Nearly everyone has thought about morality before; from infancy, the concepts of “right” and “wrong” are hammered into us by our parents and society. However, most of us only have a very fuzzy sense of what these concepts actually mean.
We know that things like lying and stealing are wrong, but why? I don’t claim to answer this question here. However, I would like to draw attention to the importance of this question by proposing some alternative solutions.
Utilitarianism has a simple and intuitive premise: actions are good if they result in a net increase in happiness and are bad if they result in a net decrease in happiness. This is notable because it pins the morality of an action on its consequences. For example, lying can either be good or bad; it depends on if it happens to increase happiness in those specific circumstances.
To most people, myself included, judging morality based on consequences seems to make sense. However, sometimes utilitarianism yields counter-intuitive results. For example, imagine someone who gets pleasure from someone else’s pain. If the pleasure outweighed the pain, then this action is morally “good”. Utilitarianism runs into similar problems with victimless crimes. If someone were to cheat off of your test in class, they would not be decreasing your happiness. If anything, they would be increasing their own. Utilitarianism leaves no room to condemn apparently “wrong” things like these.
Kant tried to solve some of the problems found in Utilitarianism by placing more of an emphasis on an action’s intentions than its consequences. Kant proposed a tool for determining the morality of an action called the “categorical imperative.” One should only perform an action if they would also will that everyone would perform that action in similar circumstances. For example, one should never break a promise because no one would want to live in a world where no one keeps promises. However, morality should actually be useful in determining the correct course of human action, and the categorical imperative is nearly impossible to use in a practical situation.
Naturally, philosophical consistency doesn’t matter to the average person. However, a systematic approach to morality is important because it allows us to examine difficult moral situations in a way that lets us arrive at definite answers. We may not have those answers now, but if morality were an easy nut to crack, then philosophy wouldn’t have lasted more than two millenia. How we live our lives has profound consequences, and each of us should use moral philosophy as a means to be the best we can be.
Joshua Myers is a freshman majoring in philosophy.