Consequentialism

I assert my morality is mainly consequentialist, with a tincture of rules-based and virtue-ethics. Perhaps I should read up on what that means. So I turned to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Moral philosophy consists of people putting up theories, and people picking holes in them. When the theorists try to defend, that can be like a Ptolemaic astronomer finding ever more tiny epicycles to fit the data.

Stanford is better than “allaboutphilosophy.com”. There I read of Situational ethics: the idea that a moral response depends on all the circumstances of a situation, and not on any fixed law. I agree: but the site’s killer argument is that Situational ethics “contradicts the Bible”. Yet still Stanford felt like a series of straw men.

Most people could live on less, and give more to charity. That charity might save lives. Consequentialism might seem to put an obligation on us to save lives, and socialise at home rather than in the pub. However much you do for others, most people could find ways to make more sacrifices, and do more. I could see the greater sacrifice as morally preferable, but not obligatory. Or I could attempt to use Aristotle’s golden mean, a virtue ethics argument, to say that too great sacrifice is a fault. Or a Quaker line: “A simple lifestyle freely chosen is a source of strength.” JS Mill would argue that an act is only morally wrong if liable to punishment: it does not maximise utility to punish people for not being absolutely as moral as they might.

Philosophers refer to agent-neutral and agent-relative views. The theorist of agent-neutrality says that an act which is right for anyone is equally right for everyone. The agent-relative theorist might say here that a parent has a particular obligation to their family. This starts to look like argument after the fact: one can rationalise any decision. How to balance competing claims?

The article expresses it differently, but considers the Trolley problem. Imagine a train is coming down the tracks towards five workers. Points could divert it to another line where there is only one worker. Do you pull the lever, to save five lives at the cost of one?

Such problems have to be unreal. No, you cannot warn the driver or slow the trolley. No, you cannot warn the workers, and they cannot jump out of the way. Perhaps they are tied there- one damsel in distress on one line, five on the other. The argument for not pulling the lever is that my action will have directly caused the death of the One, even though saving the five, so I will not. What if the death would be my fault, asks Stanford: the workers were in danger because I had told them to work there, and had not known the trolley was coming because I had not bothered to check. In that case, I might collapse into a fugue of terror and do nothing.

I come away from the article with more questions than answers, and perhaps better able only to rationalise after a decision, rather than decide morally before.

Article on Consequentialism.

woman tied to railroad tracks

5 thoughts on “Consequentialism

  1. All morality is fluid and ever changing. There is no absolute morality, and no absolute truth, for what was considered moral and correct yesterday is often looked back upon as immoral today.

    You and I are both old enough to remember the dreaded Lochgelly Tawse in Scottish schools. I don’t know about you, but I have felt the sting of it many times. Indeed, I was once at a school museum with my sister and my nephew, and I had my sister administer the tawse to me to show my nephew how it was used. At the time it was looked upon as a tool to enforce a solid moral upbringing; today we look back upon it as a barbaric instrument which had more to do with teachers who had lost control, than pupils who were out of control.

    There are other instances; it was only decided as recently as 1976 that a husband was capable of raping his wife and not merely taking his conjugal rights. Less than a hundred years ago there were still left-handed children having their arms tied behind their backs and being forced to write with their right hands. Just over 100 years ago, a husband could still beat his wife with a rod “no thicker than his thumb”. Within my lifetime I have known men who have said “No wife of mine shall ever go out to work.” All of these things were considered moral and ethical, and indeed, had a deep basis within Christianity, yet today we consider them to be deeply uneducated, absurd, and indeed, immoral.

    Not too long ago, Clare, people like you and I would have been jailed purely for being who we are. A little further back, we would have been executed. Because that was considered ‘moral’ and the right thing to do, based upon Biblical teachings.

    As an atheist I often come up against theists, usually ~ but not always ~ Christians, who ask me if there is no God, then how can there be morality. My stark answer to that is there is none; it is a wholly manmade construct which changes over time and between cultures. And because it does, it logically follows that truth itself is a relativism; what may be true for one person is not necessarily true for another. Needless to say, of the theists whom that doesn’t shut up, there are those who are appalled and ask things like “Why then can’t I just go out and steal, or murder?” In fact, some have some pretty disturbing examples, such as in one video I watched recently in which a Christian asked “If there is no morality, then why can’t I just shoot a kitten in the face.” It actually deeply disturbs me that anyone could come up with such sickening examples.

    But the answer is of course empathy, not morality. Socieities evolve, and as we evolve, any collective moral compass we may have evolves with it. We don’t kill people because we would not wish to be killed nor how our loved ones killed. We don’t steal, cheat, or lie, because we’ve had it done to us and we know how shitty that is, so we don’t do it to others. And nobody shoots kittens in the face while I’m around unless they want the gun shoved up thier arse and to find out exactly why I object to that.

    And we evolve like that, with our own “Golden Rule”, with no God required.

    But really, there are no moral absolutes to say any of these things are wrong. There are anti-abortionists who are willing to kill doctors and other clinic staff, to protect the life of the unborn. Where then their moral absolute that all life is sacred? That is akin to the Trolley Argument, and it clearly illustrates that absolute morality simply does not exist.

    I really shouldn’t be addressing such deep issues at 3:00am. I’ll never sleep now.

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    • I am sorry to hear your news.

      I feel morality comes from human nature- we are social animals- and human interest: after Constantine, Christianity served the interests of the State, with some interruptions in Scotland but with the last “melancholy withdrawing roar” in the still-established Church of England and in Russia until 1917 with servile Archimandrites wanting that role again under Mr Putin. It was my father who administered the belt, and only occasionally- less than once a year, less than the other teachers in the primary school. I was, I am afraid, a goody-goody, and never had it.

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    • “As an atheist I often come up against theists, usually ~ but not always ~ Christians, who ask me if there is no God, then how can there be morality. My stark answer to that is there is none; it is a wholly manmade construct which changes over time and between cultures. And because it does, it logically follows that truth itself is a relativism; what may be true for one person is not necessarily true for another.”

      You would be considered a moral nihilist or error theorist. But note that just because you think morality is made up that does not mean you believe all truth is relative. You can me a moral error theorist and still believe other truths are objective.

      “We don’t kill people because we would not wish to be killed nor how our loved ones killed.”
      I don’t really believe this. I don’t want to be killed or have my loved ones killed, but that is not why I think its wrong to kill other people. I would also say that even if I wanted to die (and for purposes of argument had no loved ones) I wouldn’t think its then ok to kill others.

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    • It is always lovely to hear from you.

      I don’t really study, but I dip in occasionally. My dipping might not improve my morals, but might improve my rationalisations.

      I think we don’t kill because of an internal resistance to that which is pre-cultural: I think of animals fighting and usually stopping short of actually damaging each other. I understand people feel horror and inability, and that military training has to break that resistance.

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