This post has more to do with moral theory than applied ethics.
An anonymous writer called me on an issue yesterday that I feel needs to be addressed more thoroughly. His point is valid, and it has weight. It concerns the importance of numbers in moral decisions.
This essay will use incest as an example, because it is in the context of a discussion of incest that the subject came up. However, the purpose of this essay is to example some general ideas on how morality works, why it works, and why it is important.
In the context of a few paragraphs on incest, this anonymous argued that two adult siblings with no natural aversion to incest (because they were raised in separate households) who engaged in incest would harm nobody. These people would be innocent victims of such a regulation. "Even if there are only two 'victims' of such a law, that doesn't make the law right."
I suspect that this anonymous author is alluding to arguments I made that the number of a people that fit into a particular classification is irrelevant in certain arguments. For example, there is a piece of spam-mail going around saying that, since atheists are in the morality, they should "sit down and shut up." It concerns arguments like those that use the premise that homosexuals make up 10% of the population, or the non-religious make up 14% of the population, as if this has weight in a moral argument.
Against these types of arguments, I make the claim that numbers do not matter. If X is wrong, then it is wrong to do X to even one person.
So, for example, we would not argue that the wrongness of slavery is due to the fact that African Americans make up 11% of the population -- as if slavery would be permissible if they only made up 5% of the population, or 1% of the population, or even if there were only one African American. Slavery would still be wrong, and numbers are not relevant in that debate.
Yet, at the same time, I deny that if there are two individuals -- siblings raised apart with no natural aversion to sex with each other, who meet as adults -- that this would count against a universal prohibition on incest.
So, not even one African Americans can be legitimately slaved, but two individuals who find themselves in the above situation may be forced to abstain from sex.
Can I square these two claims?
This is a good question.
The Function of Morality
I am going to start with a couple of the foundational features of the desire-utilitarian system that I use as the foundation for all of my writing. Namely:
[Belief + Desire] -> Intention -> Intentional Action
A desire (or an aversion, where an “aversion to X” is identical to “a desire that not-X”) is a persistent entity. We cannot flip it on and off at a whim. So, if we set up an aversion to X, we can expect (demand) that the aversion to last for a while. Demanding that a person have an aversion to X at T1 and not at T2 may be asking the impossible.
If we wish to reduce the incidents of a particular intentional action, we do so by promoting an aversion to some state associated with that action. In this regard, we can think of what it would be like trying to teach somebody to hate oranges, but not to hate one orange, or to hate chocolate but to like one piece of chocolate.
The vast majority of incestuous relationships are harmful. In order to reduce the number of incestuous actions, we promote an aversion to incest, and we do so by applying condemnation and punishment against those responsible for those actions.
We decrease the number of lies by promoting an aversion to lying. We do this by condemning and punishing -- imposing some sort of sanctions -- on those who lie. Whenever people coddle and praise liars they are doing harm to all of society, because, instead of promoting an aversion to lying, they are creating a culture in which people can more easily lie without a twinge of conscience or regret.
We decrease hypocrisy in society by promoting an aversion to hypocrisy. We do this by condemning and punishing -- imposing some sort of sanctions -- on those who apply one set of standards to themselves and a different set to others. Whenever people coddle and praise hypocrites, they are doing harm to all of society, because, instead of promoting an aversion to hypocrisy, they are creating a culture in which hypocrites can feel free to use whatever principles best serves their own interests at the moment, without a twinge of conscience or guilt.
This is why those who coddle and praise liars and hypocrites are as guilty as those they refuse to condemn. The liars and hypocrites are doing damage to society by their lying and hypocrisies. The person who coddles and praises them are promoting deceit and hypocrisy through society at large.
The same thought process goes into justifying the prohibitions against killing innocent people, rape, and theft. However, I make a special mention of deceit and dishonesty because I believe this culture is accustomed to giving a pass on these wrongs (as well as intellectual recklessness), much to our detriment as a society.
Morality By the Numbers
Once it is determined that a it would be useful to promote a particular aversion, it makes little sense to argue that the aversion applies only to a certain number of objects.
If it is wrong to kill an innocent person (if an aversion to killing an innocent person is something for us to encourage and promote), then it makes no sense to argue for an aversion to killing two innocent people, but not for killing one innocent person. The person who has no aversion to killing just one person is a threat to everybody, and is quite capable of killing them, one at a time.
If we are advised to promote an aversion to slavery, then we should promote an aversion to enslaving even one individual. The idea that we can promote an aversion to enslaving two people, but not to enslaving just one, is nonsense. If there is no aversion to enslaving an individual, then all of our liberty is in danger.
If we are promoting an aversion to lying under oath to a grand jury, it makes no sense to promote an aversion to lying to two grand juries, but making it permissible (in the sense of giving people no aversion) to lying to just one person.
However, in deciding about whether to promote a moral duty or prohibition, we are going to look at the overall effect of having such a duty or prohibition. When we arrange to punish criminals in prison, we are going to admit the fact that some innocent people will be arrested and convicted of crimes.
Yet, the fact that there are innocent victims of the system is not an argument for throwing it out. It is an argument for putting in safeguards to keep the number of innocent people as low as practical, but we are not going to refuse to arrest and imprison anybody, because we will almost certainly put at least one innocent person in prison.
If we are going to create a prohibition against lying to a grand jury, we are going to admit that, in some instances, a lie could produce good consequences. There will be instances where it is reasonable to expect that the truth will send an innocent person to prison while a lie will allow him to keep his freedom – because people sometimes take the truth the wrong way. Yet, we are not going to allow for exceptions to the prohibition against lying to a grand jury.
In some cases, we are capable of mentally distinguishing exceptions to certain moral rules. Killing is not permitted, except in self-defense. Lying is wrong, but it is not wrong to lie to the Nazi asking if you know the location of any Jews, or the slave chaser in pre-civil-war Pennsylvania asking if you have seen any Negroes in the area.
However, these exceptions are not even decided on a case-by-case basis. These exceptions have to do with whether it is possible to generate an aversion “except in case X” as a general attitude, and if this “aversion except in case X” works better than the simple aversion without exceptions.
With so little potential for benefit from an “except in the case where siblings grew up in several households and met as adults,” and when these benefits are weighed against the huge costs associated with a weaker overall aversion to incest, we are justified in saying, “no exceptions to incest” just as we are allowed to say, “no exceptions to lying to a grand jury.” This is the prohibition – the general social attitude – that makes the most sense, all things considered.
Anonymous Author: This, then, is what I mean when I say that, if something is wrong, it does not depend on how many people are wronged. If it is wrong to kill, enslave, rape, or lie to somebody, it is wrong to kill, enslave, rape, or lie to even one person.
This does not mean that a prohibition against killing innocent people, enslavement, rape, or lies will not create “victims” – will not produce the best over all consequences in every instance. Every one of these prohibitions provides poor consequences from time to time. Yet, whether a prohibition produces bad consequences in a particular instance is not relevant to whether the prohibition is a good idea. Whether the prohibition is a good idea depends on whether, all things considered, we are better off with that prohibition than without it.
We are better off with a strong prohibition on incest than without it. The possibility of a few rare and exceptional instances where the prohibition does not produce good consequences does not argue against this fact.My web site contains a Summary Account of the position I apply in these posts, and a Book lenth manuscript explaining how I got to this position.