Friday, June 20, 2014

Ethical Reflections

Take a deep breath before reading on. It may be heavy going.

It’s my birthday today. Fifty-seven and born in 1957. It feels as though this should have some kind of ‘mystical significance’. I’m not looking for congratulations. Far from it. For the most part, it’s just another day. If anything, I feel a little embarrassed when people make any kind of fuss. Why is that? Perhaps because, most of the time, I feel like a fraud. I’m conscious that what I have achieved during those fifty-seven years doesn’t amount to much. I’m not sure I deserve to be congratulated for anything. Others have made a far better fist of this whole ‘life’ thing than I have.

Still, birthdays are, I suppose, a time for reflection. What has been the value of my life, so far? I say ‘so far’ because, odds are, there’s a little way to go in the race yet.

How would I measure the worth of my life? In truth, I probably couldn’t. I’m not exactly well-placed to be objective in the matter. But, theoretically, how would one measure, in the end, the worth of anyone’s life? I suppose one could ask whether, on balance, the world is a better place or a worse place for that person having lived. But that is an extraordinarily complex and difficult thing to measure. It involves comparing realities with ‘what-ifs’. The world is a complex interaction of causes and effects: take out even one little cause and things might change dramatically (the butterfly effect). Take out even what we perceive as a ‘bad’ thing, and this might have disastrous consequences. I’m not using this to justify an ‘anything goes’ type of morality. This is an argument sometimes used by theists to explain evil in the world: Anything goes for ‘God’, though not for human beings. Perhaps, in the grand scheme of things, something we perceive as ‘evil’ serves a greater ‘good’. If we could see the whole picture… This effectively makes moral judgements impossible from our mere human perspective. No, I’m not arguing this. Nor would I argue that if something good ultimately arises out of something evil that this justifies that evil. It does not, retroactively, transform that evil into something good. I think it is possible to judge an event and its consequences independently, which is why I am not a pure utilitarian.

So, what would it even mean to argue that the sum of a person’s life was positive rather than negative? Would I choose a utilitarian measure for this (the balance of the outcomes), or some kind of intrinsic measure of the person’s worth? Could they yield different results? I suspect, without being able to prove it, that this might be the case. The actions of an intrinsically ‘good’ person might lead to disastrous consequences; but this would not render them intrinsically less good. On the other hand, the actions of a ‘bad’ person might lead to good consequences; and this would not render that person intrinsically and retroactively good. There has to be included something here about intentions and ‘meaning well’—although the phrase ‘he meant well’ always sounds like something of a put down. Despite these slightly negative (or paternalistic) overtones, ‘meaning well’ is important, because of the bewildering complexity of cause and effect in the world. We can never know the full ramifications of our actions in the world. ‘Meaning well’, therefore, has to count for something. This is at least part of what I would mean by the intrinsic worth (as opposed to the utilitarian value) of an action, or, indeed, of an entire life.

It becomes very complicated, though, doesn’t it? Might I (or a supreme being of some description) justify an evil action if I am seeking to bring about a ‘greater good’? Don’t I ‘mean well’? So perhaps actions also have some kind of intrinsic value, independent of their intended outcomes. We now have three components to take into account when considering a person’s life or actions: 1. The actual consequences of those actions, which we would judge (according to some standard) as beneficial or detrimental; 2. The intentions of the person: did they mean to do well or to do harm; and (3) the intrinsic value of the action itself. Add to all that a fourth factor, which is the scale against which we measure these things: what do we actually mean by such terms as ‘good’ and ‘evil’, ‘beneficial’ and ‘detrimental’ (and for whom)? These may be absolute and invariable for you, or they vary depending on the circumstances. But we still aren’t finished, because individuals do not make decisions or take action in a vacuum. There are a host of factors that enter into a person’s life and decisions that, in legal terms, diminish a person’s responsibility to a greater or lesser degree. People are effects, as well as causes. Here we enter upon that very tricky area of free will.

For each of us, each of these factors will carry different weight as we (inevitably) judge people and actions. Some of us will be more forgiving of a less successful life, because we give more weight to mitigating circumstances. Some of us will place greater emphasis on intentions. Others will give more weight to actual outcomes, because these things seem more tangible and more measurable (although they probably aren’t). Finally, others among us will condemn (or approve) an action or person as evil (or good) because they measure (or fail to measure) up to some external, objective standard. Intentions, mitigating circumstances and even outcomes count for nothing. We will all be somewhere in this complicated, multi-dimensional ethical framework, whether we know it or not.

So, I suppose, in the end, this means that my own life will ultimately be judged in a multitude of different ways by different people. Having begun by saying that I am not well-placed to judge my own life perhaps, in the end, mine is the only judgement that counts. How do I measure up according to where I stand in this complex, multi-dimensional ethical space? Probably not that well, so far.

1 comment:

  1. Hi, Philip ~
    Was going to wish you a happy birthday, as prompted by LinkedIn, but decided to visit your blog here instead, and I'm glad I did. Thank you for a thoughtful, thought-provoking essay. You've reminded me of the ethics teacher I studied with a long time ago (when you were a year old!) -- and also of Anthony Burgess' novel EARTHLY POWERS, which I've read two or three times. So much of what we do, I think, has effects far beyond what we can know, and that was true even for an individual who's never met anyone outside of his or her own little village. How much more true for those of us who write books (and blogs)! I would argue that a life's value, for good or ill, can't be accurately judged at all, by anyone. Who knows whom you've touched, will touch? Happy Winter Solstice to you, then!