The Wheatley Institution

Fellow Notes


Preserving Core Institutions in an Age of Self-Interested Utilitarianism

“Morality does not depend on a concrete consequence. Wrong should be recognized before steps are taken.”

Richard N. Williams | January 7, 2016
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The roots of a tree are highlighted in a nature shot to symbolize the roots, or core, of our society and how they can keep us firm in trying times.



Last September, news broke that Volkswagen had equipped two of its diesel passenger cars with devices that allowed them to score better on emissions tests even though they did not run so cleanly on the highway. Official and public responses to this cheating were immediate and strongly critical of Volkswagen. An article in the Washington Post by Joby Warrick, dated September 18 2014, contained two such responses that were telling for purposes of this essay. The article quoted Frank O’Donnell, director of Clean Air Watch: “The charges here are truly appalling.” “It was cheating not just car buyers but the breathing public.” (Italics added.) What is interesting here is that the outrage is couched in terms of a certain community being wronged. The community of car buyers had been cheated in the sense of being misled – apparently persuaded to spend their money and then being provided less “clean running” than they thought they were paying for. The second community that was wronged was the “breathing public” – presumably that subset of the current population consisting of persons who actually breathe. What this response creates is a second community who has been wronged or offended. We should not make too much of this remark perhaps Mr. O’Donnell was merely having fun appealing to a “breathing community,” as a tongue-in-cheek reference to the commonweal.

However, the appeal to a wronged breathing public as the basis for an ethical judgment of an act of dishonesty may say something about the ethical climate of our culture. The Washington Post article also quotes Hellen Bloom, senior director of federal policy for Consumers Union, “Volkswagen was ripping off the consumer and hurting the environment at the same time.” Again, the ethical problem is framed as “ripping off” a specifiable group of “consumers,” and some objective harm to the physical environment. The harm to the physical environment can also be taken as harm to that segment of our fellow human beings who actually breathe. The key point to be made here is that the morality of Volkswagen’s actions was so quickly packaged and assessed in terms of harm to communities. Conspicuously absent – at least from this Washington Post article – was any judgment about the act of deception itself.

The morality was humanized and made salient by creating a community of the wronged

The morality of Volkswagen’s act of deception was humanized and made salient by creating a community of the wronged. For some reason it seemed unnecessary to humanize the morality of the deception by reference to the large number of persons within the company structure who most certainly had to make personal decisions to deceive or play along with a deception in order for it to succeed.

The appeal to a wronged or deprived community is a common response to ethical issues in contemporary culture. And while we should all be concerned about any communities that are harmed there are some distinct and genuine problems in thinking about personal and public morality only, or even chiefly, in terms of harm to communities. We might ask, as a thought experiment, whether the actions of all those employees at Volkswagen would be considered unethical if, although they resulted in falsified emissions tests, the Jettas and Beetles were still much more efficient and less polluting than other cars. Perhaps data might show that the falsified numbers were so attractive to potential buyers that significantly more of these vehicles were sold and the buyers did not, instead, buy other cars which were worse polluters. Therefore, the net effect, even though the emission numbers were falsified, was a net improvement in air quality and thus benefit rather than harm to the “breathing public.” In such a case would falsifying the pollution data still be unethical? Even though the purchasers of the Jettas and Beetles may have got less cleanliness than they thought they were buying, they still contributed to the public good, and could not have done better with any other vehicle. Under these conditions was there an ethical breach? Thought experiments such as these expose the weak spots of any self-interested utilitarian ethical system.

We all remember the thought experiment spawned by the anti-materialist philosophy of George Berkeley. “If a tree falls in the forest and there is no one around to perceive the event, does it make a noise?” A similar question might be posed regarding truth and lying. If Smith (or Volkeswagen) tells a lie in the engineering division of their company, and there is no one around (no community of harmed breathers) to be harmed by it, is it still a lie? Okay – perhaps a lie in the technical sense, but is it immoral? At least we see here the clear distinction of a moral system that emphasizes the virtue or lack of virtue of persons compared to one which emphasizes the concrete consequences for communities.

We can extend this question a bit further. Is it acceptable if my moral switch is thrown only when I am convinced of concrete harm to a community of which I am a member? Is it acceptable so long as my moral concern is also triggered when some other community I recognize and care about is harmed? If people can only be moved to moral concern when a community they care about is aroused by self-interest – the interest in not being harmed or deprived – the moral state of their culture is precarious. It might seem like an easy and straightforward solution to the complexities of moral life to take refuge in this sort of self-interested utilitarian ethics. I only need to make a couple of decisions – whether I, or someone I care about, will be hurt, and, perhaps, the size and composition of the community that is being hurt. This ethical strategy saves me from needing to formulate or defend trans-situational ethical principles or universals. However, it is only by laying aside the necessity of deciding what does or does not constitute harm – or sufficient harm to warrant an act’s being deemed immoral – and deciding whether all possible communities can and should be ethically protected, and at what cost in treasure or concentration of power, or deciding whether there are some groups that do not deserve such protection, that this self-interested utilitarian ethic seems to be workable.

Dishonesty is wrong whether or not any public is harmed

But, on further reflection, it may not work so well. Some in our culture will have been taught, or will remember a time when it was obvious, that dishonesty is wrong whether or not any public (breathing or not) is harmed. For a free culture to survive it must recognize that morality is not measured only in terms of concrete consequences of certain actions in the lives of individuals and groups, but is measured in the personal moral commitments and sentiments of individual persons who may or may not belong to any particular group. Any culture will have values and preferences for certain states, activities and outcomes. In any culture, virtue will find expression as the moral commitments of individuals to moral principles and standards of comportment that have been examined, tested, and found worthy of our affirmation as embodiments of what can function as trans-situational goods-in-themselves. To have a culture is to have just such commitments to virtue. The core institutions of culture and civic life – family, religion, ethics – keep the moral enterprise alive by constructing and maintaining intellectual and practical bridges spanning across time, spanning across many sets of consequences, and across communities. These institutions transcend communities, and thus provide for members of all communities something greater than individual or communal self-interest. They keep alive the vision of the virtuous upon which all successful communities most surely depend for their vitality and even their survival.