Can the Same Action be Moral and Immoral?

I post frequently on Quora. For those of you who don’t know, Quora is a site where you can ask a question and get responses. However, unlike Yahoo Answers, Quora has managed to actually curate responses and have good enough community standards such that there are, by and large, some really intelligent responses. I post often enough, and on random enough issues, that I won’t replicate all my content there here. However, those posts I am most proud of or I think have the broadest utility and are relevant to the Freelance Hope Warrior blog I’ll put here.

This was a response to the question, “Can the same behavior be moral and immoral”?

First, let’s look at the major existing ethical systems and see what they might say.

Kant would largely say no. A Kantian deontological or categorical imperative framework says that actions are intrinsically wrong or right. Specifically, Kant had two maxims: An action should be universalizable at the moment you do it; and an action should not use others as a means to an end against their will.

The first one, the categorical imperative, means that lying is wrong, no matter the motivation or context, because if everyone were to lie, communication would be debased. Theft would be wrong because theft, if everyone were to do it, would make the idea of property in the first place impossible.

In other words, Kant’s first principle says that actions that basically prey on the good behavior of others are wrong. Lying depends on other people telling truths to work. If everyone lied, lying would be much less effective. Theft depends on other people not stealing and producing products for the thief to steal to work.

The second one, not using other people as a means to an end, against their will, is a little tricky.

An example philosophy teachers often point to as a transaction where I use someone as a means to an end, as a way to fulfill what Kant would call “a hypothetical imperative”, is buying a sandwich. If I go to Subway and ask someone to make a sandwich, I’m using them as a means to get that sandwich. My interaction with them is basically with them as a proxy for a tool. But they consent to this by virtue of working there. (I’ll put aside the idea of consent in a capitalist framework for this discussion).

So sometimes, the same basic action could be evil if it were being done against someone’s will or if it was using them as a means to an end in some kind of inhuman fashion.

Virtue ethics, like that espoused by Aristotle, would absolutely say that the same basic action can be immoral, or at least not morally laudatory, based on the virtue behind it.

If I give someone a soda when they’re thirsty because I feel generous and want to share with someone who is thirsty, that’s probably a good action.

If I give someone a soda when they’re thirsty because it’ll impress the girl I’m with, or because I want them to go away, or because I’m in a bad mood and don’t care what I do, then that’s probably not a good action. Sure, a thirsty person still got a soda, but I did it for reasons which are flawed.

For Aristotle, accidentally good actions carried no merit. Someone actually had to be intelligently producing the outcomes of their actions. That’s because Aristotle, as a student of Plato and in turn Socrates, viewed the moral person as an enlightened individual who, through the study of mind and philosophy, would be in control of their emotions, reason and soul.

So someone who, say, accidentally shot a mugger in the process of mugging when they were trying to be on a killing spree is still not a good person.

Utilitarian and virtue ethics scholars, in the vein of Bentham and Mills, would say that the same action might be wrong if its long term consequences were wrong.

Let’s say one government policy gives services to the poor. It works very well, with those services developing people, building their capabilities and leading to long-term reductions in poverty. By a utilitarian perspective, that was probably a good policy.

Let’s say another government did the same thing with the same framework. But, due to the different context of their society, what occurs is that those resources are stolen by thieves and encourage dependence and waste. Same action, different outcome, therefore it was a bad policy.

Now, for my perspective:

You have to use all three ways of thinking.

As the Dalai Lama pointed out in Ethics for the New Millennium, you can’t either ignore consequences entirely nor can you judge a situation entirely by the consequences. A captain of a boat in a storm certainly has some impact on whether or not the boat is saved, but just because the boat is ultimately saved does not mean he is a good captain. He could have gotten lucky.

I believe that we have to make sure our actions aren’t just good in some of abstract moral framework, but skillful. We have to think, “Is what I’m doing based on me actually having the proper mindset, the proper heart and mind, to do something positive?”

Perhaps the best example is a therapist trying to treat a family member. The therapist is perfectly skilled. They’re doing something with a good heart and something that could well have positive outcomes. But the interconnection between the two, the emotional link, can make them less able to intervene. They have a vested interest, and that actually makes them less effective and objective. So a therapist in that situation would in most situations be best served by refusing to give that care and instead finding someone else she trusted. The therapist in that situation would know she can’t be skillful, can’t be effective, or at least that the risk that she can’t is quite high. Worse, even if that situation comes out well for her family member, it may cost her a lot and hurt her, and there’s no reason to embrace that concept.

See, our actions have to be taken with what I call the third level of empathy. We need to be able to empathize with the system in total, ourselves and others included, and give the appropriate weight to everyone. We need to be able to be our own advocates without being cruel or dehumanizing. We need to stand up for our belief system without denying, explicitly or implicitly, that others have valid and functional belief systems that work for them based on their position and experiences.

Noam Chomsky offers the maxim that we are responsible for the predictable consequences of our actions. I view that as an excellent philosophical framework.

So, when we do something, even if that something is basically routine, we need to think each time (or at least often enough that we’ll catch problems) about (in roughly equal importance)

1) How our social context, privileges, culture, etc. might be unduly constraining our perception and our actions
2) If we’re acting in a way that is hurtful, callous or cruel
3) If we’re acting in a way such that we won’t see problems or be compassionate
4) If the consequences of this specific action might be negative to someone, and if so if that negativity is enough balanced against the positive outcomes that encourage us to do it
5) If the positive outcomes of our actions are overwhelmingly concentrated for us, and the negative outcomes to others are of a noteworthy magnitude (i.e. if we are being selfish)
6) What our motives are for why we’re doing this action, and if those motives may lead us to not be skillful

And that means that each and every situation is totally distinct.

A police officer who kills a suspect brandishing a firearm, even if he went through the same reasoning each time, could have been unduly hasty in one case and prudent in another. Lots of little factors add up in our most important moral decisions.

But the biggest help to this process is to know this:

Even with a good heart, you will make mistakes. You will have flaws. You will on occasion act without the proper thought.


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