The Petite Cottage 🏠

Moral Actions, Moral People?

When it comes to ethics, like pretty much everything, things tend to be either/or. Vegan or non-vegan. Red or blue. Bourgie or prole. Consequence or intention. But like most things, you can have different dietary restrictions, different colours, classes, and schools. I’d like to argue that both intention and consequence are important tools when evaluating ethics– but for very different purposes.

First off, let’s separate the morality of an action and the morality of a person. Whether or not a person is good is irrelevant to whether or not what they did is good.

What determines whether an action is good or bad must be seen without any regard to the person committing the action– the action must be analyzed with this veil of ignorance. Surely a good person can do terrible things– little Tammy can snap and kill each person in her family– or vice versa– Tommy, a rapist, can go to community service in order to “give back.”

Little Tammy, despite doing all the good she could to improve the lives of those around her, ended the lives of her family. The result of her action was –5 people. The result was the untimely squelching of any potential happiness these five people could’ve and would’ve had in the future.

Conversely, Tommy, despite violating and traumatizing several women in his life, helped give meals to hungry people in a soup kitchen. The result of this action was 25 people eating who may not have been served otherwise– the soup kitchen was very crowded and understaffed that night, after all. The result was 25 people not suffering with aching stomaches that evening, tided over until later the next day.

Obviously, the outcome of Tammy’s actions was negative, while Tommy’s was positive. Due to Tammy’s actions, the world is with a little less happiness, and without five human lives. Thanks to Tommy, the world is with a little more happiness than before.

(I won’t go into depth as to why happiness is morally desirable and unhappiness or suffering is undesirable– read some Mill or something. That’s not my domain.)

If there was a veil of ignorance cast over the actors, and we knew nothing about Tammy or Tommy, the consequences of their actions would remain the same. One remains moral, the other remains reprehensible. In other words, there is no connection between the actor and the character of the action.

But let’s say that Tommy was only at the soup kitchen to fulfill his parole– or that little Tammy was broken after years of emotional abuse from her family– does that change the character of their actions?

Perhaps Tommy’s seen in a less noble and selfless light, and maybe Tammy is more sympathizable, but the consequences are static.

Regardless of the motivation, Tommy’s service brought good into the world– Tammy’s vice-versa. The morality of the action is due to it’s consequences, and these consequences only are related to intention only so far as they impact consequences– if two intentions produce the same consequence, the distinction is irrelevant to determining the morality of the action.

This consequentialism serves as a great tool for determining the ethics of any given action– but it proves wholly inadequate for determining the moral character of a person, unlike what some consequentialists believe.

For example: Tamara may have cured the world of cancer– a moral action– but it served only as another in a long string of actions intended to bring her fame and adoration. All she wanted was this fame and notoriety.

Zachary might have injured an innocent man– an immoral action– but he believed the man was out to attack another innocent person. He wanted to protect others.

When determining the moral character of a person, it makes plenty of sense to consider their intent, despite the character of their actions.

Assuming that utility (happiness) is the morally desirable result, people intending (though not necessarily doing so) to increase utility are moral people, as they desire and work toward this result.

Under this logic, Zachary is a good person, as his intent is generally oriented toward maximizing happiness and utility– while Tamara is a bad person, since her intent is generally oriented toward only maximizing her relative small happiness and utility.

No, the intended results might not always happen. People aren’t perfect, and we sure as hell can’t see the future. That’s one why determining character from results is bad– it’s all about intention.

Consequentialism needs to stay with actions, and intent needs to stay with people’s character.