Adriana Lukas: How many of you stayed, and what are the consequences of that? How about others who left by now? What are the consequences for them? Not much. There is no power watching over us, or clocking who is attending. Or so they want us to think.
What are the consequences for you who remained here? Potential learning or insight, or a wasted half an hour. You will be the judges of that. No one else. So, ask yourself why did you stay?
Why do we care about consequences? Control. Safety. Because they affect us. Thinking about consequence is a good way to manage existence in a difficult, hostile, or unknown environment. Consider the consequences or you may get hurt, starve, or die. Considering your actions, or other people’s actions, helps us understand what might happen. So they’re a sort of proxy for thinking about the future.
Also, thinking about consequences encourages long-term versus short-term gain thinking. For example, it’s one thing to focus on survival: let’s say cutting someone’s gangrenous leg; and another on quality of life: finding a cure for that gangrene. Or a simple consideration of side-effects of medication. Doctors make such decisions daily.
We often talk about the need to consider the bigger picture. Which highlights the long-term consequences. Pollution, AI, running an ethical business, to name a few. Considering consequences makes a lot of sense in a world where my actions can have negative impact on me and others. Or where there are scarce resources and we need to avoid depleting them. Or we need to find a way to optimize the distribution.
This way of acting, based on consequences, is known as utilitarianism. We put utility first, and a good action is the one that maximizes happiness for the greatest number. A sensible principle, until it isn’t.
Every ethics student encounters a variation on this question: There’s a runaway train full of people on board which is heading for a bridge that has collapsed. And unless it is diverted to another track, they will all drown. You are standing at the railroad switch and have the power to change the track. However, if you do, the child that is playing on the other track will be crushed. What do you do? And no, you cannot move the child, as you’re too far away; or get help, as mobiles have not yet been invented.
Do you make the calculation of sacrificing one life to save many and divert the train? What if the train is full of convicted murderers who hijacked the train in their desire to continue killing? And what if the child is a genius who will invent a cure for a killer disease and save the lives of many people in the future? The human calculus seems to need more than mere weighing of consequences.
And there’s this infamous Sophie’s choice from a novel by William Styron as the starkest example of a very disturbing dilemma. A mother is taken to a concentration camp with a boy and a girl, and is ordered by the guard to pick which one of her children is to die. If she refuses to choose, both will be sent to their death. In the story, she picks the girl and keeps the boy, who she later loses anyway. And she never recovers from the trauma of her choice, and self-destructs in life and finally commits suicide.
Even without such extreme circumstances it is hard to live by consequences alone. The world is a complex place, and predicting the totality of consequences is a fool’s errand. This is particularly true for any new social phenomenon and technological innovation. Or inventions such as AI or the Internet.
The Internet is a particularly good example of this. We’ve had a few decades to figure it out and yet we are far from seeing, let alone comprehending, its consequences. We come here, year after year, to make sense of it somehow.
The difficulty of predicting consequences is no less true for other aspects of our lives. But we still like to believe we can justify actions based on such predictions. And up to a point, we indeed can. But perhaps there is another way of deciding how to do things right and how to guide our behavior.
There is the idea of judging an action not just by its consequences but also by its nature. We ask, is this a good or bad act in itself? This can be answered with a clear system of rights and wrongs such as Christianity, which stipulates that some acts are inherently good and some are inherently evil. So Catholic ethics, for example, apart from consequences and the nature of an act, also includes intention of the person carrying it out. This seems intuitive, as we often judge someone by their intended objective. Morally and legally, there is a difference between killing in self-defense, as an accident, or as premeditated murder.
A less extreme example of the difference intention makes would be let’s say someone forcing another person to do something for their own good. This can be done directly, in person, indirectly, by creating a system of conditions and rules that will force others into something. This person can be motivated to use force out of concern for others, desire to help them, or as the last resort to save them from themselves. For example a family’s or friend’s intervention for an addict.
Or they use such a system because of the control it gives them over others—they enjoy the feeling of power. So, what would the morality equation looks like here? Consequences may be positive. The act of force certainly less so. And the intention can seriously skew things one way or another. It’s complicated.
And so often, the final judgment is based on consequences alone, provided that the means of control are not too brutal and obvious. Think of the various rules and regulations designed to protect people from themselves. We tolerate them even though they encroach on people’s freedom and dignity.
Allowing intention to be part of how we assess an action brings the person into the equation, as another component alongside consequences. Still, it’s only one of the players on the morality field, with consequences as the referee. Is there another way?
Of course there is. The one most commonly posited against consequentialism (ie. looking at morality of an action based of consequences), is based on duty, such as Kantian ethics by Immanuel Kant, which instead of consequences or utility places duty as the central motivation for our actions. This assumes clarity about what the duty is. Well, nobody said ethics was simple.
The sacred Hindu text, Bhagavad Gita, is also not very keen on consequences, which it poetically calls “fruits of actions.” It sees our focus on consequences as bondage to a reality that we delude ourselves into controlling. Being attached to the fruits of one’s actions is not just about consequences but also about desires. So we act because we want something. Often it is the result of our actions as we imagine them. If we are sensible, we try to consider other kinds of consequences, too. So both our motivation and our judgment are driven by consequences, the fruits of our actions. And so we are bound by them whichever way we look at it.
But what else can we act on? Is there a way to get away from consequences? So the Bhagavad Gita says, “Without concern for results, perform the necessary action; surrendering all attachments, accomplish life’s highest good.” Or, “The secret of human freedom is to act well, without attachment to the results. The superior man is he whose mind can control his senses. With no attachment to results, he engages in action.”
The lack of attachment here does not mean disconnection from the world and others, but ability to control what can be controlled: the self, rather than consequences. It is about detaching our motivation from the results of an action so we do not lose sight of what else is important: a sense of perspective.
The ethics of ancient Greece as debated by Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle, centered around the concept of arete, moral virtue or excellence connected with fulfillment of purpose or function. This can be applied to anything. For example, the excellence of a knife is in its sharpness. In a person, it is the act of living up to one’s full potential.
In modern terms, it would translate into asking a series of questions—if you remember nothing from this, this is what I would like you to recall. It translates into asking what kind of person am I? What kind of person do I want to be? Would that person to act in this way or that way? What would the kind of person I want to be do in this situation?
Both approaches free us from consequences as the main driver of our behavior. The center of morality moves from the consequences to the person. Not just the intention, but to a more pervasive quality: the self. It gives us permission to observe with detachment what we do and why we do it. What moves us and how we deal with the world. To aim for balance, arete, virtue, and equanimity, with the self as a focal point, keeping us steady in whichever direction we go.
Benjamin Franklin noticed,
There are three things extremely hard: steel, a diamond, and to know one’s self. How to begin to do that is another talk, another lifetime. Let me leave you with an image, one image, the image of a dancer. Her effortless grace comes from her core, her ability to feel and manage the energy and tension in her body. From being centered. We admire this as mastery.
And yet, being centered in one’s mind, self-centered, does not command similar respect. We seem to equate it with selfishness, which is quite another thing. Selfishness is like a black hole, drawing and consuming everything around it. Self-centeredness is a foundation upon which we can expand outwards, and upwards, like the dancer’s limbs. Whether it is to connect with others, be part of communities and networks, that’s our choice. They can only benefit from our balance and moral center of gravity.
So, those who stayed to the end, probably the title of the talk was perhaps misleading. It’s not quite about freedom from consequences. Well it is, but it comes at a cost of finding greater awareness of who we are and who we want to be. This may be a burden at first, but it does lead to the greatest freedom of all. It’s freedom from our desires and impulses, which creates space for self-awareness, integrity, and self-possession. All of which are essential ingredients for self-determination and autonomy. To be who we choose to be, and to have the freedom to do both.
As it’s Friday night, I think it’s our duty to relax and have a drink, and to hell with consequences.