Thoughts on ethics (from a layman)

January 29, 2007    By: Jacob J @ 9:32 am   Category: Ethics

My entire approach to ethics relies upon a distinction between the morality of an agent and the morality of an action. This is not a ground breaking distinction to make, but I have to start small.

1. The morality of people is different than the morality of events.

There is something very different about the person who makes a choice, and the action that results.* The ought of morality only makes sense in relation to a person, who is free to choose one course of action instead of another. And yet, we judge events to be good or bad in a moral sense as well. Because the two are fundamentally different, they must be judged in a fundamentally different way. As Mill pointed out in Utilitarianism, “certainly no known ethical standard decides an action to be good or bad because it is done by a good or a bad man.” People deliberate before a choice is made, and the morality of their choice has to do with what forces win out in that deliberation. An event is simply what happens at a certain place and time, and the morality of events is determined by what happens after the event as a consequence.

2. In relation to a specific choice, a person is morally praiseworthy if they simply do what they think is right.

Choices are based on deliberation, and imagination is central to the process of deliberation. When we deliberate, we consider various actions we could take. We imagine what might happen if we did each one, and evaluate those imagined outcomes based on our values and desires.

An example might help. In anger, I might consider punching someone in the face. I imagine my fist connecting with the annoyer, and because I am angry, I take pleasure in this image. I also imagine sitting in a courtroom being sued by the person, which gives me unpleasant feelings. I further consider that I find it morally objectionable to punch people in anger, and imagine the feelings of guilt and shame I would have if I satisfied my impulse.

This simple example illustrates the interaction of imagination, desires, and values. Obviously, I’ll be inclined to do things which please my imagination. In many cases, it is perfectly acceptable to choose things based on this preference (for instance, I just chose what to eat for dinner by imagining myself eating various foods and seeing which imagination was most pleasing). However, if there is a moral component, my desires must be subordinate to my values. Simply put, I have to do what I think is right.

The important point here is that I am not morally culpable for a poor imagination, or for immoral desires, or for a faulty sense of right and wrong. If I am bad at imagining what will actually happen, so that the actual of my action turns out to be very different than what I imagined or intended, this is unfortunate, but it is does not make me immoral. Likewise, I am not immoral for wanting to do something immoral. Furthermore, even if my sense of right an wrong is totally off kilter, so that I think I am doing what is right by committing atrocities, I am still morally praiseworthy with respect to that specific choice. (I hasten to add: It is often the case that such a person is morally culpable for choices which led to their moral compass being out of whack, or that people who seem to fit this description actually have a sense that what they are doing is wrong.)

After deliberating about punching someone, as described above, I might decide not to punch the person, based on my conviction that punching the person would be wrong. On the other hand, I might go on to imagine the person punching me back, and choose not to punch the person based on my cowardice. In both cases, I choose not to punch, but I am only praiseworthy in the first case. As is commonly observed, it is possible to do the right thing for the wrong reason. This conclusions seem to me to fit well with the gospel emphasis on proper motivation and having pure intent.

3. The morality of events is determined by their consequences.

When it comes to events, I am a consequentialist. Supposing I did punch the person, is that a good thing or a bad thing? It seems to me that the only possible basis upon which to answer this question is that of the actual consequences of the action. If my punching the person leads to the discovery of an explosive vest as the fight is broken up, and a terrorist attack is thereby avoided, then it will likely be viewed as a good act. If all that happens is a fight in which we hurt each other, it will likely be viewed as a bad act. In either case, it is entirely dependent on the consequences of the action.

This raises a couple of obvious problems. One is that we can never really isolate the effects of any single event. Another is that in order to judge any event, we must compare the actual future to all other possible futures.

4. Ultimately, the morality of events is only known to an ideal observer.

If consequentialism is correct, we can never be sure about the morality of an action in an absolute sense. Was there something even better we could have done? Or something even worse? Of course, it is always true that of various options, each may fall at a different place on the spectrum between good and evil. But how can I even judge one to be better than another when I am forced to compare things to an imagined alternate universe in which my choice was made differently? It seems that I cannot do so with any certainty. The morality of events is then forever speculative, except to an ideal observer.

Based on these sorts of observations, it is often argued that a consequentialist ethic is no help to us in facing moral dilemmas. In response to such an attack, I ask where it was ever written that the morality must be susceptible to certainty? We have in a consequentialist ethic plenty to think and reason on when facing a moral dilemma. The fact that we can’t be sure now (or ever) of the right action may simply be a fact of life in the universe. I find the requirement that one’s meta-ethic provide a good set of guidelines upon which to resolve ethical dilemmas to be wishful thinking and wholly unrealistic. But, more importantly, it is also here that I return to points 1 and 2, which soften the blow for me. If the morality of a person choosing is fully contained in their sincere effort to do the right thing, then judging people is not faced with the same intractable uncertainty that judging events is plagued with. This seems important from a gospel perspective.

In practice, I don’t think any ethical system has much chance of helping us resolve ethical dilemmas. Ethical systems are not likely to add much to our innate ability to determine a morally right course of action. In this sense, I am somewhat of an intuitionist. It takes no training in ethics whatsoever to begin by reasoning deontologically (“Never at any time have I shed the blood of man. And I shrunk and would that I might not slay him.” (1 Ne 4:10)) while remaining open to possible exceptions justified by teleological arguments (“It is better that one man should perish than that a nation should dwindle and perish in unbelief” (1 Ne 4:13)). Ethical systems help us organize our thoughts and give names to our intuitions, but I don’t know that I have ever seen someone reject their moral intuition when it ran headlong into their moral theory.

Before I get to the rest of the items on my numbered list, where have I gone wrong thus far?

* In my opinion, the very concept of morality and the meaning of ought requires the existence of libertarian free will, however, I don’t want to argue about that here. Thus, I will assume LFW, and, for the purpose of this discussion, ask you to do the same.


  1. The morality of events is determined by their consequences.

    I think I would change this somewhat. I’d say “The morality of events is determined by their perceived consequences.”

    We are judged by the intents of our hearts after all, and we may perceive the consequence of an action and the action itself to by moral, but as we can not see the true consequences of our actions, we can not know the morality of the events, and thus is morality only depended on the true consequences of the events, man would be unable to make moral choices, in my opinion.

    Comment by Matt W. — January 29, 2007 @ 11:11 am

  2. I’ve never understood the Mormon idea that “[w]e are judged by the intents of our hearts.” To me it sounds entirely non-sensical that I would be punished for “longing” to commit a sin to the same degree that I would if I actually succumbed to those desires. There are those who preach the caveat that desiring to sin and the comision of said sin are distiguishable to a degree on the morality scale but canonical support for such a distiction does not exist. Mormon doctrine teaches that one of the main goals of mortal probation was for mankind to overcome the natural man– that part of us that desires to satiate the carnal needs and desires of a mortal body. If those needs and desires are deontologically evil then wouldn’t that in turn require one to arrive at the conclusion that God created mortal evil? Then how does Mormonism dig itself out of that hole?

    Comment by endlessnegotiation — January 29, 2007 @ 12:21 pm

  3. I’m a consequentialist in my eithics simply because I believe that agents often make decisions that in isolation are morally neutral for one reason or another. For example, just the other day my eight-year-old was playing catch with the football with one of his friends in the house and in the course of doing so they managed to break the computer monitor. He’s eight and for the most part incapable of engaging in the thought process where he would have projected that possible outcome and therefore his behavior was motivated by neither virtue nor malice. However, the consequences of his actions are real and, unfortunately, negative and there must be accountability for them.

    Think back through history and recall how much “evil” has been introduced to the world with the best of intentions. For something other than a consequentialist ethic to make any sense it would have to figure out how to excuse responsibility for the negative consequences of actions motivated by the noblest virtues.

    Comment by endlessnegotiation — January 29, 2007 @ 12:38 pm

  4. Matt,

    The problem you point out is just the sort I had in mind.

    as we can not see the true consequences of our actions, we can not know the morality of the events, and thus is morality only depended on the true consequences of the events, man would be unable to make moral choices, in my opinion.

    I am indeed suggesting that we cannot know the morality of events with any degree of certainty (we can and do speculate), but we are still able to make moral choices because a moral choice is simply one which sincerely attempts to do what is right. This is a perfect example of where the distiction between judging people and events is important. If the morality of events is genuinely determined by our perceptions of the consequences rather than the actual consequences, then you are stuck with a very bad version of moral relativism. I do think the fundamental uncertainty surrounding morality (due to consequentialism) has far reaching implications, though.

    Comment by Jacob J — January 29, 2007 @ 12:46 pm

  5. Endlessnegotiation (#2),

    It seems to me you are conflating intents with desires. Judging someone based on their intents seems perfectly natural, and it is what we do every day. We don’t hold someone morally accountable when they accidentally bring about one thing while intending to bring about something else (unless the accident was indicative of negligence). Judging based on intent makes good sense to me.

    Now, the scriptures do talk about judging us based on desires as well, and I agree that if taken in some senses this could be problematic. As I said in the post, I don’t think we are morally blameworthy for having immoral desires. Personally, I read all the stuff about overcoming the natural man to be part of a long term goal of becoming a celestial type of person. In the post, I am talking about making a judging a single decision at one point in time. A different, but related problem is judgment of a person as a whole, which seems to involve evaluating the person’s character–a sort of sumation of all previous decisions, which decisions do have the potential to influence our desires over time.

    As to how Mormonism avoids the conclusion that God created mortal evil, that seems easier to me. My own solution is to point to the fact that God did not create the mind of man (it is co-eternal with God) and that the weaknesses exhibited in the natural man predated mortality and are simply exposed in our new mortal environment.

    Comment by Jacob J — January 29, 2007 @ 12:50 pm

  6. Endless, I pretty much Concur with Jacob and don’t have much to add. There are, of course, issues with this model. For a cheap example, Did Hitler the child intend to become Hitler the man? We can of course be guilty of things we did not intend, due to negligence, as Jacob suggests. Perhaps negligence and the “sin of omission” deserves more attention than the occasional feeting glance we give them. It seems that sins of comission may actually have their start in negligence at some point in time, in many cases.

    Jacob, re:
    If the morality of events is genuinely determined by our perceptions of the consequences rather than the actual consequences, then you are stuck with a very bad version of moral relativism.

    While I do think we only have relative truth available to us,(But do believe God has abslute truth available to him) I also believe we have access to God via various means, and thus access to what I’ll tentatively term 99.9% acurate truths by which we can establish our moral compass. Thus our perceived consequences can have more strength than moral relativism, while we can still be extended aid and mercy in points of error.

    Comment by Matt W. — January 29, 2007 @ 2:13 pm

  7. Matt (#6),

    I think what you are saying is that our perception of the morality of events is determined by their perceived consequences. If that is what you mean, I agree. However, regardless of any access to God, I don’t think it will do to say that morality, per se, is determined by our perceptions. Such a move will bind you inextricably to radical perspectivism. I suspect we agree on that and it is just a matter of imprecision in your wording that I am taking issue with. Of course, please straighten me out if the disagreement is genuine.

    Comment by Jacob J — January 29, 2007 @ 2:30 pm

  8. endlessnegotiation (#3),

    This comment has me confused, can you clarify?

    For something other than a consequentialist ethic to make any sense it would have to figure out how to excuse responsibility for the negative consequences of actions motivated by the noblest virtues.

    Typically, I would think consequentialism would have a harder time dealing with this case. A virtue based ethic, for example, would not have a problem at all, it would say that the act was morally praiseworthy without regard to the consequences. Consequentialism, which would argue that the act became bad due to its consequences is the one with a problem to solve. Incidentally, my distiction 1. is my way of resolving the problem you refer to above.

    Comment by Jacob J — January 29, 2007 @ 2:39 pm

  9. Jacob,

    This is some good stuff. I agree with everything as you say as I understand it. I would point out though, that there could be some danger in viewing consequentialism in terms of actions, as I think there are moral choices that don’t necessarily produce any different actions.

    For example, holding a grudge. If a person refused to forgive another person, but for the sake of civility or friendship, continued to behave towards that person exactly the way they did before, the choice to hold that grudge would still be immoral even though it produced no actions which resulted in negative consequences. Of course, that’s not to say there are no consequences – there are indeed dire consequences to the individual’s own conscience.

    Anyways, I also like this type of ethical approach, in part, because it helps us reduce the worrying about the little things and in many cases the difficult things. I like to say that the more difficult a moral decision, the less moral weight it holds. Thus, my response to ethical dilemmas such as stem cell research or many other fine line issues is that it doesn’t matter. If you’ve acquired the information you can acquire and have put a good forth a good faith effort towards deliberation, than whatever decision you make with a pure heart is a moral decision.

    Comment by Eric Russell — January 29, 2007 @ 6:28 pm

  10. Hmmm, I guess we look at this differently. God has given us, through scripture, the command “Thou shalt not kill” (I understand that murder is a better translation) as a general rule and also given us “Nephi vs. Laban” and the “Title of Liberty” as exceptions. So in MY viewpoint murder (and theft and false witness, etc.) is ALWAYS immoral and unethical (regardless of intent or consequence), UNLESS specifically approved by God. I believe that we will be punished for breaking these commandments unless He instructs us otherwise.

    Comment by ed42 — January 29, 2007 @ 7:15 pm

  11. Eric (#9),

    Thanks. I like your point about stem cells. It does seem true that the most difficult moral dilemmas are difficult precisely because several options have good arguments in their favor.

    ed42 (#10),

    I appreciate the plug for commandments. Certainly, I give a lot of weight to commandments when making decisions. A few things complicate the situation, though. First, your distinction between killing and murder hides a tautology. We use the word “murder” to describe killing that we think is unjustified. So, I don’t think “thou shalt not murder” has any exceptions. Whenever we think the killing was justified, we replace the word “murder” with “kill.” So, we kill people on death row, Nephi killed Laban, David killed Goliath (or is is slayed?), but Cain murdered Abel, Mark Chapman murdered Lennon, etc. It is never okay to murder, because murder is, by definition, an immoral killing. So, when you say that murder is “ALWAYS immoral” I agree, because that is the definition of murder.

    But what about killing? Clearly it is not always immoral to kill. Figuring out when it is okay and when it is not okay is where our moral deliberation can come into play. We have plenty of situations in which we would generally justify killing (or at least distinguish it from murder), such as self-defense, capital punishment, and wartime combat. Surely you’re not suggesting we need a specific commandment from God in these cases. Are you?

    Now, I saved my most important point for last. In the post, I am trying to address morality at its roots. So, it is fine to say that we should take it as a general rule not to kill, I agree with that. But, if God ever makes an exception to his general rule (which he does), then there must be some basis upon which he is making that exception (barring divine command theory which I doubt you are advancing). Upon what basis does God make his moral judgments? How did he decide it was okay for Nephi to kill Laban? I am suggesting he makes such a decision on consequentialist grounds. (It is worth noting that the angel does provide Nephi a justification based on consequentialist grounds (1 Ne 4:13), but I am not ready to rely on that as exposing the actual reasoning God used in making his determination). What do you think?

    Comment by Jacob J — January 29, 2007 @ 9:51 pm

  12. Jacob: I don’t believe that your distinction between moral obligations to persons and moral obligations involving “events” (whatever they are) is a sound one. In fact in a certain sense persons are events or essentially entail the occurrence of events. So dealing with one necessarily deals with another.

    I suggest that consequentialist “ethics” is really public policy disguised as ethics. That is, consequentialist views (basing goodiness on the outcome or result of an action) cannot explain a sense of moral obligation. With respect to the demand of the “other”, I have taken a deontic position — that is, the demand of the other as a person having an absolute value as such is the source of moral obligation. It is an agape theory. We have a duty to respect the goals, interests and rights of that person to pursue their life.

    However, when we involve a “third” and not merely the other Thou, then we have the problem of justice and not merely the problem of moral call to obligation of the other. In this arena, I am a consequentialist. The issues are different. The issue now is how to maximize our mutual interests.

    The really difficult moral dilemmas arise because public interests can conflict with the rights and dignity of the other. Our entire Bill of Rights is based on protecting these individual rights over against the interests of the democratic masses. In the end we are all better off doing so.

    So for example the problem with stem cell research doesn’t arise for LDS because we don’t view a bunch of stem cells as a person. But once someone makes that connection, the rights of the individual conflict with the demands and welfare of the many.

    The usual moral dilemma is a story of a rape in a small town. The victim says that she was raped by a young black man. So the town rounds them all up and the mob is about to decide which ones to lynch. The town Sherrif realizes that if he doesn’t do something several innocent persons will die. So he chooses at random one of the bunch and says “he did it.” He sacrifices one so that the others can escape possible lynching. From a consequentialist point of view the Sherrif did the right thing. From the deontic point of view the Sherrif didn’t do the right thing because he violated the rights of that individual. In this situation we have competing claims — individual rights of dignity and claims of justice.

    However, consequentialist views are not a source of moral obligation in part for the very reason you cite — we cannot do the moral calculus easily and we don’t have a clear sense of what is required. However, that doesn’t entail that in dealing with others as Thous we don’t feel a sense of obligation that we are obligated to act upon. In truth, I have argued that we feel oblgiation or duty only when we have ignored the call and we engage in self-betrayal and we then feel the weight of the call of the other either respond or engage in self-deception to rationalize our failure to do what we felt obligated to do.

    Comment by Blake — January 30, 2007 @ 7:37 am

  13. Jacob re #8:

    The problem with a virtue-based ethic is that it forgives responsibility for actions with negative consequences as long as those actions were motivated by “good intentions.” Socialism is a prime example. Socialist policies are often foisted upon a populace with the justification that those policies will releive poverty and its attendant suffering. History has shown that actual results of socialist policies are more suffering for more people. A virtues-based approach would give those policy decisions a pass because they were implemented with noble intentions but a consequentialist ethic would condemn those decisions and require some form of restitution.

    The fact that consequentialism requires something of a “post mortem” of all our actions is its greatest strength for two reasons. First, it allows for the recognition of human limitation. As I mentioned in #3, as agents we often engage in decisions where we fail to fully anticipate the universe of possible outcomes. Sometimes this occurs because of negligence but more often it is a consequence of human limitations. Mormon doctine and practice recognize these limitations and compensates for them in the form of 8-year-old baptism, not baptizing those with mental deficiencies, and our belief that knowledge of the law is required for full agency (to list a few examples). A deontic, virtues-based ethic does not allow for such a sliding scale and would require the same behavior of a 5-year-old as it would for someone 50 years old. The second strength of a consequentialist ethic is that it promotes progression– a key feature of Mormon doctrine. Each post mortem allows us to learn from our actions. We learn to anticipate a greater universe of possible outcomes and therefore future decisions are better calculated. A deontic, values-based ethic would permit one to repeatedly take the same action regardless of the consequences and reinforce that action by declaring it moral.

    I think in Mormon doctrine the only opening for a deontic approach to ethics is our belief in the “Light of Christ”– our view of a very low-level, least common denomiator conscience. But I think that such a concept is so inconsequential as to be meaningless for a real discussion of ethics because it moves the bar too low.

    Comment by endlessnegotiation — January 30, 2007 @ 9:26 am

  14. Blake,

    You raise a bunch of good points. Rather than trying to address them all at once, let me take a couple now, and later I will go back to others.

    I don’t understand this claim you make about consequentialist ethics being public policy in disguise. After reading your response a few times, I think it is because I dont’ know what you mean by moral obligation. Is it the feeling we have that we ought to be behave in a certain way? If so, then what is inconsistent or problematic about saying the ought arises from the sum total of the consequences of my actions? The conseqences with respect to other people are included in the sum total of all consequences, so it seems to me that our obligation to others can fit just fine in a consequentialist ethic.

    You said you are a consequentialist when it comes to maximizing mutual interests, but aren’t most interesting moral questions a problem of maximizing mutual interests? Isn’t it true that I should try to maximize mutual interests? If so, then it seems moral obligation arises just fine from a consequentialist ethic.

    Hopefully when you read my long list of questions you will be able to see where the disconnect is. I don’t feel like I’m really getting your argument, but I want to.

    Comment by Jacob J — January 30, 2007 @ 1:10 pm

  15. Endless (#13),

    Thanks for the clarification, I see where you are coming from now. I think you make a bunch of good points, and the conflicts you raise between intention based vs. consequentialist based ethics describes well why I think we must have some sort of hybrid like that I proposed.

    I’m less pessimistic about the role of the light of Christ. I am not committed, but I have toyed with the idea that our feeling of moral obligation is actually given to us by the light of Christ, rather than being inherent in us. It seems to solve some problems for me, but I’m not sure yet if it has ramifications I would not be able to accept.

    Comment by Jacob J — January 30, 2007 @ 1:17 pm

  16. Jacob: I think we must have some sort of hybrid like that I proposed

    I am out of my depth when it comes to coherently discussing ethics theories but I’ll chime in anyway…

    I tend to agree that some sort of hybrid between the deontological models and the consequentialist models is required in the end too. Having said that – it seems to me that God, with his ideal perspective, could entirely (or perhaps almost entirely) employ a consequentialist type of ethics. That doesn’t help us too much though so I think we probably have to lean more on a rule-based model. I suspect God knows that as well and that is why we have the commandments and why those commandments are ranked (at least the first and second great commandments are ranked…)

    Comment by Geoff J — January 30, 2007 @ 3:38 pm

  17. Exactly how could one produce a hybrid between consequentialism and deontology?

    Second, if you reject foreknowledge, how could God do a stable consequentialist calculation of the actual?

    Comment by clark — January 30, 2007 @ 3:59 pm

  18. Actually let me take that back. Rule utilitarianism ala J. S. Mill could perhaps be seen as a hybrid. (You use abstract ideas about maximizing the good to produce a set of rules which are followed in a fashion like deontology — but I’m not sure that’s really a hybrid)

    Comment by clark — January 30, 2007 @ 4:00 pm

  19. Geoff (#16),

    I agree that in practice we have to lean on a rule-based model due to our limited knowledge and likely as a matter of efficiency; I think rules get us safely through most everyday situations. However, as Clark suggests in #18, being rule based does not necessarily imply being deontological. As I said, I am a layman, so experts please correct me if I am wrong here, but I understand deontological to refer to ethics based on rights and duties, not rules per se. It might turn out that, in general, following a certain rule tends to bring about good consequences. This is the basis of what is referred to as rule-consequentialism.

    By the way, I am not sure why you say God has an ideal perspective, but more on that later.

    Clark (#17),

    I am not actually advancing a hybrid between deontological and consequential ethics. The sentence Geoff was lifting from in my #15 refers to a hybrid between intent based and consequential based moral judgments. As I explained in the post, I don’t think it will do to judge the person choosing on the same basis that we judge the event. It is obvious that people frequently make decisions in good faith and with the best of intentions and then the decision turns out to be a bad one when judged by its consequences. Separating the basis for judging people from the basis for judging events is what I was referring to as a “hybrid” (probably a bad word to use).

    As to how God would fit into a consequentialist paradigm, stay tuned, that’s what my next post is about.

    (#18) I know people talk about act-utilitarianism as opposed to rule-utilitarianism, but I don’t think the end up being different in the final analysis. I am more in favor of an act-based consequentialism rather than a rule-based one, but the arguments Mill makes about how rules will naturally arise and serve a useful purpose seem compelling to me. So, I agree that rule-utilitarianism is not really a hybrid (when using that term responsibly).

    Comment by Jacob J — January 30, 2007 @ 4:49 pm

  20. It seems to me that the big difference between act-utilitarianism and rule-utilitarianism is that the rule based system doesn’t run into the problems of how to calculate the calculus. That is how on earth do we know what will make all actual people happy in the future? There are huge metaphysical problems. Whereas rule utilitarianism seems much more abstract and focused on possible worlds. I’m not convinced one can do the calculus, mind you. But it definitely avoids a lot of problems.

    But it then runs into the same problems that Kant’s deontological approach suffers since one is bound to rules even if breaking them would lead to greater good.

    Comment by Clark — January 31, 2007 @ 1:50 pm

  21. Clark (#20),

    My problem with rule-utilitarianism is that there must be some basis for the rules, and that basis usually turns out to be act-utilitarianism. That is what I mean when I say they end up being the same in the final analysis. (This online essay on the subject is geared toward laymen like me, so maybe someone will find it useful.)

    the rule based system doesn’t run into the problems of how to calculate the calculus.

    Yes, but it has the problem of how to determine the proper rules, which is very similar.

    how on earth do we know what will make all actual people happy in the future? There are huge metaphysical problems.

    I see it as a practical problem rather than a metaphysical problem. The problem of doing moral calculus is indeed a difficult practical concern. But then, moral calculus does seem to be, as a matter of experience, very difficult. So, if a moral theory predicts that, I don’t see how it can be a very strong argument against the theory.

    To my thinking, some sort of consequentialist calculus is unavoidable. It is simply too fundamental to our intuition about moral reasoning to be discounted. Thus, I find the problems surrounding the calculus to be genuine limitations that must be acknowledged and understood rather than something that discounts conseqentialism.

    Comment by Jacob J — January 31, 2007 @ 3:41 pm

  22. Getting back to a couple more points from Blake’s #12:

    Our entire Bill of Rights is based on protecting these individual rights over against the interests of the democratic masses. In the end we are all better off doing so.

    This sentence is fascinating to me because the last sentence appeals to consentialism to justify a deontological position. If, in the end, we are all better off protecting individual rights, then this is exactly what consequentalism tells us we should do.

    Re: the story of a rape in a small town. I think this example grossly oversimplifies the problem. First of all, it is not at all clear to me that the Sheriff did the correct thing by consequentialist standards. Examples like this usually have the problem that they don’t take actual consequences that would occur in practice seriously.

    Second of all, the example ignores the fact that the Sheriff had a bunch of other options open to him. Killing an innocent person is not the only thing he could have done to avert disaster. It seems to me there would be a number of better options available.

    Third of all, it does not seem that the Sheriff’s course of action was the worst one open to him. There is certainly something good about his response, which is that he avoided even more innocent bloodshed than would have been avoided if he did nothing. With difficult moral dilemmas, it is not a matter of good vs. bad, but better vs. worse, because no single option available is devoid of some evil (if there were, it would not be a moral dilemma).

    Comment by Jacob J — January 31, 2007 @ 4:10 pm

  23. Jacob, I think the difference is that one can get a lot more evidence for what would be the case in general than what would be the case in particular. Indeed I think the former can perhaps be achieved via induction and empirical studies. I think the latter is unknowable to any non-omniscient being (in the strong sense of the word – i.e. not the god of open theism)

    Even if one rejects induction and realism towards generals I think that a God who can know possibilities even if he doesn’t know the actual future could easily obtain knowledge of rule-utilitarianism. Obviously he couldn’t of act-utilitarianism.

    I still have some troubles with Mill and rule-utilitarianism. But I think there are some significant ontological and epistemological differences.

    Comment by Clark — January 31, 2007 @ 4:36 pm

  24. Clark,

    I think the difference is that one can get a lot more evidence for what would be the case in general than what would be the case in particular.

    I agree, and I think any good act-utilitarian would be in favor of working out general rules (ala Mill). The problem is that even if such general rules are derived via induction and empirical studies, I am still faced as an individual with specific moral dilemmas which may appear to be exceptions to the general rule. What then? Do exceptions to the rule exist? If so, then the rule is merely an attempt to approximate act-utilitarianism, and we are still assuming act-utilitarianism as the fundamental ground of morality. If there are no exceptions to the rule, then you are back to the regular problem of deontological ethics where the rule seems good in general but bad in this specific case.

    Comment by Jacob J — January 31, 2007 @ 4:48 pm

  25. Jacob: The Bill of Rights is a matter of public policy. It is based on consequentialist reasoning. Mind I am not advocating the dilemma proposed by the town lynching example, it is simply the example often used to show how consequentialist reasoning may conflict with deontological issues of human dignity and rights. The simple reasoning is: save six lives and lose one or violate fundamental rights. However, your own argument shows why consequentialist reasoning won’t justify basic rights — in the end if in fact the best good would justify violating such rights then we can violate such rights. In the end you merely express misgiving about that result and faith that a consequentialist system could work it out. But your faith cannot justify protecting such basic rights when they truly conflict with the greater good can it?

    Comment by Blake — January 31, 2007 @ 6:06 pm

  26. Blake,

    I am satisfied that consequentialist constraints will justify basic rights as a rule. I acknowledge those basic rights as a very important good, but I am not committed to protecting them at all cost. Are you? If one person could save civilization by untold suffering, would that person be morally obligated to do so?

    William James raises this question in an effort to show that individual rights are so unassailable that even in such a case, we could not condone the untold suffering of one person to save all. I don’t think the answer is so obvious. After all, the entire plan of salvation is based on Jesus doing this exact thing. One interesting question is: Given that Jesus was the only one able to save all mankind, was he morally obligated to do it despite the tremendous person sacrifice? I don’t know the answer, but I think the answer is far from obvious.

    So, it seems you are arguing against consequentialism on the grounds that it does not guarantee human rights, giving them absolute preference over other considerations, but I don’t think that is an obvious requirement of a moral theory.

    Comment by Jacob J — January 31, 2007 @ 6:49 pm

  27. Jacob: Then basic rights are not basic on your view. In chapter 3 of my book I argue that consequentialist ethics cannot account for basic rights (because they aren’t basic); cannot provide distributive justice; cannot account for genuine relationship and is unworkable because the hedonic calculus is impossible and doesn’t really guide our decisions.

    Your argument about Jesus suffering for the rest of us assumes the Penal Substitution theory that I thought you jettisoned long ago precisely because of its unjust results.

    I suggest that if you are really a consequentialist then you are paralyzed by the paralysis of analysis in moral decision making. There is always more to consider than can be considered and in the end you will reduce it to having good intentions like you do in your post — but that is a deontolgoical consideration! I believe your position is internally incoherent for that reason.

    Comment by Blake — January 31, 2007 @ 7:07 pm

  28. Blake,

    You didn’t answer the question of whether human rights are basic in your view. If they are basic in the sense that you are suggesting, then why are they not recognized as such? As you mentioned in #12, the really difficult moral dilemmas involve conflicts between individual rights and public interests. Why would these dilemmas be difficult if human rights are basic and unassailable? I suggest that they would not be.

    My example about Jesus suffering doesn’t assume the penal substitution theory in the least; it merely assumes that Jesus’ suffering was necessary to our salvation. The question I asked is whether Jesus was morally obligated to do so. Was his choice the most morally correct course of action?

    Why do you say good intentions are a deontological consideration? Are you going to categorize “having good intentions” as a duty? It seems a bit tautological to say that morality is duty based and one of those duties is to be moral. The reason I don’t think my position is incoherent is that I do not agree with your first point in #12 that people are events. The fundamental difference between people and events (due to the mystery of free will) makes moral judgments about people fundamentally different than moral judgments about events. That is what I am arguing.

    Comment by Jacob J — January 31, 2007 @ 9:03 pm

  29. Jacob: I don’t see any way to make the distinction between moral judgment about events and people that you want to make. if the events involve people, then how do you parse it? If I must choose to divert a train to save 10 people and diverting it will definitely kill another who otherwise would live, the situation necessarily involves both events and people. How do you decide?

    I have layed out my meta-ethics in chapter 3 of vol. 2. It is an agape theory. We have a duty to do what realizes our mutual flourishing for the sake of the other persons as the unique persons they are. I would never compromise human rights for the benefit of the crowd. I wouldn’t murder a young black man and presume to be the one to judge who lives and who dies in such situations. I wouldn’t sacrifice an innocent person (I’m not Jack Bauer).

    As you know I believe that Jesus’ suffering was a consequence of his free choice to enter into relationship with us, but not a necessary condition for our salvation. You in fact assume this Penal theory if you believe suffering is necessary for salvation. He is not obligated to enter into relationship with us — it is a matter of choice made out of love and not duty. Further, the joy of the relationship outweighs the pain of being in relationship with us because the value of loving relationships is incommensurate on my view.

    In the end you base the goodness of an act on whether one meant well. You do that because you admit the moral calculus is just beyond us most of the time. That means that the goodness of an act, for pragmatic reasons, must be based on something other than consequences — it is based on the goodness of our motives and will. But the goodness of motives and will rather than consequences is a deontological consideration. So because consequential theories in fact cannot accurately guide our conduct because it takes too long, we don’t have the necessary information and so forth, you recognize that in fact we don’t rely on consequentialism and instead we must resort to the goodness of the will from which we act. That means that pragmatically we must be deontologists and not consequenatialists. To the extent ethics are a pragmatic guide to conduct, therefore, your view is internally inconsistent.

    Does that explain it?

    Comment by Blake — January 31, 2007 @ 11:21 pm

  30. Blake,

    if the events involve people, then how do you parse it?

    I can see I haven’t made myself clear, let me try to clarify. You seem to be focusing in on the problem of how we should choose one course of action over another. That is not what I am talking about when I make a distinction between people and events. I tried to hint at my approach to decision making in the last paragraph of the post. When I am making a distinction between people and events, I have in mind something more like how God judges people verses events.

    The exercise of a free will is a different thing, altogether, than an event. An event which involves people is still an event. A person falling off a bridge is an event. Even a decision is an event (in the way I am using the word). So ultimately, a decision was the right one or the wrong one based on the consequences of the decision. But, that is different than the person doing the deciding, the agent, the free will that distinguishes people from things. The agent is not praiseworthy or blameworthy based on the consequences of their decision. While the decision is right or wrong based on the consequences, the person deciding was morally praiseworthy or blameworthy based on their intent. So, take your example:

    If I must choose to divert a train to save 10 people and diverting it will definitely kill another who otherwise would live, the situation necessarily involves both events and people. How do you decide?

    As the person who must choose what to do about the train, you should try to evaluate which of your available options is best. You may consider which option is most likely to lead to more deaths. If the train is full of convicts, you may consider the relative worth of the lives of those on the train verses those who will die otherwise. I think it is both appropriate and inevitable that we will consider both deontological and consequentialist arguments and try to weigh them the best that we can.

    You will probably have a hard time deciding what to do about the train, but when God looks down and judges your excercise of agency as being either praiseworthy or blameworthy, he will do so based on your motivations and intents. When he looks down and judges the event, he will decide if diverting the train was the better or worse option based on the consequences of both options. So, that is how I parse it.

    You say that consequentialist theories cannot guide our conduct, but that is simply not true. We routinely make moral decisions after reflecting on the consequences of one choice vs. another. Our perceived duties cannot perfectly guide our actions any better than consequentialism because sometimes duties conflict and sometimes we have no obvious duty to guide us. All theories are imperfect in guiding conduct, not just consequentialism. In practice, both deontological and consequentialist considerations are part of our moral intuitions (which are what we really trust anyway).

    Finally, I must respectfully disagree with your characterization of the penal substitution theory:

    You in fact assume this Penal theory if you believe suffering is necessary for salvation.

    I just flat disagree with that statement. Penal substitution refers to a specific mechanism of atonement in which Christ takes our place (substitution) and his suffering pays for our sins (penal). The simple claim that the suffering was an unavoidable part of what Jesus did to save us in no way entails penal substitution. As you are well aware, the necessity of Christ’s atonement is attested to throughout the scriptures (e.g. “there must be an atonement made, or else all mankind must unavoidably perish” (Alma 34:9)). I understand that in your theory the suffering of Christ was not instrumental in saving us, which is fine. However, saying that Christ could not have saved us without suffering (I think we both agree with this) does not entail penal substitution. That relatively benign claim was the basis of the question I posed about the atonement in #26.

    Comment by Jacob J — February 1, 2007 @ 1:15 am

  31. Jacob: I am still faced as an individual with specific moral dilemmas which may appear to be exceptions to the general rule. What then?

    According to the rule-utilitarian you act according to the rules. It might hurt in this specific instance but would be better overall.

    What you espouse isn’t an objection to rule-utilitarianism that is a logical problem. You just think it wrong. You’re critiquing it in terms of act-utilitarianism. But that’s not necessarily a failing of rule-utilitarianism. (Although I personally tend to see this as a problem, which is why I reject Mill)

    Comment by Clark — February 1, 2007 @ 12:09 pm

  32. Clark,

    I agree with your assessment of what I am doing in my critique. By the way, I don’t know if there is a consensus opinion contrary to my reading, but I always understood Mill to be an act-utilitarian rather than a rule-utilitarian. I thought rule-utilitarianism was cooked up later to deal with perceived weaknesses in Bentham/Mill. Do most consider Mill to be a rule-utilitarian?

    Comment by Jacob J — February 1, 2007 @ 12:39 pm

  33. Jacob, I’ll admit up front I don’t find Ethics interesting. So I’m not the one to ask about the nuances of distinctions. However I’d say this quote suggests he is. (As I recall Mill thought Kant ultimately was as well – although I don’t think most would agree)

    It’s been an awfully long time since I last studied Mill. (Not since college in fact) However as I recall the problem, which is what you might have been referring to earlier, is over exception to rules. As I recall (but can’t really prove) Mill allowed for some exceptions to say the murder rule based upon context. The question then was how many exceptions there were and whether those had exceptions. Put an other way if there are too many rules it collapses into act-utilitarianism. As I recall though the way critics put this doesn’t do justice to Mill’s own views.

    It really depends upon how one deals with exceptions.

    So my answer is, yes, I believe most consider Mill a rule-utilitarian and I believe he introduced the notion. (As I said it’s been years since I last read Bentham or Mill’s two classic essays)

    Comment by Clark — February 1, 2007 @ 8:42 pm

  34. Blake,

    With respect to our general disagreement about consequentialism and the status of rights: I began wondering this morning how your view will work in the context of theodicy. I understand you to be saying that individual rights are inviolable and genuinely basic. Of course, “rights” do not describe the way a person must be treated, but the way a person should be treated (which is obvious because people’s rights are not always honored).

    What then, are we to make of a God who sits by while people’s rights are perpetually trampled on? The direction almost everyone goes in theodicy is to point to a greater good served by God’s allowance of people’s rights being violated.

    But, I don’t see how your view allows such a maneuver. If the violation of those rights is a basic evil, which cannot be justified by consequentialism, then how do you account for it?

    Comment by Jacob J — February 4, 2007 @ 2:04 pm

  35. Jacob: You’re right that I’m not interested in a “greater-good” theodicy where I weigh this poind of meat against your grain to see which I should spend my money on. I am interested in a theodicy based upon the necessities for realization of truly inter-personal and loving relationships where God leaves us free to realize the peer-relationship and the purpose of life is to teach us how to enter into such peer relations. There is no greater good in the sense that loving relationships are incommensurate (they cannot be compared and so cannot be weighed against each other). What is essential is human flourishing in mutual relationships.

    Let me add that in light of commitment to our mutual best interests I am not focused on consequences but on the sheer value of loving relationships per se. A person who loves another for the sake of the other doesn’t focus on such economic transactions or quid pro quo receiving; rather, such a person seeks the good of the other beause s/he loves the other.

    Comment by Blake — February 4, 2007 @ 2:28 pm

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