Understanding Moral Decisions – Part 2

In my last post I mentioned that there are three philosophical approaches for those of us who want to make morally correct decisions: consequentialism, deontology, and virtue ethics.  Let me begin with consequentialism.

Consequentialism is a philosophy in which the morally right decision is one that focuses on the best overall consequence.  It is concerned with those actions that provide the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people.  Until recently, consequentialism was labeled utilitarianism.  Both John Stuart Mill and Jeremy Bentham were philosophers supportive of utilitarianism.   Of course, the first philosopher to propose such a theory was Epicurus, the ancient Greek philosopher mentioned in my book.  Consequentialism supports the idea that the ends justify the means.

I am not a supporter of this philosophy.  The main reason is the definition of the greater good that determines what are acceptable actions.  For example, a hedge fund that has been trading on inside information may consider such actions acceptable because they enhance the greater good of the investors of the fund.  That is true, if the greater good is defined as the wealth of the investors or shareholders, then such actions would be considered acceptable and supported by the philosophy.  Also, a communistic country may determine that a government mandated limit of one child per family is acceptable as it contributes to the greater good of the country.  That is true, if the greater good is defined as a target birth rate.

A very recent example is the president’s actions regarding Obamacare.  He genuinely believes that Obamacare is a universal good that should be available to everyone.  However, his determination to reach the ends of this goal overcame the means to the end.  He lied to all citizens about being able to keep your plan, your doctor, and receive a lower cost (all are the so-called means to the end).  This lie was justified to pass Obamacare legislation as well as win a second term as president.  Consequentialism would accept these actions on the grounds that the passage of Obamacare would enhance the common good.  Given the recent outcry by most citizens against this approach to leadership, it is safe to say that most people do not accept consequentialism as a valid philosophy.

I believe that this philosophy is dangerous and has been relied upon by too many leaders in the past to justify their actions.  The philosophy’s original premise can easily be manipulated to justify all means to support targeted ends.  Just as hedonism, a subset of this philosophy, is dangerous, the philosophy itself is dangerous, as witnessed by mistakes in the past by governments and institutions.  Finally, this philosophy can rob the individual of those actions needed to achieve happiness and the flourishing of society.  If individual actions are dictated by the need for the greater good, then those actions needed for personal happiness and the resultant flourishing of society may never occur.

More to come in the next post.

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