As you might know, I’ve been reading more about philosophy and psychology recently and have been thinking of a lot of interesting questions and learning a ton of new things. Today I’d like to talk about two somewhat opposing schools of ethical thought, describe a few flaws of each, give you my opinion, and ask you some challenging questions that should make you think or make you discuss some heavy stuff with a friend or significant other.
Before diving into deontology and consequentialism, I’d like to present an important term that we should think about while reading this: moral relativism. Moral relativism is the idea that there is no universally correct set of morals, and that your moral code can differ depending on many different factors. Whether or not you believe that all moral principles are universal, some moral principles are universal, or that all moral principles are based on external factors such as environment, it’s an important term to know and think about. I’ll likely give my opinion on this in another post, but for now let’s just keep it in mind.
Deontology is an approach to ethics which emphasizes a strong code of moral rules which are abided by no matter the consequence. Some of the most famous deontological thinkers include John Locke and Immanuel Kant, who believed that we should only make moral choices which are universally true and will always be universally true. He suggested to treat humanity “never merely as a means to an end but always at the same time as an end,” meaning that regardless of the outcome, each choice you make along the way is important and should be made in a morally correct way.
There are a couple of issues with deontological thinking; first, there are extreme cases where it breaks down. A common example used against this system of ethics is the case where a Nazi officer asks you if you’re hiding a Jew in your house, and you don’t lie about doing it because lying is seen as “wrong”. The result is, of course, a murdered Jew (which hopefully you’re against) when the lie might not have harmed anyone except your moral code.
Second, this manner of thinking only works well if there is a universal right and wrong. While a person could abide by it with their own moral code, the benefit of deontology breaks down as soon as you have conflicting moral codes. Some questions to ask yourself that might challenge deontology include: Is it wrong to kill? What if the person killed your family? What if it’s in self-defense? When is it acceptable to lie? What is the acceptable punishment for a murder?
On the other side of the coin, we see consequentialism. Consequentialism is concerned with the moral worth of overall consequence of actions, not necessarily the actions themselves. Utilitarianism, made popular by John Stuart Mill and Jeremy Bentham, is a good example of consequentialism; it aims to maximize outcomes for the greatest number of people, or increase happiness, without much regard for the nature of actions that make this possible. Not all consequentialists are utilitarians, but utilitarianism is a type of consequentialism.
One criticism of consequentialism is that it seems to lack empathy, or any general concern for the well-being of individuals. If people are concerned with the “greater good”, they might make decisions that go out of their way to harm others even if the net result is an increase in happiness of a larger number of people. Many people have drawn links between psychopaths and utilitarianism, whether those links are justified or not.
Another important criticism is that the “greater good” in general presupposes that there is some common thing that is undeniably “best”, similarly to the flaw in deontology. It contradicts moral relativism and assumes that one way is the right way, and that everyone should act in a way that best works to achieve this greater good. Depending on your opinions on moral relativism, this might be a downside to this philosophy.
So where do I stand on this scale of deontology and consequentialism? I think that anyone who knows me could tell you that I’m more of a consequentialist and utilitarian than anything else, but I think everyone is a bit of both.
The way I see it is that we all have a moral code that we try to abide by, and we make exceptions when the consequences of adhering to our moral code are contrary to our intent in keeping that moral code. The justification of our moral code is a personal thing, but my reasons for trying to keep to my moral code include minimizing harm to others, maximizing happiness for myself and for others, treating everyone as equal, being fair in judgments, and being able to observe situations objectively, even situations that I’m involved in. Given these goals, my moral rules (things like not lying, being fair to everyone, not solving problems with violence, etc.) can bend if the consequence of adhering to that moral code is negative. The amount that those rules bend depends on the severity of the outcome, for good or for bad.
A simple example is lying: we know that it’s wrong to lie, but when telling the truth will harm someone unnecessarily and lying will not harm anyone, we choose to tell what we call a white lie. In that case, the moral rule is bent only slightly, and the outcome avoids harm and increases happiness without strongly contradicting any of my deepest moral core philosophies. On the other hand, killing a 70 year old to save a 10 year old would be hard for me to do, because while the 10 year old might have more potential in their future lives and that might be the right utilitarian / consequentialist decision, my moral code tells me pretty strongly that killing is wrong. In my opinion, on a day to day basis, doing the right thing implies doing the thing that will result in the best outcome as long as it doesn’t break your moral code and as long as it doesn’t compel anyone else to break their rules either, but of course there can be exceptions in extreme cases.
So where do you stand on this? Here are some questions you can ask yourself, and maybe ask a friend or significant other if you want some stimulating conversation:
- How much importance do you put on having a strong moral code?
- When do you bend it?
- Would you ever break some of your own moral rules?
- Is there a univeral set of morals that should apply to everyone?
- Do our morals come from evolution and millions of years of emotional development, or are they learned? Do they come from a belief or understanding of a higher power or a god? If it’s a mix, how much of an influence does each source have?
- Can a universal set of rules exist without a universal higher power?
- Do you think that outcome is more important than the steps taken to reach the outcome?
- Are the lives of any two people equal? What if one of those people is your family member?
- Can you think of a time when your moral code was tested (other than that last question)?
I hope you enjoyed this post, and I hope those questions made you think. I’ll write soon about my thoughts on moral relativism and what I call weighted utilitarianism, so keep an eye out if you’re interested!