Friday, October 16, 2009

Maine's Proposition 1 and the Ratio of Good to Harm

As Proposition 1 to end homosexual marriage in Maine comes up to a vote, I have been reminded of some of the things I wrote when Proposition 8 was being debated in California.

I found those previous posts to be a bit confusing and long-winded. Therefore, I would like to provide what I hope is a less confusing presentation of some of the main points.

One of the issues that I addressed was a defense of some religious organizations trying to pass Proposition 8 that those institutions "did more good than harm." I raised an objection to this being a legitimate moral argument.

It suggests that the way we should evaluate something is to sum up all the good that it does, then sum up the harm it does. If the total good exceeds the total harm, then we can raise no objections against it.

To see the problem with this way of doing moral calculus, assume that we have an organization that produces (to speak abstractly) 10 units of good, but 9 units of harm. On the standard we are using here, we have no reason to object to this organization. It has proved its moral worth.

Yet, on this standard, a person who saves 10 lives, for example, has then purchased moral permission to commit 9 murders. If he commits the 9 murders, he has still "done more good than harm". If doing more good than harm is our moral standard, then this person has passed that moral standard.

We can see why an institution that does great harm would want us to adopt this standard. It allows them to claim moral legitimacy simply by doing some good to balance out the harm that it does. A murderer might also want us to adopt this standard if he has saved two lives but wants to commit murder. If we adopt this standard, the "more good than harm" standard makes the murder morally permissible.

One of the areas in which we recently saw this principle applied was with respect to Proposition 8 in California. This proposition removed the legal right of same-sex couples to get married in that state.

Several religious institutions in this case motivated their members to act in ways harmful to others. When others criticized these institutions for the harm they were doing, they pulled out the "more good than harm" defense. In doing so, they behaved no differently than a person who had saved two lives, when accused of murder, might use a "more good than harm" defense to deflect criticism for that murder.

However much good the church does, this cannot be used to justify doing harm someplace else. It is still the case that the church that does as much good without doing harm is morally superior to one that does that amount of good AND also does great harm.

The person who saves two lives and does not commit murder is still a better person than the person who saves two lives and commits murder.

In other words, it is perfectly legitimate to condemn these churches for the harms that they inspire their members to commit. And it is no defense against the criticism for the church to say that they have also done good elsewhere. That good does not justify this harm.

I also cannot resist the irony of pointing out that the organizations that use this faulty form of moral reasoning are organizations who claim that religion gives them a superior understanding of what morality requires. Clearly, their understanding of moral calculus is somewhat lacking.


anton said...

And then their is US America's justification for some of its foreign activities by claiming it is doing "good" for US Americans. Its like The Shrub proclaiming that he would endorse any activity to curb global warming . . . as long as it didn't adversely affect the US economy.

Anonymous said...

This brings up a good question: Is the Catholic Church a force for good?