What constitutes a morally right action from a morally wrong action?
That question popped into my head after I watched the film, “Crimes and Misdemeanors”, with Woody Allen and Martin Landau.
I remembered there were two theories of moral philosophy, also known as ethics, one involving “consequences” and the other, “intentions”. So, what constitutes GOOD consequences and intentions, and BAD ones?
To add to the confusion, there is “moral relativism” which states there are NO moral facts. All moral evaluations are relative to the individual.
Plus, “moral objectivism” which states there ARE moral facts. The moral facts don’t depend on what anybody thinks.
In my mind, there are differences in people’s moral standards.
I wondered if the film could clear up some of these points. This movie has two stories and two protagonists. Judah Rosenthal, an eye doctor and pillar of the community, is one protagonist.
Cliff Stern, the second protagonist, is a film maker. His wife wants him to work on a documentary about her brother, a successful TV producer. While doing the film Cliff meets and falls in love with the documentary’s producer, Halley. In the end Cliff loses her to Lester, his wife’s brother. What links the two stories together is Ben, the rabbi, who is Cliff’s brother-law and Judah’s patient.
Now, Judah had a mistress, Delores, who threatened to spill the beans to Judah’s wife about the affair and some dodgy business dealings. Judah has his brother hire a hit man to kill Delores. In doing this, Judah is morally wrong, his action produced bad consequences and his intentions were suspect. He fell victim of moral egoism, his sole concern in making the decision was how it will affect him.
John Stuart Mill had a greatest happiness principle, which stated that the most important things in life are pleasure and freedom from pain.
So, according to this principle what has to be done to figure out what is the morally right decision?
List all the alternative actions the person has to choose from.
For each alternative figure out the total amount of happiness or unhappiness that would result from the decision.
The alternative with the greatest happiness is the morally right thing to do. Any alternative with less than maximum happiness is morally wrong.
Lets look at this with analyzing Judah’s decision to get a hit man to kill Delores.
What were his alternatives:
He could confess his infidelity to his wife. This would result in his wife’s unhappiness and his guilt. Maybe in the end would be forgiveness and adjustment.
He could decide to “do nothing”. Delores would be unhappy to continue living a lie. But everyone else would be happy if Judah could keep Delores quiet.
Or he could choose to hire the hit man, which he does. Delores suffers death and she has the right NOT to be killed. Judah suffers guilt, but his wife and family have the happiness of the status quo. Also, an innocent man was accused of the killing which wasn’t right.
In the last analysis Judah’s action was wrong because it produced the worst outcome than the other alternatives.
The end of the movie is chilling for a lot of people because there is no ultimate punishment for Judah, his guilt vanished in time and his life of wealth and privilege continued as if nothing happened.
So, why be moral in the first place?
Why do the right thing if we can do the wrong thing and get away with it?
Does conscience mean anything if everything (guilt,etc.) passes away with time?
In conclusion: We all face life decisions, moral choices, some big some small. We are defined by our choices. We hope we have the ability to keep trying to find joy and satisfaction from basic things, such as our family, our work and our passions.
This article was posted by David Wise author of “Web of Guilt”, “24 Traumatic Hours, Twice”, and “The Becoming”.
All available on Amazon in ebook and paperback.
Also published on Medium.