A thought inspired by Wednesday’s Daf (page) in the Talmud, Nazir 23
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Do you know if the means justify the ends?
This post presents a philosophical idea inspired by the text of today’s Daf. The Daf is one page in the Talmud that tens of thousands of people study each day. I explain the connection to the text in a comment below. My purpose is to show that there are underlying philosophical assumptions in the Talmud that can have great significance for anybody today trying to understand our complex reality.
In philosophy, the analysis of morality usually revolves around three main themes: rule-based (deontology), results-oriented (consequentialism or utilitarianism), and virtue ethics.
Rule-based ethics determines the morality of an action by whether it conforms to a moral rule, such as “you may never kill people” or “you must never lie.” The question arises as to who determines which rules are considered moral. It is possible to envision scenarios that appear illogical, such as refusing to lie when a murderer arrives at your door and inquires about the whereabouts of a family he is pursuing.
Consequentialism asserts that the merit of a decision should be evaluated based on the ultimate outcome of the action. For instance, the optimal method for giving to charity is to make a dispassionate assessment of the number of individuals who will benefit and the amount of benefit each dollar will provide. Consequentialism may be dangerous, as exemplified by the prospect of the person seated next to you on a plane calculating that the most effective method of raising awareness for climate change, which could result in the deaths of billions, is to bring down your plane.
Virtue ethics asserts that the sole consideration is one’s intention. For instance, offering charity purely for the sake of appearances holds no value, and if someone genuinely endeavors to aid others but something goes awry, they should not be condemned. Virtue ethics may also attract criticism for producing irrational conclusions since an individual who is sincere about a particular cause, despite being misguided, may engage in terrible actions.
The contrast between rule-based and results-oriented ethics is frequently depicted as a straightforward dichotomy, but a more useful perspective is to perceive them as two extreme and irrational positions on a spectrum, where appropriate conduct exists somewhere between them on a continuum which can be called the Rule-Result axis.
An individual’s or group’s moral worth is not located on the Rule-Result axis; instead, it constitutes an independent dimension called the virtue dimension. For instance, someone might scrupulously adhere to rules or disregard them altogether, and the same applies to one’s stance towards the outcomes of their actions. Approaching the rule end of the Rule-Result axis could instill greater trust in people, as opposed to relying on their virtue, since society can employ these rules to establish legislation and create clear standards for enforcement or penalty. Defining this is more challenging for results-oriented actions.
However, the analysis of ethics often overlooks a third dimension – how much one knows about the value of a given rule or the outcome of a particular action. The most crucial aspect of this knowledge or epistemic dimension is one’s awareness of the limitations of their knowledge. Therefore, the most perilous form of sincere consequentialism is an individual who is entirely oblivious to the bounds of human reasoning and is convinced that their horrendous plans will ultimately create a paradise. In general, if every anticipated outcome is adjusted based on the level of certainty, and if one has the appropriate amount of epistemic humility, much of the world’s suffering can be avoided. Result-oriented ethics is generally more mindful of our inherent lack of epistemic humility than rule-based ethics, but there may also be risks associated with being excessively cautious and less confident than warranted.
Viewed in this manner, all moral actions can be represented as a 3D shape, an irregular volume within the space defined by the axes of Rule-Result, Virtue, and knowledge of one’s own limitations.