Against “Doing the Right Thing”

I’ve never liked Ethics. To me, most ethical questions contain unexamined presuppositions and frame philosophical problems in the wrong way. A central question in Ethics is: for any given situation, what’s the “right thing to do”? Growing up in a Christian evangelical household, I heard this question a million times. But it’s a misleading question which causes more confusion than clarity.

For this piece, I’ll be using the term “ethics” (with a lower case “e”) loosely and interchangeably with “morality”. In common usage, they mean the same thing.

In my worldview, ethics does not concern itself with “right action” or “wrong action”. It’s not concerned with actions at all. Rather, ethical problems are about intention. “Doing the right thing” makes far more sense when understood as “having the right intention.” Let me give you an example.

It’s your nephew’s birthday. He’s turning 6. You know he wants pie as a present. You have all the ingredients necessary on the table and can cook a delicious pie in minutes. You have a choice: bake the kid a pie or not? Naturally, you make the pie. He eats it, has an allergic reaction, and dies immediately. Your actions directly caused the death of a child. Are you a monster? Morally guilty? From my perspective, the answer is easy. Don’t look at the actions; look at the intent.

If you didn’t mean to kill the kid – nobody knew he was allergic to pecans – then you’ve not done a bad thing. Ethically speaking, your actions are irrelevant. This is true even when we ramp up the stakes.

Instead of a simple allergic reaction to pie, let’s say you make your nephew some chicken soup. He’s ill, and you want him to feel better. Fortunately, you own your own chickens, so you know the soup will be healthy. You make a batch and bring it to his family. Little do you know, your chickens were carrying a nasty strain of avian flu. He gets sick and contagious, spreads the disease to the rest of his family, which ultimately starts a pandemic. Millions of people die. Are you morally responsible for the death of millions? Of course not (I’d say).

If this is true – if millions of innocent people dying doesn’t determine an action’s moral status – then I’d confidently say that morality has nothing to do with action.

Now, say that you knew your chickens were diseased, or that your nephew was allergic to pecans. Then, it becomes equally clear – you intended to kill. You are morally guilty. Say that you wanted to kill your nephew, but you were mistaken about his allergy. He’s allergic to walnuts, not pecans. So instead of dying, he enjoys your pie – it makes his day, in fact. Your actions created happiness in a 6-year old and fulfilled his birthday wishes. Are you in-the-right? Of course not. You wanted him dead! The positive results were an unintended consequence.

This way of thinking gets around a number of problems, like the infamous “trolley problems”. Consider one version: you find yourself in front of train tracks and a lever. A train is headed towards ten children who are tied to the tracks. If you pull the lever, the train will be diverted to another track – one with five elderly people tied to the rails. So the dilemma is: if you do nothing, ten children will die. But if you actively intervene, five old people will die. What’s the right thing to do? Are you morally responsible for letting the children die if you do nothing? Or, are you only responsible if you intervene and pull the lever? Is it OK to substitute a few old people for several young people?

There’s a million different variations on this idea and a million different responses. I can’t help but find mine the easiest resolution: there is no “right action to take.” What’s important is the actor’s intent. This means different people could act differently in the same circumstances. My actions – pulling the lever – would be based on my own sincere valuation to cause the most good in the world. Your actions – not pulling the lever – might have the same exact intention, though we make opposite choices.

Perhaps my pulling the lever causes more harm than good – all of the children saved turned out to be little Hitlers, while all the old people were cancer-curing doctors. But morally speaking, it wouldn’t matter. My intention was morally correct.

The skeptic might say: does that mean “anything goes”, as long as your intention is pure? I’d say yes, though it seems like a dangerous precedent. It actually solves a few more problems.

Consider the case of an incompetent man. He has brain damage and does not have a clear grasp of cause and effect. In my view, he can still act morally, regardless the potential damage of his actions. If he sincerely believes swinging a knife around is a loving thing to do, then he’s morally correct in doing so.

This justifies the actions of lunatics; it’s true. The religious zealot who blows himself up – if his intention is right and he sincerely acted out of love – then I do not believe he acted immorally. Fortunately, I do have one catch:

Truly having the right intention means you care about cause and effect. If you love your fellow man, you must understand the importance of researching your beliefs. Acting out of ignorance, when avoidable, reflects poorly on an individual’s intentions. I cannot morally condemn the man with brain damage, but I can condemn the lazy zealot, who acts out of ignorance and doesn’t care about the accuracy of his ideas.

In essence, morality is internal, not external. It only appears external because well-intentioned people usually act in ways we like. We clearly see their actions; we can’t easily see their intentions, and so the cart gets put before the horse.

I suggest a simple alternative: recognize that actions flow from intentions. Questions of causality deal with actions. Questions of morality deal with intentions.