Arguing Morals

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.