The Collegian
Thursday, August 06, 2020

The Walk: Proper Action

<p>Graphic by Jackie Llanos</p>

Graphic by Jackie Llanos

Editor's Note: The views and opinions expressed in this article do not reflect those of The Collegian.

This week, I’ll be discussing my beliefs about proper action. For me, the most important philosophical question we can ask ourselves is, “what is the best thing to do?” And I believe that answering this question has to be the ultimate goal of moral philosophy. To put it another way, moral philosophy should prescribe the proper way to act and should help us make decisions. 

When answering these questions, I try to stay away from distinctions like “right” and “wrong” and focus more on distinctions like “good” and “bad.” “Right” and “wrong” lend themselves to moral frameworks that are different from mine and the way that we understand them in the vernacular runs counter to what I’m going to argue. So for my purposes, there is no right or wrong and an action can simply be good or bad.

To say whether an action is good or bad, we need to know what an action is. I like to think of one's life as an infinitely forking pathway, where every time we could do something, the set of all the things we could do forms as a set of pathways in front of us, and we choose a path to go down. 

As I type this, I am constantly deciding to continue typing, rather than stop and use my phone, get up and get food, or an infinite set of other decisions that I could make. Anytime you choose a path to go down you have taken an action, so we are all taking actions constantly.

An action is good if, among the infinite paths available to be taken, the world in the path you took is better than or the same as the world in all the other paths. An action is bad if it is not good. This conception of good and bad is troubling to a lot of people because of how selective it is in calling an action good, and how common it is to do a bad thing. 

It is troubling that we are all doing something bad, at basically every opportunity. Our time and resources could almost always be used in a better way than we are currently using them. The money that I have in my bank account is definitely more valuable to someone else than it is to me. My time spent watching Netflix or playing video games could be spent doing something more socially productive. 

Despite the incredibly high bar for an action to be good, I nevertheless have adopted these definitions because they provide some important insights. One classic question that philosophical frameworks are often tested against is, “If a person is choking, are you morally required to help?” This question is essentially about duties. 

Frameworks tend to either believe exclusively in negative duties or believe in both positive and negative duties. An example of a negative duty is, “You have the obligation to not murder people.” It is the obligation to abstain from something. An example of a positive duty is “You have the obligation to save someone who is choking.” In order for a framework to answer yes to the choking question, it has to be able to defend positive duties in addition to negative duties, and my framework lends itself nicely to defending positive duties.

In my framework, if you fail to save someone’s life, it is no different than you killing them. This is because instead of viewing the current state as the starting place for the analysis and viewing actions as moves from the current state to future states, I instead view actions as moves between potential future states. In both the situation where you decline to give the Heimlich and a situation where you pull out a gun and shoot a random bystander in the head, you have chosen a state where the person is dead over a state where they are alive. 

Within this set of definitions about what constitutes a bad action, the implications about what it means to do something bad are very important. It is impossible to avoid taking a lot of bad actions over the course of your life, so it is crucial to note that taking a lot of bad actions does not make you a bad person. 

In fact, I think that the good person/bad person distinction is fraught and not really all that useful. In theory, you could make judgments about whether someone is good or bad based on a lot of information that practically is impossible to acquire. In my Christian worldview, the only entity that should be concerned with making those distinctions is God, when he’s deciding on a person’s fate in the afterlife. Otherwise, we all exist at points on a spectrum, of good and bad, and the knowledge of one’s own position or the position of others isn’t information that should affect your behavior in any way.

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As for God making decisions about one’s fate in the afterlife, a person can still go to heaven if they have done a lot of bad things. There isn’t a percentage of good actions versus bad actions that you have to have done, it’s not like grading an exam. What matters is the kind of person that you are.

There is a passage from C.S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity, which is a wonderful book if you are interested in Christian thought, that I think captures this well: 

“People often think of Christian morality as a kind of bargain in which God says, 'If you keep a lot of rules I'll reward you, and if you don't I'll do the other thing.' I do not think that is the best way of looking at it. I would much rather say that every time you make a choice you are turning the central part of you, the part of you that chooses, into something a little different from what it was before. And taking your life as a whole, with all your innumerable choices, all your life long you are slowly turning this central thing either into a heavenly creature or into a hellish creature: either into a creature that is in harmony with God, and with other creatures, and with itself, or else into one that is in a state of war and hatred with God, and with its fellow-creatures, and with itself."

Not every action changes you the same amount, and even if you take more bad actions than good, which is likely, if you are aiming at a good life, hoping to live in harmony with others and trying your hardest, you will be a heavenly creature.

To contribute to The Walk, email Opinions and Columns Editor Conner Evans at opinions@thecollegianur.com.

Contact columnist Cal Pringle at cal.pringle@richmond.edu. 

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