How do we determine the morality of an action?
Go ahead and judge these actions…
#1. With Tom’s life in his hands, Bob kills Tom.
#2. James gave $1000 to a needy family.
Have you made your decisions on each of these actions? Okay, now I’m going to give these examples again.
#1. Tom is sick with a likely terminal illness. He decides to have Bob, a surgeon, operate on him with an experimental procedure in order to save his life. Tom dies on the operating table.
#2. James steals $500 from Mary and another $500 from Brian. James then gives that $1000 to a needy family.
You’re probably saying “That’s not fair; you didn’t tell me the how or why part of the story!” Of course I didn’t—that’s the point of the exercise. Judging an action only by its outcome (i.e., the end) doesn’t do an adequate job of fully determining its morality. It’s important that we look at the intent and methods, (the means) that the actor uses to carry out his actions.
In the utilitarian approach, the best actions are the ones that end up giving the greatest good to the greatest number. This method is usually pretty democratic and most likely isn’t going to cause any major moral troubles when applied to everyday life. A group of friends may vote on which movie they’re going to see. The movie that is picked is the one that will give utility to the most people. That situation works out fine, but if we really start to dig into utilitarianism, we see that the solutions aren’t so simple.
When I took an ethics class in college, one of the ethical “conundrums” presented to us was the case of the sheriff and the rioters. The story goes that you are the sheriff in a frontier town and the only person of law. The entire town wants to hang a man whom they believe is guilty of murder. You, however, know 100% for a fact that the man they’re accusing is innocent. Your problem is that if you don’t see to it that the man is executed, the townspeople will riot, which will end in a lot of property damage, the death of this innocent man, some rioters, and probably you as well.
Killing the man results in peace for the town, but would you do it?
If the end were to truly justify the means, you could perform all sorts of immoral acts against others if you could make the case that the outcome resulted in something better for a given group of people.
I’m sure your parents used to say “You don’t know the whole story” when you’d rush to rash judgments or only know a piece of what happened. They were right. In order to judge an action, we need to analyze both the end and the means. Using unjust methods disqualifies the outcome from being moral. I can punch you in the face if you call me a name and that could very well cause you to never make fun of me again. Does it make it right that I hit you for an insult if you change your behavior? In order for the outcome of an action to be moral, the means by which you set out to achieve it have to be moral as well.
So think back to the sheriff question, which is actually identical to the situation Pontius Pilate found himself in. What do you do?