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Rules and Consequences

Often such choices are between two ways of looking at ethical questions. One way is guided by rules; the other looks at the consequences of actions. Generally speaking, conservatives prefer rules and liberals look at consequences. That is what you would expect. Conservatives are authoritarians; they prefer to let someone else tell them what is right and wrong. By declaring obedience to be their only point of honor, they make a virtue of moral cowardice. Following rules laid down by someone else absolves them, they imagine, of the responsibility of consulting their consciences.

But it is not true that conservatives always follow rules and liberals always look at the consequences of actions. In reality, we all make our ethical decisions based on a combination of following rules and considering consequences.

Take the example of a rule that nearly everyone acknowledges yet probably breaks on a daily basis: Thou shalt not tell lies. A more nuanced — and more honest — statement of that rule might be: Where all else is equal, honesty is preferable to falsehood. If you had been hiding Jewish refugees from Nazi occupiers, would tell the Gestapo the truth? Clearly not, but in fact we tell lies all the time with considerably less provocation than that. We are always considering consequences, and consideration of those consequences prompts us to break rules.

There are many issues that have conservatives demanding that we follow rules and damn the consequences, but there are other times when liberals demand adherence to a rule, and it is the conservatives who insist that we consider consequences. When the question is abortion, conservatives insist that the only relevant consideration is a rule: Thou shalt not kill (they forget about that rule when the question of capital punishment is raised). But what about the use of torture as a means of interrogation? Here we find that conservatives are the ones demanding that we look at the consequences of our actions and liberals insist that we follow the rules. So what is the difference? As was pointed out before, liberals and conservatives have different values and corresponding views of the nature of the world in which we live. For example, the rule regarding torture (don't do it!) has less weight with conservatives simply because they have already condemned its victims as evil people deserving of whatever is inflicted on them. But liberal or conservative, we all see value in rules and we all are concerned with consequences. If the rule conflicts with the consequences, what should guide us?

For a liberal, consequences are what ethics is all about. So in the case of torture, are liberals being hypocritical, inconsistent, or dishonest? Not necessarily. The difficulty with consequences is that they are usually uncertain. So the choice between following a rule and considering the consequences is sometime a choice between actively doing something we know or believe to be undesirable and passively avoiding something that may or may not happen in the future. The rule typically involves something we do or do not do now — in the present. Consequences are something that may or may not happen the future. The more uncertain that future, the more inclined we are to follow the rule. That is why we need rules even if we believe that it is the consequences that really matter.

To see how this works, let us look at a hypothetical (and rather improbable) example. You are faced with a decision: You are in a control booth with a switch controlling a railroad shunt. There is a runaway train hurtling down the track heading straight into a tunnel where twenty workers are trapped. There is one person in the runaway train. If you throw the switch, the train will be diverted away from the tunnel, sparing the lives of the twenty cornered workers, but the train will plunge off a cliff carrying the one person on board to certain death. Do you throw the switch, condemning an innocent person to death? Or do you do nothing, and helplessly watch as twenty equally innocent workers die?

One could argue, persuasively, that a decision to do nothing is still a decision, and that in so deciding you would be guilty of the deaths of the twenty men. But you could also point out that they might not die. There might be another course of action that could save them all.

The crucial thing is that we recognize that difficult decisions are indeed difficult. There are unfortunately times in life when our choice is not between good and evil but between evil and more evil. Pretending that the less evil alternative is actually good is moral cowardice. It is also dangerously perverse.

[Next: Cowardice Closer to Home]

Philosophers — the ivory-tower eggheads who foolishly imagine that it is possible to decide ethical questions rationally — refer to rules-based ethics as “deontological” and divide “consequentialism” into “hedonism” and “utilitarianism.” Consequentialism is sometimes called “teleologicalism.” See The Oxford Companion to Philosophy, edited by Ted Honderich.