One of the great debates in the field of ethics centers around the thinking of Emmanuel Kant vs. the Utilitarians – most notably John Stuart Mill. To simplify, Kant’s philosophy suggests that the means justify the ends: we should always do the right thing and trust the results to work out for themselves. Mill, on the other hand, argued that we should do what produced the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people, and that the ends justified the means.
I’ve always tried to do the right and moral thing, of course, but when push comes to shove I’ve been an unapologetic utilitarian. I might, in my brasher moments, have put it this way: what matters is the outcome, the result, and doing the noble thing when it leads to a tragic result isn’t ethical, it’s both immoral and stupid. In a sense, this might be seen as privileging pragmatism over idealism, although those things have long been at war in my soul and I can’t say which will eventually win. (I’ll go ahead and apologize now to any real philosophers reading this for the hash I’m probably making of their field’s great minds.)
Last night I had a thought that may change all this. (More…)