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.)

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?
posted by jsturgill to Religion & Philosophy (10 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
Well, this is definitely a major philosophy trope across all media and literature, which reflects the fact there is no clear answer. It is specifically the idea of--to be simple--utilitarian vs. value based ethics. Some might call value based ethics Kantian, or religious, or virtue-ethics. Utility is about maximizing 'utility' for all. So torture to save lives=good for utilitarian. Torture to save lives=bad in value based *(surely could be debated, but this is a very simple presentation of the general themes).

In terms of 'trashy literature' I'm a huge fan of The Walking Dead comics for this reason. Check out this link (no referral code included) One phrase that I read, which reminds me of what you are interested in, is when a dad tells his son "Carl, we need to do these things (kill people) to stay alive. But even when we do them for good reasons we need to remember we are doing bad things." Honestly it's not even trashy, it's an incredible series. You get a much more complex taste of this philosophy in the comics vs. the T.V. show.

In terms of great literature, you might like "Crime and Punishment" by Dostoevsky, which again deals with similar themes (this is one reason why Nietzsche thought highly of the book).

Oh right, non-fiction. You can read these, which are really comically written but actually captivating and great summaries:
posted by jjmoney at 9:36 AM on March 13, 2014 [1 favorite]

Unthinkable, a Samuel L. Jackson movie, is an interesting exploration of some of your issues. A terrorist knows the location of several bombs, and SLJ has to try to get the man to talk. His approach is to convince the man that he will do anything to make him talk. And his method is to DO ANYTHING to make him talk.
posted by Billiken at 9:36 AM on March 13, 2014

I think what you're describing is known as "Ethical Cynicism". The problem, though you haven't faced it, is that in the cases you're describing your ethical systems have failed. There's an action you believe to be right and your ethical systems are telling you it is wrong.

An Ethical Cynic believes that every formal ethical system is at least partially flawed, and will eventually either face a problem for which it has no answer, or will face a problem and will yield a wrong result.

Now the interesting question is "How did you know it was wrong?" That means you must have some sort of inherent ethical judgement not related to that ethical system, and it is telling you what's right and wrong. Where did it come from?
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 9:37 AM on March 13, 2014 [1 favorite]

Has anyone put rigorous thought in this direction? Can you recommend articles or non-fiction philosophy books to read?

Yes, many, many people (formal philosophers, students, and even some with a casual interest) have considered and written extensively on this topic. Give Bentham and Mill a shot (if you haven't already) - they address the idea of giving actions value in a way that places importance on outcome rather than principle. (I also have a couple of more modern books along this line at home, but cannot for the life of me remember the author's names right now. I will try to look them up when I get home from work. At least one of them directly addresses this line: Neither aspect, the rightness or the wrongness, cancels out the other.)

Then, Kant provides an interesting counterpoint to this perspective by addressing the question of whether or not it is ever acceptable to act immorally, such as by lying to a known murderer in order to save a good friend. Read Groundwork on the Metaphysics of Morals.

Haidt writes on "moral matrices" in his book The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion. This book is a little heavy on the evolutionary biology/cognitive psych side of things, but is nonetheless a great read that does touch on your question about multiple dimensions of morality.

Finally, I also think everyone interested in ethics should read J.L. Mackie's Inventing Right and Wrong. It is tangentially related to your topic, but is nonetheless an exciting read.
posted by schroedingersgirl at 10:38 AM on March 13, 2014 [3 favorites]

Maybe you should read more about Karma.

Basically the philosophy of Karma is that life is cause and effect; action and results.

You get out exactly what you put in. The results you get depend on your intention at the time you are executing the action. There are good, bad and neutral intentions (and in practice most intentions are quite mixed).

So for your torture example... arguably the torturer feels some degree of vindication in torturing to get an ostensibly good outcome (good outcome for his side, that is). The act of torturing is therefore mixed, with good intention and some vengeful intention. The result of torturing will also be mixed - the tortured's family will hate the torturer, and it will feed their hatred of torturer's culture; and yet the torturer's country may consider him a hero who averted his own morals for the greater good.

So there is no good/bad in that sense... it is actually all quite perfect in that each action creates its perfect result. You put in all the ingredients for a delicious cake, you get a delicious cake. You put in all the ingredients for a mediocre cake, and you get a mediocre cake. And so on.

We have debated this in Buddhism class. The monk said enlightened beings know the karma of all involved and can make the 100% best choice in a murky circumstances; the rest of us just need to be honest with ourselves, check our intentions for our actions, and fully accept responsibility for our actions by facing their results.

That's life I guess.

You might also be interested in reading about the 6 Moral Stages of Development. Most adults live in Stages 3-4. This is how we reason our way in murky moral ground.

PS. With Karma there is no punishment i.e. no 'god' or 'supreme authority' meting out whippings. There is simply the result of your actions.
posted by St. Peepsburg at 10:43 AM on March 13, 2014

Welcome to Kierkegaard! His notion of the teleological suspension of the ethical (introduced in Fear and Trembling, is basically the foundation for serious attempts at subjective versions of morality. It's. . . well it's not the easiest concept to get your head around, and it really helps to know a bit of Hegelian ethics, as that's what Kierkegaard is most directly reacting against.

But the basic idea is that there arise situations in which the right thing to do (which for Kierkegaard has to do with one's overwhelming, absolute duty to God) is not the ethical thing to do. In such cases, he argues, one must do what is right, even if it is not ethical.
posted by valkyryn at 1:21 PM on March 13, 2014

Rule utilitarianism is an interesting system that has the tensions of which you speak. It's a variant of utilitarianism that turns on finding rules, rather than actions, which are right or wrong. I believe it was intended to capture the sort of generality we experience in our moral lives (for example, if a puppy is yapping annoyingly, I don't crunch the numbers on whether it'd be wrong to kill this specific puppy at this specific moment, I just bring up the general rule that killing puppies is wrong). With any rules-based system, of course, come exceptions, although the theory struggles to grapple with those.
posted by jpe at 2:11 PM on March 13, 2014

That means you must have some sort of inherent ethical judgement not related to that ethical system, and it is telling you what's right and wrong. Where did it come from?

That's why I'm a bit of a particularist. I'm pretty comfortable working with the world as it is (and the world of ethics and judgments) without having to fuss much about whence it came.
posted by jpe at 2:14 PM on March 13, 2014 [1 favorite]

Your question is confusing two unrelated things: Good/Bad and Right/Wrong. You are assuming that "Good" and "Right" are synonomous and "Bad" and "Wrong" are synonomous.

That isn't the case. Your example of torture is something which is always Bad but sometimes necessary, which means it is Right.

It isn't always given to us in this life to have good choices. Sometimes all choices are bad. In that case, the Right answer is the one which is least bad. But it's still bad, and that's all there is to it. You simply have to accept it and move on.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 7:04 PM on March 14, 2014

Most philosophers think that there are different senses of the word 'ought'. When I say that you ought to do something, I might be making any of a number of claims. I might be saying that you morally ought to it. I might be saying that you prudentially ought to do it, because doing so will achieve your goals. I might be saying that you epistemically ought to do it---that is, it would be irrational to do otherwise.

There are different ways of describing these various sorts of 'oughts'. Sometimes philosophers talk about there being different systems of norms. There are moral norms, epistemic norms, legal norms, norms of etiquette, etc. Sometimes philosophers speak of different sorts of reasons that you have. There are moral reasons, epistemic reasons, practical reasons, etc.

These systems of norms can make different verdicts on one and the same action. It might be morally right to be irrational in certain circumstances, for instance. That is: there might be cases where we have moral reason to believe something but an epistemic reason to not believe it. Maybe there are times when the morally right thing to do is to stand by your friend and firmly believe he is innocent of murder even as the evidence mounts against him.

The relation between these various sorts of 'ought' are a matter of huge and lively debate in philosophy right now. Are epistemic norms reducible to prudential norms? Are they grounded in moral norms? Where do reasons come from, and what gives reasons their normative authority? What do you do when different reasons conflict? Is there such a thing as an all-things-considered ought? And so on. It's an exciting time to be asking these questions! I can't think of any papers or books off the top of my head that would be sufficiently introductory, but this area of philosophy is commonly called "metaethics", so you could start investigating that.
posted by painquale at 10:52 PM on March 16, 2014

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