2013-06-19

Inconsistent Morality Is Immorality

At Marginal Revolution, Tyler Cowen writes:
Presidents must live with a great sense of responsibility for their decisions, and this [potentially] makes them more utilitarian and less deontological.  Arguably the same is true of CEOs of major companies, and of the major characters in the new Superman movie.  Superman seems willing to toss around infrastructure to increase his chance of taking out some bad guys, and none of the viewers in the Angelika Mosaic multiplex seemed to find this implausible or undesirable.
But does utilitarianism exist on a continuum with deontology, such that as you practice one to a greater degree, you can no longer practice the other?

The Main Ethical Systems
There are three main categories of "normative ethics," as follows:

  1. Deontology is often also called "rule-based" ethics. The rules can be established by, for example, a deity whose commandments represent the final word on ethics. For this reason, many theists apply deontology to their ethical decisions. It need not be a theist ethical system, though. John Locke's "natural rights" theories are often said to be deontological, since they are ultimately traced to a foundational principle (natural rights) that governs subsequent ethical analysis.
  2. Consequentialism is the system of ethics that grows out of analysis of a course of action's consequences. Of this, there are many varieties. Utilitarianism, "the greatest good for the greatest number," is a form of consequentialism because the underlying decision is based on determining how many people benefit from that decision. Although there are other sub-categories of consequentialism, the easiest way to think about them is that they are all a form of Utilitarianism, where "utility" is defined specifically as "economic utility," or "love," or "preference," or etc. 
  3. Virtue ethics is a system of ethics that emphasizes the character of the actor, rather than the particular decision itself. This form of ethics was basically invented by Aristotle, and subsequent advocates for virtue ethics (like Thomas Aquinas) have rested their arguments mostly on Aristotle's original ideas. 
Let's take a quick look at these theories using examples.

A few days ago, I used the example of lying in an application of virtue ethics. More concisely, we can look at it as follows:

  • A deontologist might argue that lying is always wrong, because it is always dishonest. There is a "rule" here that governs the deontologist's position: Lying is said to be wrong, and wrong is bad, hence lying in any circumstance is always unethical.
  • A consequentialist, by contrast, might argue that lying is perfectly ethical if it leads positive consequences. If by lying you make a person happier at no cost to anyone else, then the lie had a net good impact, and was thus more ethical than a potentially abrasive truth. A different situation might change the decision. In some instances, one might lie, and in others one might not.
  • A virtue ethicist would examine a person's motives in lying. If the liar lied purely for personal gain, or to make another person suffer, or to otherwise cause trouble, then the lie was clearly unethical. If, however, a person lied to save a child's life, or to maintain a good relationship with someone, then his or her motives were virtuous, and the lie would not be deemed unethical.
On a superficial level, it all seems clear enough. But since when have ethical decisions been clear-cut?

Complicating And Criss-Crossing
The greater scrutiny we apply to normative ethical theories, the more the lines between them blur. Let me illustrate this by again using lying as our ethical example.

If a person's moral character is to be analyzed in applications of virtue ethics, then motives matter. If the person being analyzed subscribes to deontology or consequentialism, then - according to virtue ethics - his or her motives are virtuous.

Suppose Cary Consequentialist lies in order to take the blame for a conspiracy committed by his five closest family members. His decision to lie and accept responsibility for a crime he didn't commit is fully consistent with utilitarianism: His family members are spared punishment, while justice is served for society at large. No one suffers except Cary, who does so in order to maximize utility. But note that Cary's decision is thus ethical according to both consequentialism and virtue ethics.

A similar example could be constructed for Denny Deontologist, who, by deploying deontological ethics in a particular scenario, demonstrates his moral character and thus satisfies both deonotology and virtue ethics.

On the other hand, recall that deontological decisions are based on an application of the rules. If the rules are established by consistently applying a principle of rights, such as "the greatest good for the greatest number," then those rules are simultaneously deontological and consequential.

For this reason, we might consider The Golden Rule to be an incarnation of both consequentialism and deontology. It is not at all surprising to note that The Golden Rule is often cited by practitioners of both forms of ethics. The deontologists like it, because it is rule-based, and often rooted in theism. The consequentialists like it because, if it is consistently applied, it leads to maximal utility.

A final complication here is that, indeed, every ethical guideline is utilitarian if it is applied consistently and unanimously. Nothing can be deemed unethical if every actor is assumed to agree with every other actor about what the most ethical course of action might be. Hence, if every man is a Christ-like Christian, then utility is maximized. (And, I might add, everyone's virtue is consistent with virtue ethics in that case as well.)

In truth, no one person subscribes wholly to one ethical system. We all prefer utilitarian arguments for certain moral problems, deonotological arguments for other problems, and virtue ethics for others still. Human ethics are frequently a blend of all three approaches. During ethical disputes, we will often try to convince the person we are disputing with one set of principles, and then switch to another set when that argument proves unconvincing.

Ethical Disputes
Deontologists can argue among themselves about whose application of a rule is the most consistent with the spirit of that rule. Hence, we observe many colorful debates among libertarians regarding the Non-Aggression Principle. Consequentialists can argue among themselves about what are the relevant consequences worth analyzing in a particular dilemma. Hence, we observe many colorful debates among conservatives regarding the impact immigration might have on the nation. Virtue ethicists can argue among themselves about what is the exact moral character of the actor facing a dilemma, and whether his motives are fundamentally good or bad ones. Hence, we observe leftists as they debate the relative merits of Obama's thug-headed surveillance decisions.

But a deontologist cannot argue with a consequentialist about the application of rules unless and until the consequentialist accepts the premise that rule must be applied. Likewise, that consequentialist will never convince the deontologist that "the end justifies the means" in a moral dilemma if the "means" involves a violation of the deontologist's "rule." And no set of rules or consequences will ever absolve a guilty party if a virtue ethicist has deemed that party's virtue to be substandard.

Thus, ethical discussions can only be had by people who are applying the same ethical principle to the dilemma in question. Each approach has its own moral reasoning that is fundamentally incompatible with the reasoning of other approaches to normative ethics.

The Normative Ethics Fallacy
In political discussions, we frequently see pundits making arguments based on one ethical approach and then changing their ethical approach mid-way through the argument. The argument itself never changes, but the underlying justification for it does.

Gun control advocates, for example, frequently begin by stating the principle that a natural right to keep and bear arms should not compromise a natural right to life: the deontological rules are in conflict. When gun control opponents respond to this argument with natural rights arguments of their own, the gun control advocates will respond with statistics on how many gun-related deaths occur each year. The greatest good is not being served under the current set of regulations. When their opponents respond with their own set of statistics and applications of utility, the advocates will respond that there is no justifiable reason for citizens to own particular kinds of weapons. Thus the virtues of gun owners are being called into question under a virtue ethics scheme. When opponents respond with virtue arguments of their own, the gun control advocates return to their original claims about natural rights.

While each individual point made by gun control advocates is ethically consistent, all points taken as a whole represent a fallacious application of ethical logic.

If something is ethically wrong because of a rule, then that is the reason it is wrong. If something is wrong because it fails to maximize utility, then that is the reason it is wrong. If something is wrong because it calls a person's virtue into question, then that is the reason. To argue all three points to three different people might also be consistent, so long as one sticks to one set of reasoning with any one person.

But it is fallacious and wrong to change one's system of normative ethics when its logic is called into question, merely in order to continue making the same point. For any issue, once a person has chosen their set of ethical reasoning, to change one's moral reasoning when that reasoning proves to be problematic is disingenuous and creates bad faith in the discussion.

Even worse: To change one's underlying moral reasoning when the reasoning proves to be inadequate is to fail to adhere to one's moral principles. If you believe X for reason Y only up until the point that Y is demonstrated to be insufficient to uphold your reasoning, then switching to reason Z proves that your reasoning is not based on any kind of moral knowledge at all.

If you did that, you'd be engaged in rationalization. You'd simply be using any available argument to justify that which is not justifiable. All you'd really be demonstrating is a lack of principles.

Conclusion
Getting back to the Cowen quote above, it is indeed possible that presidents change their underlying moral reasoning upon gaining the presidency. However, for reasons I have just provided, if they do so they have demonstrated a complete lack of morality. In that case, Cowen's hypothesis must be rejected, since it is contingent on the actor being moral. The hypothesis is equivalent to the statement that presidents change their moral behaviors at different points in time because they never had any moral character to begin with. In the case of Barack Obama, I would have to agree.

The key points to take away from this article are:

  • There are three main approaches to moral dilemmas.
  • In general, people prefer different approaches to different kinds of dilemmas.
  • To change one's approach in the middle of a debate is to demonstrate a lack of moral character.
In the past, I have argued my preference for virtue ethics. In a subsequent post, I hope to provide my reasons for why this approach works best for nearly all ethical decisions, but before I wrote that post, I wanted to supply an overview of normative ethics in general.