Why we Shouldn’t Moralise Means to Moral Ends

17 January 2021. Updated 18 January 2021.

by Ben Hawkins

Ludwig Wittgenstein

There’s an excellent Mitchell and Webb sketch in which a pair of ministerial aides are reporting back to their minister on potential solutions for dealing with a recession… “raising VAT, cutting VAT, raising interest rates, raising interest rates and VAT, lowering income tax and raising VAT”. But despite their efforts, they haven’t been able to land on anything – when their proposed measures are put through their computer models, none of them seems to work. Suddenly the minister interrupts. “Have you tried ‘kill all the poor’?” When the shocked aides protest the minister replies, “I’m not saying do it, I’m just saying run it through the computer ­– see if it would work.”

Whilst undoubtedly a broadside aimed at the austerity policies of the time, the sketch works as it highlights a feature of our moral reflexes that is often overlooked: for most moral agents with genuinely held moral beliefs, it is not enough to avoid doing wrong; to merely consider doing that wrong action feels like a moral transgression in and of itself. A serious moral agent, believing that killing people is wrong, would never consider running “kill all the poor” through the computer, as doing so would seemingly violate the principle of the sanctity of life which the belief in not killing people upholds. As Robert Webb’s character shrieks exasperatedly when asked why he won’t just give it a go – “Because it’s offensive and evil!”

In his posthumously published work, On Certainty, the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein examined beliefs that are so fundamental to our rationality that to doubt them would be to cast doubt on all of our other beliefs. For example, if I were to entertain serious doubts about my belief that I have hands, it is hard to understand what I else I could possibly believe. I couldn’t believe that I was sat using my hands to type at my computer, and so couldn’t believe that I was writing an article, etc. What basis would I have for believing anything more complex if I couldn’t even rely on something so clear and obvious as believing that I have hands? Wittgenstein suggests that such beliefs are like hinges on which the rest of our beliefs turn, often referred to as hinge beliefs. They are held arationally, that is, they are not irrational, but they are not subject to rational analysis like other beliefs. They can’t be subjected to rational analysis as our whole system of rationality relies upon them.

It seems that something similar is going on with the moral reflexes described above. If a person were to doubt that killing all the poor is immoral, it is hard to see how that person could be considered to have a moral framework at all. How would one reason with such a person? There would be no common ground in which to have a rational discussion, no foundations upon which to build more complex moral opinions. For this reason, the belief that killing all the poor is immoral can be seen as a moral hinge belief – not seriously questioning such a belief seems to be fundamental to our conception of morality itself. What’s more, our moral reflexes prevent us from questioning such beliefs. We can refer to our moral reflexes in response to such beliefs being questioned as moral hinge reflexes.

There are probably good evolutionary reasons why we have such reflexes. If our moral hinge beliefs were subject to rational analysis in the same way that other beliefs are, it seems inevitable that this would lead many people to rationalise undermining their instinctive moral values, and thus to go on to commit acts which they would otherwise have judged to be immoral. This in turn would make it more likely for the social fabric of societies in which such agents existed to become weaker, lessening the chances of survival of the society as a whole.

Our moral hinge reflexes, however, can become problematic when propositions which would not naturally fall into the category of fundamental moral propositions, are treated by those who hold them as if they were fundamental. This can often happen when contingent means proposed with the intention of achieving absolute moral ends are confused for the ends themselves. In such circumstances, the ability of an individual, or group, to achieve their absolute moral ends is diminished, as, regardless of whether the contingent means actually are the best means to achieve the absolute moral ends, they are treated as being unquestionable, meaning that better ways of achieving the absolute moral ends are not discovered.

This problem has become particularly noticeable in moral attitudes towards the policy of lockdown. For large portions of society, including a number of government ministers and large sections of the media, the idea that lockdowns are the moral approach to dealing with the pandemic is considered to be unquestionable – to entertain any level of scepticism towards the policy of lockdown has become a moral wrong in and of itself. The moral hinge reflexes kick in. Those who question the Covid orthodoxy are branded as “Covidiots”. Even established scientists who have proposed alternatives with the explicit end goal of avoiding unnecessary deaths have been dismissed as far-right and dangerous. One only has to look at the vitriol directed towards Professor Sunetra Gupta QNE Professor Karol Sikora.

Yet lockdowns are not an absolute moral good, they are a contingent means proposed to achieve the moral end of preventing unnecessary deaths. There may be other, better means by which this end can be achieved, but by treating lockdowns as though they were an absolute moral good, we forfeit the capacity to have a rational debate as to whether we are in fact following the best course of action. What’s worse, we are prevented from rationally assessing whether the damage that they are causing is worse than the harm that they are introduced to prevent.

Of course, none of this is to say that lockdowns are the not the best way to deal with the pandemic – they may well be. But equally, they may not. Until we recognise that lockdowns are not a fundamental moral good, but a contingent means to achieve a moral end, we will not be able to have the rational debate, and will thus be prevented from finding the best possible solution to dealing with the pandemic. Those who propose alternatives to the lockdown are not proposing something “offensive and evil”, but are contributing to the debate as to how best to reach a shared goal.

We all need to recognise the times when our moral reflexes are kicking in, and to work out whether the issues at stake should be subject to rational debate. If they should be, we need to control our moral reflexes, and to accept that those with whom we disagree may just have different ideas about how to get to the same place. Only by doing this will we be able to achieve a better, more humane future.

Ben Hawkins is a trainee lawyer with an interest in the philosophy of Wittgenstein.

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