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.

Further Reference

State of the Net 2018