Instead of calling something right, wrong, good, or bad, consider the consequences of your actions

January 16, 2013 by Joshua
in Blog

I just watched Zero Dark Thirty and read a bunch of stuff about torture. People often ask about morality and ethics — is such an action right or wrong, good or bad.

Asking the morality of actions and behavior doesn’t change them.

I don’t see categorizing, judging, and  labeling things helping. Calling something good, bad, right, wrong, etc does no more than label them (tomorrow I’ll write more on why labels don’t change things).

I think people think they are making sense of things for themselves and helping others understand, but I don’t think it works out that way. Or they think if they label something enough or with enough argument or emotion others will agree. But if one person says something is wrong, someone else can equally just say it’s right, and they will.

Where does that get anyone? The debate goes nowhere. People know they disagree, but I don’t see anyone persuading or being persuaded. People just end up making new, Orwellian names, like “enhanced interrogation techniques.”

Let’s say you define torture by some set of criteria and you have enough documentation to prove beyond all doubt that people were or weren’t tortured. Let’s say you presented your case so well, everybody in the world agreed with you — that on seeing your case, everyone who disagreed with you thoughtfully said, “now that you put it that way, you’re right.”

What will you have achieved? That we can agree on terminology, is all I can tell.

Let’s say you further established criteria for right, wrong, good, bad, and evil and presented a case such that everyone saw it and agreed with you on some behavior being right, wrong, good, bad, or evil.

Again, I don’t see you achieving much more than attaching some labels to things. In this fantasy I guess you could expect people doing things they newly saw as wrong, bad, or evil would stop and those stopping things they newly saw as right or good would start promoting them.

But this fantasy isn’t possible. People disagree not out of ignorance of other people’s views, People disagree because they have different values. They consider their actions and behavior good and right, or at worst the best option available. You telling them you disagree won’t change their opinions of themselves. You’ll just sound self-righteous, the same as you probably view them. If you don’t seem open to hearing their perspective you’ll sound stubborn too.

This applies whether you are evaluating them or your own behavior in other contexts.

What to do instead? Look at the consequences of our actions.

I suggest the problem with or value in the behavior in question is not what we call it, but its effects — the consequences of those actions. And the consequences of ours in how we respond. And not just the consequences we want, but all the consequences. And compare against other alternatives, not against nothing.

Consider an action’s consequences

No matter what you call a behavior — torture, not torture, right, wrong, good, bad, evil, etc — it will have consequences. What will they be? Those consequences are how these behaviors affect the world. Consequences matter, not labels. At best a label (good, bad, etc) summarizes your evaluation of all those consequences, but that throws out lots of information.

  • What happens if someone uses or doesn’t use the methods in question to interrogate a witness?
  • Will you gain information or not?
  • Will the information be usable?
  • What other consequences are there?

Obviously these questions are just the tip of the iceberg.

Consider all of its consequences

The question is not just if you will or won’t achieve the goals you want. All actions have unintended consequences too. Not that I thoroughly surveyed discussions on torture, but I only saw people on each side consider the consequences that helped them. Hardly persuasive.

  • If others learn about it, how will they react?
  • Will you promote retaliation, whether you want to or not?
  • How will others view the country, its leadership, its military, etc?
  • Will people fear torture and not do things you don’t want?

Again, just the tip of the iceberg.

Compare against alternatives

If you only evaluate your ideas abstractly you miss that the alternative is not you do nothing, but what else you can do. Even if your general goal was to label something, asking if it’s good or bad won’t help you understand the situation as asking what alternatives you can create and is it better or worse than them; or which is the best alternative.

Asking if something is torture or not doesn’t help nearly as much as asking what possibilities can we conceive of — creating new options being a general solution to all ethics problems — and problem solving from there.

  • What else can you do?
  • If you don’t use every means possible, might you not get information you could use?
  • By the same token, if you use other measures, might you get more information or less incorrect information?
  • Might others consider you more reasonable and not retaliate as much?

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2 responses on “Instead of calling something right, wrong, good, or bad, consider the consequences of your actions

  1. Pingback: Why labels and symbols don’t change things; and what they are effective at » Joshua Spodek

  2. Pingback: A reader I inspired inspires me back | Joshua Spodek

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