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.