Morality of Actions
Actions speak louder than words. Talk is cheap. Action is eloquence. We hear these sorts of proverbs all the time. Clearly, we put a lot of emphasis on how people act, and many of us judge right or wrong by actions as well.
Well, there's actually a deep philosophical precedent for this. The philosophy that morals are determined by actions is called normative ethics. This is actually pretty prevalent in our society - just look at the justice system. We judge actions, not intentions. So normative ethics evaluate the morality of actions, but there's more to it than that.
You didn't think we were just going to leave it at normative ethics, did you? No, this is philosophy; there's always another layer to explore. And it's time to take action, specifically, taking a look at the competing theories of consequentialism and non-consequentialism.
All right, we're entering one level within the normative ethics school of thought. While all normative ethics agree that morality is based in actions, there are different ways of viewing this. For example, how do you actually evaluate an action?
Well, here's one idea - how about judging morality of an action by the consequences it creates? We call this theory consequentialism. In this viewpoint, a moral action is one that produces a positive outcome, and an immoral action creates a negative outcome. A common way to express this is the end justifies the means, so if something will ultimately be beneficial, the action is moral.
Now, again, this is philosophy, so nothing's quite that simple. In consequentialism, the morality of an action is based on its consequence, but how do you define a consequence as negative or positive? There are a few basic divisions here. The first is personal. If an action is personally beneficial, some say that makes it moral. But what if that action hurts others? More commonly, consequentialism is judged by a larger consequence, sometimes by the impact on society, or the state, or the greater good in general.
One of the most common beliefs is in utilitarianism, or the greatest good for the greatest number of people. This idea recognizes that no action is universally beneficial, so the most moral action benefits the most number of people possible. But what if that action hurts the individual who has to make it? Is it still moral if there is a negative consequence for that person? And now, we're back where we started.
So how about we explore another side of this? The opposite of consequentialism is, unsurprisingly, non-consequentialism, although this could also be labeled as deontological ethics. From this viewpoint, the morality of an action is based on its adherence to accepted rules. So the outcome of the action doesn't really matter; what matters is, essentially, the intention.
That means that it's up to the society to determine what is moral and immoral and up to you to obey that morality. This does, of course, assume that your society is moral, which is a different question entirely, and also still requires you to take action. Just thinking about morality isn't good enough. But in this theory, we are directly judging the action itself, not the consequences of that action.
So non-consequentialism would argue that an action is moral if it obeys moral law. But the idea of the moral law can be tricky and doesn't always refer to actual legal codes. Moral law can be seen as the code of right and wrong, often assumed to be natural and universal. So, your actions are moral if and only if they follow the universal rules of right and wrong.
But here's the question - how do you determine what is naturally right and wrong? Really, that's not the question behind normative ethics, and really not the focus of non-consequential ethics. Non-consequential ethics only evaluates the morality of an action, but it is up to others to decide what right and wrong actually mean. But that's not a tunnel we're going to explore. For now, we'll just let our actions do the talking.
In normative ethics, actions are judged as being either moral or immoral, but there are multiple viewpoints on how to do this. According to consequentialism, the consequences of an action determine whether that action was moral. So we are judging the outcome, not the action itself. The other side of this is non-consequentialism, in which actions are moral if they adhere to moral law. This means judging the intention of the action and the action itself, not the result. But at the end of the day, both sides lead back to the same basic idea. Doing the right thing takes some doing.
- Normative ethics: philosophy that morals are determined by actions
- Consequentialism: theory that states a moral action is one that produces a positive outcome, and an immoral action creates a negative outcome
- Utilitarianism: belief that an action does the greatest amount of good for the greatest number of people
- Non-consequentialism: theory that states the morality of an action is based on its adherence to accepted rules
Analyzing different views on morality through this lesson could prepare you to:
- Define normative ethics
- Compare and contrast consequentialism and non-consequentialism
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Views of Morality: Explore Further
This lesson gave you an introduction to two schools of thought that fall under normative ethics: consequentialist and non-consequentialist morality. This can be a tricky subject, but you can use the following activities to learn more.
Be the Teacher
Consequentialist and non-consequentialist views of morality have different and complex definitions. Now that you have read this lesson, imagine that you are going to teach a class explaining these theories of morality. Write down in point-form what you will say to define each view of morality, making as little reference as possible to this lesson (come back if you get stuck!). For example, think about what questions your students might ask and how you would answer them.
Now that you have heard about these two major schools of thought, which one do you think you agree with more? It's okay if you fall somewhere in between the two ideas, but give them both some thought. Think about some real life examples of each kind of morality in action. Write an essay explaining which view of morality you take and why.
This lesson briefly mentioned utilitarianism. Do some research on your own and see what more you can learn about this area of philosophy. Look up famous utilitarians like Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill. Write a paragraph summarizing your understanding of their ideas. For instance, how do you feel about utilitarianism? Do you think it is applicable to our society? Why or why not? Explain your answers in a second paragraph.
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