“In practice, virtually everyone seems to judge a large matter of principle to be more important than a small one of pragmatics, and vice versa — everyone except philosophers, that is.”
(Gary Drescher, Good and Real)
We like systems of thought, and we like them elegant and simple. This applies as much to ethics as to any other topic, and leads us to prefer simple ethical theories to complex ones. However, it may be that ethics (bound up in messy, evolved human preferences) is one place to expect complications in abundance. It may be that no simple principle can capture the whole of our ethical lives.
Let me see if I can make this more plausible. I will be talking in terms of the “big three” ethical theories — consequentialism, virtue ethics and deontology, because most ethical statements humans make seem to be grounded in thinking that comes from one of those three broad areas, though only a minority are aware of the vocabulary itself. (As an aside, I am also studiously ignoring a large portion of what some consider morality — what Jonathan Haidt labels “purity” concerns.)
First, I wish to establish a “bare minimum” — that consequences, virtues and justice do matter, at least whenever all other things are equal. In other words, for example, a consequentialist is also a deontologist in the sense that, given identical consequences, they’ll usually choose the same thing a deontologist would. Consider the following scenarios:
Scenario #1: You are considering donating with a limited budget to various charitable causes. Eventually the field is narrowed to two charities. According to an independent organization evaluating charities’ effectiveness, one saves approximately one life per $600, the other, one life per $2,000 dollars.
Solution: Choose the more effective charity.
Lesson: At least ceteris paribus, numbers matter in making moral decisions.
Scenario #2: A front-end car collision has occurred, and the two drivers involved are both bleeding profusely. You witnessed the accident and are the only one on the scene. The first driver caused the accident and appears to be drunk; the second was not at fault. You know you need to apply pressure to the wounds to stem the bleeding, but can only do this for one person at a time.
Solution: Prioritize the person who does not appear to have caused the accident due to their own negligence.
Lesson: At least ceteris paribus, an agent should consider questions of virtue and character in making moral decisions.
Scenario #3: Suppose (counterfactually!) that after decades of debate about capital punishment, it was finally determined by statisticians that, in terms of lives saved, the practice is a wash. In other words, without capital punishment, N innocent people per year per capita die (killed due to the lack of strong deterrent for murderers); while with capital punishment, N innocent people per year per capita die (killed due to wrongful convictions). It is in your power to either continue or abolish the practice. Knock-on effects on society are otherwise negligible.
Solution: Abolish capital punishment.
Lesson: At least ceteris paribus, an agent should personally respect the autonomy and rights of individuals in making moral decisions. It is better to allow an injustice (a murder by someone else) than to perpetrate one (a wrongful execution).
What I hope these scenarios establish is that, no matter how we may differ in which principles (utility, virtue, justice) we take to be overriding, the other principles have (and should have) some prima facie sway in our moral considerations if all other things are equal. If we can get ethical discourse to the point where we are talking not about whether, but about to what extent numbers should trump matters of principle and of character, and vice versa, we shall have made some strides toward a more plausible moral theory — plausible, that is, to people who don’t want to push fat people in front of buses, or tell an axe-murderer exactly where to find (and kill) their friend for fear of lying, or rubber-stamp whatever their society tells them the good life consists in.
Of course, if I am (for example) a consequentialist who uses virtue as a mere tie-breaker in unusual situations, that is not much of a rapprochement. However, let me see if I can carry the stronger claim that no matter which of the three approaches you consider most important, the other two have to have more than only a tie-breaker status. To carry this claim, I have to show that for each of the three approaches, the other two can sometimes override it in principle. This means I will need six counterexamples.
Let us start by undermining the exclusively consequentialist approach.
Counterexample #1 (utility vs character): Julia has mentioned, in a previous post that is one of my favorite on Rationally Speaking, the appalling phenomenon of “crush” videos — in which people derive sexual pleasure from videos of nonhuman animals being stomped to death by scantily clad women. Suppose that the practice of making these videos were now outlawed, but the videos themselves remained. Would it be ethical to watch them if one enjoyed it enough? At first glance, utilitarianism would seem to say it was mandatory — a straightforward net positive with no drawbacks. But most people would say no, it’s not ethical. You can call your enjoyment of such material “utility” if you like, but that enjoyment seems simply unworthy of being valued as a moral end. Damn you and damn your utility — you’re a nasty, twisted person.
Counterexample #2 (utility vs justice): Suppose you are the sheriff of a small town, in which a murder has been committed by a member of a hated minority. You have absolutely no leads, and if somebody is not punished, the townspeople might riot and do violence to random members of the minority. If you jail an innocent person, they will probably be placated. Should you do so? Utilitarianism again returns a straightforward answer of “Yes” here, at least if the risk of violence is high enough. Now in truth, situations like this are very difficult, but most of us feel that there is something appropriate and noble about a law enforcer having an absolute (or close to absolute) prohibition on committing injustice in the service of some good consequence — “fiat justitia ruat caelum.” Maybe the sheriff should scapegoat somebody if the situation is extreme enough and the numbers stack up disproportionately enough — but not at the drop of the hat, as soon as the consequentialist calculus returns even slightly higher utility for scapegoating. This holds even if we caveat that nobody will ever know what the sheriff did.
So much for utility as the sole principle. What about virtue? Counterexamples here are of a somewhat different sort owing to the rather different question virtue ethicists answer: not “what shall I do?” but “what kind of person shall I be?” However, it is worth noting that even a virtue ethicist will eventually have to make particular decisions, and we can still judge them on those decisions.
Counterexample #3 (character vs utility): Sally is a highly intelligent person with a college education in law, who displays gentleness and wisdom in her dealings with others. When she was a young person her father died of an extremely rare disease; she now spends much of her time at a non-profit, attempting to secure funding for the study of that disease by canvassing door to door. Her friends and family love her and find her optimism infectious.
Now, there is much to admire in Sally. She is a thoroughly decent person who is committed to philanthropy, in a world where most are not. However, it is a sad fact that her philanthropic efforts are mostly wasted. She is too concerned about a disease which does not affect many people — much better to focus on common causes of death and suffering. She is also ignoring the law of comparative advantage — her time is replaceable by people with less marketable skills, so it would be much more effective for her to land a well-paying law job and fund other people to perform charitable work. The sad thing is that a person of average income who gives maybe 0.1% of their disposable income to an effective charity and uses the other 99.9% to, I don’t know, buy caviar or something, may do more good in the world than someone who is totally committed to altruism as a way of life, but hasn’t bothered with the numbers.
So, the point here is that a person can be off the charts in all or most of Aristotle’s virtues, and yet still be outdone in improving the world by a grumpy rationalist willing to give a few highly leveraged bucks here and there. Stated more generally, good character is no guarantee that one’s life will have an especially good impact. Or if we wish to reverse it, a very consequentially bad life may not be traceable to bad character.
Counterexample #4 (character vs justice): Here counterexamples spring to mind so readily as to be practically truisms. Thomas Jefferson, an admirable man in so many ways, used slavery to support himself and his family. Most of the great people of bygone times, despite their high personal virtue, were out-and-out racists, homophobes and misogynists. The point is similar to the above counterexample #3 — good character is no guarantee of just conduct, for although the case for (say) women’s rights in terms of justice is a slam dunk, few of even the very best people of bygone times endorsed such a notion. People of otherwise good character seem only to be just to the extent that they have been taught to be, and rarely otherwise. In practice, thinking of morality solely in terms of a virtuous character ends up fetishizing personality, and even a good personality can countenance barbarous things.
What of deontology, then? What of justice?
Counterexample #5 (justice vs utility): All-out nuclear war threatens between Examplestan and the Gedanken Republic. The Republic demands amnesty for three terrorists who blew up an Examplestani post office several years ago. They say that this must occur as a gesture of good faith before they will come to the negotiating table at all. Should Examplestan consider this possibility? The answer seems to be yes — justice is extremely important, but we really don’t want the heavens to fall in that particular way. Sometimes you have to just set aside a matter of principle and take out your goddam calculator.
Counterexample #6 (justice vs character): Meet Fred. Fred has the nearly irresistible urge to torture people, but because he knows that this urge is not universalizable and that he is therefore duty-bound not to do so, he refrains with great difficulty from torturing people. Meanwhile, the idea of torturing people has never even occurred to Penelope, and it wouldn’t tempt her in the slightest if it did. Kant famously argued that the first case shows moral virtue, while the second shows a “mere” disposition. But this seems clearly wrong. For one thing, because a disposition does seem to be morally laudable — it’s just better not to want to torture people than to studiously refrain.
Now, these counterexamples are full of holes, complications and potential objections, but before you make an objection, please ask yourself seriously whether you’re rationalizing. For example, if I recall correctly, Kant was against cruelty to nonhuman animals (despite their not being “rational”) — but only because he bought into the empirical claim that cruelty to animals would eventually lead to violence against humans. Frankly, Immanuel, I call shenanigans. It’s true that violence against animals may lead to later human-on-human cruelty, but that is not what is wrong with torturing a rattlesnake. So when you come up with a clever objection to my counterexample to your-favored-approach, ask yourself if the objection really works in the least convenient possible world.
Now let me see if I can be more constructive.
I used to be a flat-out consequentialist, and in many ways I still consider myself one. I think an ethical theory that fails to relate to what, y’know, actually happens in the world, is essentially meaningless or worse. That said, I now consider consequentialism to be correct in principle, but also an incomplete practical methodology for dealing with ethical questions.
In this respect, it is a similar idea to reductionism. Yes, reductionism is entirely correct; yes, the basic units of physical reality (quarks and leptons?) are probably the only ontologically fundamental constituents of our universe; but no, particle physics is not good research methodology for studying the mating habits of penguins.
Likewise, there are some decisions (like not eating factory-farmed meat and eggs) that are slam-dunks on purely consequentialist grounds. But many others, such as how to train oneself to stand up to human evil instead of sliding into apathy, are much better conceived in terms of the conceptually higher-level ideas one finds in virtue ethics. Moreover, if consequentialist reasoning fails to take into account the undeniable... utility of certain close-to-absolute prohibitions, promises, commitments and concepts of honor and justice, what we end up with is a world where people make decisions that are locally consequentially optimal but globally hideous — consider the tragedy of the commons (I shall have much more to say about this particular issue in future posts).
Consequentialists have long argued that objections to their view end up confirming it — for example, the fact that you wouldn’t want to live in a world in which sheriffs were willing to scapegoat people, shows that that world has lower utility, so that the theory is saved. I think this is half-true, and rather hand-wavy. It shows that we have reasons for endorsing some deontological and virtue-ethical ideas on broadly consequentialist grounds, but it does not show that the consequentialist theory as stated really works as a guide to practice, unless we want to install a thousand ugly caveats into the theory. Sure, humans are made of quarks, but don’t throw out your psychology textbook in favour of physics alone!
So I think that in order to actually make your way in this world as an agent who is sincerely attempting to do the right thing, you’re going to have to use the vocabulary and concepts of consequentialism, deontology and virtue ethics, or your understanding will be impoverished. Exactly how they need to be traded off against each other is a subject for much further thought, assuming these ideas have merit.
In the comments to Julia’s article mentioned above, jcm christened this view as “Ethical Heterodoxy” or “Ethical Pluralism.” Let the critique begin!