Are some acts morally obligatory regardless of consequences?

Lina asked:

Are some acts morally obligatory regardless of the consequences for human benefit or harm?

Reply by Stuart Burns

The answer to your question depends entirely on just how you choose to think about ‘morality’.

According to many different surveys, most of the people on this planet self-describe themselves as ‘religious’ to some extent or other. What this means is that most people would self-describe themselves as adhering to a religious notion of morality – otherwise known as Authoritative Rule morality. And what that means, in turn, is that they supposedly think (or perhaps, more accurately, they want other people to think they think) that what determines whether some action (or inaction ) is moral or immoral is the dictates of some Authority figure. For example, for those avowing adherence to the Judeo-Christian-Islamic religious tradition, that Authority figure would be God – with His dictates revealed in the sacred books of those faiths. There are lots of other religions in the world, and many quasi-religions. An example of the latter would be traditional Communism whose Authority figures include Marx, Engels, Lenin, and Mao (and perhaps Che Guevara).

The point of this initial focus on Authoritative Rule morality, is that most people, most of the time, think of the notion of morality in religious terms. And the thing is that all Authoritative Rule morality is couched in terms of absolute commandments – You must to this, you must not do that. The obvious example is the Ten Commandments – ‘Thou Shalt Not Kill!!’ – No if, ands, or buts!!. No allowance for circumstances. If this is the way that you think of morality, then the answer to your question is ‘Yes!’ Authoritative Rule (Religious) morality is not consequentialist. And it does not allow a choice. All moral acts are obligatory regardless of consequences – good or bad.

On the other hand, regardless of what people say they believe, most people do not in fact actually adhere to the strict commandments of their religious notions of morality. In other words, most people most of the time actually behave as if they believed in a much less dogmatic notion of morality. And now we get into the possibility of a consequentialist notion of morality.

There are any number of different consequentialist notions of morality to choose from, if you wish to investigate and choose one that suits you. But all of them, by their very nature, consider the benefits and harm that actions might do to people. What separates the various members of the consequentialist group of moral theories, is the kind of things that are considered benefits and harm, and the scope of people for whom consideration is morally required.

Consider Utilitarianism, as one famous example. There are a number of different flavours of Utilitarianism available to choose from, but the ‘traditional’ version, due to Bentham and Mill, determines the moral worth of actions according to the extent to which they deliver the ‘greatest happiness to the greatest number’. In any situation, therefore, the obligatory moral action is the alternative that you expect to deliver the net greatest happiness – over all time, and over all people. Different flavours of Utilitarianism modify this criteria by changing ‘happiness’ to some other notion like ‘economic welfare’, or ‘flourishing’, and so forth. They also sometime change the time and population scopes to reduce the computation to more manageable levels.

Regardless of the details, if you choose to think of ‘morality’ along consequentialist lines, then the answer to your question is ‘No!’. Consequentialist notions of morality make the beneficial and harmful consequences of actions of paramount importance in judging their moral worth. No single action, divorced from context, is obligatory. What is obligatory is the effort to find the most consequentially approved alternative in any circumstance, and to follow that alternative.

Unfortunately, all consequentialist notions of morality put a strong moral emphasis on knowledge and thinking. You have to learn enough about the workings of the world to both be able to recognize what alternatives for action (or inaction) you have available in any circumstance, and be able to predict with reasonable accuracy the consequences of those alternatives. And, of course, you have to pay attention to your circumstances, and think (hard) about those possible consequences. A consequentialist notion of morality is not for the lazy. But look around you and you will see that when it comes to morality, most people are willfully lazy. They would much rather have someone else do their moral thinking for them.

So if you don’t like the consequences-be-damned absoluteness of an Authoritative Rule morality, and you don’t fancy the effort demanded by a Consequentialist morality, there is an alternative. Its called ‘Cultural Relativism’. The basic idea here is that what identifies actions as moral or immoral is the subjective opinion of a population. Morality is what a population says it is. This is a very popular notion of morality amongst people who call themselves ‘social liberals’. If a population thinks that a particular act is morally obligatory regardless of the consequences, then it is. So if you think of ‘morality’ in a Cultural Relativist way, then the answer to your question is ‘Maybe!’ It depends on which population you wish to poll for their opinion. Of course, you are faced with the problem of choosing which population you are going to let set your moral standards. You can go all the way from ‘all human beings’ down to ‘myself alone’. And you are faced with the problem of determining the opinion of the population you choose on the moral issue at hand. But there is no moral principle that will let you decide where you ‘should’ draw the line. It’s all subjective opinion anyway.

So there you have it. The answer to your question is either ‘Yes!’, ‘No!’, or ‘Maybe!’ depending on how you choose to think about morality.

There are other notions of morality out there apart from the Authoritative Rule, Consequentialist, and Cultural Relativist notions I have mentioned here. But this response is getting too long as it is, and these other alternatives are somewhat obscure. I am sure that Google will provide you with answers, should you be interested in following up. Or you can check out this essay:


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