As far back as i can remember, certain moral conundrums have struck me as straightforward to the point of triviality, and i find myself stunned at the hangups to which my acquaintances succumb. Gradually i’ve become acquainted with the basics of moral philosophy, and consequentially come to consider myself a consequentialist. Of course that’s putting it a bit cheaply (and arrogantly). I suspect, though, that it’s not much less than most of us might conjure up to justify our own views on morality. Anyway, ethics is starting to become hobby of mine, and before i become too well-versed in the literature i’d like to lay out plainly how i approach the matter as layperson (with some mathematical training).
It’s worth noting here that, while most of us are laypersons with respect to the sciences, maths, history, literature, etc., we receive substantial instruction in most of these topics as part of our standard (or nonstandard (or even substandard)) education; while to my knowledge philosophy is generally not a requirement even for a college education. Yet, how much less would a formal background in ethics really play into our daily lives than our formal training in Earth science or American literature?*
The first thing to note is that morality requires agency. That’s not to say that it is premised on a nondeterministic universe or that it presupposes free will, but that it makes no sense to talk about morality with respect to things that cannot manipulate their environments. A rock might harbor all the hatred and malice in the world against you, but if that rock behaves like other rocks then we’ve no business calling it immoral—even if, say, it tumbles off a cliff and strikes us dead. There are certainly repercussions to such an event of the same flavor as to a moral action, but there is no ethical evaluation to be made of the rock’s complicity in our deaths.
There’s still a slight risk of circularity here: What distinguishes agency from programmed behavior, or from obedience to physical laws? The former distinction is false. The behavior of life at the smallest scales is difficult to characterize as anything more than simple stimulus and response, yet viruses are , unambiguously, agents. The interplay among the various objects in my labmates’ models of chemical regulation in cells and organs, as they dodge about one another, take root, team up, attack, and disperse, is also that of agents. Without raising the question of will (let alone consciousness), one is obliged view agency as an emergent phenomenon of sufficiently complicated systems, even fully deterministic ones. Not even that much complexity is necessary; the simple jeu de taquin might be said to govern the agency of an incoming or outgoing block. (Like other emergent properties, agency manifests in degrees.) This then addresses the second distinction, which is the important one.
The upshot of agency as an essential ingredient to morality is that it tethers moral frameworks to actual events—agency makes clear that what we mean by morality has ultimately to do with how an agent engages with its environment, including other agents. That’s not consequentialist per se; one might evaluate such interactions in terms of their adherence to rules, or their alignment with ideals, or any other criterion one might fabricate. But it does impose a restriction on what information can be fed into that evaluation: If intentions matter, they must matter in the context of the actions they inform.
Next i’ll describe how (again, as it seems to this layperson) other popular moral frameworks are necessarily consequentialist, while the converse does not hold.
* Yes, Earth science and American literature do play into our daily lives at several scales! That’s my point.