January 20, 2020•674 words
I'm writing this as I should be preparing for my exam. In less than 90 minutes I'll have my ethics exam. I don't think I'm ill-prepared though, I feel like this subject is not that difficult for me, and a lot of things are easy to remember or just make sense. It might also be easier because there's a very simple hook to the real world and, specifically, my own world, which is not always the case for philosophical subjects. In ethics, the question is usually "what should I do and why?", and I happen to already spend a considerable amount of time and thought on that anyways. So it's interesting to see what theories exist, and what other, usually very smart, people have said about the matter. As to what camp I belong to, I tend to agree with the basic idea of consequentialism: the idea that it's the consequences of an action that determine whether it's right or wrong. Consequences, as opposed to, for example, intent, character, legality, etc. I think that this theory is most probably true, which is not the same as it being the most useful theory for figuring out what to do. But as far as what is right and wrong goes, if we look back in time to judge people's actions, we should look at the consequences to determine the moral status of these actions. Similarly, I think it's usually smart to keep consequences in mind when determining what to do, and if you're sure that some action is going to have bad consequences, there's absolutely no reason to do it. However, you don't always know what consequences an action might have. My textbook gives the example of the guy who wanted to assassinate Hitler and ended up missing him and killing dozens of innocent people, because the plans changed at the last minute and Hitler wasn't there. His intentions were good, no doubt, and if he'd succeeded, it would've been an amazingly good action for sure: he would've saved millions of innocent lives. Yet the actual outcome was negative, so we can now say that this action was not good. But that doesn't mean we should go on and punish the guy for it. I think that punishment and reward should not be consequentialist concepts, but should be based on intent, virtue, and that kind of stuff. So even though his action turned out to be bad, he's probably not to blame.
So even though I think consequentialism is true, I don't think it's the best way to think on a personal level, or build our society around. The other ethical theories might come in handy here. There's deontology, which says that good and bad are determined by certain duties you have. When you violate your duty, your action is bad. These duties are (usually) based on the categorical imperative, which is invented by Kant. Kant was so enthousiastic about reason, that he thought he could base an entire ethical system on reason alone. So he did. The categorical imperative has multiple formulations, but the most useful one is probably the following: never treat people as a mere means to an end, but always also as a goal in itself. In other words: always respect people autonomy. This rule-to-rule-all-rules gives us some great footing for our day-to-day lives. For example: killing is clearly an example of using people as means to an end. The same goes for stealing. Lying is also not allowed according to Kant. After all, when you lie, you presume to be a good judge of what someone else should and shouldn't know, which means you don't respect the autonomy of that person to choose for themselves.
I think that deontology is quite a smart system, although it does have its flaws (it doesn't seem to care much about animals, which, in my opinion, definitely should have a spot in any ethical system). In terms of practicality, it can be a good supplement to consequentialism, which can be very hard to use for average people.