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More on Morals

Deontologists are Covert Consequentialists

REGARDING THE ORIGINAL DEBATE IN SKEPTIC, VOL. 20, No. 4 between Marc Hauser and Michael Shermer on the extent to which science can determine human values—here are my two cents:

I believe that deontologists are nothing more than covert consequentialists. Why is it wrong to harvest the organs of 1 to save 5? Because none of us wants to live in a world where we can be dragged out of a doctor’s office and murdered, and our children orphaned, at any moment. Those who recoil at the dictates of such a myopic, utilitarian calculus, do so because they sense that its wider consequences would be horrific.

Similarly, I think that a concern about “means” arises out of a (usually very visceral) feeling that different means entail different consequences. It is a mistake to stop our analysis of consequences at body count. If the experience of pushing the fat man is importantly different from the experience of flipping a switch (no doubt it would be), leaving the average pusher wracked by guilt and nightmares, then the two scenarios are not morally equivalent. Hence, our very different responses to them. Nevertheless, it may be better, in certain situations, to have a professionally callous person (or even a psychopath) in place to do a good and necessary thing that a normal person might be too squeamish to do. If there were no real choice but to push the fat man—to save a million lives, say— such a person might be the only “switch” available.

Our moral intuitions are clearly fallible and difficult to change. This is why I think the greatest moral gains come from system-level changes in our public policies and institutions—not from getting everyone’s intuitions to track real-world consequences more accurately. We aren’t sensitive enough to very large harms (e.g., distant genocides, destroying the environment for future generations), and we are extremely sensitive to smaller ones. Consequently, perfectly normal people are capable of committing atrocities, while it often takes a psychopath to commit some lesser evil.

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About Skeptic

CONFIDENCE SCAMS EXCERPT: The Confidence Game: Why We Fall for it Every Time; ARTICLES: America’s Stonehenge: Did Highly Developed Europeans Build a Sophisticated Astronomical and Religious Monument on the American East Coast More than 3000 Years Ago?; Is It ET?: Is Star KIC 8462852 a Sign of an Extraterrestrial Civilization?; Hurricane Strikes as Divine Retribution—An Empirical Test; Ruins of Empires: Thomas Jefferson, Constantin-Francois Volney, and the Separation of Church and State; Winning the Vaccination War in California; Prophet Without Honor: Francis Galton and the Birth of Behavioral Genetics; When Cops Kill: An Insider’s Perspective; Guns and Games: The Relationship Between Violent Video Games and Gun Crimes in America; More on Morals: On Science and Morality (1) Deontologists are Covert Consequentialists, (2) Expanding Science to Include Morals, (3) Clarifying Confusions; Alligators in the Sewers! COLUMNS: Who’s Crazy Now?: DSM-5 and the Classification of Mental Disorders; The Delicate Dilemma of Defining Rape; REVIEW: Red Team: How To Succeed by Thinking Like the Enemy by Micah Zenko reviewed by David Priess; JUNIOR SKEPTIC: Haunted Houses; Earliest Ghost Stories; Ghostly Evolution