It has long seemed to me folly to assume that one thing can determine the right or the good in all contexts in the way that, for example, Kantian deontologists and utilitarians claim. Each time I teach global ethics, this “feeling” is heightened. Why could it not be the case that in one context consequences are more relevant and in another intentions?
For example, a person is careless while driving, looking at his iPod, and ends up killing someone, quite unintentionally. In another case, a young man intends to hurt another but bungles it, and there are no bad consequences, except, perhaps, in regard to his self-image and how he might act in the future.
I’m quite sure that the Kantian and the utilitarian could explain the wrongness in each case, and the countless others that one might invent. But I’m guessing they could cover all such cases only via various contortions of reason and mis-descriptions of the facts.
On the other hand, there might seem to be a real problem if we were to say different things account for the right/good in different contexts, for then how do we determine which is salient in each case? How do we know that here it is the intentions and there the consequences that really matter?
But is this really a problem? Most of us don’t operate consciously, purposely, or explicitly as deontologists or consequentialists in daily life. Isn’t this a good place to appeal to a kind of Aristotelian idea of learned competence that is akin to chicken sexing? Perhaps that takes it too far into the inexplicable. For we do debate in normal contexts about whether motivations are more relevant than the consequences. As we grow up and become responsible moral agents, we develop skills in sorting out what is relevant and what not. Some of us are better at this than others, but the point is that we do it quite naturally. So why assume that we need some principle to appeal to in order to say what’s relevant when? Isn’t that just making the same mistaken assumption that for all cases there is some condition or set of conditions that make something right/good?
Perhaps, however, I have oversimplified matters. Perhaps the contortions of reason and the mis-descriptions I worried about earlier would be mitigated by distinguishing, as people do, between wrong actions, blameworthy actions, and actions warranting punishment. So the bungled attempt of the young man to harm another is blameworthy from the consequentialist’s perspective even if the bungled action wasn’t wrong per se, and as such still warrants punishment. It’s not clear, however, how one accounts for the blameworthiness of the bungled action without appealing to some kind of consequences: either the bungled action really produced bad consequences after all or we need to recognize that, according to a rule consequentialism, willing harm, successfully or not, leads to worse consequences than not in the long run. But then, the action is blameworthy because it is wrong. Perhaps the kind of cases I’m thinking about where it makes sense to separate out the bad from the blameworthy are those, for example, where one causes harm unavoidably and without fault, e.g., when the brakes give out in a new car, but no one was negligent, and someone is run over and killed. The driver is not to blame, did not act wrongly, though the consequences are bad. The point here is that it’s not clear that adding the above distinctions will solve the problem at hand.
I have focused here on Kantian deontology and consequentialism for simplicity’s sake and because they seem to go wrong in similar but opposite ways. The Kantian seems to neglect the importance of consequences and the consequentialist the importance of intention. And we are left wondering in one case why the consequences aren’t relevant and in another why the intentions aren’t relevant. Clearly, Kant and Mill were subtle thinkers; Kant surely acknowledges our intuitions about consequences and Mill the importance of intentions. While nothing I’ve said here is definitive, my aim has been “merely” to push the question: But why think that there has to be some one thing that runs through all right actions that makes them right? I would greatly appreciate being helped out with this question.