The Scandal Of The “Right” Decision
In When (and Why) You Should Break Your Principles I mentioned (as an aside) what I take to be the scandal of moral philosophy. The scandal is the assumption made by many philosophers that there must be a morally “right” answer for every ethical problem we encounter or can even imagine.
This assumption dates back to at least the days of Immanuel Kant and John Stuart Mill (famous philosophers of the 18th and 19th century respectively), and has been responsible for a modern proliferation of ethical theories that each try, in their own way, to resolve or explain away our most vexing dilemmas.
This insidious assumption, if I may wax a little dramatic, is not only wrong, but can be downright dangerous.
Dilemmas: Are They Real?
Let’s pretend for the moment that your cousin, who has been struggling as of late to pay their bills due to a recently formed drug addiction, has come to ask for your help. They insist that they are no longer using drugs and plead for financial assistance to get back on their feet. You are not destitute, but times are very tough and you need this money for your own family.
This kind of tough decision is something we’ll likely all have to make in life at some point or another, although hopefully not frequently. So what should we do, when we use ‘should’ in the moral sense?
The decision can be tough for at least two different reasons. The first reason is that it is hard (or perhaps impossible) to predict or know what is going to happen as a result of our actions, especially as we extend out farther into the future. Helping your cousin with their bills might set off a chain reaction of positive outcomes, for example — but then again, perhaps it will do the opposite. There are many things you just don’t know, including what, exactly, your cousin will wind up doing with the money you give them. And perhaps your cousin doesn’t even really know that answer.
Appealing to principles or virtues to help decide instead of trying to predict consequences may look more promising, but in the end we can face the same problem. For example, as a matter of principle, is it more important that you:
- support your extended family members unconditionally?
- refrain from enabling someone with a drug addiction?
- take care of your own dependents first?
Or, in terms of virtues, should you focus most on being:
There may be a correct answer here, but we often just don’t know which one it is.
But as hard as it is to know which answer is right, this isn’t the most worrisome issue — it could be that there is no right answer.
This is the second (and more fundamental) reason why a decision may be tough to make. It is logically possible for our moral requirements to conflict with each other, which means that there may be no right answer to be had. If so, we have a genuine ethical dilemma on our hands, and are not just suffering from a lack of information.
Many have suggested that the scenario as sketched in Sophie’s Choice, the novel by William Styron, would constitute just such a genuine dilemma. In that book, the main character (Sophie) describes how she was forced by the Nazis to select which of her children would die, and which would be sent to the work camps.
Philosophers who maintain that there is always a right answer are essentially denying the reality of these kinds of dilemmas. They are of course not denying that we sometimes have to make very tough decisions — they are merely (!) insisting that there is a morally right answer, even if we don’t know what it is.
Why This Assumption is both Wrong and Dangerous
The first problem with the assumption that there must always be a right answer is that it flies in the face of our moral judgments. For example, my intuition (and I’m hoping you share this intuition) is that Sophie’s dilemma really is a dilemma — and there is simply no amount of academic talk that could convince us that one child should die compared to the other. If these moral intuitions are correct, then there is no and can be no “right” answer in the case of such genuine moral dilemmas.
Moral intuitions are powerful, but perhaps not decisive. However, there is another problem with accepting this assumption: i.e., it isn’t even something that we should expect to be true. This is due to the condition in which we humans find ourselves regarding our (limited) power.
Power (or lack thereof) is a key determinant in ethical dilemmas — it is because our power is limited that life can force us into positions where we must choose one outcome at the expense of another, and likewise for principles or virtues. For example, if Sophie had unlimited power (or even highly unusual power) then her dilemma would disappear: she would simply physically prevent the Nazis from killing any of her children.
Further, this problem of having to choose is not something that can be solved by having a hierarchy for deciding which outcomes, principles or virtues to prioritize over the others. No matter which particular moral requirement we choose to be most important, life can throw us into a scenario where it pits that requirement against itself (again, due to our limited power).
And so given the simple fact that we are not gods and have limited power, the idea that life would be so kind as to arrange itself so that we could always do what is right, is simply not plausible. It would be akin to believing that we must always personally be capable of curing ourselves, no matter what the disease.
It seems, then, that only a dogmatic, prior commitment to a particular ethical view, or perhaps just plain hubris, could explain why we would ever think that life would bend to our ethical decision procedures or rules. And so while the attempt to explain away dilemmas has kept philosophers extremely busy, a moral theory that expects the world to always provide moral actions to every inhabitant under every circumstance is wildly optimistic at best.
Even worse than being unjustified, this demand for a right answer can be dangerous. At the less worrisome end of the spectrum, having such an unwarranted assumption can consume our valuable time and resources well beyond reason. Much like the disease/cure example, delays or distractions are dangerous because they can keep us from seeking outside help — the kind of help that might actually get us out of our personal moral dilemma.
More worrisome, however, is that this belief sets us up for psychological issues after our decision is made. When we are stuck in a dilemma and have to do something (at least partly) bad, it is already difficult to reconcile that fact with our belief that we are a good person. The internal tension can be partly mitigated by reminding ourselves that we had no choice and that there was no right answer.
However, this assumption that there is always a right answer takes that valuable context away, and unfairly puts the onus or locus of control back on the person stuck in the dilemma. The cognitive dissonance and resulting negative effects from this should not be underestimated.
What is the Point of Ethics?
But if our ethics doesn’t or can’t tell us the right thing to do — especially when we face our toughest decisions — then what is the point of ethics? Isn’t ethics supposed to tell us what to do as we go through this maze of life? And if there is no right answer in some cases, aren’t we left with nothing but moral relativism?
Even if there is no morally right action for every scenario, ethics still serves a purpose in our lives, and we are not doomed to relativism. But to see why, we need to differentiate between actions and goals.
For example, suppose I am planning a road trip, and I’ve finally settled on visiting a certain location. Getting to that location is my goal. Now, I of course face a myriad of decisions about how to get there, and even when I start travelling, things may change or obstacles may get in the way.
I may simply not know which way is best to go at some points, or I may get lost. If I’m unfortunate, it might be that there simply are no good ways for me to get to my destination, given the resources I have on hand. Roads may be temporarily or permanently closed, with no available detours. But note that such difficulties in finding or getting to my destination does not mean that there is no destination.
I’ll use this travel/destination example as an analogy for ethics. I believe ethics should, first and foremost, set our goal. Think of this as our destination, and we can call it “the Good.”
Now, if we call our destination the Good, we can understand how our choices, decisions, and actions might be “Right.” More specifically, an action would be (morally) Right if it ultimately brings us to our destination — namely, the Good.
Unfortunately, just as having a destination does not mean that there will always be paths available, the existence of the Good does not always mean there will be a Right action to take us there. However, on the plus side, we are not doomed to moral relativism: this is because the Good doesn’t change even if there is no Right way to get there.
Beyond setting our destination or determining the Good (more on what I take to be the Good later), ethics should also provide us with tools to help us navigate — and just as important, should also show us the limits of those tools.
For example, when our senses are telling us that we have encountered an obstacle in our path (a potential ethical dilemma), our ethics can offer some rules of thumb or ways of assessing the situation. These can include utilitarian calculations, principles, duties, and virtues. When we simply don’t know which way to go but have to make a decision regardless, we can use these tools to see if one path likely has an advantage over another in terms of getting us to the Good.
Think of these tools as wisdom being handed down from the ages — that is, they may convey advice that is or has been generally good for guiding us to our destination. For example, does an action require you to violate a principle, shirk a duty, or threaten your virtue? If yes, then this can serve as a warning.
However, as useful as navigation tools can be when we can’t see our way to our destination, they have limitations. For one, they serve to guide in a general sense only and cannot provide definitive answers for specific problems.
Even more importantly, they cannot rearrange the world to fix broken paths or unblock dead ends. They cannot provide a Right answer when there is no Right answer.
So What is the Good?
The key takeaway so far is that ethics should help us define the Good, and that the existence of the Good does not imply there is always a Right. When we are not clear on this, we may go down rabbit holes from which we’ll never emerge.
However, you should be wondering at this point: what is this mysterious Good of which I speak? I’ve avoided this so far because the key point of this post was to merely show (what I take to be) the true purpose as well as limitation of ethics, and highlight the potentially damaging misconception that there must always be a Right answer.
I argued for my view of the Good in When (and Why) You Should Break Your Principles, so I won’t repeat that argument here. I’ll just summarize, and then draw out a ramification of what I’ve argued above.
When (And Why) You Should Break Your Principles
A Hard Look At What Really Matters When It’s Time To Make A Tough Decision
My view says (and only says) that outcomes or consequences to sentient beings are what ultimately matters (morally speaking). Full stop. At a high, abstract level, then, the Good can be thought of as positive outcomes/experiences, or more importantly (IMO) the alleviation or prevention of negative ones. Everything else, morally speaking, is only a useful tool to getting us to the Good (i.e., Right acts or decisions).
On this view true dilemmas would exist in any scenario where we have to produce a negative outcome for one person in order to produce a good outcome for another, or those scenarios where we will produce only negative outcomes no matter what we do. In these cases (e.g., cases like Sophie’s), there is no Right action that the person in the dilemma can take.
Letting Go, but Keeping Your Eye on the Prize
Much more needs to be said on the Good, of course, but that will have to wait for another post. Whether or not you subscribe to my particular view of the Good, the general approach to ethics espoused here is all about keeping our eye on the prize. We should try to get to the Good.
Sometimes, the problem is that we don’t have enough information. But there will be times when further information won’t help: we will be damned if we do, and damned if we don’t. In fact, we should expect this to happen, given our limited power and control.
Remember that others may be able to help you out of your dilemma. But if all options have been exhausted and there are no further favors to call in, then the correct answer to the question “what should you (morally) do?” is that there is nothing that you should (morally) do — just like Sophie, there is only a decision you need to make.
This change in mindset won’t change the outcome, of course. But if it is a genuine dilemma, nothing will change the outcome. The goal is merely to avoid carrying extra burdens we don’t have to carry (life is tough enough!).
The travel analogy is useful for understanding ethics, because we indeed have to navigate treacherous moral landscapes at some points in our lives. Ideally, life would make sure that there are always safe paths to get us where we want to go, and we’d always have an accurate map to refer to. Unfortunately, neither of these are guaranteed. So we must press on, sometimes with nothing but our compass and a loose hand on the wheel.