Thursday, 24 March 2011

How much weight should we give to Ethics?

One of the major points of contention between consequentialism and deontology is the proper domain of ethics. Both, in contrast to virtue ethics, hold that ethics is about guiding and evaluating actions, but they disagree as to which actions are morally significant acts. Deontology, as a system of rules, implies that the only relevant actions are those that contravene these injunctions. So, for example, if you believe the Ten Commandments exhaust the demands of morality, the question of morality only arises if you consider killing, stealing, committing adultery etc. If you steer clear of these proscribed activities, you needn’t think about morality any longer.

Consequentialism, by contrast, insists that doing the right thing involves taking the actions with the best consequences. If you are a utilitarian, your every act must be optimal with respect to maximising happiness. Theoretically, it is possible that a consequentialist theory could allow for a large domain of morally indifferent action. For example, if the ‘good’ to be maximised were gold production, the finite resources of gold on the planet would mean that many people could act without having any bearing on gold production. More conventional consequential goods, such as happiness, are much more demanding to maximise. If we are serious utilitarians, we must face up to the fact that everything we do (and equally significantly, fail to do) impacts on someone’s happiness. This implies that every act is morally significant, and so that the domain of ethics covers all action. Indeed, this colonisation of all domains of life by ethics is one of the strongest motivations for rejecting consequentialism.

However, the mere recognition that there are moral considerations pertinent to all actions needn’t mean that these are the only considerations that guide our action, and therefore that we must be moral saints. What Bernard Williams and so many other critics of consequentialism assume is that moral considerations must trump all others. Indeed, this is what most conventional consequentialists believe.

This perspective is suited to deontological systems of thought with a restricted ethical domain. It seems appropriate that moral considerations outweigh all others in the case of murder. But once we expand the sphere of ethics, it begins to be more plausible that other motivations and projects can weigh against ethical ones. For example, if we already donate a substantial proportion of our income to charity, we may feel we have ‘done our bit’, and that even though it would be morally desirable to give away more, aesthetic (e.g. good food, pleasant surroundings) or intellectual (books, courses) considerations also make strong demands on the rest of our money.

The idea that moral demands need not be absolute, but may be weighed against other reasons for action raises another question, orthogonal to the one about the domain of ethics – how much weight should we give ethical considerations?

This is of a matter of concern to all but the most saintly of consequentialists, anyone who fails to maximise the good in all their actions. It also has significance for deontologists who buy into the idea of supererogation. If there are actions that are morally good but not required (i.e. open to being overweighed by other considerations), how much weight should we give these moral claims?

For a concrete example, take the question of career choice. Within the deontological framework, outright harmful careers, like career criminal, are immoral. Saintly careers, like civil rights martyr are supererogatory. But the vast majority of careers are morally indifferent, simply not the subject matter of ethics. This seems bizarre – how can anyone claim it is morally indifferent whether a brilliant lawyer uses their talents to benefit rich (but morally neutral) corporations or to secure justice for the impoverished? Indeed, the increasing interest in the idea of ‘ethical careers’ reflects the fact that moral concerns are salient to many people’s career choices. But for most people they are just one concern among many.

Most conventional ethical systems will just dig their heels in and insist that ethical duties trump all others. On the other hand, if the moral considerations are supererogatory, orthodox systems give us no guidance. Either way, most moral philosophy has nothing to say about what appears to be a common dilemma: how should I weigh moral and non-moral considerations? Perhaps this silence is because this is not a problem for ethics at all, but an exercise in practical reason. Perhaps the presence of moral considerations doesn’t essentially change the process of weighing up different courses of actions with different advantages and disadvantages, a process that we go through every day. We can choose between healthy-but-boring and unhealthy-but-delicious food; is choosing between careers with different moral implications analogous?

If so, this seems to be a matter of grave concern for ethics. What it implies is that people can give little or no weight to moral considerations because that is what is practically rational for them to do. Just as some people (smokers, for example?) may decide that they have other interests which take priority over being healthy, what can we say about people who decide they don’t care very much about ethics?

Not very much, I think. We can try and convince them that they do care about ethics really. So we might try to persuade our lawyer by demonstrating the good they can do, or inspiring them with tales of the sacrifices of others. But if a person doesn’t care very much about ethics, I’m not sure how this is wrong (as opposed to being bad). It’s not illogical or irrational. This isn’t to say we have to like it – indeed, the fact that someone doesn’t care very much about ethics seems an excellent reason to dislike them and to not be their friend, maybe even to coerce them. But is that enough?

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