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Why we need the Principle of Goodness

They Burned a Child for Global Warming

This is one of the most disgraceful doings I could ever hope not to have needed to write about. A violent attack by troops evicted villagers from their homes and burned them to the ground, without even taking the elementary precaution to see if the homes were empty, let alone allow the villagers to remove their property before the attack. As it happened, a sick child in one home was burned to death. But don't worry, as the New York Times put it:

But in this case, the government and the company said the settlers were illegal and evicted for a good cause: to protect the environment and help fight global warming.

Oh so that's all right then: it was for a "good cause". Others have written about this terrible tragedy, and I can't better their efforts, so let me try to widen the discussion to get at the root cause of why it was possible for this to happen at all.

Time and again we see wrong ethics being used to justify evil. One of the key messages of this site is that unless you get ethics right, you'll never get peace (or anything much else worth having). And what's more, by-and-large we have got ethics wrong for centuries. If you believe that we should be should be working for the greatest happiness of the greatest number, or for "weighing" competing claims and choosing the most "worthy", or anything else like that, then you logically can't object to burning a child to death to save an entire planet from global warming.

Philosophers call these ideas consequentialism, meaning that they judge the rightness of actions by their consequences. There are heaps of variations on how to pick the best consequences, from in-depth ethical philosophies like utilitarianism, to superficial and ill-thought out ideas like a typical politician's election promise that "most people will be better off". But in the end, the idea that we should judge right or wrong by the outcome fatally compromises all these ways to guide our actions.

One problem is that philosophers have shown that the very idea of maximising some measure of benefit is incoherent. How can one compare doing some small amount of good to millions with killing a child? Was it "worth" it? Some will say yes, some no, some people will even be deeply offended that anyone might disagree with their judgment - and there will be people with opinions of this kind on both sides!

Another problem is that you can't ever know all the consequences of your acts. I am sure no one knew they were killing a child when they torched the house, but they clearly intended to harm the residents by depriving them of their homes and all their possessions, and they thought the benefit to others - you know, wealthy westerners like Al Gore who buy "carbon credits" from the likes of these house burners so they can keep their lavish electrically powered homes going full blast - was worth the damage to these dirt poor Africans.

No, you just can't get any moral guidance from any form of ethics that judges right and wrong by outcomes. The Principle of Goodness tells us something quite different: that right and wrong are in the mind: it is our intentions, not the outcome, that decides the rightness of our acts.

So what would the Principle tell us?

  • Never deliberately harm any innocent.


You don't have to compute distant consequences, or take a "hard decision" that letting Al Gore run his air conditioner all year is "worth" the death of a child, or even worth the child's family losing their home. Should you burn down that child's house? Is the child innocent? Are you trying to harm him? Then don't do it - no matter what the consequences might be!

I often hear when I say this that it is terribly impractical. How can you ignore consequences and forget about all that terrible global warming that will happen if we don't burn down this kid's house? This is the easiest question of all to answer:

  • First, even if I do make my acts depend on consequences, I can't take them all into account anyway;
  • but nothing here says I will be ignoring consequences: after all, the consequences are part of what I mean by saying I "intend" to do something.

Consequences and intentions are related ideas. But they are not the same. And the difference is all the difference.

[1] John Finnis, Fundamentals of Ethics, p94.

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