The morality of choice (review of Chapter V, or exercises in mental masturbation)

Let’s now turn to Chapter V of “Natural law and natural rights,” the most important chapter in Professor Finnis’s beautiful book. This chapter is a must-read because Professor Finnis does three big things in this chapter: (1) he presents a powerful critique of consequentialism; (2) he locates the source of morality; and (3) he sets forth specific criteria for deciding when a choice is consistent or not with morality. We shall discuss each one of these themes in turn:

1. Finnis’s critique of consequentialism. In two words, Finnis’s hardcore critique of consequentialism, which appears on pp. 113-117 of Chapter V, is devastating and irrefutable. To sum up, consequentialism–the idea that we should maximize the greatest good for the greatest number–is, among other things, “irrational” (p. 112), “unworkable” (p. 113) and even “senseless” (p. 113, italics in the original). How so? Because, according to Finnis, the “good” we are supposed to be maximizing consists of such essential things as life, art, play, truth, etc. and these things are incommensurable and thus impossible to measure or trade off against each other. But even if you reject Finnis’s master list of basic goods, consequentialism is still going to be riddled with indeterminacy, if not outright arbitrariness, for several additional reasons. To begin with (see p. 116), whose greatest good are you supposed to maximize? Your own or everyone’s? If the latter, how is this good to be counted? Total goodness overall regardless of how such goodness is distributed? Maximum average amount of goodness per person? Or equal amounts of goodness for everyone? Finnis provides additional criticisms of consequentialism on page 117. Each of these arguments in isolation is powerful and persuasive; together, they deliver a knock-out blow.

2. Source of natural law and morality. In addition to landing this knock-out punch against consequentialism, Prof Finnis is going to identify an alternative source of morality. According to Finnis, a choice is consistent with morality if that choice satisfies a number of criteria (nine in all). Before we restate and evaluate this copious set of moral criteria in subsection 3 of this post below, I want to say a word about Finnis’s terminology, for he insists on calling these criteria “the requirements of practical reasonableness.” I certainly understand the linguistic logic of this terminology, for from Prof Finnis’s philosophical perspective, his criteria are “practical” inasmuch as they are supposed to guide our actual choices, and they are “reasonable” inasmuch as they produce fair and just choices. But I will just go out on a limb and say it: “practical reasonableness” is a most unfortunate and lame label. To the extent these criteria are supposed to embody Finnis’s theory of natural law (see “a note about terminology” on page 121 of Ch. V), and given the hopelessly subjective nature of practicality and of reasonableness, why not call these moral criteria the “ingredients of justice” or the “elements of natural law”?

3. The criteria, or how to engage in the highest form of intellectual masturbation. As we mentioned above, Finnis identifies no less than nine separate criteria that we are supposed to use when we are making choices or when we are evaluating the morality of our choices. So without further ado, here is the entire set of Finnis’s specific choice-criteria:

(i) one’s choices must be consistent with one’s “rational plan for life” or “one’s life as a whole” (p. 104; see subsection V.2 on coherent plans of life);

(ii) one’s choices must give equal consideration to all the basic values that Finnis listed in his previous chapter (see subsection V.3 on impartiality among values);

(iii) one’s choices must assign equal weight to one’s own interests as well as to the competing interests of others (see V.4 on impartiality among persons);

(iv) one’s choices must be made in a spirit of detachment (see V.5 on detachment);

(v) one’s choices should be open to revision (see p. 110: “One should be looking creatively for new and better ways of carrying out one’s commitments ….”);

(vi) one’s choices should minimize costs and maximize benefits to the extent feasible (see V.6 on consequences);

(vii) one’s choices must assign equal weight to all of Finnis’s basic values (see V.7 on respect for every basic value);

(viii) one’s choices must “favor[] and foster[] the common good of one’s communities” (p. 125; see V.8 on the common good); and last but literally not least,

(ix) one must follow one’s conscience when making choices (see V.9).

Alas, these multifarious moral criteria are an exercise in sheer intellectual masturbation. Since these numerous criteria are supposed to be equally weighted, they are going to generate an inifinte number of irresolvable conflicts with each other, especially given item (ix) above. Furthermore, most of these criteria are maddingly vague, such as items (i) and (iv) above, while others are just plain redundant, such as items (ii) and (vii). But the main problem with these criteria is that they are unrealistic: no one really makes decisions this way. (Paging Hobbes!)

Consider, by way of example, a simple choice that I was confronted with last night. My five-year old daughter wanted me to order for her the “Toca Boca Hair Salon App” for her iPad. Should I buy it for her? On the one hand, this App is a game, and “play” is one of Finnis’s fundamental values. So far, so good. But on the other hand, more screen-time is probably bad for my child’s mental health and so detrimental to the basic value of life. Even if I could somehow mediate this impossible choice between the values of play and health, will this game help my child develop a coherent or rational plan of life, or will it derail her efforts to develop such a plan? Your guess is as good mine, so yeah, Finnis’s moral criteria are pretty much worthless. That said, we will reluctantly proceed to Chapter VI …

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About F. E. Guerra-Pujol

When I’m not blogging, I am a business law professor at the University of Central Florida.
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2 Responses to The morality of choice (review of Chapter V, or exercises in mental masturbation)

  1. Kathy H says:

    While this really doesn’t have anything to do with the discussion, when it comes to children and screen time, I would follow the American Academy of Pediatric guidelines. I’ve always thought life was just a combination of choice and fate. Choice is what we can control, fate is what we can not control. The most you can do is try to make the best choice you can based on the information you have at the time. My in-laws could not stop the communist take over of Czechoslovakia (fate). They could have chosen to join the communist party, they could have chosen to stay and get arrested, they could have chosen to fight. They chose to flee. Every choice has consequences. Choice is not easy to make. They could have been killed, they could have been arrested. They chose a chance for survival. My mother-in-law’s brother wanted her to leave a child behind (my husband). This way if they perished one would be left. She could not bring herself to do that. It turned out her brother was arrested and spent 20 years in prison for his anti-communist activities. The right choice was to not leave a child behind because as fate would have it, they all survived.

    • Thank you for sharing your family’s story. In addition to the parallels with my family’s experiences in Cuba, your point about the mixture fate and choice in our lives is well-taken!

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