We talk a lot about ethics and morality, even though we almost never actually use the terms ethical or moral. We talk about who’s been good and who’s been bad, we talk about what it’s okay to do and what it’s acceptable to do, we talk about who’s been treated unfairly and who needs to get what’s coming to them, and we talk a lot about politics. Or to give examples, here are a bunch of questions or statements that are, at least on some level, about ethics:
- “I should not have flirted with that married girl, even if it was innocuous.”
- “He’s an asshole for going months without returning his mom’s calls.”
- “It was nice of her to drive all the way from across the state to see me when I had surgery.”
- “College campuses these days are taking political correctness too far.”
- “He only got elected president because all his voters are racist.”
- “My coworker was super unprofessional when he made that joke in the middle of my presentation.”
What almost no one does is talk about the moral framework they use to make these judgments. Even philosophers who are extremely familiar with these concepts rarely seem to call them out explicitly. But to talk about right and wrong without mentioning the framework is like talking about distance without specifying units. If one person is talking in meters, while another is counting the number of strides it takes to walk across, and a third is timing how long it takes them to drive across, these people will be talking past one another when they try to compare values. The disagreement between them won’t be resolved until they talk about how they were measuring and what their units are.
So what are these moral frameworks I’m talking about? Well, there’s a bunch of them but here are the main ones:
Consequentialism says that the morality of an action be judged solely on its consequences. Utilitarianism, pursuing whatever act would bring about the greatest good/happiness for the greatest number of people, is the most well-known example.
Under consequentialism, concepts such as rights and duties are important and useful heuristics, but don’t have any meaning in and of themselves. Consequentialists tend to the bad guys in movies, because they believe that the ends justify the means. When presented with the “Would you kill one person to save 10?” dilemma, consequentialists say yes without batting an eye and wonder why that’s even a question.
Under deontology, the morality of an action is judged based on rules or duties. It is often contrasted with consequentialism because the action itself is more important than the consequences. Rules like “Don’t lie” and “Be kind” are considered universal laws – so if a crazed-looking murderer, wielding an axe, asks you if you know where your friend is so he can murder him, you’re still not allowed to lie. Also, if another friend asks you if they look good in their outfit and they don’t, you’re kind of screwed because you’re not allowed to lie or be unkind.
- Virtue ethics
Virtue ethics focusses on the individual’s character rather than on the consequences or the acts themselves. The right act is what a virtuous person would do in the same circumstances. The obvious problem with this is that everyone has a different idea on what a virtuous person would and wouldn’t do. Philosophers have tried to clarify this somewhat by defining lists of virtues – but at the end of the day, there’s no list that can be derived from first principles and that therefore everyone will agree on.
Contractualism is a relatively recent theory which says that what we call morality is essentially just a bunch of social contracts. We each have contracts with each other (be kind, don’t lie, don’t steal) and with the government (pay taxes, don’t randomly free prisoners). So acts are only “immoral” if we’re breaking one of these contracts.
84% of the world identifies with some religious group, and to many of them religion is their main source of their morality. Christians look to the Bible, Muslims to the Koran and Hadiths, Hindus to the Bhagavad Gita, Buddhists to the teachings of Buddha, and scientologists to what a dude named L. Ron Hubbard said. In fact, the majority of religious people don’t even think it’s possible for a nonbeliever to be moral.
This isn’t a real moral theory but this is pretty much how most people make moral decisions most of the time. They look at their “internal moral compass” to see how they feel about something and then they make a mishmash of arguments from the other 5 to defend their feelings. This is also arguably the worst way to make moral judgments because we are incredibly biased and shaped by our own experiences and knowledge.
Also not a moral theory but I just wanted to call it out because often people’s reasoning is simply “It’s against the law”. Legality correlates with morality in a good government but obviously the two aren’t one and the same. A very salient example of this is the fact that slavery was lawful in so many societies for large periods of time.
What’s the benefit of knowing your framework or asking others to state theirs? Well, there’s a few.
- As I mentioned above, it allows us to avoid talking past one another and identify our true rejections much faster.
- A lot of difficult ethical dilemmas actually break down into simpler pieces once you know which lens to look through.
- We allow for all sorts of mischief when people are allowed to jump back and forth between the frameworks willy-nilly. People can often find a framework that defends their actions even when it’s not a framework they ordinarily use.
An easy example to show Point #1 is the subject of homosexuality. The vast majority of those who oppose it tend to be religious because according to many religions, being gay is a sin. If someone responds to them saying that people have a right to be with who they want, or that there are no negative consequences associated with homosexuality, this is ineffective because they are talking under a different framework. If a consequentialist atheist wanted to persuade a devout Christian that homosexuality is not a sin, they would either need to start looking at the Bible for support or convert them away from their religion. And if a devout Christian wanted to persuade a consequentialist atheist that it is a sin, they would either need to convert them or explain what the negative consequences of homosexuality are.
To show point #2, let’s take a few ethical dilemmas and see what each framework tells us is the right thing to do:
Dilemma 1: Coventry Blitz
When the Allies broke the Nazis’ Enigma code during WWII, one of the intercepts described a great air raid against the city of Coventry in England. The British government decided to not act on this information because anything that was done would alert the Germans of foreknowledge and would cause them to change their code system, eliminating any future information from being retrieved.
(Side note: the assertion that the British government knew about the Coventry raid ahead of time and did nothing is actually somewhat of a conspiracy theory, but let’s just roll with it.)
Your close friend confesses to you that she is cheating on her husband, who you are also somewhat friends with. Not wanting to get involved, you say nothing.
Your cousin is broke and you believe he will commit suicide if he doesn’t find a job soon. You are the vice president at a public company and your department is hiring, so you pass his resume to one of your reports and offer a “suggestion” that he be hired.
|Framework||Coventry Blitz||Cheating||Family ties|
Lives lost/ruined at Coventry
Lives lost/ruined if Allies lost the war
Probability that helping at Coventry will cause the Allies to lose the war
Will the husband find out anyway?
Are there kids who will face a broken home?
Likelihood of him getting another job
Likelihood of him committing suicide
How bad of an employee he would be
|Deontology||Immoral: the government has a duty to save its citizens||Immoral: you have a duty to inform someone they are being wronged||Immoral: your professional life should be separate from your personal life|
|Virtue ethics||Immoral: a virtuous government would not idly stand by||Immoral: a virtuous person would not idly stand by||Immoral: a virtuous person would find other ways to help|
|Contractualism||Immoral: the government is bound to act when it knows its citizens are in danger||Moral: you are bound to not say anything to the husband||Immoral: you are breaking your contract with society|
|Religion||Whatever your religion says||Whatever your religion says||Whatever your religion says|
|Affect||Whatever you think||Whatever you think||Whatever you think|
|Legality||Whatever the government thinks||Whatever the government thinks||Whatever the government thinks|
Obviously this breakdown doesn’t just “solve” all moral dilemmas and give you the answer. This is true for consequentialism in particular: once you start trying to figure out “the good” and then “the greater good” and then the “greater greater good” and so on, it’s often nonobvious what the right thing to do is. But at least if you’ve agreed to adhere to consequentialism, you recognize that your answer comes down to prediction and then doing the math to weigh the positive consequences against the negative. Any concept of “sacred values” just go out the window.
Deontology makes things easy because it pretty much says ignore the greater good. In fact, I’m pretty sure that’s why most people follow deontology – they see how hard it is to predict and weigh considerations, so they just follow basic rules and keep following them even when they produce disastrous consequences.
My answers to what virtue ethics would say are debatable, because someone else may say a virtuous person would act the opposite way. But if two people adhere to virtue ethics and face a disagreement, they can essentially say they just have different conceptions of a virtuous person and any discussion of consequences and duties would be irrelevant.
Contractualism can also provide different answers depending on who you believe we have social contracts with and which contracts are most important. If you’re set on contractualism, you can narrow your focus to just figuring that part out.
If you’re religious, you can just look to what your religion says is the right thing to do or talk to your religious authorities for guidance. Affect and legality clarify nothing: you feel what you feel and what is legal is legal.
So what moral framework should you use? That depends. If you’re religious, you will likely just follow what your religion prescribes. If your sole goal is to feel better about yourself, the answer would be to follow your affect. If your sole goal is to stay out of prison, the answer would be to do what’s legal.
But none of those are moral from a humanist standpoint. If you’re looking for the secular “right thing to do”, you should at least look at the first 4: consequentialism, deontology, virtue ethics and contractualism. Each framework offers a different lens we can look at the problem through, and the more lenses we look through the clearer the picture we get.
But what moral framework should you use when the different frameworks say to do different things? Well, consequentialism of course! But why, you ask. Because while deontology, virtue ethics, and contractualism are very useful heuristics that shouldn’t be abandoned, consequentialism is what aims to produce the best outcomes and outcomes are what we care about. This seems tautological but I think rules like “Don’t steal” or “Be a virtuous person” or “Honor your contracts” only matter, or even came about, because they produce good consequences. If someone said that a deontological rule was “Never touch your nose”, or that a virtuous person was someone who never brushes their teeth unless they repeatedly flip a coin till it lands heads three times in a row, you would ask why – and you would only accept if they could show the consequential effect. I encourage those interested in learning more to read through Scott Alexander’s Consequentialism FAQ.
That said, I’m less interested in selling people on consequentialism and more interested in just informing people of meta-ethics so they can clarify their thoughts better, both to themselves and to each other. There are many (pointless in retrospect) debates I’ve had where I eventually realized that the crux of the disagreement was just that I’m a secular consequentialist and the other person is not. Now disagreements between me and them are easy. “You’re right that [it’s unfair / it’s within their rights / they are neglecting their duties],” I might say. “But I just care about the outcome.”
Hour-long heated discussion averted; back to making fart jokes.