Rebirth of Reason


Moral Conundrums
by Joseph Rowlands

It is possible for a moral system to self-contradict. This can happen when multiple values are accepted as intrinsic, or when certain methods are treated as always necessary or always immoral. These can lead to contradictions because the values or methods can conflict with one another. If you think you think you should be independent and productive, you might find some situation where the most productive endeavor requires less independence, like starting a business with a partner.


The contradictions leave you unable to make a rational judgment because your morality has two or more different way of evaluating your choices. In the example above, you may judge an action by its effect on your independence, or on its impact on your productivity. But they may lead you to different conclusions. Without some ultimate standard that trumps or integrates all of the others, there's no clear answer. You'll just have to choose one based on irrational grounds.


The same isn't true when the moral system consists of a single moral standard. In that case, there is a single, unified method of evaluation. There cannot be contradictions as there is not a second approach that leads to a second conclusion. Without a second conclusion, you can't have your conclusions contradict.


One of the ways moral systems are evaluated is by looking for these contradictions. They are sometimes called moral conundrums. A situation can be presented that seems to lead to a problem for the moral system. The moral action leads to some result that seems to contradict the purpose of the morality.


This comes up with people who are try to "test" Objectivism. They look for scenarios where people act in their own interests and has it inevitably lead to death, destruction, or mayhem. For instance, someone might suggest that it is rational for everyone to lie to others in order to improve their own situation, but inevitably everyone stops trusting each other and all of the benefits of communication end.


These examples are always flawed. They are based on a limited or short-sighted view of what is in a person's interests, and then go on to show that if they followed that path, it would lead to long-term harm. There's more than just a simple mistake, though. It should occur to people that if they could prove an action really caused long-term damage, the moral system would identify it as not in their interest. If they can come up with a good reason why it isn't really in your self-interest, why would they then see it as proof that self-interest doesn't work? It would only mean that they were wrong in claiming that it was in your self-interest when they knew it wasn't.


The wider point is that they are looking for contradictions where there can't be. There isn't a second standard to compare it against and come to a different conclusion. Their attempts at trying to show self-interested actions lead to destruction are just mistaken about whether they are self-interested actions in the first place. Since there's only one standard, it either is or isn't consistent with that standard. It can't be both!


Moral conundrums seem useful in another way. People use them to show the implications of the moral system, and suggest that those implications are not attractive qualities. As an example, a criticism of libertarianism might point out that prostitution would be legal, there would be a market for organ transplants, and women could be paid to be surrogate mothers.


Leaving aside the point that libertarianism is only a political system and not a moral system, these "conundrums" are not a problem at all. From the perspective of libertarianism, they are perfectly consistent with its standard and should in fact be legal. There is no contradiction within the moral system.


Where these conundrums have power, though, is when the outcomes are not consistent with your other beliefs or emotions. You might find the idea of buying and selling organs repugnant, and so may conclude that there is something wrong with libertarianism. But this is not a problem with libertarianism. There's no internal contradiction. The contradiction is between your existing beliefs and emotions, and these particular outcomes.


This contradiction isn't surprising. Your emotions are tied to your value-judgments. If you are coming from an altruistic morality and introduced to a morality of self-interest, many of the implications will seem wrong. Buying and selling organs might seem bad. But ultimately the question is why? Is it actually bad? What reason is there for thinking it is? Is your emotional response based on anything, and if so, what?


Maybe you think buying organs is bad because wealthier people will have access to them first. Or maybe you think poor people will sell their organs while they are still alive, and it will make them unhealthy and die. Or maybe you think that poor people should not be forced to do something like that. There are answers to these objections, but the question is what is the foundation of these objections.


Why shouldn't rich people who are willing to pay more be get access to the organs? Perhaps you view organs as communal property, and object to those with influence getting an unfair share. But if it the organs are private property, why can't the donor decide who to sell it for, or how much? Perhaps the criticism is that wealth should not be distributed the way that it is, and poor people should have more? But again, it treats wealth as communal and then questions how it should be spread around. If it is private, you don't have a legitimate say. You can state that you would like it one way versus another, but it isn't yours so you don't get to decide.


The criticism that poor people may make bad choices hinges on the idea that you know better than they do, and you should be able to decide what is and isn't in their interests. It is based on the idea that voluntary interactions shouldn't be legal if they conflict what you personally desire.


These criticisms are not founded on the libertarian standard. They are some outside beliefs that contradict the libertarian standard. Of course the consequences will contradict these outside beliefs. But that doesn't prove anything at all, except that you started not agreeing with it. It doesn't prove that there's a problem. Just because it is inconsistent with your beliefs doesn't prove it's wrong. Your beliefs could be the problem. Merely showing that they are incompatible is not enlightening or problematic for the libertarian position.


Generally, the moral conundrums don't do much in a system with a single standard of evaluation. They don't show any contradiction with that standard, and any contradiction with others standards is obviously going to happen, but doesn't tell you anything. In terms of testing a morality, moral conundrums don't do a thing.


If someone fully accepts the moral standard, then these cases will not seem problematic at all. A consistent libertarian will not be troubled by the legalization of these practices. It doesn't mean he'll be in favor of them, or will want his children involved in them, but he will stand by the belief that they should be legal.


What these moral conundrums do is identify results that are inconsistent with your emotional responses. This is taken as some kind of proof that there is a problem, as moral feelings are often thought to be some kind of direct insight into what's right and wrong. But when they are identified as a product of a person's values, instead of as a cause of them, this alleged proof fails.

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