Morals - a set of beliefs held about what is good or bad. Before reading the meat of this post, I recommend thinking about what is right and wrong to you and why. What makes an action good or bad, and how do you justify the decisions you make?
To make things more complicated, I propose a classic thought experiment; you can either stay home to nurse your mother in her last months of life, weak from cancer and without anyone else, or leave home to fight for your most beloved cause, leaving your mother alone until death. The same concept applies to any two conflicting decisions of near equal significance. What is the right thing to do?
Immanuel Kant says something very basic, that the only one thing that is intrinsically good is action with intention to do good. Trying to help others is the only motive that remains good regardless of perspective, even if the action itself is viewed by someone as negative. This seems counterintuitive, but we have to separate the action from the intention. If we do not, then any action can be viewed as negative in regards to a specific end, which would nullify the ‘objective’ good in any and every action. Through a different frame we get the same outcome; harming someone denies them the reality of the essence of their being - to feel good. I would argue we do what we do in hopes of feeling good, and usually that is through living comfortably, with safety, reproducing and parenting, which of course comes from our biological evolution. Even this concept can be self contradictory, however, as shown here. Thought experiment two; if we decide to kill someone to save five others, does that decision not stem from wanting good for others?
But, before that, back to our mother and cause. Kant’s ideas do not apply directly to our situation, because both actions would be for the good of others. If one could distinguish which path is more driven by altruism, then Kant would say that is the right path. However, if we are deluding ourselves at any point, we cannot know for certain, and if we are deluding ourselves, how would we know? Kant also says that we should only live according to ideas which we can apply to everyone. If we permit ourselves to treat another badly, then we in turn must endorse being treated badly. One cannot justify being negative or harmful to others if they would not want that for themselves. This works until a harmful action comes from positive intentions; if it would bring more good than harm. If this is the case, however, we should be willing to accept harm if in the greater interest of others. However. this requires defining ‘greater’ or ‘lesser’ good. This leads us to our next idea.
Utilitarianism, originating with Jeremy Bentham and developed by Mill among others, rejects the motive stance to argue that any action is good as long as it brings well being. The phrase ‘the greatest good to the greatest number’ is often used as the general concept. So, meaning to do good doesn’t matter at all as long as the action maximizes mutual benefit. Therefore, killing one to save five is an easy problem; we choose the five because five average lives are greater than one. However, measuring benefit and also weighing one life against another is still ambiguous. Calculating the utility of an action has been attempted in various ways, but I will keep it simple. This ideas does address our first question but only indirectly. If we can figure out which does more good, we choose that. We could impact our mothers life greatly, but it is only one life. We could also make a small impact in a momentous cause, affecting many.
To wrap this up inconclusively, if it were my decision, I would wait until the last minute to decide, and weigh the good of the cause against my mother’s time left. Of course it would depend greatly on our relationship, and also the impact the cause would have on others, but it would not be easy. After all, no complex problem is easy, and morality is a figment of our imagination, not any natural law. I would take a middle route and say both concepts aforementioned have to apply to make a moral action; positive intention and positive outcome. I hope this served its purpose to open your eyes to the importance of wanting positivity for others, and the idea of maximizing good for as many as possible.
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