In my recent blogs I have talked about moral dilemmas, so about the question how to decide when you have a problem with several solutions with different moral consequences. For example, in the problem discussed last week (the “repugnant conclusion”) again and again we must decide whether we want an acceptable and positive welfare for many people or the highest welfare possible for fewer people (a question that can be relevant when a country must decide whether or not to accept refugees who are fleeing from a cruel dictator or a bloody war; or whether or not to receive foreign labourers in order to increase the total welfare of the country). What I didn’t talk about is which criteria we apply when taking such a decision. Many dilemmas are very complicated, which makes that in the end we must decide from case to case, but we can distinguish two main types of criteria in philosophy. One view says that we must look which consequence of our decision is the best. Not surprisingly this approach is called consequentialism. The problem then is, of course, what is “best”, but this is a derived discussion, which only arises when we have decided already to apply a consequentialist approach. For there is also an opposite approach to tackle a dilemma. It is called deontological ethics. It says that not the consequences of a decision count first but that its morality does, so whether the decision is morally right or wrong. These approaches can – though don’t need to – conflict when we have to choose in a dilemma. Usually it is so that a person is either an adherent of consequentialism or of deontological ethics.
Here are a few examples. In order to make the distinction clear, they have been simplified. I just mentioned the case of refugees fleeing from a cruel dictator or a bloody war. A hard consequentialist might say: Receiving refugees will lower the welfare of my country. They bring nothing and they’ll make my country poorer and as a consequence me finally as well. The dictator and the war are their problems, not mine. Let’s keep them out. A deontologist might say: We must help people in need anyway, even if it makes me poorer, so let them in.
A second example is about a possible situation during the Second World War. Your country has been occupied by the Germans and the persecution of the Jews has started. You have hidden a Jewish child in your house. One day there is a raid in your street: the SS is looking for Jews. An SS-man knocks at your door and he asks you: Is there a Jew in your house? If you are a consequentialist, you’ll certainly say “No”. But what if you are a deontologist who has as a principle “never lie”?
My third case is the “trolley problem”. Maybe you remember it from my older blogs: A driverless, runaway trolley on a railway is heading for a tunnel, in which it would kill five people. As a bystander, you could save their lives by turning a switch and redirecting the trolley on to another track. However, there is a man walking on that track that would be killed instead of the five. If you are a consequentialist, you may say: I turn the switch for it may save four lives. However, I shall have killed actively – “intentionally” as some philosophers say – one man, and maybe my conscience will trouble me for the rest of my life because of that. If you are a deontologist, you may have another problem. Say you have the principles “Never kill a man” and “Always save as many people as you can”. What should you do then?
The trolley case becomes even more intricate in this footbridge variant: A driverless, runaway trolley on a railway is heading for a tunnel, in which it would kill five people. You are standing on a footbridge above the track. You are slim and short but a large man is just crossing the bridge. If you jump on the track, you will be run over by the trolley, which will kill you and the five people as well. If you push the large man on the track, he will be killed but the trolley will stop and the five will be saved, but you will be prosecuted for killing an innocent person.These cases are still relatively simple, but the footbridge example raises already the question: Are we allowed to use any means if in the end the result is positive if we subtract the costs of the means (like the number of people killed) from the yield of the consequences (like the number of lives saved)? This is the question whether the means sanctifies the purpose. Terrorists usually say “yes”. For deontologists this questions doesn’t arise, but they have the problem whether some consequences aren’t more important than their principles. Actually it is so then that their principles clash. But which principles are then most important and why and when? All this makes clear that the choice for a consequential or a deontological approach is itself a moral dilemma.