Two favourite lessons from philosophy

I’ve been reading a lot of philosophy, for quite a number of years now. There are a number of teachings or lessons that I’ve absorbed, that have shaped me pretty deeply and that have influenced my decisions even at pretty key moments in my life.

There are two teachings in particular, however, that have most profoundly impressed me from the very first moment I encountered them, and which have ever since been never very far from my thoughts. They are fairly similar to one another in a certain respect, but they are also distinct enough from one another that I feel they can’t really be combined into a single thought.

The first one is from Plato. It strikes me as being almost the most daring and brilliant thing that could be said about morality. I can’t justify that claim, but it is the way it seems to me.

It is better to suffer injustice than to commit injustice. This is not the way it seems to us by nature, but I would hesitantly say that if we believe morality is anything more than a polite fiction, we cannot help recognizing the truth in it, at least on some level. And to hear this explicitly articulated and to accept it as true and important, is to turn one’s whole world upside down. If there is only one thing I wish everyone could learn from the philosophers, this would be it.

The second teaching I picked up from Elizabeth Anscombe, from what she says about the doctrine of double effect. I know she would say it wasn’t original to her, but I have found it nowhere else so clearly and compellingly communicated.

Evil consequences entail no guilt for a good act, and good consequences impart no merit to an evil act. People certainly seem, in general, not to accept this as a trustworthy moral principle, even including many people of good character who have thought carefully about moral philosophy. It is counterintuitive to think that it is more important to do the virtuous thing than to protect the people who might be harmed by the effects of a virtuous act. From a consequentialist standpoint, it seems like someone acting thus would only be privileging the feeling of their own clean conscience over the more significant pains suffered by the affected parties. I’m sympathetic to that. Still, Anscombe here seems to me courageously and clearly right. Better to let the whole world perish as the result of a virtuous act than to enter willingly into vice, even if that vice could rescue all of a human species on the brink of destruction. Morally speaking, we should never look to the foreseeable effects to evaluate a given act.

For someone to embrace these two teachings is, I believe, a sure path to virtue and happiness, an escape from confusion and vice. I don’t think many have accepted them, and I’m not even confident that most could accept them, in the world we inhabit. But I can hardly think of anything more important and valuable for us to absorb. So, at least, it has seemed to me.

3 Replies to “Two favourite lessons from philosophy”

  1. Hey John, I’m not sure I actually agree with you on the second point!

    If the choice is between doing something evil with a better overall outcome versus doing something good with worse overall consequences, then I agree. But this is only one type of case. When the act is morally good or neutral – so yes, we rule out evil acts – it still remains to be determined if doing *nothing* is better than doing *something good/neutral that has a known bad side effect. It is not true that evil consequences entail no guilt for the good act – what if the alternative of no acting is better, but you acted anyways without regard for the known but unintended consequences?

    For example, take double effect in war. Many would say it’s justified to attack a legitimate target even if you know there will be some level of unintended civillian casualties. It does not follow that there’s no guilt so long as there’s a legitimate target. You still need to ask: Is this proportionate? Do the bad consequences of this good act *warrant doing something rather than nothing*?

    Proportionality still matters, consequences still matter. They just don’t turn an evil act into a good one – but they *can* turn a good one into a evil one.

    The way I think of double effect: The ends does not justify the means, so if an act is evil we may never do it. However, if a good/neutral act has a double effect – a good effect that we want, and a bad side effect that we don’t – then our choice is between doing nothing or doing something with a double effect. We may act if the action is good/neutral, and the alternative of doing nothing is *worse* than tolerating the unintended but foreseen evil side effects of the good/neutral action.

    The proportionality criteria means that consequences *do* matter – just only when we’ve already ruled out evil actions and are left to decide between doing something good/neutral or doing nothing.

    1. You are right! I overstated when I said that consequences shouldn’t enter into it at all. The situations where I find the doctrine of double effect most clarifying are the ones in which the choice is between doing what is wrong or doing nothing, when doing nothing brings bad or even terrible consequences, but it is also the “right” choice as the only alternative to doing the wrong thing. But there are situations like the one you brought up where consequences should carry more weight. Even with that in mind, I still find Anscombe’s discussion of the doctrine of double effect extremely helpful and something that so many people, who have never heard of it, could benefit from so much. But maybe that’s just me. Thanks Blaise!

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