III. Right and Wrong.


It is in defining objective rightness that the consequences of an action become relevant. Some moralists, it is true, deny the dependence upon consequences; but that is to be attributed, I think, to confusion with the subjective sense. When people argue as to whether such and such an action is right, they always adduce the consequences which it has or may be expected to have. A statesman who has to decide what is the right policy, or a teacher who has to decide what is the right education, will be expected to consider what policy or what education is likely to have the best results. Whenever a question is at all complicated, and cannot be settled by following some simple rule, such as thou shalt not steal, or thou shalt not bear false witness, it is at once evident that the decision cannot be made except by consideration of consequences. (§ 14 ¶ 1)

But even when the decision can be made by a simple precept, such as not to lie or not to steal, the justification of the precept is found only by consideration of consequences. A code such as the Decalogue, it must be admitted, can hardly be true without exception if the goodness or badness of consequences is what determines the rightness or wrongness of actions; for in so complex a world it is unlikely that obedience to the Decalogue will always produce better consequences than disobedience. Yet it is a suspicious circumstance that breaches of those of the Ten Commandments which people still hold it a duty to obey do, as a matter of fact, have bad consequences in the vast majority of instances, and would not be considered wrong in a case in which it was fairly certain that their consequences would be good. This latter fact is concealed by a question-begging addition of moral overtones to words. Thus, e.g., thou shalt do no murder would be an important precept if it were interpreted, as Tolstoy interprets it, to mean thou shalt not take human life. But it is not so interpreted; on the contrary, some taking of human life is called justifiable homicide. Thus murder comes to mean unjustifiable homicide; and it is a mere tautology to say Thou shalt do no unjustifiable homicide. That this should be announed from Sinai would be as fruitless as Hamlet’s report of the ghost’s message: There’s ne’er a villain, dwelling in all Denmark, but he’s an arrant knave.[Hamlet, I.v. Speech 37] As a matter of fact, people do make a certain classifiation of homicides, and decide that certain kinds are justifiable and certain others unjustifiable. But there are many doubtful cases: tyrannicide, capital punishment, killing in war, killing in self-defence, killing in defence of others, are some of these. And if a decision is sought, it is sought usually by considering whether the consequences of actions belonging to these classes are on the whole good or bad. Thus the importane of precepts such as the Ten Commandments lies in the fact that they give simple rules, obedience to which will in almost all cases have better consequences than disobedience; and the justification of the rules is not wholly independent of consequences. (§ 14 ¶ 2)