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What is it that makes us consider certain actions - or behaviours, attitudes, ways of being and so on - to be moral or immoral, right or wrong, good or evil (the latter only if we want to speak in metaphysical absolutes and I seldom to never do)? It's one thing to say that one subscribes to a particular ethical system - like utilitarianism, deontology, virtue ethics or divine command for example - but why, then, does it actually matter to us to follow such patterns of moral reasoning? These days I mostly take a consequentialist approach to ethics but there are still certain cases in which I find myself wondering why particular consequences are more favourable, or carry more weight, than others and why, for example, an apparently good consequence arising from what seems like bad or "wrong" behaviour or reasoning still leaves a sour taste.

In a previous post I explicitly rejected Hamlet's claim that "There is nothing good or bad but thinking makes it so." However, when it comes to moral judgements, I have to concede that this is quite often the case, in that our attitudes, experience, even the degree to which we have actually thought about particular circumstances will colour the judgements we make as to the morality or otherwise of certain behaviours.

I have just been reading the chapters of The God Delusion dealing with the claim that atheists have no basis upon which to mount a case for moral behaviour over immoral behaviour. Dawkins handily decimates the assertion that our modern morality comes from the Bible, quoting a few choice passages of scripture that describe acts of rape, murder, incest and genocide; and he reserves particular vitriol (though not quite as much as Christopher Hitchens, it should be noted) for the New Testament notion of vicarious atonement.

Of course I know that bashing biblical morality (as opposed to Bible-bashing) is shooting fish in a barrel for any "experienced" atheist, if I may so phrase it; I now include myself in this estimation, though of course it wasn't always so. Growing up as a more-devout-than-otherwise Catholic, I fully absorbed the favourable interpretation the church always placed on the more unpleasant aspects of scripture; and if all else failed, there was always the, "Oh, but Jesus didn't really mean it that way," gambit. I was too well-schooled to ask why, if it wasn't intended that way, was it said that way in the first place? Needless to say, this childhood immersion (dare I say indoctrination?) coloured my moral judgement and at times continues to do so, even if it is usually reasoned away with all due haste when I catch myself out. Even many years after I'd discarded my actual religious beliefs, it was still with a certain frisson that I read the brazen criticisms of religious morality leveled in The God Delusion and God is Not Great. Even if I no longer found such criticism offensive, I certainly knew people who would.

I have a delightful little book called Would You Eat Your Cat?, which poses a series of moral dilemmas - or "ethical conundrums", to use the term from its subtitle - and shows how our responses to each situation fall within particular kinds of ethical systems, from the consequentialist to the more absolutist. Not surprisingly, I sit quite comfortably within the consequentialist camp - that is, when asked, "Would you eat your cat?" I am generally the kind of person who will ask for additional information on the circumstances rather than just flatly refuse - but with the odd exception. Why the exceptions? If I were a strict consequentialist I would uphold Jeremy Bentham's utilitarian moral calculus and act such that the greatest possible good would result for the greatest number of sentient beings - even if that number didn't necessarily include myself and those close to me; but I am not that person.

For a start, there are practical problems with strict consequentialism in that it's probably not possible for us to know in advance what all the likely consequences of any particular action will be, or what weighting those consequences will ultimately have in terms of their consequences in turn; and some of those consequences are going to be our own and other people's subjective feelings, which may well be shaped and informed by things other than purely consequentialist considerations. The example of fundamentalist Muslims reacting badly to criticism of Mohammed is perhaps an unfairly easy one to give. What about something like lying? Sam Harris argues that there are compelling reasons to avoid lying in any and all circumstances - and it's certainly true that deception, in any form, can and does lead to subjective hurt even if it doesn't result in objective harm.

If we are to make informed decisions in life, including in matters of morality, it pays to have access to all relevant information. Surely that is the key point - relevant information - and it is the task of the consequentialist ethicist to decide what kinds of information count towards the morality or otherwise of an action. Does it still count as lying if one refuses to disclose some particular item of information that ought not to affect someone's decision, even if it might? To pick a close-to-home example, I choose not to reveal to my parents that I am polyamorous - it's unlikely to affect them (since I am unlikely to bring any of my lovers other than [personal profile] japester to visit them or stay under their roof) and they would probably only be bewildered and offended if they knew. The Catholic me-that-was would have a big problem with keeping such a thing from my parents, even if I had somehow reconciled the fact of polyamory with my religious beliefs; the largely consequentialist me-that-is finds nothing wrong with my decision under the circumstances. That's not to say I might not be happier if my parents were the kind of people who would open-mindedly embrace the idea of polyamory; but they're not, so I save the disclosure for those who I feel will accept the information with equanimity - needless to say, I strongly suspect that includes everyone who might be reading this journal.

Weighing consequences can be very hard work, especially when the interested parties to a particular decision have different ideas about how this should be done. To return to a well-worn topic for a moment just to illustrate, the opponents of marriage equality appear to think that it's more important to preserve their definition of what marriage ought to be and ought to signify than it is to increase the happiness and social recognition of gay couples by allowing them to marry officially. A strict consequentialist might well argue that, if it turns out that there are more people whose peace of mind would be disturbed by gay marriage than there are people who would be made happier by it, then the status quo ought to stand. Even if this could be shown to be the case, however, this is one of those occasions on which I feel compelled by deeper and more instinctive considerations to deviate from strict consequentialism. As it happens, humans normally have an innate sense of justice and the very phrase "marriage equality" is intended to appeal to exactly that. Refusing gay couples the right to marry offends my sense of justice, as it does that of many others; what's more, I see this as more harmful than offending other people's - largely religious - sense that they must preserve a traditional definition of what marriage is; despite the manifold changes in the actual practice of marriage throughout its history. You will easily see that my disdain for religious opinion allows me to place greater weight on the appeal to justice - I simply cannot help but see the religious argument as a case of faulty and misinformed reasoning.

At the end of the day, consequentialism is far from being a simple moral framework. Many people seem to find a strong appeal in rules-based systems in which certain actions are deemed to be always wrong or always right, no matter the circumstances. Indeed, accusations of "moral relativism" are merrily hurled at consequentialist ethicists by people - such as those in the ranks of the religious right - who prefer their morals in the form of unquestionable precepts, regardless of the actual consequences of applying them. However, I am strongly inclined to agree with Stephen Fry's assessment that what "moral relativism" actually means is "thought". Some things simply are more or less right or wrong depending on circumstances and it's not always easy to predict what will be the best course of action in a given situation. Even a broad stricture such as the golden rule - do to others what you would like them to do to you - carries consequentialist implications; we might not always want or need the same things from other people in different circumstances and they might want very different things than we do under the same circumstances. We're continually called upon to make judgements and the best judgements are informed and intelligent; and I think it is ultimately not just the potential for negative consequences but also my distaste for the anti-intellectual slant of absolutist, rules-based moral systems that leads me to reject their apparently easy, straightforward appeal.
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October 2013

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