Eight tempting big-picture errors in ethics

Alexander R. Pruss

May 30, 2003


0. Introduction

           Despite the fact that the strength of argument is clearly on the pro-life side—nobody except a handful of academics would question the grave wrongness of abortion were pregnancy never inconvenient—somehow ordinary intelligent people, like our students, often remain unconvinced.  There are many reasons for this, of course.  For instance, a number of students have had their children aborted while many know others who have had abortions, and one does not want to condemn oneself or one’s friends.  I am a philosopher, however, and so I will be interested in intellectual reasons, even though these subjective psychological ones are almost surely more important.  Specifically, I will be interested in the fact that the ordinary person subscribes to a number of erroneous big-picture ethical beliefs, each of which, to a different degree, does something to block access to the pro-life arguments.  I will not talk about all such erroneous beliefs and I would be grateful in the discussion for more examples. 

           I will talk about eight errors I have identified, largely through teaching.  For each one, I will identify the error, show how it impacts the pro-life message and explain why it is tempting to most of us—there is, after all, something right about five of the errors.  For each of these errors is one that we might ourselves be tempted by on occasion.  I will then suggest some ways of refuting the error.  In some cases, the mere identification of the error should do the trick, as these erroneous beliefs are often not explicitly identified by our interlocutors.  My suggested refutations will not always be phrased in the way in which I would phrase them for didactic effectiveness: in this talk, I am mainly trying to convey ideas.

1. It may be wrong for me but right for her

           The vast majority of students hold to naïve forms of relativism.  It is the most important of the ethical errors.  But I will not talk about it much since we all know about it, and how it undercuts the pro-life message.  No matter how convincing an argument against, say, euthanasia you might give, a person suffering from this ailment can still say: Ah, that may be right for you, but I don’t feel that way, so it’s not so for me. 

           Moreover, relativism is used, fallaciously, to underwrite a political attitude that permits choices to be made on issues like abortion, on the grounds that abortion is right for some—namely, for those who think it’s right.  This is fallacious reasoning, since if relativism is true, then a politician who feels that abortion is abhorrent does right in prohibiting abortion.  She does right simply because she believes she does right.  Of course this assumes relativism.

           There is some truth to relativism.  If someone honestly believes that something is right, and has made a sufficient investigation of the matter, then she is not to be blamed for doing that thing, even if it is in fact wrong.  So one thing we need to do is emphasize the difference between culpability and moral assessment: an action can be wrong, even if the person doing it is in no way to blame.

           Relativism comes in two varieties.  Individual relativism says that whatever a person thinks is right is right for that person.  Societal relativism says that whatever a society thinks is right is right for that society. 

           What’s the cure?  I assign the first three chapters of C. S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity in Introduction to Ethics and Introduction to Philosophy courses.  It works marvelously and is very well written.  Despite the book’s title, these first three chapters are in no way “religious”—this should be emphasized to the students.  Read it or re-read it.  One basic argument there is that moral disagreement presupposes moral agreement.  When I say: “Give me some of your orange as I gave you some of mine”, our interlocutor will not respond: “So what?”  Rather, our interlocutor will try to show how his case does not fall under the general rule of reciprocity, and thereby will show his agreement with that rule.  If relativism is true, then we cannot meaningfully argue about moral matters: we can only fight like the animals.

           What else works?  I argue that relativism makes for a rigid, ultra-conservative and intolerant attitude.  Whatever I believe is right for me has to be right for me.  Thus, I am never wrong about moral matters, and hence I never have any reason to change my moral views.  It is pointless for me to listen to other people—what they say may be right for them, but isn’t right for me.  If I feel it’s right to beat up gays, it’s right for me to beat up gays, and that’s all there is to it—I don’t need to listen to what anybody says.  In other words, if we think we can make mistakes about morality, if we think we sometimes should change our minds about ethics, then we are not relativists.  My students don’t usually want to admit that they are infallible—and so most of them realize they are not really relativists.  (At least so it is on individual relativism: on societal relativism, a society never has a reason to change its moral views.)

           The problem is that even if a student admits intellectually that relativism is false, it is so deeply engrained, that he may still flee to relativism when cornered later.  I have no cure for this.  I suppose persistence may help.

2. Sometimes you should do the wrong thing

           This is an amazing error.  Sometimes, it claims, the wrong thing is the right thing to do.  It is hard to believe that this error is actually held.  But it is.  A student wrote to me in response to a question of what he learned in the Introduction to Ethics course that he became convinced that abortion is immoral;  but, he noted, sometimes it is necessary;  therefore, he wistfully concluded, it must be that sometimes you should do the immoral thing.

           This is one of those errors that once identified should refute themselves.  Paraphrases may help: “Sometimes the right thing is not right.”  The error masquerades under such phrases as “In this situation there is no right choice.”  But all this camouflage is for naught: logic says that the right action is right, and the wrong action is wrong.  If you should do something, then this is the right thing to do.

           There is some truth to this.  There are situations where any action we choose will result in harm.  In some, though not all, such cases we should take the action that results in the least overall harm.  But when we say that, we are just saying that the right choice is the one which results in least harm.  This counts as doing an evil or wrong action only if one thinks that every action that causes harm is wrong.  But that is plainly false: it is not always wrong or evil to distribute vaccinations even if one knows that some people will die from the vaccination.

           Why would someone hold something as patently ridiculous as the claim that sometimes you should do the wrong thing?  One cause, in my experience, is a religious upbringing that was insufficiently subtle in its presentation of morality.  Some students, for instance, are convinced that it is wrong to kill people.  After all, does not the Commandment say: “Thou shalt not kill”?  But these students also cannot get themselves to deny that it is sometimes acceptable, even a duty, to kill in defense of the innocent, whether in war or privately.  The students find a tension between their religiously-grounded belief that killing is always wrong and their, I believe healthy, inability to deny that sometimes you should kill.  The conclusion is that sometimes it is right to kill;  but killing is always wrong;  hence, sometimes you should do the wrong thing.  Of course, we know that in its Old Testament context, the Commandment could not have prohibited all killing—after all, the Old Testament said explicitly that God commanded the Israelites to go to war on occasion, and even commanded capital punishment in some cases.  Rather, the Commandment should be translated as: “Thou shalt not murder.”  Not all killing is murder.  Killing in defense of one’s family is not a wrong that one should do, but is a right.  (Of course, if we’re absolute pacifists, and reject lethal violence even in law enforcement, then we have to make a different case: It’s wrong to kill people, no matter what, and hence in self-defense it’s not a right but a wrong.)

           Another case which may tempt students into the view is the keeping of promises.  To adapt an example of Plato’s, if a friend lends you his gun and you promise you will give it back in a month, but in a month your friend is in a murderous rage, you certainly should not give the gun back.  Sometimes you should not keep a promise, as we all know.  If one joins this fact to the proposition that it is always your duty to break your promises, then one is apt to conclude that you sometimes should do the wrong thing.  But, rather, one needs a subtler view of promises.  For instance, one might take most ordinary promises to be implicitly qualified with: “Assuming the circumstances do not change relevantly.”  Or even if not thus qualified, one might think that promises become null and void if what is promised changes sufficiently significantly. 

           In any case, the general point is clear: Having been presented moral principles without sufficient subtlety can lead students to reject the tautology that you should do the right thing.  Of course, in childhood, one may have been presented with the prohibitions against murder and promise-breaking in an unsubtle way.  But one’s parents should have ensured a more nuanced understanding by adulthood.  If not, then we must.

3. The consequences are all that counts (and its relatives: If it harms none, it’s OK and The lesser evil)

           Consequentialism holds that to evaluate the morality of an action, one has to look at what the action results in.  This is, prima facie, a very plausible moral position.  Besides relativism, it is a default method for moral evaluation for students. 

           In Introduction to Ethics classes, I present students with some moral dilemmas during the first class.  The vast majority reasons in a consequentialist way.  If your mom asks you whether you’ve ever taken drugs during your freshman year, and you smoked pot at the beginning of the year, which would distress your mom to know, but you have not done anything like that since, should you tell the truth, assuming your mom would never find out the truth otherwise?  The majority of my students have said: “No, because by telling the truth you would only cause harm to yourself and your mother, while by lying you protect your mom and yourself from distress, as she will never find out.”  Even a number of the students who thought you should tell the truth argued on consequentialist grounds, saying that telling the truth about this would help build a deeper relationship with your mother, etc.  Almost no one thought that the fact that it was true that you took drugs was at all a reason for saying so to your mother.

           If we’re consequentialists, we will see no difference between euthanizing a dying cancer patient through a lethal injection and giving her painkillers to relieve her pain but which one regretfully expects to hasten her death.  The consequences are the same, and so if giving the painkillers is OK, then the lethal injection is OK.  In a case of abortion, the consequentialist can always say: “We can abort this child, because it wouldn’t have a very happy life.  Instead, we can have a child later, when financial or other circumstances are more favorable, and that child will have a happier life.”  The consequences are positive: Instead of a child having an unhappy life now, we have a child—admittedly, another child—who will have a happier life in the future.  Of course, one can always respond with: “Is it not better to have both?” but practical considerations may make that impossible.  Consequentialism, thus, is a crucial block to pro-life arguments, and yet it is something to which students flee when stuck.  Particularly attractive, is the utilitarian form, where consequences count as good to the extent that they make people happy.

           Consequentialism is very tempting.  If the consequences of one action are better than those of others, surely that counts in favor of the action.  Indeed this is so, all other things being equal.  If there are no other moral considerations, if all the actions under consideration are good or neutral, then it seems quite reasonable to choose the one that has the best consequences.  A good moral theory does need to consider the consequences of an action.  But this cannot be the sole criterion.  Killing one patient in order to use her organs to save three other patients is something a consequentialist has to say is right, as long as one can keep the deed secret so that people won’t be discouraged from coming to the hospital, since such discouragement would cost more lives in the long run. 

           It is a blessing that few American students are willing to embrace such conclusions.  Indeed, such conclusions in their eyes refute consequentialism.  Again, however, consequentialism is so firmly embedded in us—perhaps precisely because it is to some extent correct—that even after they see it as corrupt, they will come back to it when stuck for other arguments.

           One thing I have not yet tried is the following argument.  If consequentialism is OK, it is not just right to kill one person to save a hundred lives.  It is right to kill one person for the sake of saving two people, or even to save one person and one frog.

           Often, the consequentialist argument hides behind the label of “choosing the lesser evil.”  Thus, when there is a question about whether a woman whose life is endangered by the pregnancy may have an abortion, we may be told that the abortion is the lesser evil.  Note a point of phraseology.  Generally, the phrase is: “choosing the lesser evil.”  But in fact often what is done is not just choosing a lesser evil, but doing a lesser evil.  And that is nothing to brag about.  “Today I did a lesser evil: I could have murdered someone, but I just robbed and beat him.”  To do an evil, whether a lesser or a greater one, is to do an evil.  

           The “choosing the lesser evil” label tends to be attached to a consequentialist argument, plain and simple.  One option has a greater evil as a consequence;  the other has a lesser evil as a consequence;  thus, one should choose the latter.  There is some truth to it.  All other things being equal, if one foresees a bad effect coming about from one’s action, one should act to minimize the bad effect.  But that is assuming that the action one does is itself good, and that the evil that comes about is not something you are planning on, either as an end or as a means.

           We do not in fact find ourselves in a position where we must either do a more or a less evil action.  For if no better option is available, we can simply refrain from acting, and tolerate (without intending) the evil consequences.

4. We have free will, so we may do what we like

           Recently, a priest said that the Catholic Church was pro-choice because the Church taught that we have free will.  It seems that from the possibility of our making a choice, i.e., from our free will, the permissibility of the choice is inferred.  From can we go to may.  I am pleased to report that I have not yet met a student who fell into this trap, though no doubt some of you who have taught for longer have.  This error, I would hope, needs only to be exposed to be refuted.  Free will implies at most that we can do something—not that we may do it.  Charles Manson could kill people—we know he could, because he did—but he had no right to do it.

5. Some areas of life are exempt from morality

           We have heard it said that the Government or the Church has no place in the bedroom.  But this is only the tip of the iceberg.  There is a deep implicit belief that various areas of human life are exempt from morality.  A typical case is that of war.  Many ordinary people will tell you that war is hell, and therefore you can do whatever it takes to win.  The methods of waging war are exempt from moral critique.  War is an ethics-free arena.  So is business.  Science.  Academic inquiry.  Art.  Economics.  Public affairs.  Private affairs.  The bedroom.  Etc.

           This is exceptionalism: thinking that some areas of human life are exceptional to such an extent that one is free to do what one wishes in them.  If one put all the exceptionalisms together, one would be left with no room for morality at all.  Exceptionalism is not a preserve of the Left or of the Right: the stereotypical exceptionalisms of the Left and Right just differ.  Though sometimes they meet: Many otherwise conservative evangelicals seem to hold that what a married couple does in the bedroom (assuming nobody gets hurt) cannot be subject to moral critique—they take Paul’s injunction that the marriage bed be undefiled and make it an affirmation that it is undefiled no matter what is done on it.  This is just a slightly narrower version of the liberal exceptionalism about the bedroom.

           A different formulation of exceptionalism is that it is a view that technical expertise in an area is the only criterion by which actions performed in that area should be done.  This results in the absurd position that the doctor, as a doctor and not as a moralist, is competent to judge about euthanasia, and the scientist, as a scientist, is a fine judge of what should be done vis-à-vis cloning and stem-cell research.  This is exceptionalism about medicine and science, since it excludes ethical considerations from these areas.  I have already mentioned exceptionalism in war: it is accompanied with the view that the question of what actions are right in war is settled by officers, not as ethical persons, but as soldiers.  (Observe, too, how this exceptionalism is not in fact the official attitude of the U.S. military: the military academies put much stress on education in ethics, including courses in moral philosophy.)

           This is one big-picture moral view that I can see little right about, except the fact that some areas of life are best left unregulated by the state, which is not the same as saying that they are unregulated by morality.  The very opposite of what the exceptionalisms claim is true: Morality prescribes what human beings should do.  Being a virtuous human being should suffuse all of the deliberate actions of that human being.  By every action we answer the question of what kind of a person we wish to be.  This is particularly clear from the viewpoint of Western monotheism: the ethical center of monotheism is that one should be wholly given to one God.  No area of one’s life should be exempt: “Thou shalt love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your being and with all your might”, and if that were not clear enough, Jesus amplifies it by adding in: “and with all your mind.”

6. You may do what it takes to survive (and its relative: He had no choice—they would have killed him if he didn’t do it)

           I gave my students a simplified version of a real-life Nazi death-camp case.  I don’t remember which case it was, but the general structure was this: If you don’t kill one innocent person, things will go in such a way that many people will die.  The students’ usual answer is the consequentialist one.  But one answer surprised me: “But he has no choice.  If he doesn’t do it, they’ll kill him.”

           There are two things the student could be saying.  The student might be saying that fear of death is such a potent motivator that it can override our freedom of will and make it impossible for us to make a choice other than the one that saves our life.  That may sometimes be true: that is why a court should, surely, be lenient with a person under such circumstances.  But even this is not universally true.  Many people have shown a willingness to resist doing what is wrong even at the cost of death.  And even if it were true, it would not affect the question of what the right choice is.  We would just have to say that tragically, sometimes people are in a situation of paralyzing fear which makes it impossible for them to do the right thing.  Obviously, we cannot blame them for this, except perhaps insofar as they had earlier failed to freely develop a stronger character.  But that we cannot blame them does not contradict that what they did was wrong.

           But there is a second thing the student could have been saying, a view that seems to be more widespread.  The view is that you have a basic right to do whatever it takes to survive.  We see this in movies.  Many action movies involve collateral damage to innocent civilians—cars stolen for escapes, buildings blown up, etc.  We can still divide up such action movies into two categories.  In the first category, the damage to the innocent is incurred in the course of our hero striving to prevent a terrible cataclysm, such as a nuclear bomb hidden in New York City.  Since our hero does not intend the deaths of the innocent, either as a means or as an end, in such a case his action may be morally justified by the Principle of Double Effect, which says that if the consequences are sufficiently good, one can tolerate bad effects coming from one’s actions, if the actions were themselves morally good or neutral, if there is no better solution, and if the bad effects are not a means to the good effect. 

           But there is a second category.  Here, the hero or heros are trying to save their own hide, and in the process end up causing many innocent deaths and other damage.  This damage is not always caused directly by the hero.  Perhaps the evil enemy will miss the hero and hit a bystander.  But in at least some such movies, it is clear that the heros could easily avert all the collateral damage that results by simply turning themselves in.  And they ought to do so if the collateral damage is heavy enough.  The Principle of Double Effect only applies if the consequences are overall good.  If escape would cause more deaths of innocent people than the number of heros, then escape is surely wrong.  This is particularly clear in the case of a movie where the hero is pursued by a number of people who are not themselves evil, but who through an honest mistake think the hero is evil.  Such persons the hero has no right to kill by any standard, since they are innocent.

           Violent action movies of the second category are morally problematic.  Unless of course one adheres to the erroneous moral principle I just mentioned, the principle that when your survival, or maybe the survival of you and your loved ones, is at stake, you can do whatever it takes to survive.  Occasionally, the error is extended to say that what you may do is not just ensure your survival but ensure that form of life for yourself that you have chosen.  This version, once identified, cannot stand the light of day.

           Obviously, if correct, the principle in its strongest form would justify an abortion to save one’s own life, and in the yet more dubious forms would justify an abortion needed to preserve one’s chosen way of life.  But the principle is incorrect.  Indeed, it is a special case of exceptionalism: it holds that in the area of actions that preserve one’s own life, none are wrong.  Indeed, something like this principle, on a state level, might be used to justify an exceptionalism about war. 

           A person who acts on such a principle unjustifiedly sets the value of his own life higher than that of multiple others.  He is plainly selfish.  Even if he tries to save the lives of comrades or loved ones, he is still being selfish.  And nobody should want to be selfish.

7. The argument would not convince most people (e.g., because most people are selfish), hence it’s a bad argument

           Kierkegaard identifies a category of evasion.  Through an evasion, we manage to avoid an existential question that impinges on us without grappling with it.  For instance, as a substitute for grappling with the religious questions raised by the Bible, one might become a Hebrew or Greek philologist.  While philology can help, when it is a substitute, it becomes an evasion.  One ethical evasion, when faced with an argument for an unwelcome conclusion, is to argue that the argument will be unconvincing (quote) “to people” (unquote) or maybe (quote) “to people in our society” (unquote).

           I have met this evasion most often when teaching on Peter Singer’s argument that we should give up all our luxuries, and perhaps more, to help feed the starving.  Instead of grappling with the existential question “Should I follow the conclusion of this argument?” or the intellectual question “Is this argument sound?” a student will explain in his or her paper why it is that most people will fail to follow the conclusion of the argument.  The explanation tends to include a more or less dressed up version of: “They are selfish.”  What the paper fails to add is either “But I do not wish to be selfish and hence I will accept the conclusion” or “And, I too am selfish, and proud of it.”  Rather, by having explained why other people will fail to accept the argument, the student seems to think that his or her job is done.  But it’s not.  (I am not endorsing Singer’s argument or conclusion, of course.)

           This is a case of reasoning from what most people hold to what is true.  What makes it particularly egregious is that one has actually identified why other people hold the conclusion that they do and this has turned out to be a vice that they have, namely selfishness.  It is an evasion of the first-person import of the most basic moral question: What should I do?  A related evasion in pro-life contexts is that of relying on what the majority of people believe, of saying that the majority believes something, while leaving oneself out.

           As in some of the other moral errors, this one has a good root.  That a vast majority of people rejects an argument gives us some reason to be suspicious of the argument.  But it is not conclusive.  And any evidential weight the rejection of the argument has disappears if we see that the rejection is predicated on selfishness.

8. Moral beliefs coming from religion are inferior to other moral beliefs held by people

           We see this error much in the public arena.  We hear politicians claiming that they cannot make judgments, particularly ones in life issues, based on religious premises, because these judgments then are a matter of religion.  But this is a species of the genetic fallacy.  It confuses questions about the origin of a belief with questions about the truth or justifiability of the belief itself.

           Any one belief might be held for a multitude of reasons.  Thus, one might hold on religious grounds that the age of the universe is finite.  Or one might hold this on philosophical grounds.  Or on scientific ones.  But the belief is the same in all three cases.  Likewise, a moral belief is no less a moral belief if it is accepted on religious grounds.

           But perhaps the worry is that moral beliefs coming from religion have no justification.  However, curiously, those who complain about religiously-grounded moral beliefs, especially those of politicians, tend to fail to complain about entirely ungrounded moral beliefs held by others.  Unless one should think that a given religion is the spawn of Satan or something like that, a moral belief grounded in that religion has at least as much weight as a belief held for no reason at all, or accepted simply because one’s parents taught it to one, or held for the sake of political gain, or accepted because all one’s peers hold it.  Just about nobody advocates philosophy exams for politicians to check whether their moral beliefs have a grounding.

           And of course a deeper error here is the assumption that religious beliefs cannot themselves have grounds.  But that’s a different story.