I have said that, since rational argument is typically insufficient to compel action, we must promote certain values–or virtues or, if you want to break it down further, desires–so that people have a motivation to do good. And in my last post, I showed how my understanding of utilitarian happiness can mix with the virtue ethicist’s concept of flourishing, albeit without reference to human purpose.
But if utilitarianism, as a form of consequentialism, finds moral value in an action’s results, why should it share the concerns of virtue ethics? In other words: Why is one’s reason for action important as long as the action produces good results?
Recall that utilitarianism is a sort of math or science, which means that it works best when it has all possible information. It needs to be able to make accurate predictions so as to maximize happiness or at least minimize harm. Good predictions about human behavior rely, in turn, on the recognition of patterns.
When I say that we need to raise children to have particular desires, I am also claiming that those children will grow up to have predictable behavior (or behavioral patterns), at least to a greater extent than they would if we did not raise them a particular way. Insofar as one is predictable, we can know him, which tells us the situations in which we can trust or ought to distrust him. Insofar as one is unpredictable, we can know that it is a risk to trust him. Since many moral dilemmas require that we assess another person’s character, predictability is clearly invaluable.
Consider some scenarios in which we commonly use this “principle”:
1.) Businesses check your background, your credit, previous employers’ opinions of you, and more to predict your behavior so as to minimize the risk of losing money.
2.) Candidates for political office face intense scrutiny over their past behavior so that the public can predict their behavior in office in order to minimize the risk of corruption.
3.) One might nose about in his girlfriend’s e-mail/text message records or other business to determine if she is the sort of girl he wants as a partner, to compare her claims to reality, to understand her past so as to understand her better, etc.
(Many people take offense at the behavior in scenario #3, but it follows the same principle as the first two, which we accept as normal. I will consider the issues of privacy and secrecy in the future. To be clear: primarily because we are not all perfectly moral beings, I do not advocate that everyone reveal all of his secrets and be honest at all times to everyone else.)
Clearly, when people put something of value on the line, they generally do not find blind faith–trust without sufficient precedent–in others to be a useful principle. Of course, one can believe that his faith is not blind even when it is, so many apparent exceptions to this general rule are really just errors in perception. Self-fulfilling beliefs and prophecies, for example, can create the illusion of consistency, which in turn leads people to misplace their trust.
But there is another reason to understand reasons for action: one should not incentivize immoral behavior.
Consider: You need your car washed. Two businesses in town offer the same service for the same price. However, you somehow know that Walter’s business is involved with methamphetamine production, whereas Bogdan is simply a small business owner.
Clearly, by choosing to have your car washed at Walter’s business, you are indirectly–but knowingly–incentivizing his involvement in the drug trade. Since your action supports another whose actions cause harm and you are aware that your action does so, your choice is immoral.
Note the importance of knowing that your action causes harm. I do not mean “knowing that your action is wrong”; one may cause harm and say that he did not know that it is wrong, but it is much more difficult to argue that one did not actually cause harm. By making the issue less disputable, we keep more people responsible and close some loopholes of which the immoral might take advantage.
Now, whether or not you know of the harm does not change the fact that your action causes harm, but it does change your moral ownership of the action. You do not deserve punishment, as that would cause harm without serving to incentivize good behavior or disincentivize bad behavior. (Keep this principle in mind; I’ll return to it shortly.)
There is only one sort of exception to this rule: reckless but ignorant endangerment. One may cause harm that is obvious to others, yet be unable to see it himself because he is not paying attention. In this case, what is immoral is his obliviousness, so that is what we should condemn in the interest of encouraging him to be more aware. However, because the actions that caused harm stemmed from an unreasonable obliviousness, he is still responsible for them. We simply have to determine what qualifies as “unreasonable obliviousness” and what sort of punishment is appropriate for those who unwittingly endanger others.
Now consider: You are poor and starving, but no one–not even those with more food than they can eat–is sharing food with you. You only have enough money to buy from the man who sells the cheapest food, but you know that he is stealing his food from others. You have even heard that he has killed people to sell their belongings.
By choosing to purchase food from this man, you are indirectly–but knowingly–incentivizing his immoral behavior. However, because you are starving and this is the only man who is willing to give you food, your only other option is death, so purchasing his food is not immoral.
Note the importance of having options. Since the moral philosophy I advocate on this blog is ultimately grounded in self-interest, it makes no sense to fault a man for doing what he must to survive. A man has no proper motivation to follow a moral system that does not protect him to a reasonable extent; even if he is largely selfless, he must recognize that anyone else could be in his shoes. A good moral system must address this reality.
Of course, by the same principles as the two above–knowing the moral value of one’s actions and having other options–a man has not acted morally if he does good unknowingly or because he has no choice. Condemnation and praise, as tools for disincentivizing and incentivizing behavior, respectively, should be reserved for those who deserve them. If they are not reserved for this purpose, we risk incentivizing bad or amoral behavior, disincentivizing good or amoral behavior, confusing people, or depriving the tools of their meaning and power.
Next time, I’ll briefly consider a subtle but important difference between justice and revenge.