“I am right, therefore …” or, A Heuristic for Detecting Pitfalls in Ethical Behavior

It is very easy to presuppose—implicitly and subconsciously—that one is right, unknowingly using that assumption to justify later claims.

Oftentimes we therefore fall into a fallacy of ethical reasoning where we assume, because we have the right position, that we are licensed to do actions that someone else—coming from the morally wrong position—is not permitted to do. We can therefore arrive at a heuristic for ethical reasoning: If an action’s moral right- or wrong-ness is determined solely by whether its doer comes from the ‘right’ or the ‘wrong’ position, then the justification for the rightness of an action is probably faulty.

This seems like a contrived pitfall, but is actually quite common:

In public shaming, we see this often. People find it acceptable to find someone’s personal information, track them, cost them their jobs, reputations, and cause their humiliation, because they feel that they represent the right side. Doxxing and public shaming seem to be morally wrong if associated with shaming Tyler Clementi to death, yet somehow acceptable to shame another private person on twitter for for being racist, homophobic, or sexist, as was the case with Justine Sacco’s unfortunate tweets. In reality, both are wrong.

In world conflict, this faulty logic is often the justification of unending cycles of violence. Those performing acts of terrorism in the West use the deaths of their countries’ civilians abroad as a justification to target and kill civilians in the west. From the terrorist’s point of view, the only thing differentiating their actions from the imperialist regime they claim to fight is that “We are us and they are them.—Since we are right, it is also right to …”

We see this in the Palestinian Israeli conflict. Rightist, Orthodox Israeli political parties believe it is right to expel or subjugate Palestinians, control the entire West Bank, and are okay with the many civilian casualties of the campaigns like the Gaza War. The basis for the Justification is that Hamas believes it is right to expel Israelis so that the entire land that constitutes the state of Israel is part of a Palestinian state, and are okay with civilian casualties as part of rocket or bombing operations. This is largely true; Hamas believes they are right and Jewish Home or United Torah Judiasm are wrong because… they are on the right side of the conflict. The same applies to either side.

Oftentimes indeed, one side of a conflict chooses to justify its actions towards another side solely because it presupposes that it is right. This is never an appropriate justification.

“I am right, therefore, I am right.” How unfortunate, but also, how inherently human.

In the west, thinkers and laypersons are getting over moral relativism. This is sometimes good, but also exposes new challenges. Indignation and self-righteousness are sweeping the internet. We condemn the conservative shaming campaign of Monica Lewinsky, but endorse the shaming campaign of Justine Sacco for her racist tweet. Conservatives shamed Lewinsky for her “lack of family values”, they viewed sexual modesty as a moral good and frowned on her impiety and acts of adultery. They labeled her a slut, a whore, and a tramp. Progressives will argue that these are bad reasons to shame someone. But unlike the conservatives, progressives often believe that casual racism and insensitivity are just cause for public shaming.

If you condemn one side for committing the same action you did, but justify your action with the fact that you decided a priori that you unlike others, actually represent the right side, then you are likely wrong.

What is the lesson here? The lesson is not to be a total relativist and never act against injustices we perceive, but rather, to seek further justifications, in hope that those justifications will inform our behavior and allow us to act with moderation.

Take Justine Succo for example. I argue that we should reject the naive argument that “unlike slut shaming, racism and bad and thus racist shaming is acceptable”. So now, we ask ourselves again: should we act? Sometimes, the answer becomes ‘no’. Sometimes, though, we now see real reasons to act behind the layers of indignation and revenge. If we allow racist speech to propagate, racism propagates, and becomes further embedded in our society, victimizing many. Therefore, we seek more enlightened ways to act: sometimes, we reach out to said person and offer to have a conversation; at other times, we decide to counter negative speech about one group with positive speech, or simply speak out to disagree (without personally shaming an individual), so that the public atmosphere is not polluted by these statements.

In international politics, it means stepping back from an “us versus them” mentality, and realize that our arguments are often 100% equivalent to “we should do X to the other side because they do X to us”—always a bad reason to justify anything. Maybe then we will advocate to more moderate or long-sighted policies, and put aside the very basic intuitive bloodthirsty retribution-seeking impulses.

In Search for Plausible and Intuitive forms of Act Consequentialism

Jeremy Bentham at UCL, by Matt Brown

Consequentialist theories are often exciting and tempting as they give us a real chance at having a universalizable theory of morality and justice. As a moral theory, one can look at the different flavors of consequentialism and evaluate them against a range of features of plausible moral theories, noting if each of those features are accounted for by each theory.

In this paper, I propose a number of features that we expect to exist in plausible moral theories. I discussing these features in general, mostly appealing to intuition to justify why we expect these features. The features, roughly, are: the existence of permissible morally good acts that go beyond what is morally required; reasonable level of blameworthiness of moral agents; and finally, the moral impermissibility to compel others to do the right thing on certain occasions.

In particular, I will spend some time examining objective act consequentialism, and expected value (subjective) act consequentialism, and discuss a number of remedies, including scalar utilitarianism, satisficing consequentialism and progressive consequentialism, in an effort to address some of these worries. Different moral theories will be appropriate in addressing these different worries.

The moral ought: permissibility and requirements

First, we expect a moral theory to have a distinction between one ought to do and what one may do. We expect a range of possible actions to be morally required, while others are morally good and have moral value beyond that of what is required. Giving money to a particular charity, for instance, is seen as morally good but not morally required. Certain personal sacrifices, such as undergoing pain (say, taking a bullet) on behalf of someone else, is also seen as morally good but not necessarily morally required.

In hopes that (some version of) consequentialism is a plausible moral system, we would like to observe that (some version of) consequentialism allows us to view both of these acts as morally good, but not be the only permissible (thus, required) actions out of the available set.

Plausible moral systems still include impermissible actions, so an interpretation of consequentialism (see scalar utilitarianism, discussed later) where all actions are permissible but good in varying degrees, fails to capture our moral intuitions. Inflicting harm on others is impermissible; failing to save a nearby drowning child is reprehensible; stopping to give a hungry homeless family a gold star sticker (which will make the child infinitesimally happier) might be seen as wrong if you could have given them food or money without expending more effort.

We often also expect a corresponding feature for morally bad and morally impermissible actions; given a range of possible actions, some might be morally impermissible, while others could be not morally ideal yet still permissible. For the purposes of our explorations, I will not concern myself with this feature as I am more interested in virtue than dis-virtue. It does not seem unreasonable for someone to extend the consequentialist theories that address morally good and virtuous, yet not required, to also address the opposite problem.

Act consequentialism, as commonly stated, says that an act is permissible if and only if no other available act has a better [expected] value, according to a certain axiology. Act consequentialism restrains and compels an agent making the decision into taking the action that maximizes moral goodness. A moral agent is not permitted to take an action that produces suboptimal [expected] value of moral goodness. This raises the common demandingness objection that concerns the opponents of utilitarianism.

One defense of act consequentialism as stated is to say that our intuition about morally good versus morally required actions only applies when we have epistemic concerns with following act consequentialism. For instance, one could say that plain act consequentialism makes a lot of sense when dealing with omniscient agents in cases of perfect-information; how could it possibly be morally permissible to condemn the world to be worse off than it can be?

Yet, our intuition about giving to charity is that it is not required, even though we can be very sure (at least, for some charities) that we condemn the world to be worse off by not contributing.

Looking back at the intuitive moral feature we are investigating, it is important to come up with a nuanced explanation of where and how plain act consequentialism falls short. For instance, act consequentialism is still expected to yield a set of permissible actions, not a single permissible action, in cases where available actions yield equal or incomparable results. Thus, it is incorrect to state that act consequentialism is deficient by only permitting a single action for a given situation.

Rather, our criticism can be put forward in one of two (equivalent) ways. Either that we worry that act and rule consequentialism overlook sufficiently good actions, accounting them as impermissible, only because better actions exist. Alternatively, our worry is that we expect to see, for each action in the set of permissible available actions in a given situation, a spectrum in the moral goodness of its consequences; yet, consequentialism suggests that, if such range were to be observed then only the actions with the maximal value would have been permissible. Rule consequentialism similarly fails to account for such range or spectrum of moral goodness of consequences of rules (e.g. the rule of giving to charity).

Both of these objections are very closely related to a common objection to act consequentialism: the demandingness objection. Continue reading “In Search for Plausible and Intuitive forms of Act Consequentialism”