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 now 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 game 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 ways to opti­mize the dis­tri­b­u­tion.

This way of act­ing, based on con­se­quences, is known as util­i­tar­i­an­ism. We put util­i­ty fast, 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 tracks 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 the 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 Internet.

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 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? 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. 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 these 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.

Further Reference

State of the Net 2018


Help Support Open Transcripts

If you found this useful or interesting, please consider supporting the project monthly at Patreon or once via Square Cash, or even just sharing the link. Thanks.