Unless you are a moral absolutist – believing in moral imperatives that are either divinely dictated or metaphysically existent – you believe in a consequentialist morality. As a Consequentialist, you believe that actions are judged by their consequences and that the end justifies the means. This does not necessarily mean that you look at the immediate consequences only and judge the act by that. Not at all! By consequences you might mean the wider implications of the act, potential influences, slippery slopes, and so on, but ultimately, all that is to be said about the act is said in terms of what it does, without attributing any inherent moral value to any particular act itself.
Is killing bad? A moral absolutist might respond with a passionate ‘yes!’, but the consequentialist will want to have more details: ‘What does it do? How does it feel? Does it make people happy or sad?’ and so on. Is giving to charity good? Once again, the Consequentialist will need some more information before she can cast judgment.
But it is not only in verdict that Consequentialism might differ from Deontologism. They can also differ on what constitutes a moral question. Take a self pleasing activity like masturbation as an example. If you are a deontologist you will most likely say that this activity is beyond the scope of morality and that it can be said to be neither good nor bad (unless – of course – you are a Divine Command theorist and believe that this activity has been deemed immoral by your deity). A Consequentialist on the other hand, may see this as a moral and commendable act, judging by its consequence: it feels good, so it is good.
Consequentialism is far from simple, of course. It is all nice and good to define the moral quality of an act by its result, but how do you judge the goodness of the result? You might have some moral scenarios in which the answer is quite simple, but some situations become very complex to the point where making a moral judgment of good or bad becomes almost impossible.
However difficult measuring the utility of actions might be, though, consequentialism is fully contingent upon the facts of reality. It might be impossible to know these facts accurately in many cases, but since we judge actions by their consequences, the moral value of actions will depend on the reality of what they cause. That means that to make a moral consequentialist judgment, facts about reality need to be known. Thus claims about morality become claims about reality.
Let us take a simple case as an example. Person x is accused of murder and brought before a jury to determine whether or not he should be arrested. Arresting x can be either entirely moral and justified or completely immoral and unjust and it all depends on a simple fact about reality: did x or did he not commit the murder. If he did then he belongs behind bars. However, if he is innocent, then locking him up is a terrible crime.
The moral value of the act of locking up x is thus relative to the truth value of the statement ‘x committed murder’. The act itself has no inherent moral value, but relative to the statement ‘x committed murder’ it has a positive moral value and relative to the statement ‘x has not committed murder’ it has a negative moral value.
Now consider two judges, judge A and judge B. A believes that x is guilty and imprisons him, but B believes that he is innocent and frees him. One of them is definitely wrong, but are any of them committing an immoral act? Technically yes, as either imprisoning an innocent person, or freeing a murderer is immoral. However, none of the judges can be said to be immoral and the reason for this is moral relativity! Each verdict is moral relative to the belief of the judge.
It is at this point that I introduce you to my friend, the infamous Osama Bin Ladin. Brother Osama can teach us a thing or two about Moral Relativism. Now before you get all angry with me for referring to this mass murderer as a friend, let me assure you that I have no secret ties with Al Qaeda or any other terrorist group and that I would most likely not accept a friend request from Bin Ladin. Still, for the purposes of this post let’s give him some air time. So here are two possible portrayals of the man:
Osama1: Here is a bloodthirsty monster disguised as a human being. He gets tremendous satisfaction from inflicting pain on innocent people and all he wants to do is destroy the Western world and murder all of its citizens – men, women and children. He is the devil incarnate, cruel, brutal, heartless; I wish there was a hell so that he can burn there forever and ever!
Osama2: Allah created the world in the hope that mankind will be obedient to Him and follow in the righteous ways that He has prescribed for them. But, alas, humanity has strayed from the true path and has triggered God’s wrath. One righteous man, Osama, heeds God’s call and tries to awaken the world from its self destructive slumber. But they would not listen. God’s message is clear: desperate times require desperate measures. “Osama,” He calls to him, “You must use whatever means you have at your disposal to get people back to me and if you must shed blood then so be it.” With a heavy heart, Osama proceeds to carry out God’s will, securing his place amongst the righteous pillars of the world forever and ever!
Let’s focus on Osama2 for a moment. Was the act of bringing down the World Trade Centre, thereby killing close to 3000 people, a moral act or an immoral act? Well, as consequentialists we need some more information. We need to know some facts about reality: ‘Did this calm God down preventing Him from destroying the whole universe, or not? Did this act help people realise how far they’ve strayed, thereby saving millions from eternal damnation in hell, or not?’
These questions have answers and only relative to these answers can we make a moral judgment on the act. So if the answer to these questions is “Don’t be stupid; God doesn’t even exist”, then the act is indescribably immoral. However, if it turns out that Allah exists exactly as described then nothing can be nobler than such an act of self sacrifice for the greater good of humanity.
Do we know the answers to the above asked question? Well, you might say, ‘yes we do’, and I might tend to agree with you, but what you and I believe is totally irrelevant when it comes to judging Bin Ladin. What matters is what he believed and I think that what he believed is quite clear. So, was Bin Ladin an evil person? Well, relative to his beliefs he most likely was not evil. And even though that relative to our beliefs what he did was immoral, we can’t really judge a person based on our beliefs, can we? Based on our beliefs we can say that he was wrong and mistaken, but we cannot give the act a moral value without making clear relative to which belief we are making that judgment.
How about epistemic responsibility though? Surely an individual must have justification for their beliefs before they go out and kill people based on them?
But I think that anyone who has ever debated a Mormon, an Evangelical Christian, or an Ultra-Orthodox Jew knows that that’s far too much to expect from humans. In fact, have you ever tried to debate your friend who is on the other end of the political spectrum? Have you managed to change their mind? Have they managed to change yours? Exactly! Unfortunately, humans are just not the logical beings they present themselves as.
And as to your claim that you do not go around killing people based on your beliefs – well, you masturabate (I don’t know why I’m obsessed with masturbation today. I know it’s great and everything, but still…) and did you know that according to Kabbalah, each individual spermatozoon is considered like a human being and when you ‘spill your seed’ you are killing millions of people with every drop? (I am not providing a source because whether or not this particular anecdote is true is besides the point. The point is that we all do acts on a daily basis that according to one belief or another have terrible supernatural consequences.) Where is your epistemic responsibility then?
Where does this leave us then in terms of setting moral standards for society? Does this mean that we should tolerate all sorts of behaviour in the name of ideology in our society? Of course not! But it’s not a matter of moral justice, but of power. The strong get to control the weak. In fact, we enforce our secular views on society with an iron fist! We suppress every belief that does not conform to our secular view of morality. We are anything but tolerant to the views of others. But that’s fine because that is how the world works when there are irreconcilable differences: the stronger wins.
And do not think that Western societies are tolerant and pluralistic. They are absolutely not! Do we allow fundamentalist Christians to kill homosexuals who ‘rightfully deserve to die, as clearly stated in the Bible’? Do we allow radical Muslims to execute Kafirs who ‘according to the Quran should be put to the sword’? Where is our pluralism? What justifications do we have to tell people that their beliefs are wrong? The answer is that we have none! We do not have moral justifications to do that, but we do not need any because we are stronger! But then in other areas of the world people with different worldviews are stronger, which makes us sad because we like to enforce our views on others. Are these countries bad for violating human rights? Well, they are as bad as us who violate human rights by leading people on the path to hell (Just ask the Westboro Baptist Church)! Who is to judge?