When it comes to weighing the moral implications of an action, I take the otherwise uncontroversial stance that we can make meaningful, reliable judgments about the relative morality of competing models. Some systems of moral evaluation are frankly terrible, and we gain nothing by standing by without voicing condemnation when people attempt to justify atrocities with these bad systems. I say my position is “otherwise uncontroversial” because some believers assert that atheists cannot make claims to objective morality, suggesting that only members of their own faith have the One True Morality (which I have previously disagreed with at some length). Such presumptions are quite ridiculous and cannot be made by anyone who purports to engage in honest discourse.
Consider the hypothetical case of a soon-to-be rapist who has convinced himself that his victim will enjoy the experience; he believes himself to be an unparalleled lover, and it is inconceivable to him that his victim will be in any way harmed or traumatized by the experience. His intentions are good, even though he is about to perpetrate a terrible misdeed. Would anyone thus argue that his actions were morally good? I don’t think so. Is our moral evaluation of this person any different from that of a rapist who knows that his actions will cause great suffering and actively continues them anyway? I think so, yes, because the first rapist does not intend harm while the second one does. From a “what now?” standpoint following each rape, however, it should be obvious that both men deserve punishment, and I believe this demonstrates that an action’s consequences (i.e., effects in the real world) outweigh any intentional considerations.
Let’s look at this issue from a different angle, though, by considering four different scenarios:
* * *
(1) A doctor who amputates someone’s leg because doing so is necessary to save the patient’s life—this doctor has chosen the better outcome, so his actions are moral. For a normal person, disfiguring someone by severing their limb would be immoral, but when it prevents further harm, it is permissible.
(2) A doctor who, in the same scenario as the first case, refuses to perform the amputation, causing the patient to die as predicted—this doctor has not made a morally good decision. The patient’s death was preventable; letting him die was an unnecessary tragedy, and the blame for the death lies with the doctor. By assuming the role of a professional healer, it becomes a doctor’s duty to intervene where possible to preserve life; refusing to do this constitutes a violation of professional ethics on top of ordinary moral considerations. Indeed, we may even construe this death as a homicide. In the example of a Jehovah’s Witness doctor refusing to perform a blood transfusion on a non-JW patient, this also constitutes a violation of the patient’s religious liberty.
(3) A doctor who, having established that the only way to save a patient’s life is with an amputation, performs the amputation, but the patient dies anyway—this doctor is not morally culpable because the outcome in either case (amputate/not amputate) is the same. This procedure was done by a medical professional whose professional judgment (likely backed up by other professionals) was that this life-threatening procedure was necessary for the patient’s survival; that the procedure failed does not turn this death into a murder. In this (admittedly restrictive) hypothetical, the only chance for the patient’s survival was a potentially fatal operation, so that operation was a moral necessity.
(4) An elective surgery that results in the patient’s death—we don’t consider the doctor morally culpable if both a) the patient chose to enter the experience aware of the risks (when informed consent has been given), and b) no unforeseen accidents occur. If, however, the patient was led to believe that the surgery carried no risk, or the doctor did something outrageous during surgery, we look upon the harm as quite serious indeed, and that doctor is morally culpable. Thus, it seems that we judge most actions primarily by their consequences, but when harm is involved, an actor’s intentions are relevant to some degree.
To what degree, though? Well, there has been research done on this very topic! The short answer is “it depends on the person,” but we can make generalizations.
If an adult tries to kill someone by shooting a gun at someone’s head but misses, the target incurs no harm, even though death may have been a mere inch away. If an angry three-year-old tries to kill someone by shooting at them with a water pistol and successfully hits the target’s head, there was no possible threat of death (unless the target happens to be the Wicked Witch of the West). In either case, we apply overlapping criteria: we ask “did harm occur?” We see that the answer in both cases is no, but we must still ask “how likely was harm?” The probability of harm is a consequence, so it’s insufficient to address the present form of analysis by saying “well, nobody died in either case, so no moral wrong occurred.”
Rebecca Saxe points out that a person who thinks sugar is poison and tries to kill someone with it will be met with more moral blame than someone who erroneously thinks poison is sugar and, with no intention to do harm at all, accidentally kills someone. What I take away from this is that for any action, there are two considerations: consequence and intent. I don’t think it’s possible to fully divorce these from each other, but they seem to be independent considerations. “I killed someone, and that’s horrible” is modified by the intentional consideration, such as “I meant to kill someone, and that’s horrible” or “I did not mean to kill anyone, and that’s good,” and we determine that the first case is more reprehensible than the second through applying a basic moral arithmetic. The findings Saxe presents suggest that each of these two considerations take place in different parts in the brain, and our moral evaluations are the product of their interactions.
This two variable analysis has very significant consequences for abstract moral considerations. When evaluating interpersonal interactions, we consider both consequences and intention: a person who hurts someone accidentally has very little—if any—moral culpability, but a person who hurts someone purposefully is regarded as morally repugnant. When the object of our analysis is not a thinking entity (e.g., a person), however, the consideration of intention may not (probably does not) apply, so the dominant consideration is one of consequences (if not only one, like with natural disasters). We regard the moral impact of taboos, laws, and so on almost entirely according to the impact they have on the lives of conscious beings (e.g., people). That a given policy may have been implemented in the hope of improving the lives of poor people is only a very small consolation if it actually makes their lives harder—any intentionality is outweighed by the consequences. Similarly, a law whose goal was to make a population suffer (a morally evil intention) is actually a moral good if it fails at its purpose and improves the well-being of that group. Furthermore, an actor’s intentions are often opaque to observers, so it is not always reliable to judge someone based on what they claim their original intention to have been. Thus, it may be necessary to disregard this variable in gauging the relative morality of a person’s behavior.
(Disclaimer: the following is an oversimplification. Do not try to base a sophisticated understanding of criminal law on this.)
Legal scholars have applied this two variable model of morality for countless years, as enshrined in the concepts of mens rea and actus reus—guilty mind and guilty act, respectively. In most cases, before someone can be convicted in a criminal court, it must be established that a reasonable person would have known that the action in question was inappropriate and, as a result of that action, a harm must have occurred. Yet there are actions for which you can be punished even in the absence of a desire to commit harm, such as traffic violations or negligent homicide. Thus, we see that intention is important, but (for the legal system, at least) it is not the dominant consideration.
I don’t think there is much substantive difference between the evaluation of legal criminal accountability and morality. If we wish to consider an actor’s intentions as a part of our moral judgments, we must first be able to reliably and accurately ascertain their goal(s)! Since this is often impossible and even more often unreliable, we must exercise extreme caution when making claims about the relationship between intentionality and morality. Thus, it seems that my stance on morality is a form of consequentialism: I am primarily concerned with consequences, but one cannot disregard the importance of an action’s context, which includes the mental state of all involved actors. (Another label might be more appropriate, and if any of my readers are familiar with a more apt description, feel free to share it.) As with all other considerations, that which is demonstrable takes precedence over that which is not, so because we are fully capable of considering real consequences in the real world, there is no good reason to prefer appeals to supernatural factors when evaluating moral consequences.