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A family debate on moral philosophy

By: Mike Gashler

I deeply enjoy debating moral philosophy. So imagine my delight yesterday evening when I found my two daughters at loggerheads debating a hypothetical moral situation, and I learned that one of them is a consequentialist, and the other is an idealist! (I can't stop fantasizing about how wonderfully heated our future Thanksgiving discussions are going to be! That's why I'm blogging instead of sleeping right now at 4am.)

My consequentialist daughter makes decisions that she anticipates will lead to the best consequences. And my idealist daughter makes decisions that reflect her personal ideals.

And here was the hypothetical situation: A powerful individual decides to let you choose which member of your family he shall kill. And, of course, if you fail to choose one, he will kill them all!

I'll pause while you mull over the complexities of this situation.

Here's a picture that isn't quite relevant:

Okay, now back to the story...

So my consequentialist daughter said she would choose the oldest person in the family. That way, the least amount of remaining life would be lost. (It's a reasonable answer!) Incidentally, I happen to be the oldest person in the family.

My idealist daughter said she would attack the individual who threatened her family, because he had no right to put her in that awful situation. And if he actually carried out his evil threats in response to her refusal to participate, the sin would be on his head, rather than hers. (Also a thoughtful answer!)

But of course, two different answers cannot both be right. So which is the correct philosophy? Consequentialism or idealism? Would God be a consequentialist or an idealist?

As I paced back and forth across the living room in the dark pondering this quandary, I suddenly realized something that almost made me squeal with glee. (If my wife hadn't been sleeping in the next room over, I probably wouldn't have had enough restraint to remain silent.) This hypothetical situation had somehow succeeded at sucking me into the situation itself. I was having to choose between my two daughters! I couldn't possibly sleep then! And perhaps I wouldn't sleep again unless I figure out which moral philosophy was right!

...but how could a father possibly choose between his two daughters!? Aarg! The thrilling tension in my mind felt almost palpable!

I scrambled to find a hidden variable that would allow me to conclude they were both somehow right, just under different conditions. I think I found one. Here's what I found:

How reliable do we really think this evil person's threats are? If we knew with absolute certainty that the threat would be carried out as specified, could we still make the decision that would lead to the massacre of the entire family? I think not. Under conditions of absolute certainty, I think the idealist behavior would just reduce to arrogant pride. So under such conditions I think I must side with my consequentialist daughter.

But is anything in real life ever absolutely certain? Again, I think not. And under conditions of some uncertainty, could I really choose a member of my own family to condemn? Never! Choosing someone to die would be clearly evil if there was even a small chance it wasn't really necessary. So retaliation against the cause of the situation itself would be the only moral response! Therefore, I must side with my idealist daughter.

I think ideals are the way we find morality in a chaotic and unpredictable universe. But it changes something if we imagine a universe that is entirely predictable. Now, my consequentialist daughter was actually the one administering the hypothetical situation. And she technically did specify that the situation was absolute. That is, she said we know this person always carries out his threats, and he is serious about this one too. So, I guess that means I actually side with her, even though it is a situation I do not believe could ever occur in reality. In reality, I think I would never be convinced to abandon doing what was right and hoping for the best. I wonder if my idealist daughter will agree that she was trying to stay in reality and not fully confront the hypothetical situation as it was given. Hmm.

After the sun comes up, I will attempt to present what I learned to them. Will they accept that the credibility of the threat is the variable that determines which moral philosophy is right? I almost want to wake them now. I suppose this can wait a few hours. But it certainly cannot wait until Thanksgiving! We'll just have to find another philosophical quandary to kick around by then.