Morality of Convenience

Robin Hood was riding through a forest and met a poor peasant. Robin asked him: “Are you poor?” “Yes” – said the peasant. Robin said: “My name is Robin Hood; I steal from the rich and give to the poor”. And then Robin gave a bag of gold to the poor peasant. The peasant yelled: “Yay! Now I am rich!” Robin: “What? You are rich? Give it back!”

Since the dawn of mankind the thought of right and wrong was always on a thinking mind, and there is not a single philosopher who hasn’t touched ethics in one or the other way. The study of ethics in its different approaches bases itself on different axioms, or different abstract propositions. For example, Utilitarianism approaches ethics on principles of “most good for the most people”, and an action is moral as long as it brings the most good. Another example may lie in categorical imperative, where an action must be accepted to be universal in order to be moral. These are simplifications used to show that there are different approaches. However, there is a concept of an ideal ethical system which exists on a pillar that logical reason or “a priori” knowledge can lead to universal principles of morality, of which every amorality would be a fault of human mind’s imperfectability, or that the human just may be wrong due to his feelings. Here, ethics is accepted to be “guiding principles” of what to and what not to do in the future. But can such a system of moral values be ever implemented, if again taking into account the aforementioned imperfectability of senses? If it is implemented tomorrow, today would be wrong retrospectively, just as the imperfect morality of the past is judged today. Therefore, it is very unlikely that it would ever be convenient for the moral majority to accept ethics which bases itself on reason rather than on “convenience”. And there exists a “convenient” morality, one that can be accepted by the moral majority. Can therefore the morality of convenience approach universality and decency of an abstract, logical morality?

Going back to the idea of social contract, when the moral authority of a sovereign was created, it can be argued that the creation served for the good of the majority. It also can be argued that the social contract ultimately served a few powerful people, and is inherently wrong. Or even that it was a tradeoff for the majority as a lesser evil. But it is not the picture. Imagine a crime committed by an individual towards another individual if there is no sovereign. Ultimately, you may say, the crime would go unpunished if there is no law and order, but you would be incorrect. The long time forgotten vendetta – a permissible response to a crime of the perpetrators bloodline, was (and in some places is still is) the rule of the land. Therefore, the moral authorities were the heads of the families or clans, who would avenge for the crime by “doing the same” to the other clan. Multiple moral authorities was simply expensive (in lives) to both the perpetrator and the victim’s families, as the ones who had little to do with the crime suffer. The creation of a common authority and monopoly on violence, which would be an arbiter in disputes and simply end vendettas, was a convenient thing to do. It is obvious from history of criminal justice, where the main goal of punishment was always isolation and removal from the society, and not rehabilitation.

Fast forward to the present, and one can find multiple paradoxes in ethics. For example, there is a subset of people in postindustrial societies, who call themselves “vegans”, usually saying that eating meat is unethical as it supports killing and torture of “innocent animals”. For them, killing and torture is unethical because the subject is able to feel pain and is conscious throughout the process. However, if for a vegan, an animal life is sacred and innocent (as an animal can do no wrong), a human life is despised as a pollutant and killer of the environment – an antagonist to the innocence of nature. Therefore, violence against that antagonist is justifiable, on the basis that “there are too many people”. “We got to do something with overpopulation and pollution” – says a man before buying an overpriced hybrid and checking out of a relationship. The paradox is that the animals are valued more than fellow humans, and environment is valued more than jobs worldwide. But remember – it only happens in postindustrial societies. The one that is least touched by food market prices and massive job loss due to environmental regulations. For a vegan, in is only a minor inconvenience to not eat meat, and for him it would be more convenient, if some other humans ceased to exist in one of multiple ways. On the other hand, those who defend their eating habits say that it is more convenient for them to eat meat, so both sides of the argument, even though they argue about morality of murder, are in the majority of cases discussing a convenience of not eating meat.

Another classic example may be very familiar: a man steals bread to save his children from starvation. Is it still as bad as if he steals the bread just for himself? But what if there are other complications, if the man couldn’t find a job because he had a criminal record? However, if you say these factors can be logically contributing to a fairer sentence, does it matter that he stole the bread, if it was not his agency to let the children starve and so on. The pinnacle of fairness of our society for an intellectual is the assumption, that the current system is unfair and the people have no agency over their actions, in one way or the other. I.e. John-Rawls-types of our time. But why isn’t it worse, if that man doesn’t steal bread, but democratically elects an official, who takes the bread from the baker and “redistributes” it to that man just because he didn’t have bread. That vote for redistribution by the government is even worse than a single act of theft! The man had too much cowardice to do it himself, so he summons the authority. Again, it is more convenient for a “socialist” or any “redistributionist” to break the morality of theft and justify it by the “unfairness of the society”. All meant here is that the morality of convenience comes second, it is not a guiding principle, but a justification for preexisting propositions and ideas, and in many cases the action (or need) comes first before ethics.

Suppose that there is an ideal ethical system, which can be found by only logical propositions and axioms, the system also stands on a proposition that there is a universal and objective morality out there which can be approached like complex math. Doesn’t matter if it is grounded in positive or negative liberty, goals of happiness or progress, or conscious or subconscious understanding of that morality in the end. Can such a system be achieved by becoming the most convenient system of ethics? It depends, because we can see a history of increasing necessity of reforms, for example abolition of slavery because (and only when) it could be abolished. When economy could accomplish more without than with slavery, or with aforementioned social contract, the ethics changed for the moral majority which became convenient with those reforms. But morality is still routed in the individual, who is unideal and imperfect, and there will always be a reflection of this imperfection on judgement. But what makes imperfectability of ignorance disappear is more and more knowledge at the disposal of every individual when constructing their ethics. Therefore morality of convenience approaches the perfect morality as the shared base of facts and axioms becomes wider due to technological advancement and necessity for an ethical judgement. All of the listed examples of convenient morality are not inherently wrong in themselves, rather they don’t hold moral value at all. There’s still a need for an ideal ethical system which is a guiding principle rather than a retrospective justification, and I can predict, that this is a matter of generations to not be guilty of the past.

Please leave a comment on the issue, I would appreciate it.