Some thoughts on practical ethics #3 – What is better, what is worse, and does this matter?

One of the most frequent debates I witness in practical ethics is the question whether we can evaluate something to be better or worse. The people I often talk to are actually not exactly part of the academic community focussing on ethics, yet when I mention that some outcome can be best, thereby following Derek Parfit tripple theory, many of these people are baffled. Personally, I am baffled that they are baffled, and will try to unravel here some thoughts about their beliefs.

Utilitarianism claims to aim at the best (overall) outcome, yet our trouble to evaluate exactly what is better or worse is one of the most central mishaps -to me- in western thinking. To this end I believe we make two main mistakes, that are strangely intertwined and can best be condensed by two big words: Epistemology and deontology. We make an epistemological mistake by attempting to evaluate consequences of our actions through observational knowledge. The second fallacy we make is based on the error to ethically evaluate our actions against some higher rules, instead of the consequences of our actions, which is, simply put, a deontological mistake. Both problems riddle much of the debate that we have about better or worse, and have divided many in the western world since centuries. More explanations on both mistakes -the epistemological and the deontological- seem to be appropriate.

Deontology focussed on the evaluations of our actions based on the principles or rules these are based on instead of the consequences of our actions. While Bentham as an early advocate of utilitarianism was surely focussing on consequences instead of mere actions and their underlying principles, this problem has within societal debates hardly been resolved. Many religious groups and cults are obsessed with a rule based world up until today, and the current cancel culture and social media wars are a mirror of a similarly rule-obsessed world. These current critical realities and societal debates clearly show why deontology must fail, because as much as we try to act right, it almost aways seems we all fail. Mother Theresa, Ghandi, Einstein, Curie and many other people are long devalued by rule-based criticism, as are it seems all our current leaders and inspirers. It is fair to conclude that people make mistakes, yet while this should be a trivial insight, we have to acknowledge that we should not judge these mistakes if they were made with the aim and knowledge to result in consequences that would not be judged negatively. In other words, I reject the principle of deontology or a rule based evaluation, because is can do nothing but fail from an epistemological perspective.
Take the example of Robin Hood. Living in Sherwood Forest he took from the rich and gave to the poor. Who would judge that through a loss of taxes and stolen goods and values the government of Notthingham suffered severe losses? Obviously this would be a very bad interpretation of the story. We have to assume that these were the consequences of his actions, yet his rule to take from the rich and give to the poor is an admirable rule, predating Rawls by several centuries. However, we should not forget that Robin Hood broke many other rules while he acted, as do many protagonists in our favourite stories. The world is simply too messy and diverse to allow for an all rule based all-empirical evaluation.
When we now take the extreme opposite view to evaluate only the consequences of our actions, then we have to make one important pretext. We can only judge on the intentions of consequences. This seems to have been overall more acceptable in the East, and grew increasingly less acceptable in the West; this is of course a crude generalisation, yet still one important general difference.
Take the example where a group of people need to push a button every few hours to prevent a doomsday machine to explode, a story from the TV series Lost. At some point in the story, one of the protagonists decides that it is all a hoax, and that they should stop pressing the button. thereby discontinuing to follow the rule they were given. Next, the doomsday machine exploded, and the sad protagonist saw his mistake. Despite this bad outcome we can still sympathise with his action, because he was given a rule without and explanation or reason. Imagine if the world would be based on bizarre rules that we would never understand. Surely people would rebel against such rules, and rightly so, because we do not live in the times of the gods of old, who could dictate rules to us down from Mount Olympus. Instead, modern societies educate us to challenge rules that we do not understand, and the legal system in many democratic nations tries to negotiate exactly this. The ever growing canon of legal decisions hence gives testimony on how rules should be interpreted, and many would argue that most laws of most democratically elected governments are often understandable. Yet such political dimensions cannot ultimately be ethical dimensions, and this is part of our ontological fallacy. Ever since Spinoza, Kant and Hegel moved the western world out of the solemnly religious sphere, rules are not anymore god-given, and hence, were increasingly questioned. This devision led to a severe problem, because the centuries since could not clearly answer the question if there are rules to be followed by all people. In other words, we widely lost our ontological roots. Now I am far from making a plea for religion here, but simply want to highlight that we seem to have lost any glimpse of ontological truths that we could all agree upon. However, if we cannot agree on anything, then what matters? Critical realism clearly claims that there might be such ontological truths in the world, yet we may never find these principles. While critical realism is still widely restricted to the social dimensions, we can surely widen it to the world as such, and thus state that there are principles we may never observe, but there can be ontological principles that we may as well unravel. These may not be deontological rules, however. Instead it would be much easier that follow principles that do not violate any rules, instead of having our actions simply follow rules. This underlines a different between principles and rules, which is ultimately a matter of scale. The most capital mistake we do to this end is in my opinion to start with our differences, when we should start what unites us.
We have to conclude that our observational powers as well as the deviance of the real world from our expectations do not always give us sufficient reason for rules we can agree upon. We therefore need to take the intention of our actions into account, and thereby modify our viewpoint. Instead of a rule based world view or an act consequentialists world view we need to settle on an intention based worldview, where no one objects our intentions. Our intentions may follow certain rules, which in many cases cannot be neglected to give some general guideline. If we thus continue to agree to act based on certain rules, we equally need to teach the capacity or allow within a system to deviate from certain rules. This would allow both a reflexive setting as well as a clear documentation of the intentions of our actions, something that may seem hard to imagine for many today, yet may in the future just become a modus operandi towards transparency and evaluative competency. Naturally, we shall not need to write down everything we do, yet focus on these acts that actually have consequences. While this is hard to anticipate now, and we need to be aware even of very small, accumulated and interacting consequences, we shall for now lump sum this as part of the epistemological mist we will need to clear in the future, but not here.
Now let is take the extreme opposite viewpoint, that is assume that there are indeed rules to be followed, and how to find them. Many disagreement about rules are because of cultural values, experiential values or legal values. However the main disagreement on rules are not because of these different types of values, but instead because of the category of values. Many controversies cannot be resolved of cultural differences, yet it should be clear that if we all would have the same culture, the world would be clearly less diverse. Consequently one of the most rules we need to agree upon is to know, reflect and accept the values of other cultures. The alternative of a cultural homogenisation might be a side effect of globalisation, developments in communication et cetera, but will not be considered further here. Instead it is most relevant to honour cultural values of others, even if these values are alien to some of us. There are also examples of wider accepted rules. Humans have already evolved into proclaiming human rights, and these are a commitment of the global community for united values. From a historical viewpoint, it seems that these rights and conventions only emerged recently, and the vast majority of the legal apparatus still operates on national or local levels. This is however well put into perspective when comparing our current situation with the situation about 100 years ago. Humankind evolved clearly since then, and from a standpoint of human rights surely for the better, which is reason for optimism. Nevertheless, more steps need to be taken to allow for a greater implementation of human rights and other global values.
The biggest lack to date has probably been in recognising global inequalities. First attempts have been made, notably the global sustainability goals of the taxing of global cooperation that try to evade national tax laws. Yet while many global inequalities decreased, some inequalities such as global income disparity, have increased over the last decades. Pessimists claim we shall never overcome these inequalities, but that these inequalities would even increase. This claim does not only contradict past developments, but is also leading nowhere. If we claim that inequalities increase, what would be the aim of this argument? How would humankind need to devolve to become drastically less equal in terms of material resource distribution? It seems highly unlikely that the necessary totalitarian structures would be established, despite all the rumours conspiracy nutheads try to spread. Even if we would make the argument that such grim developments are already underway, action would need to be taken, since mere discussions have clearly less consequences. The global movements of the last years are to this end among the most hopeful initiatives that emerged, and prove the potential of the global community that can transcend diverse cultural values.
These global initiatives are thus clearly believing in what Derek Parfit called normative truths. There may be indeed some truths that can unite us, because we are able to not only act reasonable, but also responded to reason, underlining the importance of human interconnectedness. Personally, I prefer to live in a world where agency of people can in crease, and we can not only try to unravel what ought to be true, but even may be able to discover what we “might be able to make true” (Parfit). The alternative would be that nothing is true. Who ever opts for this scenario may become a prepper for the pending anarchistic apocalypse, where nothing matters. I hope you have a happy live.