Morality, ethics, and right action.
March 13, 2014 9:01 AM Subscribe
It's been a long time since my philosophy courses in college, and none of the ones I took had a focus on ethics. In the back of my mind I've been wondering if anyone has explored whether there is a disconnect between morality + ethics on the one hand and right action on the other. (Right action is meant in the plain language sense--I don't recall if it's a term of the art or not, but I suspect it is.)
posted by jsturgill to Religion & Philosophy (10 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
I find something appealing in the concept of the right action to take in a certain instance also being an immoral and/or unethical one. (By appealing I mean interesting and engaging to think about, or for a fictional character to experience.)
This line of thinking may have been sparked by a (trashy, slightly mystical) book I read many years ago, in which one of the main characters believed the universe was a balance of forces that were not "good" and "evil" as such, but simply in conflict--and maintaining a balance was the greatest good.
After a traumatic incident, this person realized that while that while his/her previous belief may be an accurate representation of things, s/he was simply human, and not an omniscient, abstract observer. Because of that, the long view of balance was reduced in importance; s/he could/should take sides because one of the "neutral" universal forces was abhorrent to her (evil), and the other was not (good).
Some of this has fed into my thinking about torture, for example. I think it should clearly be illegal, and no set of working ethics should permit it. I also think torturing someone is immoral, whatever the reasons. If you torture someone you should lose your job, be disgraced, and go to jail--even if it was authorized or sanctioned somehow by the government. If you torture someone, you damage your psyche and hurt your soul--no matter the circumstances.
On the other hand, I think that somehow doesn't conflict with the fantasy unicorn scenario so often brought up by conservatives, of torturing someone in order to stop an eminent threat of significant scope. Perhaps the right thing to do in that (fantasy) scenario is to torture. Even though it's the wrong thing to do. Whether it works out or not in the moment, the continued right action afterward would be to report yourself and pay the consequences, which should not take the outcome (You saved the world! way to go! Or, it didn’t work! Everyone in New York died.) into account.
Torture is immoral. Torture should be unethical, and illegal. I truly believe that. But in the right circumstances, maybe one should unilaterally decide to torture anyway, and then accept the metaphysical and physical consequences of it because the right thing to do is also the wrong thing to do.
Note that torture is just a bright line example I can point to, not the thrust of the post. Substitute it with any immoral action with a correctly contrived scenario and you can make it work.
Part of what I've been meditating on is that the right action, which is immoral and unethical, is also one that should be punished afterwards. But none of that necessarily makes it wrong or incorrect to do! Neither aspect, the rightness or the wrongness, cancels out the other.
Perhaps what I'm thinking of is that instead of a bi-polar world of right and wrong, perhaps there are three dimensions: right, wrong, and necessary. Or more than three!
Has anyone put rigorous thought in this direction? Can you recommend articles or non-fiction philosophy books to read? Are there any fictional stories that play out along these lines--as though there is a distinction between what is correct to do, what is wrong to do, and what is necessary to do?