Does morality exist? What would it even mean to say that morality exists? And if morality does not exist, then how can there be moral progress (e.g., how can we say that it was moral progress to end slavery)? These are meta-ethical questions, in other words, not questions describing or prescribing what one ought to do, but questions concerning whether describing or prescribing what one ought to do is even coherent. I will examine these questions, and more, in this post.
What is Morality?
Philosophy is, broadly speaking, divided into three general categories: metaphysics (what is the nature of existence and reality?), epistemology (what is knowledge and how is it possible?), and ethics (what is the nature of good and evil and how should people live their lives to accord with what is good?). It’s this latter one that tends to have the most practical impact on people’s lives. Indeed, things like business ethics, governmental ethics, medical ethics, bioethics, and so on are where the rubber really meets the road. Yet, they still fail to answer the very basic question of “what is good?” and “how should I live my life?” for our everyday, mundane situations.
The 6 Biggest Questions in Philosophy
Philosophy, unlike science, does not have a reliable method for answering questions. As a result, there are longstanding philosophical questions that have no good answer. Or, perhaps, that have too many answers and no good criteria for determining which is the right one. So, what are the 6 biggest questions in philsophy?
Human Rights, Virtue Ethics, and Tyranny
If there are no human rights a priori of government force, how can tyranny be avoided? In the absence of any deontological justification for normative ethics, there is only virtue ethics.
Transhumanist Virtue Ethics: Desirable Innate Preferences Determined by Reason
Natural rights don’t exist, except in the human mind. They are a way for a social species to maintain social cohesion. But, as useful as natural rights may be in deciding how to organize society, they are not fundamental; instead, they are derivative of what humans, in general, desire.
Human Relations and Accountability
When a mob boss tells three of his underlings to commit a murder, and then the three underlings commit the murder, is the mob boss culpable? Most people would say yes, even though he himself did not commit the murder, because he is the boss. But isn’t it possible for the three underlings to have just ignored the bosses orders and done nothing, in which case he would have just been talking? No, most people would say, because the underlings did commit the murder and they have entered into a hierarchical relationship with the boss where they are obligated to follow his orders.
Knowledge is Power
There is an old adage that knowledge is power. People being able to acquire facts and information gives them power over those who wish to control them. This is the cornerstone of first amendment rights in the United States. Preventing the government from having arbitrary power over the people by way of knowledge about the private lives and thoughts of people is the cornerstone of fourth and fifth amendment rights in the United States. Other governments – places like Nazi Germany and those in the Communist bloc – attempted to disempower their people by banning certain books and speech critical of their ideology or governing regime; by controlling people’s right to assembly (ie banning other political parties); by regulating or persecuting certain religions; by controlling and censoring the press; by spying on their people; and by forcing people to testify against themselves through torture and indefinite detention. The Khmer Rouge, for example, feared a knowledgeable populace so much that that would condemn and even kill people who wore glasses because ‘intellectuals’ were considered to be corrupted by modernity.
The point being, knowledge is generally viewed as a good thing in a liberal democracy. It allows us the opportunity to make informed decisions about who governs us and then hold them accountable. But is there knowledge which should not be known? Knowledge that could potentially be harmful if it gets out?
This is an argument as old as time, but a particular instance comes to mind – the Bible. For much of the Church’s history, the Bible was read only by the clergy (and other higher status individuals), who could read Latin. The teachings could then be interpreted by the clergy and taught to their parishioners. This allowed for a single orthodoxy to be run by the Church bureaucracy. In the first 1500 years of Christianity, there was only a single schism in the church (not counting the Western schism, which was more political than theological). However, vernacular translations of the Bible in Greek by Erasmus and in German by the likes of Martin Luther were printed, helping to ignite the protestant reformation, the result being that the Church split into numerous churches. During those early days of the printing press, it was hotly debated whether it would be a good idea to let the people have access to the Bible. There are still those who think it was a bad idea.
A more contemporary source of perhaps forbidden knowledge is the internet. Conspiracy theories, fake news, and other such nonsense aside, the internet is arguably the greatest means of spreading knowledge to come into existence since the printing press. The biggest obstacle one might find in their way online are paywalls and subscription fees, and even those are usually easily bypassed or avoided. But what about information like how to make bombs or 3D printed guns? Sure, most people are probably responsible enough to either not use this information, or even if they do, use it for benign purposes. But if that information is available on the internet, it is available to everyone – even those who would use it for malicious or self-serving purposes. I am not trying to make a political argument for banning these things, but generally a more philosophical argument – would humankind be better off if this information had never become available in the first place? Or is there something intrinsically good about such information being available – ie knowledge is power?
What about hacked or leaked information of a private or personal sort, like pictures of a politician doing something we might find disgusting, like cheating on their spouse or doing drugs? Does our knowledge of this lapse in character or poor judgment outweigh the privacy of the individual perpetrator? What about leaked classified information about government wrongdoing that could damage national security or put agents in the field in danger? This argument is made just about any time information about government wrongdoing is made available to the public, whether it damages national security or endangers field agents or not, which further demonstrates that the government is afraid of people becoming knowledgeable. But what about in cases where public knowledge is demonstrably dangerous, even if the government is in the wrong about something? Where is the crossover point, where the information becoming public knowledge becomes an unacceptable risk?
There is knowledge of a different kind on the internet – pornography. Social conservatives often argue that access to pornography has a deleterious affect on people’s minds and morals. There may be merit to this argument. Pornography can cause addiction, isolation and unrealistic expectations about romantic love. And what about the fact that after a terrifying experience, such as the false alarm about a missile strike in Hawaii, people seem to seek comfort in pornography? So, should pornography be included in the category of knowledge that humankind would be better off without? Or is it part of the knowledge as intrinsic good? Even if we argue that pornography is not harmful, psychologically or sexually, is there an argument for it being good? Or perhaps there is a cutoff point – pictures of naked people alone, or video of people having missionary position sex, is acceptable, but people doing other sex acts is not. Maybe if it’s only shown with people having safe sex – like the proposed condom law that failed in California – then it is acceptable. Once again, I’m not trying to make a political or civil liberties argument one way or the other, but I’m asking, philosophically speaking, would humankind be better off (psychologically, sexually, morally) if pornography didn’t exist, or if only certain types of pornography existed?
Opponents of Political Correctness contend that it is a form of censorship that stifles society from having important conversations. Political Correctness is defined as “…the avoidance, often considered as taken to extremes, of forms of expression or action that are perceived to exclude, marginalize, or insult groups of people who are socially disadvantaged or discriminated against.” However, Political Correctness is often used as a way of shutting down conversation. For instance, bringing up crime and race, race and intelligence, or that men and women might have differences in preference when it comes to career path choices (as opposed to systemic barriers to entry in certain careers dependent on ones sex or gender identity) are often hot-button issues. I’m not making any claims about the truth of falsity of these topics, but Political Correctness dictates that even bringing them up is taboo. People who bring these issues up will often find themselves on the receiving end of criticism, and sometimes even threats of violence. Opponents of Political Correctness will say that if these subjects aren’t even up for discussion, then there is no way to find whether the claims are true or not, and if true, find the causes of these problems and be able to work out solutions. As a result, the problems will persist and get worse while people continue to pretend that they don’t exist. The truth value of these claims is not based on reason, facts, or evidence, but on how the topics make people feel. Things that are uncomfortable to discuss then become, essentially, forbidden knowledge. Do these subjects belong in that category, or should they be up for discussion?
The issue works the other way, too. There are plenty of people who would prefer not to have LGBT issues taught to children, while proponents of Political Correctness are often in favor of doing this. Whether one believes that sexual preference or gender nonconformity are choices, pathologies, or just part of the spectrum of human experience, they are still phenomena that occur in the real world; they are still impulses that dictate the lifestyle of real people. Refusing to teach people about these issues will not prevent them from being exposed to them, and will only leave people less knowledgeable about real world issues. It is a form of political correctness that attempts to pretend that something isn’t real, which stifles dialogue and does nothing to weigh truth claims about causes, effects, and society based on reason, facts, and evidence, but once again based only on how the topic makes people feel. Thus, not teaching people about the LGBT phenomena is relegating these issues to the realm of forbidden knowledge. Are people better off not knowing about these issues, or is knowledge still power in this case? Does knowledge necessitate acceptance – if a person is taught about LGBT people, will that person necessarily be accepting? Does acceptance necessitate knowledge – can you not accept someone’s lifestyle if you are ignorant of it? And, if this should not be forbidden knowledge, at what age should people be taught about LGBT issues? What is the best way to teach them? And what exactly should be taught, as there are competing theories?
I think probably the place where the most people will accept that some knowledge may be better left unknown is when it comes to the potential end of the world. Nuclear weapons are the first thing that come to mind. During World War II, there was a concerted effort by the United States and Britain to develop atomic weapons. Doing so opened up a Pandora’s box that still affects us to this day – the doomsday clock was just recently reset to 2 minutes to midnight (doomsday). When the Soviet Union tested their own nuclear weapons in 1949, the term Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD) soon came into vogue. Would it have been better if humankind had never learned how to develop nuclear weapons in the first place? What about the argument that Mutually Assured Destruction has prevented cataclysmic wars between major powers, as was the case in WWI and WWII before humans split the atom? Does that make knowledge of atomic weapons a net positive for the human race, even if the potential destruction of civilization as we know it as the hair-trigger whims of a few powerful people?
Nowadays, we also have to worry about possibly an even more insidious weapon of mass destruction: biological weapons. What makes this even more dangerous is that they are so cheap and easy to develop (particularly compared to nuclear weapons), a single person could do it in a DIY lab in their garage. It’s so easy a person could develop or release it on accident. Instructions on how to do it could easily be made available online (and probably are in some dark corners of the web). And once the disease is out, it will not distinguish between friend and foe – at the very least, an atomic weapon could potentially be contained to a single geographical location. This, of course, brings up the question of whether it has been a good thing or not that humankind has acquired knowledge about how genetics work – with knowledge of genetic manipulation, it’s not that difficult to make a dangerous pathogen. Our understanding of genetics and genetic manipulation has yielded amazing things for humanity, but if it ultimately spells our downfall, was any of it worthwhile? Or would humans have been better off never knowing?
And now, possibly in the not to distant future, we might have to worry about Artificial Intelligence. As it is often popular to say in AI circles, Artificial Intelligence could be the last thing humankind ever invents. So, does that mean that AI technology should be forbidden knowledge? Is humanity better off not discovering Artificial Intelligence? What if developing AI is the only way we can actually ensure that we don’t wipe ourselves out via other means? Unlike most of what I’ve talked about here, AI is knowledge that we have not yet acquired – it is still theoretically within our power to keep this knowledge forbidden, whereas other things I’ve discussed are already available. It may be that development of AI is inevitable, but it could be that we would have been better off never even considering it.
Individualism and Collectivism
What does it mean to be a good person? What does it mean to do good things? Individualism would answer these questions by saying a good person, who does good things, is kind, fair, thoughtful, empathetic, and self-actualized; that they do things to better themselves (ie go to the gym, stay informed, eat right, meditate, and do things that will make them happy). Collectivism would say that a person is good if they belong to a good group and that their thoughts and actions are in alignment with that group and work towards the betterment and actualization of the group and promotion of its ideals over others.
Individualism is politically expressed through capitalism. The benefit of capitalism is that, ideally, each individual is in sole control of their own economic activity, thus the economy is defined by the interactions of individual agents all working toward their own personal good via rational self-interest – one spends one’s money on food, shelter, clothes, medicine, and entertainment for oneself; nobody else forces one into any particular form of economic activity. The problem seems to arise from taking this political philosophy on as a personal ethical philosophy – if it is morally good that I have personal control over my economic activity, then it is also morally good that I have personal control over my ethical activity. This can then descend into hedonism and moral relativism – what is “good” must be what makes me feel good, and who is anyone to say that what is “good” for one person must also be “good” for another?
Collectivism is politically expressed through communism or nationalism – the two use different rhetoric and emphasize different collectives, but are functionally similar. The benefit of collectivism as political philosophy (whether communism or nationalism) is that, ideally, everyone in the group (economic class, in the case of communism, or racial/ethnic group in the case of nationalism) is on equal economic footing – if you are within the preferred group, then there are no winners or losers, and therefore things like greed or envy of other in-group members becomes obsolete, and economic activity is simplified by relieving everyone of economic responsibility, because certain economic privileges become economic “rights” for in-group members. Their are inherent problems in collectivism as political philosophy, but further problems arise when collectivism is taken as an ethical philosophy: you end up with identity politics. In this case, every individual is pre-judged based on whatever group(s) one happens to fall into (racial, gender, class, etc.), and one is expected to adhere to a certain orthodoxy as established by said groups in order to be a “good person” as defined by that orthodoxy. The groups are then confronted by a dilemma: moral relativism vs might-makes-right. By the former, all groups are mutually exclusive, but equally valid, and therefore it is not acceptable to criticize another group by the ethical standards of one’s own, since one group’s ethics is only valid within that group, thus one is wrong to speak out against potentially monstrous beliefs and activities within other groups (ie who is one group to say that female genital mutilation is bad if it is considered “good” by those groups that practice it?). By the latter, universal “goodness” is dependent on which group can conquer, subjugate, or silence the others, thus it is “good” for one’s group to try and conquer, subjugate, or silence other groups deemed not to be “good” before they are able to conquer, subjugate, or silence one’s group (ie shouting down out-group speakers on college campuses or petitioning the government for laws favorable to one’s own group or unfavorable to the out-group).
So, the question is, how is humanity to determine a proper ethical framework? Religion used to attempt to fill this role. However, without a universally agreed upon religion, it will (and has) devolved into collectivism. There is also the issue that modernity has shown that God has taken a lesser role in the universe that once thought, or at least in people’s lives, if God exists at all. Because of the de-emphasis of religion for the formulation of an ethical framework, the above political philosophies have taken that role, and it has led to divisiveness, shallow materialism, and an epidemic of depression, anxiety, and drug/alcohol use.
Adhering to simple moral prohibitions – don’t lie, cheat, steal, rape, murder – although not perfectly practiced, are generally agreed upon, even if not always for the same reasons. Yet this doesn’t seem to be good enough to create a peaceful world of productive societies, made up of internally supportive and externally tolerant communities, each composed of happy, healthy, self-actualized individuals. How to achieve that is the question ethical philosophers must answer.
Something Worth Fighting For
Let’s say that someone you knew bought a 1968 Shelby Mustang GT500KR back when they first rolled off the assembly line. They loved this car and took very good care of it. Whenever a part began to go bad, it was immediately replaced before anything could damage the car. They kept this car for the past 50 years. Over that time, 90% of the parts in that car were replaced with new parts. They now want to sell the car to you, and they say that it is an original 1968 – are they telling you the truth? Or is it now a completely different car than the one they bought 50 years ago?
This, of course, is a modern re-telling of the Ship of Theseus. The reason I ask is because this applies to more than just objects, but also ideas. Ideas mutate and evolve over time. Some aspects become obsolete, emphases are changed, new thinking is added, and sometimes ideas are rejected completely. Like switching out the different parts in our muscle car, these changes are due to the emergence of new information and technology, along with the growing and shifting social, political, and philosophical milieu.
And when I say “fighting for” something, I don’t necessarily mean physically fighting for it, but also advocating and arguing in favor of, and being willing to align oneself and take a position for, a particular set of beliefs, ideals, and principles.
Christianity, for example, as it is understood nowadays, is very different from its original conception – so, is it still the same thing that the early followers had in mind when they were persecuted for their beliefs? Is Christianity still the same thing that the Medieval people had in mind when they persecuted others in its name?
What about the United States of America? Certainly the country is very different from the one the founders understood – now slavery is abolished, women have equal rights, our government involves itself in the affairs of every other country. So, when someone says they are fighting for America, what does that really mean?
And, more interestingly, will people in the future think what you believe is worth fighting for now had been worth fighting for at all?
What comes immediately to mind is the Confederacy during the American Civil War. They believed they were fighting for something noble and just, and now most people think their cause anywhere between misguided all the way to despicable. But what if the Confederacy had won the American Civil War – would their cause be seen as righteous and just, the way the Union is often portrayed? Which raises the question – will the way the future judges us be based solely on which ideas win out over the others, or will the future be able to judge what we fight for objectively and see an idea, even if it “loses” the fight, as better than one that may have “won” the fight?
[Protesters in Durham, North Carolina, toppled a statue called the Confederate Soldiers Monument.]
It also brings to mind the people fighting during the 30 Years War – many atrocities were committed, thousands killed through warfare, disease, and starvation, ruinous destruction wrought on the people of Europe, and yet nowadays most people don’t even know that this war happened, much less what it was even about. But the people fighting it (or, at least, funding it) thought it worth the catastrophic consequences. Which raises the question – are your ideas worth fighting for is they will simply fall by the wayside in history, forgotten by posterity? What if they only remember what you did for your cause, but not why you did it? How will you be judged?
[Mass grave from Battle of Lützen, 1632, during the 30 Years War.]
What about humanities greatest experiment with implementing an idea – Communism in places like China and the Soviet Union? Untold millions suffered and died for this grand experiment, the world being brought to the precipice of thermonuclear annihilation, only to have it all fail. Now that we are in their future, with the Soviet Union in our past, would we deem Stalinist or Maoist Communism to have been worth fighting for? At the time, many people certainly believed in those ideals enough to kill and die for them. Now, it seems, all of that suffering was for nothing.
[Propaganda poster from Mao’s Great Leap Forward program, which resulted in the government executing 550,000 people and an estimated 16.5 million to 40 million people starving to death.]
So how does one know what to fight for now, given that it may be forgotten by posterity, or deemed misguided or even evil? Is it worth killing for a cause that will be judged so harshly by our descendants? Worth dying for? What if the ideas you believe will make the world a better place get put to the test, and it turns out that they make things worse for everyone? And if these questions are paralyzing, what if not fighting for anything is even worse than fighting for the wrong thing?
Is there something worth fighting for?
[Featured image is from Kharkov in the Soviet Union, 1933, during the Holodomor, where estimates of 2 million to 10 million people starved to death due to Communist collectivization policy.]
It’s difficult to find someone who doesn’t think they’re at least trying to be a moral person. Even someone who thinks of themselves as immoral does so because he or she sees themselves as failing to live up to their own moral code, not because they are purposefully choosing the route of immorality because of some warped value system. But what does it even mean to be moral? Is someone who blindly performs an action that results in more overall happiness a moral person? What about a person who intends to increase overall happiness, but their actions end up having a neutral or even detrimental effect on the overall happiness of the world? If we consider telling the truth (or at least not lying) to be moral, what happens if telling the truth gets people hurt? Or what if lying can prevent that pain – even if it’s as benign as telling someone they look nice when they don’t?
The keen observer will notice there are two kinds of arguments here. In moral philosophy, we call these two schools of thought deontological moral arguments and consequentialist moral arguments.
Deontological morality refers to those things we see as intrinsically moral. We say that murder is wrong because human beings have an intrinsic moral value. Life is precious and should be valued for its own sake. There can be recourse to some justification, but the consequences on the world are not what justify deontological moral theories. This can be problematic, since we must say that if every life has intrinsic moral worth, regardless of the person’s impact on the world, then Martin Luther King Jr has the same moral worth as Adolf Hitler. Of course, it also means that if you’re the kind of person that works at McDonalds all day only to come home and play video games all night, you are just as protected under the law as the person who raises a family and regularly volunteers at the homeless shelter – the two situations will ideally receive equal protection.
Consequentialism is the idea that the moral value of an action is based on the affect it has on the world. This school of thought might handle the case of murder by saying that murder causes pain and suffering in the world. The victim will no longer get to live the rest of their life, experiencing its joys, accomplishing their goals, and being there for their loved ones, who will be worse off with the victim dead. One could even argue that it would be worse for the economy, and that it might be a financial drain on the victims family. For these reasons, murder is wrong. And since the victims life is judged on their worldly consequences, if the victim was more beneficial to the world, then we can say that their life was worth more than someone who was less beneficial, or even detrimental, to the world. In other words, Martin Luther King Jr’s life was worth more than Adolf Hitler’s life. Of course, it also means that the life of someone who regularly volunteers at the homeless shelter and raises a happy family is worth more than the life of someone who spends every day working at McDonalds only to come home and play video games. Thus, if we accept that people’s impact on the world determines their moral worth, then we must accept that some people are literally better human beings than other people and are therefore worth more protection under the law.
In this way, consequentialist arguments can sound almost cynical. But lets look at a situation where consequentialism seems to win our over deongoloty. Lets say you’re living in Nazi Germany and you’re hiding Jews in your basement. A Nazi officer comes by and asks if you are hiding Jews. Deontologically speaking, not lying is the more moral action. Not lying is even one of the ten commandments (more on this later). But telling the truth – that you’re hiding Jews in your basement – might have the consequence of getting them hurt or killed. So the consequentialist argument would be to lie, since that will have a greater moral outcome – the people you are hiding will be more likely to survive and go unharmed if you lie.
So we can see that sometimes these different schools of thought can be applied and seem more intuitively moral. So is it legitimate to use an argument from one school of thought against the argument from another? I contend that in many places – politics, religion, society – this is what people are doing without realizing it.
Religion often uses deontological arguments for morality. When a commandment says not to kill or steal, it brooks no arguments. We are not to do these things because they are intrinsically wrong. Of course, the problem with making arguments about the intrinsic value of actions, people want some justification for it. Immanuel Kant attempted to make deontological justification for moral arguments with his categorical imperative using reason alone. Religion attempts to justify deontological moral precepts with recourse to God. This runs into the sticky problem of Euthyphro’s dilemma, which can be stated: are moral commands moral because God says they are, or does God say they’re moral because they are intrinsically moral? In other words, should I obey God because if I don’t then God will punish me, or should I obey God because God is the arbiter of intrinsic moral values? In the first instance we end up with a consequentialist argument – I should act moral because if I don’t, I will be punished, and if I do, I’ll be rewarded (or that my actions determine whether I become close to God or not). The latter is deontological, but it’s problematic in that A) God is no longer required for morality and is therefore not sufficient for recourse on matters of morality and so B) we still must find some justification for why some particular action is considered moral or immoral.
Although moral commandments are at least ostensibly deontological moral beliefs that are justified with recourse to God (assuming the previous discussion is not problematic), it’s still popular for religious apologists to couch religious morals in consequentialist theory. For instance, the often quoted Leviticus 20:13 condemning homosexuality makes no mention of why homosexuality is wrong except to say that homosexual acts are “detestable” or an “abomination” (depending which version of the bible you read). This is a deontological argument, as it doesn’t say what detrimental consequences homosexual acts will wrought on the world. But when gay rights issues are talked about in politics and the media, it’s often consequentialist arguments – that marriage is meant for procreation, that allowing gays to marry will ruin marriage, that allowing gays to marry will lead us down a slippery slope into pedophilia and bestiality, that gay couples make bad parents, that gay marriage will lead to more abortions, and sometimes even that homosexuality causes natural disasters. None of these arguments are biblical, nor are they backed by evidence, but it creates an impasse when deontological theories of morality run into consequentialist theories of morality.
This same sort of impasse can be seen in politics. I’m not talking as much on what is usually seen as the left-right scale so much as the statist-libertarian scale. When I say statist, I mean someone who believes that the state (or government) must exist, at minimal in the Hobbesean sense, in order to maintain law and order. When I say libertarian, I mean someone who believes that state (government) should not exist in an anarcho-capitalist sense. Most people fall on the spectrum somewhere on the statist end, and this is for consequentialist reasons. There might be deontological arguments for the state in fascist or Leninist and Maoist communist thought, but I’d say the majority of people see the state as a tool meant for maintaining law and order. People may disagree on the roles the government should take, but they all agree that the government has a legitimate role to play. Liberbarians, in the anarcho-capitalist school of thought, make the deontological claim that government shouldn’t exist. They justify this with recourse to the non-aggression principle, which is based on self-ownership and property rights. Of course, even anarcho-capitalists often defend their views using consequentialist arguments based on the ideas of the negative unintended consequences in foreign and economic policies (for example, the minimum wage creating more unemployment or regulations that hurt small businesses while doing nothing to big corporations) and blowback in military policies (for example, the U.S. drone program creating more terrorists than it kills). The impasse occurs when statists attempt to attack the deontological theory of the non-aggression principle using consequences (“without the government, there would be chaos”) and libertarians attempting to use this deontological argument against this form of consequentialism. It’s also a problem when a deontological theory, such as the non-aggression principle, is defended using consequentialist arguments. If we accept the non-aggression principle, than we must say that it should be a moral theory that applies to any situation, regardless of the consequences. Even if adopting anarcho-capitalism causes an endless economic depression, it is still more moral than allowing the violence of government intervention to exist, regardless of how well the economy works under that government. However, if it’s true that the non-aggression principle will bring about greater economic prosperity and restrict fewer civil liberties, and we accept that the non-aggression principle is only justified with recourse to these consequences, then statism is in trouble without a deontological leg to stand on in defending the existence of the state.
This all seems a bit abstract, but there is a somewhat more practical reason to consider the deontological vs. consequentialist arguments when it comes to government. This might be referred to as the Euthyphro’s Dilemma of Government. This dilemma has to do with the morality of charity. Statist arguments, particularly those on what is considered the left, state that there is a moral obligation to take tax money from those who make more money and distribute it to those who are not well off. The libertarian will argue that this is not a moral action, since the tax money is taken by force, violating the non-aggression principle, and there is no choice involved in giving this money. This, of course, assumes that there must be a choice involved in moral actions – an act is immoral if one could have chosen otherwise and not committed that act, but chose to do so, and vice versa, an act is moral if one could have chosen otherwise and not committed that act, but chose to do so. So given this, is it immoral for money to be taken at the threat of force from person A and given to person B, even if A had more than needed and B less than needed? And hence we come to the impasse. The deontological libertarian will say yes, it was an immoral act since the non-aggression principle was violated and person A had no choice in the matter anyway. The consequentialist statist will say no, it is not immoral because person A is not left wanting overall and person B can now live a more comfortable life.
I mentioned it briefly earlier, but when it comes to what morality even is, in either the deontological school of thought or the consequentialist school of thought, we might distinguish between prohibitions and virtues. Prohibitions would be morals such as not killing, not stealing, and not lying. Virtues would be morals such as giving to the poor, cleaning up trash in the streets, or rescuing someone in danger. The issue becomes: can we say that someone is moral if they simply follow all the right prohibitions but never do anything virtuous? What about someone who constantly does virtuous things, but also constantly lies, cheats and steals? Does a moral person have to both refrain from doing bad things and endeavor to do virtuous things? Does an immoral person have to both refrain from doing virtuous things and endeavor to transgress against moral prohibitions? Consequentialists may be able to argue over metrics by which to judge these things, but to my knowledge, most deontological arguments are of the prohibitive kind – both Kant’s categorical imperative and the libertarian’s non-aggression principle are the prohibitive flavor of morality. So how might virtue ethics fit into these systems? Would a deontological theory of virtue ethics be nothing more than a list of precepts to follow, a code with no justification or resource?
The age old question, in the end, is which school of moral thought is the better one? Which will lead to a more moral society? Deontology has an air of being more noble, in that it brings up a sense of duty and struggle to do the right thing, even if it doesn’t seem like the right thing. I’ll apply the non-aggression principle, even if I think my life would be easier if I broke it. And yet people are generally judged on the consequences of their actions. I would argue that a mix of both are needed. The ground, I would say, should be deontological, but their application in the real world – and judgments on where deviations are allowed – should be based on consequentialist ideas. Of course, this becomes messy, and trying to pin down the optimum socio-political-economic system or deciding how justice and mercy should be applied could get bogged down in minutiae. This leaves us at another impasse. What I think the important message is, though, is that people need to realize when they are using consequentialist arguments against deontological theories and vice versa, because otherwise everyone will simply continue to talk past each other and no progress will be made.