There is no correct moral theory. All morality is politics. People do not act on the basis of morality. Everybody does everything they do for the most meaningful reason at the time. If an act may be judged as moral, so much the better. But, if an act cannot be judged as moral, and if it is meaningful enough to a person to do it, and if it seems like a good idea at the time, then it will be done. Morality is just political correctness masquerading as the right thing to do – at the time. However, the social psychology of the individual will always weigh the political correctness of an act against the meaningfulness of the act, and proceed accordingly. Yet, the point is none of us do what we do because we want to be moral authorities. We do what we do because it is the most meaningful thing to do at the time, regardless of anyone else’s self-appointed moral vanity.
Perhaps the most referenced moral theory today is that derived from Utilitarian consequentialism. This is a set of philosophical theories all based on the idea that moral action is that which represents the greatest good (Shafer-Landau, 2010). For example, we like to think that we have laws in place because following them maximizes the well-being of everyone in society – that is the function of law and order in society.
Consider this classic moral dilemma: is the act of letting someone die as immoral as the act of purposely killing someone (Rachels, 2001)? A Utilitarian consequentialist argument might state that it is just as immoral to let someone die, as it is to kill someone. It might not seem as bad as pulling the trigger, but if you do not give blood, and someone who needs that blood dies, then it might arguably be traced back to you, so this is a death for which you are morally responsible. If you want your actions to be as positive as possible, and if you want to maximize the well-being of all, then you cannot go around letting people die.
Of course, another Utilitarian consequentialist might argue that having every person be neurotically responsible for all life that hypothetically crosses their path will not lead to maximizing well-being in society. In this post, I will deliver an argument for the decimation of all Utilitarian consequentialist theories of morality, and state my own case for why it is as reasonable to assume that there really is no such thing as morality, there is only the ever-changing politics of the moment. Therefore, in any society at any time, whatever is politically correct, is what is moral, but only for the time being.
What is Utilitarian Consequentialism?
Based on the simple idea that what is moral is what represents the greatest good for the greatest number of people, the philosophy of Utilitarian consequentialism now comprises dozens of versions of this basic moral theory. The standard measure of ethical action for Utilitarian consequentialism, since the days of early Utilitarian theorists such as Jeremy Bentham, John Stuart Mill, and Henry Sidgwick, is the greatest good for the greatest number of people. One example of a variation would be the Utilitarian consequentialist theory that includes animals as well as humans. This moral theory must take into account every part of suffering and every part of happiness in the top of the food chain in considering if an action leads to the greatest good for the greatest number of individuals. A person who subscribes to this theory of morality might become a vegan.
There is an aspect of plain common sense that pervades Utilitarian consequentialism. There is something elementary and foundational about the Utilitarian consequentialist view of moral outcomes as favoring the most people. It is almost as if the ancient code of an eye for eye, had been suddenly extended to say that whichever action results in the least number of eyes being gouged out, is the better and more moral action that ought to be performed.
For example, in simplest terms, we have a law against running a stop sign. We think this is a moral law because knowing people have to stop at a stop sign serves the greatest good and maximizes well-being among most people most of the time. One more example, consider the Donner party, a group of settlers who lost their way to California, got snowed-in high up in the mountains, and only a few survived the winter by acts of cannibalism. Moral or immoral? Arguably, a Utilitarian consequentialist might say this was moral because in that situation cannibalism benefited the greatest number of people possible to survive.
In terms of law, this pragmatic sense of an act having an obvious outcome, the merits of which would be reflected in the amount of good it allowed for the greatest number of people, is the kind of logic that might be expected from elementary codes of law for elementary forms of civilization. A society might not exist if most of the people in it were wiped out very often, so whatever allows most people to live is better than what allows most people to die. It is also reasonable that this kind of logic would rear its head again in the elementary and formative days of the modern nation-state. In the 19th century, when Utilitarianism was being expounded, there was a new enthusiasm for declaring the new philosophical basis for codes of law that would allow the liberal, enlightened society to exist. The modern nation-state would be comprised of modern individuals inspired by living in republican, constitutional states, in which all people have human rights. This would work, and it would be morally more sophisticated and sustainable for people and society to exist, survive and thrive, without monarchical or dictatorial forces of government to constrain them to some totalitarian morality.
Utilitarian consequentialism is a functional argument that supposes positive consequences for many people is better than what is good for only a few. Moral action is that action which maximizes well-being. A singular weakness is that there is no way to measure the amount of goodness or well-being that becomes the subject of the argument. Thus, in the final analysis, the determination of goodness becomes a subjective judgment call.
Settling the Issue: How to Decimate Utilitarian Consequentialism
Talking about the greatest good, and maximizing well-being, all sounds good, but who defines good? The singular problem with all Utilitarian consequentialist arguments, is that they are wholly based on arbitrary, subjective judgment calls, which offer no warrant, mandate, or claim to the moral high ground whatsoever, by producing anything so solid as a geometric proof of their validity. In other words, the history of Utilitarian consequentialism is replete with an endless stream of arguments, each exploring its own particular twist to the moral theory, yet there is no way to evaluate them. Put another way, no politician ever calls up a Utilitarian consequentialist philosopher for advice on policy-making. Today, all Utilitarian consequentialist philosophers are of absolutely no consequence to anyone but each other.
Obviously, Utilitarian consequentialism would like to cast itself in the mode of a rule-bound, formal system, that could produce proper theorems of morality at will, and for every situation. However, the region of rule-bound, mathematical logic, that reveals unavoidable theorems that attest to their correctness merely by their existence, is in no way the realm of Utilitarian consequentialist morality. There is no natural science, nor formal study, of morality. Morals and ethics exist exclusively on the idealistic plane of the human mind in an informal world where what is logical is what feels right at the time. Thus, the best a Utilitarian consequentialist can do is offer their opinionated guidelines for what feels right at the time that someone is about to engage action.
Once it has been established that Utilitarian consequentialism has no claim to formal theorems and arguments with the logical soundness of geometric proofs, then the Pandora’s box of moral theory has been opened. From this vantage point, all consequentialist arguments are slippery slope arguments, and consequentialism itself rests on the pinnacle of a slippery slope. Beyond the code of Hammurabi and the Ten Commandments, there is no more solid ground for the moralist to attain, and the presumption of achieving the moral high ground is reduced to nothing more than a fantasy of politics.
All Morality is Politics
In every society, at any given moment, there is an ambiance of beliefs and ideologies that is supported by the forces that have the most political power. This power to enforce actions based on the prevailing political beliefs that override all others is something that is situational, and it has been chronicled as changing continuously throughout history. In a sense, history is the ever-changing story of how the persuasive political rhetorics of a given time and place comprise the prevailing moral theory. This sensibility about the prevailing political ideology of morality is what we currently refer to as political correctness.
The normative order of every political regime gives birth to this moral creature that stands like a bulldog at the gates of every society. It represents what is right, true, and good – for the time being. It always has existed in every society, always will, and it continuously shapeshifts and morphs into new versions of itself, every time it is unveiled in the latest place and time in which people are being governed as a moral society. Every society considers itself a moral society, with its own prevailing ideological creature of political correctness standing guard at the gates. The bulldog of political correctness represents the prevailing correct moral theory, which people always claim to have just uncovered and perfected.
Thus, Utilitarian consequentialism is entirely subjective and has no universal logic that will serve people in every situation. One person’s definition of good is not the absolute value of every definition of good. Every single argument is based on the intersubjective meanings of words that are assumed by the philosopher for the time being. So, it represents a way to twist any prevailing politically correct ideology into an assumption of the consequentialist good that will proliferate as a consequence of obeying the situational dictates of that morality. In other words, like an attorney arguing for their client, a Utilitarian consequentialist can make anything sound morally good.
In other words, Utilitarian consequentialists simply argue backwards from prevailing political views to create the appearance of discovering a moral theory of action. Utilitarian consequentialists could never acknowledge what is being argued in this paper because (a) they have to assume that the assumptions of goodness they invoke are indisputably good forever and for all time, (b) they cannot reveal that their attempt to create a moral theory is based on a current political ideology, and (c) they could not ever admit the momentary, political basis of their claim to universal goodness because the true force of the prevailing ideology of political correctness is that people know they have to pretend as though it is not there and it cannot be questioned. In other words, to be aligned with political power people have to give the image of having spontaneously become aligned with these moral insights about what is right, true, and good, forever and ever, or they put their lives at risk.
Consequently, they have to perform an act of spontaneous philosophical realization in order to expound the latest and greatest moral theory for everyone to follow. They fashion moral theories that have the imprimatur of philosophical logic in order to create a façade of realism, sophistication, intellectualism, and enlightenment for the polite society currently living at the mercy of the contemporary bulldog of political correctness. This is what all politically correct people are doing in their moments of publicly professed morality.
Thus, Utilitarian consequentialism is a fake, intersubjective attempt to construe values, words, and deeds in a collusion that aligns newly expounded moral theory with the prevailing criteria of political correctness. The simple argument in favor of this notion is that in every society one can examine the moral theories that arise as symptoms of the situational politics of the time. If Utilitarian consequentialism is so great and worthy a moral theory, then why is it utterly incapable of revealing morality and legislation, policy and criteria, for all of us to do the right thing? Utilitarian consequentialism has done nothing for the state of human morality in the last two centuries. Instead it has simply witnessed all of humanity living in a world of social chaos in which the only semblance of morality we have is that which is represented by the politically correct flavor of the month, or year, or administration, or decade, or age – whatever it is, morality is an outgrowth of politics. In other words, human subjective opinion about morality matters not in the end. Every society works the same way, and creates its own morality as an afterthought to political power. This is because the goodness of Utilitarian consequentialism is something that is defined by whoever is in power.
It is possible to argue that political mandates for morality are eventually contested, and therefore they are not all-powerful. However, they are only challenged by another ideology that complements it somehow and offers the next perceivable alternative to the prevailing politically correct moral theory. And whenever this discourse results in one politically correct ideology replacing another, then the props may have changed, but the plot stays the same, and this is the only sure thing in the universe of human morality. Thus, the old saying: you become what you hate.
Live and Let Die
Consider the arguments for deciding whether it is morally correct to kill or to let die. They are each based on their own assumptions of goodness. By those arguments, killing is only immoral if it is not moral – because we know there are hypothetical cases in which murder is the morally correct thing to do. And as far as the letting die component of life is concerned, every second a person inhabits the Earth, that person is letting something die. Therefore, it is impossible for someone not to be letting most of what is living to die, all the time, merely by being alive. It is the natural state of humans and all life, to live and let die.
Therefore, Utilitarian consequentialism as a theory of morality is little more than a sophisticated illusion. It is the intersubjective interplay of people playing philosophical games to give the appearance of being aligned with what is politically correct at the time – for the purposes of appearing to be good moral citizens – all done for the purposes of saving their own necks. Once having realised the charade of Utilitarian consequentialism, one has transcended the politically correct quagmire of polite society. One is thus left to figure out one’s own moral theory for one’s own circumstances knowing that no matter what conclusions one will arrive at, they will never be acceptable to Utilitarian consequentialism or to the politically correct. Yet this is the only and final result for a person who chooses to disavow the intersubjective illusion of Utilitarian consequentialist morality masquerading as political correctness. Since my new individual moral theory will not be based on illusions and delusions of political society, it can be no less moral than a moral theory premised on a situational, political illusion.
Shafer-Landau, R. (2010). The fundamentals of ethics. Oxford UP.
Rachels, James. (2001). “Killing and letting die.” In [Eds.] Lawrence Becker and Charlotte Becker, The Encyclopedia of Ethics, 2nd edition, 2, pp. 947-50, New York: Routledge.