Doing the Right Thing for All the Wrong Reasons
First, let’s assume for the sake of argument that there is a measure of right and wrong, that it is an objective measure that doesn’t depend on our point of reference, and that this measure is unaffected by our observation. If history tells us one thing, it’s that what might have been construed as “right” at the moment of action could be “wrong” in retrospect, perhaps because the context against which actions are measured evolves. It is therefore also prudent to introduce a time dimension to the reference or the set of criteria against which actions are measured.
An example that also relinquishes us of any moral burden in this discussion is the buying and selling of stocks on an exchange: For an order to be executed, one side must sell and the other must buy at the same price. If we take out any outside factors, this set of actions has [Buy], [Sell], [Time], and [Price] that combined create a measure of right and wrong. Whenever the price starts moving, one side will be proven right, and the other wrong. However, in a market with enough volatility, price that goes up may come down at some point, and vice versa. Then, if the side that has bought sells later at a higher price, and if the side that has sold buys later at a lower price, both can be right. So it is the other way around.
Another example that is more provocative may be the subjugation of large groups of people for self-interest. It either makes you kings and queens and princes and princesses that the public are supposed to adore or a mafia boss (or dictator) that the public unsurprisingly dislike (but perhaps rightfully fear). The difference is the historical context (point of reference): If you subjugated people when they longed to be subjugated, you became kings and queens, but if you do that when they long to be free, you’re just a dictator.
But isn’t it shooting at a moving target? What good is a measure for if it doesn’t have a “unit of measure” and a defined set of properties? We know between two pipes of 1m and 2m in length, the 2m one is longer. However, between two unitless measures (1,2) and (3,4) which is longer, heavier, prettier, worthier?
One solution many may propose is to introduce counterfactuals: to compare the relative merits of an action against its absence. However, the use of counterfactuals requires us to know our reference nonetheless: If an action is (1,2) while its absence produces (3,4), which is preferable? Counterfactuals makes easier ex post analysis and perhaps reduces ex ante confusion — only when our reference is clearly defined.
Therefore, even assuming there is such a measure of right and wrong, we cannot tell whether an action is more right or wrong without our belief in what is right and what is wrong — because right or wrong doesn’t exist beyond our beliefs. Next time we see someone doing the right thing for what we construe as all the wrong reasons, relish in the fact that at least his/her actions if not their reasons conform to our beliefs.
This article was originally posted on my old site jlteng.com on 29 November 2017.