Why do we classify acts as ‘moral’?

In an earlier post, my friend David brought up an interesting point about consequentialism. Consequentialism is the belief that actions should be judged by their consequences. This suggests that an act cannot be judged until after the fact, perhaps even long after the fact. This seems problematic from the point of view of the actor, because consequentialism tells him nothing about how he should act. It only informs him afterwards whether his act was good or bad. And what good is morality if it’s used simply to classify acts after they’re committed, rather than to promote one act over another?

We generally think of classification and promotion to be the same in moral affairs. To classify an act as immoral is to say you shouldn’t do it. We use moral language as a way of shaming (or encouraging) someone to act a certain way. However, sometimes a seemingly good act will bring about bad consequences. You give a hungry person a peanut butter sandwich, only to later learn that he is allergic to peanuts. Consequentialism seems to suggest that this act is immoral because it has bad consequences. The purpose of calling it immoral means we want to discourage it. And yet, ordinarily, giving someone a peanut butter sandwich is good, so it’s rather odd to discourage something that is normally good.

This is why we need to evaluate an act in two different ways, or more specifically, we need to evaluate it at two different times. One evaluation is made by the person about to act. Because he cannot know the consequences of the act beforehand, he must use the likely outcome of his options as his guide. Then, once the act is done, it is evaluated a second time based on its actual consequences. In our peanut butter case, the act was the right decision based on the information available, and yet it turned out badly. The question is, do we want to call this act moral or immoral?

On the one hand, it makes sense to call it moral. After all, giving food to others is a behavior we want to encourage. The world would be a better place if more people did it. So we should say it’s the right decision.

On the other hand, it is important that other people know this person should not be given peanuts. We need to learn what kinds of food allergies are common and which are life-threatening. That way, we will know which foods to give out in the future. Calling this act “moral” may lead other people to commit the same mistake, and we want to avoid that. To prevent that, we should call the act “immoral.”

It is now becoming more apparent what we want a code of ethics to do. We want people to make the world a better place. This usually involves adopting rules of thumb such as “be nice”, “don’t murder”, and “give out food when possible.” We also expect them to update their beliefs when new information comes in. Giving out food is a good rule of thumb, but others should know not to give peanuts to this one individual, and maybe they should reconsider giving them out at all if a lot of people are allergic to peanuts.

The way to incorporate both ideas is to say that you should act based on the likely consequences of your act. Additionally, you must update your beliefs based on new data, and since this practice generally leads to good consequences, it is another of your obligations as a moral agent.

In sum, the way I would handle the peanut butter case is to say that the person acted morally when he gave the man the sandwich. We should encourage sandwich giving. But now that we know this man is allergic to peanuts, we should tell others to stop giving him peanuts. If someone armed with this information gives this man peanuts again, they will be committing an immoral act.


One Response to “Why do we classify acts as ‘moral’?”

  1. Bob Says:

    Yep, pretty much. Rather than framing the obligation as likelihood evaluation in every situation, though, I prefer to think of it as induction of duties: http://bobstark.livejournal.com/4904.html

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