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Reading Time: 3 minutes

Sometimes things surprise me. Today, it was that, after all these months and perhaps years of See Noevo commenting here, he doesn’t seem to have a working knowledge of one of the most common moral subjects on this blog. Consequentialism is a staple diet for conversation here, and yet his understanding has apparently been lacking. Thanks to Illithid for setting the record straight:

“Sounds like in consequentialist morality the ends justifies the means.”

In a very simplistic interpretation, it can. A classic example is killing one healthy person to harvest organs to save five people who need transplants. A strict utilitarian approach might call this good, saying that it maximizes happiness (N.B. I know of no one who actually holds this position). A more complete approach would also include the negative effects of living in a society in which one can be killed for one’s organs, and see that as a bad ethical policy.

There are lots of times that the end does justify the means. Lying is generally considered bad, but not to prevent a greater harm (lying to conceal Jews from Nazis is a classic case). Stealing is generally bad, but stealing food to feed your child after exhausting other options would be called a moral action by most.

The problem with deontological morality is that’s it’s difficult to formulate an absolute rule that cannot lead to horrible results. For example, is condom distribution still immoral if it prevents mass death from AIDS and millions of orphans? Yes, yes, abstinence is better in an ideal world. But in the world in which we actually live, people have sex outside of marriage. There’s also the problem of which absolute rules we should use, and how to decide what they are. The holy book of person A is not convincing to person B. So I’d say that looking at the results is a useful method of choosing moral values.

He then continued with this:

Semantics. I’ll use those words all I want. I just don’t attribute ultimate, objective meaning to them. Consider two scenarios.

In the first, people typically work 30-hour weeks at jobs they generally enjoy. They have multiroom houses and apartments. Couples walk hand-in-hand through parks where children fly kites and ride bikes.

In the second, ragged bands of starving illiterates scavenge blasted ruins for rats to eat.

I call the first scenario “good” when compared to the second, which I’ll call “bad”. There’s no ultimate value in one over the other, the universe neither knows nor cares which occurs. But I value the first one. If you agree, then we have common ground on which to begin to construct a moral system, a collection of guidelines which we think will lead more toward the first choice than the second. We can agree between us to adjust these guidelines if they don’t seem to be working. Note that no part of this process is dependent on revelation from deities.

If you don’t care which scenario occurs, or if you prefer the second, then you’re in a very tiny minority and the rest of us call you crazy or evil, and we’ll construct a moral system without you. And in case you hadn’t heard, we’re in a representative democracy. On any issue that’s important enough to enough of us, we are the government.

A saying I like: the only bad thing about atheism is never getting to say, “I told you so.” 🙂

Theists decry the use of consequentialism precisely because it does away with the need for God for moral reasoning. The problem is (if we look at research on the topic) most people appear to be consequentialists (at least when reasoning, especially if not having to do a deed themselves, like pushing the fat guy off the bridge rather then pulling a lever!). So when See attacks atheists for having no morality or basis for their morality, it turns out that, in the real world, most people moralise the same way.

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Jonathan MS Pearce

A TIPPLING PHILOSOPHER Jonathan MS Pearce is a philosopher, author, columnist, and public speaker with an interest in writing about almost anything, from skepticism to science, politics, and morality,...