I apologize that many of my columns are just a series of complaints. People – pro-lifers and myself included – are dumb. We regularly arrive at foolish moral positions and while that cannot be totally avoided, I hope the frequency of this misfortune could be at least reduced by attempting to utilize a proper system of moral reasoning. Obviously, if you’re using a flawed system, you’re going to end up with flawed conclusions.
The New Year (and new decade) presents as good a time as any to examine our system of moral reasoning and to resolve to see clearly and to think well.
Maybe you don’t see the need for this conversation. Well, one of the arguments I heard in defense of Andrew Scheer’s traitorous comments (about funding abortion overseas and not opening up the abortion debate and whatnot) leading up to the election was that these were just lies, and that once the Conservatives formed government, one way or another, they would ensure the debate got opened.
You’d think that the perception of Scheer as a liar would damn rather than redeem him. You’d think that the claim “One should do the right thing regardless of the consequences” would be universally accepted. Alas, a distressing number backwardly think that the consequences determine the right thing.
That’s consequentialism and it’s morally bankrupt. It’s the “ethical” framework behind devilish falsehoods like “the ends justify the means.” Essentially, it says that the value of an action is entirely dependent upon its consequences. A popular version of it is utilitarianism, which advocates for the greatest “good” for the greatest number.
It’s the same philosophy prompting euthanasia proponents to defend euthanasia on the grounds that death is the most merciful option when quality of life declines past a certain point. It’s the same philosophy pro-choicers use when they argue that killing a preborn child is preferable to subjecting an unwilling mother and an unwanted child to future suffering.
We don’t want to be employing this same system. We need not only to correct what these people think about euthanasia and abortion, but how they think about it, which requires us to clean up how we think about all moral questions.
(And if we were really to get to the foundation of our moral deliberations, we’d also have to talk faith, but that’s a topic for another time.)
Now, make no mistake: I do think that doing evil produces worse consequences in aggregate, and that the pro-life side would win in a utilitarian calculus, but that’s beside the point. This game is not one we want to play. Weighing qualitative and quantitative assessments of possible outcomes is a lot more arbitrary and difficult than just evaluating the nature of an act and its compatibility (or lack thereof) with axiomatic principles.
Furthermore, we oppose abortion not because of the suffering it causes, but because, simply put, it’s wrong.
So, if not consequentialism/utilitarianism, what system would we be using?
Well, that’s harder to pin down. You can go by natural law, or a more secular, duty-based system like deontology/Kantian ethics (both of which are based on moral imperatives, the sources of which vary). At the very least, employ a system with moral absolutes, so that you’re not engaged in situation ethics (where what’s considered right and wrong changes according to the circumstances). Employ a system with maxims that can be universalized along the lines of the Golden Rule. Employ a system that respects every person as an end, and never merely as a means.
I mean, this is just Philosophy 101 here, but nobody – not even ethicists themselves – can get it straight, so it’s worth repeating. Admittedly, I too find it challenging to encapsulate why these systems are superior to consequentialism, because it’s ultimately a connatural knowledge that has only been reinforced by my experience.
Nonetheless, if I were to make an attempt at it: We are not gods. Consequences are not in our control and attempting to control them all will lead us down the wrong path. I can’t count how many times I’ve made this point. Under consequentialism, repulsive things (assault, torture, murder, etc.) can be condoned if the good results appear to outweigh the bad. Such a system would be coherent, yes, but obviously broken if it could permit such abhorrent things.
Needless to say, if someone is reasoning poorly, they likely won’t be able to recognize that, and even if they do, this single column isn’t going to convince them to change. It’s a good thing, then, that I don’t let my actions be dictated solely by their expected outcomes.