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.