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Moral Moments


by Joel Marks

Philosophical problems are called perennial with good reason: One can ponder and discuss them throughout the year, and year after year, and never resolve them. They are peculiar in that respect, as are the people who like them for that very reason: philosophers. As the constant and patient readers of this column know, a favorite perennial of yours truly is consequentialism, the idea that the consequences of an act (or of a way of living, etc.) determine its moral rightness. In Issue 52 I tried to provide a knock-down non-consequentialist argument in favor of a ‘No’ answer; but now my opponent (or more courteously I should say ‘interlocutor’) the consequentialist requests a rematch. (I suspect there will be more in future as well!)

C (the consequentialist) begins by pointing out that she recognizes a distinction between rightness and goodness. In everyday language we may speak indifferently of something as “right” or as “good,” but in the technical language of ethical philosophy it makes sense to assign them different roles. Strictly speaking then, goodness is a quality of states of affairs, and rightness is a quality of actions. The two qualities, or ethical values, are linked in that an act is always for the sake of bringing about a state of affairs; for example, I may tell a lie (the act) in order to obtain money (the state of affairs). It follows that a complete ethical theory must explain not only what rightness is but also what goodness is.

According to C, it is the quality of the state of affairs that determines the quality of the act; in other words, goodness (or badness) determines rightness (or wrongness). The relation is actually complex: C maintains that the right thing to do is that which promises to bring about the best outcome of all available options. But this is its essence: goodness precedes rightness (logically, not temporally, since of course the effect cannot precede the act that causes it).

Consequentialism is first and foremost a theory about rightness, and rightness is in the business of bringing about (maximum) good. But what is this good? The traditional answer from consequentialism is ‘pleasure’, although that’s broadly conceived to be equivalent to happiness or even welfare. So for example, the utilitarianism of John Stuart Mill holds that our duty is to bring about the most pleasure in the world. That is a complete ethics. In any situation whatever, the answer to the question, “What shall I (or we) do?” or “What is the right thing to do?” would be, “Whatever contributes to the most pleasure in the long run.”

But a hedonistic or eudaimonistic consequentialism is not the only possibility. One could ‘in theory’ postulate anything as the Good toward which all human striving ought to aim. And now we get to the nub of C’s argument against Kantianism.

K (the Kantian) is also propounding a complete ethics, which, like consequentialism, appears to be first and foremost a theory about rightness. Specifically, K holds that our duty is to treat all persons as ‘ends-in-themselves’ and never simply as means. That is the right way to behave.

But what of goodness? In a way for K it’s the same thing as rightness. In fact it is precisely the driving of a wedge between rightness and goodness that K resists. This is what makes K non-consequentialist, for he holds that actions are not mere instrumentals for bringing about desired states of affairs, but contain ethical value intrinsically. To K it makes no sense that, for instance, someone could be ethically permitted (not to mention have an ethical duty) to murder an innocent person in cold blood to bring about a happy society. In short: to K, the end does not justify the means.

But now C plays her trump card. Suppose one’s ultimate aim were not a happy society but a just society – or we might even say a Kantian society, where people generally behave in a Kantian manner. What if an evil dictator had perfected the means of controlling her population and was training them from birth to be non-Kantian and threatened even to take over the world, and the only way to overthrow her would be to embark upon a very non-Kantian course of action. Would K forbid it?

Kant himself would probably stand resolute. He was notorious for arguing that one ought not to lie even to a potential murderer inquiring into the whereabouts of one’s innocent friend since that would involve treating somebody, in this case the murderer merely as a means (ie the means to the saving of the life of one’s friend). In a word: fiat justitia ruat caelum – Let justice (ie treating someone with Kantian respect) be done though the heavens fall. But C asks: Is that really a more acceptable gut intuition than “The means do not justify the ends”? By posing the ultimate Gedanken experiment to K, C wants to hoist Kantianism by its own petard: What if the sky that’s falling would crush Kantianism itself?

Instead C proposes that Kantianism would more plausibly be viewed as a theory of the good, and in this way could be neatly accommodated by utilitarianism. Thus, a Kantian utilitarian would hold that our duty is to promote (to the max) Kantian good will in the world. So if the only way to deal with the dictator were to treat her merely as a means (for example, by assassinating her), so be it – for the greater good of assuring the general practice of not treating people in that way. Thus, the means do not have to reflect the end, but only promote it effectively.

Certainly it would still be open to K to argue that the most effective way to promote something is to adhere to practice of it consistently, even against seemingly insurmountable odds, else one sets a precedent that would serve as a ready excuse to transgress the value in question whenever convenient. But that is an empirical question. Meanwhile the theory would remain intact that the right thing to do is whatever would be most likely to bring about the best end.

To be continued…

© Joel Marks 2007

Joel Marks is Professor of Philosophy at the University of New Haven in West Haven, Connecticut. More of his essays can be found at http://moralandothermoments.blogspot.com

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