Thursday, April 04, 2013

Our Inconsistent Ethical Instincts

MORAL quandaries often pit concerns about principles against concerns about practical consequences. Should we ban assault rifles and large sodas, restricting people’s liberties for the sake of physical health and safety? Should we allow drone killings or torture, if violating one person’s rights could save a thousand lives?
We like to believe that the principled side of the equation is rooted in deep, reasoned conviction. But a growing wealth of research shows that those values often prove to be finicky, inconsistent intuitions, swayed by ethically irrelevant factors. What you say now you might disagree with in five minutes. And such wavering has implications for both public policy and our personal lives.
Philosophers and psychologists often distinguish between two ethical frameworks. A utilitarian perspective evaluates an action purely by its consequences. If it does good, it’s good.
A deontological approach, meanwhile, also takes into account aspects of the action itself, like whether it adheres to certain rules. Do not kill, even if killing does good.
No one adheres strictly to either philosophy, and it turns out we can be nudged one way or the other for illogical reasons.

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