A Persian Cafe, Edward Lord Weeks

Friday, 1 November 2013

Where I stand on ethics


There are two ways in which we use the words "should" and "ought":

"You want to write a 50,000 word novel in one month? You should use Scrivenor."

"You found a wallet lying in the street? You should find its owner and give it back to them."

In the first case, "should" indicates "it would be instrumentally rational for you to do this". In the second case, "should" indicates "it would be moral for you to do this". I feel that this distinction, which I shall term the instrumental-moral distinction, is something we overlook far more often than we should (in the instrumental sense).


It feels intuitive to me that good morality ought to have generally good consequences (in the moral sense). However, this does not feel to me like what morality actually is. It should be the morality causing the consequences, as opposed to (the fact of the consequences being good causing the original behaviour to be good).

It feels intuitive to me that, if we wish to form accurate moral judgement, then the intention behind an act ought (instrumental sense) to affect our moral assessment of the situation. Consider a situation in which some terrorists have cunningly disguised a grenade as a tennis ball. It is lying next to a park full of kids, where a man notices it and throws it in, causing it to explode with unpleasant consequences. In case (i) the man had no knowledge of what his throwing the ball would do, in case (ii) he was in league with the terrorists. Cases (i) and (ii) are clearly morally different, and there are two ways I see in which we can recognise this.

A consequentialist view is to say that, while the morality of throwing the ball was identical between the cases, in case (i) the man lacks moral responsibility.

A non-consequentialist view is to say that in case (i) it was not immoral for the man to throw what he reasonably believed to be a tennis ball, but his reasonable action had unfortunate consequences; in case (ii), what he did was clearly immoral.


Many actions may be regarded as good because they promote good consequences, even when the link is not obvious. Moreover, they may in themselves have bad consequences, but promote a social atmosphere which has good consequences. For example, suppose a hungry child steals some sweets from Tesco. Tesco won't notice the loss, the child will notice the sweets. And yet this would generally be regarded as wrong, even by those who do not hold to Natural Rights based moralities. What's more, we hold the child morally responsible for the theft, even if they have done a utility calculation and honestly concluded that they will get more from it than the supermarket.

This seems inconsistent with the consequentialist judgement of the grenade thrower in (i). Both the man and the child mistakenly believed they were doing good, but were wrong in ways which they could not have foreseen.

What about the intentions? On first glance one could suggest they both meant well, so this fails to explain the difference. But I think that in the case of the child there is good reason to question their motives, even if they have done a utility calculation. Note that the result is very beneficial to themselves; had the child been stealing bread and giving it to the homeless, I suspect we would be a lot more sympathetic to them.

Hence I lean towards the second, non-consequentialist account of morality given in II: that intentions have a real part to play in determining the morality of an action. Obviously they are not the whole story: someone who imposes a minimum wage in a misguided attempt to help the poor does wrong just as surely as one who does it to drive competing businesses out of the market; however, I shall argue, the moral wrong is different.


Providing I exist, I am happy to assert that I possess a deontological right of self-ownership. I am just as happy to assert the same rights for other people, and consider it somewhere between "unlikely but plausible" and "very likely" that the same rights exist for animals and for unborn babies in the womb. (Hence I oppose abortion, and have recently taken up vegetarianism). In short, I believe in the Lockean system of natural rights. I have misgivings about his homesteading principle, but I've looked at the alternatives and it seems to be the theory most likely to be correct.

The real problem with natural rights is that it really doesn't get you very far. I happen to believe that those who are well-off ought to help those in need (note that this is NOT a justification for a third party to force the well-off to provide this help) but there is nothing in the theory of natural rights to suggest that this is the case.

Essentially, natural rights works fine as a system for determining what is morally permissible and obligatory, but we need a second system in order to work out what it would be morally good to do.


My problem with virtue ethics is that I fail to see how one determines what is virtuous. Talk of promoting "human flourishing" sounds rather like we're back to consequentialism. Appeals to divine authority lead us to ask a) how does God declaring something to be good make it good, and b) does the phrase "God is good" then really mean anything more than "God says he is good" or perhaps "God is not a hypocrite"?

Ultimately, though, virtue ethics does such a good job of explaining my intuitions about morality that I overlook this issue. Obviously I search for a justificatory metaethic or a better theory, but the idea that morality is less about what you do than about who you are resolves one of my fundamental worries about morality and free will, and what's more it suggests a solution to my feeling that good morality should have good consequences, with the causal link running that way. Why? Because two of the key characteristics I consider to be virtuous are benevolence and instrumental rationality. Put these together, and the moral agent

  • [morally] should want good consequences for others, and therefore
  • [instrumentally] should pursue actions which lead to those consequences
Hence we "should" take actions which have good consequences, but it is not a moral "should". Which means that the example I gave at the beginning, that you [morally] should return the lost wallet to its rightful owner, was wrong. More precisely, you [morally] should want to be the kind of person who returns lost wallets to their rightful owners, and so therefore you [instrumentally] should return the wallet to its rightful owner.

Returning to our legislator who imposes a minimum wage, causing unemployment among the worst off people under her influence: if she meant well, then this stems from a failure of instrumental rationality and indicates a lack of that particular virtue. If she imposed it in order to drive competitors out of the market, then this is due to a lack of benevolence.

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