving them in forced labor, where they, in the very least, can do no harm. If the system works, why change it? Kantian ethics are a human ethics, and are based at making human life easier. Considering the fact that they are based in part on the principle of universalizability, the question of whether a position would be acceptable if all human beings went by it, it is certainly a pretty easy way to eternal slavery for the beings in question. What do human beings care for elf being? We remember how much can be accomplished with racial bigotry from the example of the Holocaust. Thus, the main question for the Kantian becomes whether these creatures are sentient or not, and how much they differ from a human – enough not to fall under the Categorical Imperative, or less? And it would be depending on this decision that the Kantian’s moral choice would be made.
And thus we reiterate that this hypothetical problem is completely impossible to solve within any ethical system without more concrete data on its nature. Ethics is easily one of the more practical branches of philosophy, and is always deeply and intimately linked with the ontology of a given philosopher or a philosophy, and thus requires very complete data to make any kind of decision. I have consciously chosen such an interpretation of the ambiguity of the problem as to show that there would be conflicts within any one ethical philosophy in such a case, and thus made it impossible to compare and contrast these two teachings in truth. This case also illustrates that in certain ethical cases the solution is sometimes not so obvious and “humane” as it would seem to the common mind, and, indeed, often is its very opposite. Kant’s ethic – so unconcerned with the consequences we cannot control – would stand for slavery if the Kantian in question thought the slaves do not fall under the Categorical Imperative, and Utilitarianism – the philosophy aimed at happiness – could attempt to force human happiness on essentially non-human beings. Ethics, as usual, are much more complicated than meets the eye.
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