Doing The Right Thing

There is a fundamental distinction in ethics that I have never seen anyone make  — not even the professional philosophers who study the subject. That is the distinction between what is right and what a person would actually be likely to do in a given situation. Indeed, I have seen professional philosophers quibble with Kant, for example, and dismiss his entire ethical edifice on the grounds that no one could possibly act that way in fact. But, as Kant himself said many times, he was not doing “anthropology,” he was doing philosophy. And the job of philosophers in ethics is to try to determine what is right, not what people would actually do. We can take it as a given that people don’t always do the right thing.

Take the case of capital punishment, which I posted about in a recent blog. If my wife or child were killed and the police caught the killer who was then tried and found guilty I would almost certainly want that person drawn and quartered. That’s what I would want — because I am angry and resentful. But I have never seen an argument yet that persuaded me that capital punishment is the right thing to do — especially, as my friend BTG points out, now that DNA tests are showing how often we find the wrong person guilty. All of the arguments, including Francis Bacon’s pithy statement quoted recently about revenge being a sort of “wild justice,” tend the other way: capital punishment is institutionalized revenge. It is brutal and may make us feel good — “give us closure,,” as we like to say — but it is not right.

Admittedly, the attempt to determine in a given case whether an act is right or wrong is immensely difficult. It is so difficult that many intelligent (and especially unintelligent) people shrug their shoulders in dismay and then abandon the effort. But the attempt to determine right and wrong is like a jury trial: there is a correct answer (the defendant is either guilty or he is not, he can’t be both guilty and innocent) and we simply need to think about it until we can see what the correct answer is. Similarly, a given act is either right or wrong, it cannot be both. We will never reach the plateau of certainty in ethics — as Aristotle famously said it is the mark of an educated person to look for the degree of precision that the subject allows — but we can reach a tentative answer that stands up to criticism. That’s the best we can do, and it is a hellova lot better than shrugging one’s shoulders and giving up, resorting to a sort of mindless relativism where all ethical answers are matters of opinion: you have yours and I have mine.

This sort of relativism, as I have noted in previous blogs, leads us away from the challenge of trying to find the right answer — like raising one’s hand and excusing oneself from a jury trial. If we stay around and weigh the evidence, look at the issue from both sides, and think about possible courses of action, we might reach a level of confidence that seems solid and assured, at least until further examination. From where I sit, capital punishment is wrong — even though I may want to see it done if someone close to me were murdered. What I want and what is right are two entirely different things and the two only coincide perfectly in the case of the Saint. Or, perhaps, Immanuel Kant.

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5 thoughts on “Doing The Right Thing

  1. Hugh, good post and thanks for the acknowledgement. I used to read a compilation of ethical lessons to my children called “The Book of Virtues.” One of my favorite lessons was a question asked by a religious leader of his friars. If you found a wallet with money what would you do? He heard a wrong answer (keep it) and an answer that was too pure (return it). The answer he was looking for was offered, “I would be tempted to keep it, but would realize the right thing to do would be to return it to its owner.” I endeavor to do the right thing, but sometimes fall short of that pure goal. Yet, when I do fail, I feel poorly about it . I guess the death penalty means you don’t get a do over if you are wrong or feel poorly about the decision. Great thinking post, BTG

  2. What do you think: Is there a difference between what is right and what is just? If someone murdered your loved one, he would deserve to die in a similar fashion. But since murder is wrong, execution is not an ethical option. If the murderer happened to be killed in prison or hit by a car, we would feel justice has been served.

    • Really good question! What you are talking about almost sounds like “divine justice” or something on that order. Human justice demands punishment, but it cannot possibly demand that which is not morally right. Does that make sense?

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