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For years I have taught students in my Psychology of Well-Being course that consequential ethics is a healthier position than absolutist ethics. "What matters," I would say, are the positive and negative consequences of your actions, not whether your behavior conforms to some absolute principle." I was essentially on my own when I taught this idea, except for Harry Browne's chapter on the Morality Trap, but Browne was not a psychologist.

Yesterday I found that my position was affirmed by the authors of a new book I will be using for optional reading in the course next fall, Self-Esteem by Matthew McKay & Patrick Fanning. Here's what they say about ethics and psychological well-being.

p. 113
Healthy values are realistic. This means that they are based on as assessment of positive versus negative consequences. A realistic value or rule promotes behavior that leads to positive outcomes. It encourages you to do things that result in long-term happiness for the people involved. That's the purpose of a value. You follow it because in your experience the value guides you toward a way of living that feels good. Unrealistic values and shoulds have nothing to do with outcomes. They are absolute and global. They prescribe behavior because it is "right" and "good," not because it leads to positive consequences. Unrealistic values require you to act "on principle," no matter how much pain the act brings to yourself and others.
p. 114
In the study of ethics, this approach is called consequentialism. What makes consequentialism appealing is that ethical systems based on absolute principles inevitably reach a point where some of the principles contradict each other. This problem can be demonstrated on a very simple level. Consider the conflict a child must face when trying to decide whether the highest good is telling his parents the truth or keeping a confidence with his brother. He will have to break one of his principles by either lying or betraying a sibling. The only realistic way you can escape such an ethical quandary is to evaluate the negative and positive consequences of each choice for all parties concerned.


( 9 comments — Leave a comment )
(Deleted comment)
Apr. 26th, 2007 11:44 am (UTC)
I wasn't aware that it was an unusual viewpoint.

There are several reasons why absolutism has predominated over consequentialism. First, absolutism is rooted historically in religion-based morality. It's an article of faith amongst theists that their god's rules are absolute. Second, Kant's depiction of moral rules as universal laws remains enormously influential. His view informed Kohlberg's theory of moral development in psychology, which remains the most popular theory in that area. Finally, many people take one look at the antonym of absolutism--relativism--and immediately accept absolutism because relativism is "obviously" evil. Never mind that very different versions of relativism exist--the mere word causes knee-jerk rejection among many (most?) people. Finally, maintaining a non-absolutist perspective requires a degree of cognitive complexity of which many people are incapable. They need their black-and-white, simple rules.

Interestingly, I noticed an ueber-absolutist attitude in libertarianism a couple of days ago. I started a thread asking people what libertarians thought were reasonable restrictions on purchasing guns. One person responded with the simple-mind, black-and-white "...shall not be infringed." He even titled his response "It's all right there, in black and white." Several people endorsed this simple-mindedness with the following responses: "Ditto" "Simple and the truth" and "IAWTC."

There is a school of thought amongst liberal Christians, "Situation Ethics," which claims that love is the only absolute. Naturally, conservative Christians regard situation ethics as unbiblical. (Of course, intelligent atheists think that Christian situation ethics is not quite consequentialist enough.)
(Deleted comment)
Apr. 26th, 2007 04:34 pm (UTC)
I did a little searching on the Web to see what gun lovers have said about the right to bear nuclear arms. It seems that the most popular response is to claim that this is a straw man argument. Personally, I do not see how it is a straw man argument against someone who is insisting on a literalistic, black-and-white interpretation of the Second Amendment.
Apr. 26th, 2007 10:53 pm (UTC)
"Black-and-white" is appropriate in a legal context.
I agree with your assertions, as far as they apply to moral absolutism. However, the Bill of Rights has nothing to do with morality. Rather, my position is one of legal absolutism, and I defy you to defend a position of legal relativism in a country that champions individual liberty and equality before the law, as pertains to the method by which the government regulates the activities of the citizens whose rights it was established to protect. Laws are worthless if they are not applied absolutely as prescribed.
Apr. 27th, 2007 01:33 am (UTC)
Re: "Black-and-white" is appropriate in a legal context.
If by "legal relativism" you mean failing to apply laws uniformly to everyone, I certainly can't support that position. Of course, as you have said yourself, this is what happens in practice. Judges often misinterpret the intent of laws to favor powerful groups or individuals. As Frank Zappa said, "The United States is a nation of laws: badly written and randomly enforced."

Of course when it comes to following laws, I am a consequentialist-relativist. I'm mostly concerned about the actual effects of following laws on myself and other people. I don't think of the founding fathers as infallible gods and I don't have a worshipful attitude toward laws as if they were divine truths. From your terse post on the Second Amendment, I got the mistaken impression that you believed that following laws absolutely is always a good thing. So much for jumping to conclusions.
Apr. 27th, 2007 03:43 pm (UTC)
Re: "Black-and-white" is appropriate in a legal context.
Of course, as you have said yourself, this is what happens in practice.

And because it does, it is necessary to counter any perceived infringement on liberty. The road to tyranny begins with a single step.

I think that we are saying similar things, but are approaching from opposite directions. I certainly do not hold up the founders as gods, infallible in word and deed, because they were not. For all the gains they made in creating a society of free men, they did not recognize blacks or women as "created equal".

That said, they did have some good ideas, and the decision to create absolute prohibitions on Congress making laws that abridge our freedom to speak, print, gather peacefully, bear arms, etc., was particularly ingenious. I'd like to think they were well aware of the dangers that "rational basis" tests for creating (and upholding) restrictive laws could hold, so they forbade Congress the authority to create such restrictions.

The other brilliant thing they did was to create a mechanism for change. Clearly, nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons did not exist in 1787, so they could not have considered them as "arms" in the sense that we now must. So, the solution, if we do not desire for someone to have a nuclear device in his backpack wired to a dead man's switch is to amend the Constitution, not ignore it.

Apr. 28th, 2007 12:02 am (UTC)
Re: "Black-and-white" is appropriate in a legal context.
amend the Constitution, not ignore it.

Yes, I agree that this is always the proper way to deal with issues like this at the federal level.
Apr. 26th, 2007 03:20 am (UTC)
Yep, absolutism sucks. There is no way to justify an absolute principle except by referring to consequences, simply because a principle is not evident a priori (it's not a tautology, for example), nor can something like this be empirically 'proven' (the very idea is absurd). A rule is just a shorthand, but it derives its validity from the consequences it usually produces. I tried to explain this to my philosophy TA but I think he has a religion worshipping Kant...

Oh, and about that last thing: one could deal with contradictions by creating an exact heirarchy of values. But absolutism still sucks :P
Apr. 26th, 2007 01:10 pm (UTC)
Kantians are incorrigible. They are quite convinced that a priori ethical truths do exist.

To my mind, a hierarchy of absolute values is paradoxical. To me, absolute means no exceptions, including being trumped by a different moral value.
Apr. 28th, 2007 11:43 pm (UTC)
Oh, excellent! What a wonderful rebuttal to religious "commandments" (to be fair, the more intelligent religious people I know do take a relativist approach to morality anyways). Also, as touched upon in above comments, a good warning against taking "the party line" of *any* political group, no matter how much you agree with their general principles!

"My morality, right or wrong!"
-Most of America
( 9 comments — Leave a comment )