How are we to deal with the unintended consequences of our actions? Are we to be held responsible for all consequences of our acts, or just some of them? What unintended consequences imply to utilitaristic approaches toward ethics?
My intention here is to draw a draft considering some of these issues, that would be further studied in a more suitable form in a future study. For now, I will only give some insights for a more complete work in a form of an essay.
If we focus on the results of actions as the valid outcome to judge on ethiticity or morality, how should we deal with unintended consequences? Utilitaristic views on ethics have defended that the result or consequences of actions should be first regarded. Hence, if I act in a sense and the consequences (even if unintended) are considered to be immoral, my whole action will then be considered wrong.
However, considering the number of contingencies that are not predictable in one’s action, would it not be the case of judging consequences accordingly to a pattern of reasonability instead of consequences itself? It seems that such is a main difference between utilitaristic (Hare, Singer) and deontological (Rawls) views on ethics.
If we approach the same action through a deontological and utilitaristic view, we will come up with quite different outcomes in the judgment of the morality of one’s action. For instance, if I choose to view the reasonability of the action itself separated from its result, I can say that even if the result was not adequate, the action was ethical.
Medical ethics can illustrate such approach in a good manner:
When a physician makes an option to act in a “X” manner opposed to “Y”, he is relying that such action will have the best outcome for his patient. However, the number of contingencies of his act are not controllable, so even if his action was reasonable and adequate, the result might as well be inadequate. In this sense, are we still eager to say the physician acted wrongly? Or unethically?
My insight is that unintended consequences show a limit to hard utilitaristic approaches, and strengthen the case for deontological perspectives in ethics. Focusing on reasonability and principles in the actions seems to be closer to the reality of how people act than just trusting results. I am, by no means, suggesting that this implies on some kind of voluntarism – the results remain relevant, of course. Nevertheless, they might not say as much as utilitarists imply about our ethical actions.
At this point one must also ask what has phenomenology to contribute to such debate?
I believe that the structure of an intentionality might help us realize how people act and experience such situations, when one acts he acts accordingly to a structure of intention towards objects and subjects, and such intention implies on what one assumes as ethical or reasonable – in this sense, trusting a pre-phenomenological approach of experience could lead to problems in the semantic reasoning of these issues.