Is it possible to live a good life by attending strictly to the consequences of one’s actions? The dominant moral philosophy of the day takes this possibility for granted: utilitarianism’s “greatest happiness for the greatest number” rests on prediction rather than a priori judgments. At the personal level, a frequent justification holds actions acceptable so long as “no one gets hurt.” (This too harks back to J.S. Mill and the utilitarians.)
Placing consequences at the heart of morality soon bumps into problems. Most obviously, we need a shared moral system to judge consequences; otherwise, how can we tell happiness apart from the pleasure that may be derived, say, from snorting cocaine? Yet if we already possess a moral system to guide our behavior, anticipating consequences becomes a secondary concern. If I believe snorting cocaine is wrong, the pleasure I know I’ll feel will not justify the action.
The first utilitarians, I’m told, considered the “greatest happiness” formula a guide to good behavior, conventionally understood. They were wrong about this question of fact, but at least avoided the gross fallacy of trying to derive a measuring-stick from a measure.
Similarly, allowing “hurt” to drive behavior invites a selfish war of hurts: my hurt must trump yours. Such a cult of victimhood is both unappealing and unlikely to strengthen or improve the community. More to the point, a tie-breaker is again needed — a pre-existing morality to judge which hurt should be credited, which dismissed.
Once we have this morality in hand, however, the question of hurt shrinks in importance. My neighbor’s claim that closing down his crack house hurts him, for example, will ellicit no sympathy from me.
Actions and consequences are mere events, empty of value until I tag them good or bad. The value flows from the long memory of the community. The tagging process is the moral education of the individual. Human biology plays a part by summoning the emotions on behalf of right behavior.
The rationalist who insists on utilitarian formulas and seeks to squeeze value from consequences must in the end embrace some hedonistic standard, such as pleasure or profit. These standards may serve to guide his behavior, but fall far from morality.
There’s a deeper problem still. Moralizing from consequences assumes a mechanics of human behavior that simply does not exist. The web of causation shaping any given human act is infinitely complex, and the consequences, if not infinite, are multiple and often contradictory. Most are unintended. All vary in potency over time. I can quit college, for example, and feel happy about it in my carefree youth but frustrated and regretful in responsible middle age. Was quitting right or wrong? Weighing consequences won’t help decide.
When confronted with such causal confusion, the rationalist, unreasonably, will skip over actions and consequences to glorify his intentions: it’s the results he aims for that have moral weight. He now averts his eyes, discreetly, from a world ruled by unintentional effects. The moral pose is all that matters. He “stands up to cancer.” He helps “save the earth.” He takes credit for the species saved by the ban on DDT, but refuses even to glance at the millions of people who, in consequence, have died of malaria.
Morality works in a quite different way. Intentions and consequences have a place, but primacy is given to action. Morally speaking, I am what I do. If I perform spectacular feats of courage, I am a brave man. If I steal, I am a thief. As these examples show, there are right actions and wrong actions — also a large number of morally indifferent actions, such as choosing the right shirt for a party.
Rightness and wrongness precede my actions. They are taught to me by the community. They presume, on a large scale and a long timeframe, value-laden consequences, good or evil — but they remain indifferent to the moment, to my personal intentions and effects.
Morality as an abstraction hardly exists. It comes to life in action. In other words, morality must be embodied in personal character. Good character means the ability to know the right action in a given situation, and the strength to do it. This is learned one situation at a time, rather than by consulting a menu of abstract rules. Like morality itself, good character largely disregards consequences. I know I should help the man drowning in the torrent, regardless of the peril to my own life.
The result is a great simplification of the social environment. I don’t have to apply moral algorithms at every turn: I just do what is right. Since I can only command my own actions, I don’t have to account for anything else, including consequences. If, for example, I try my best to save the drowning man but fail, I have still done the right thing.
On occasion, in situations of great moral conflict, consequences matter. Suppose, for example, that I live in Denmark during the Nazi occupation, and I see my neighbor hiding a Jew in his attic. If the SS asks me about Jews on my street, the right action is to lie, because the consequence of telling the truth would be the death of an innocent. In this scenario, the Jew is the man drowning in the torrent; the lie is the peril to which I expose myself.
Such extreme cases, however, are both rare and pretty self-evident when they occur. Moral life accounts for them, but is usually conducted under less fragmented circumstances.