So the most common example of this question relates to hunting and eating meat. Many people eat meat, hunter or not. People who do not hunt understand on a basic level that meat comes from a slaughtered animal, but likely have no real experience of what this means or entails. Hunters know exactly what this entails, as they themselves kill the animal and see the whole transformation from living creature to cooked meat.

Its common to argue that in this case, the hunter is making a less ethical decision when she eats meat, because she knows the exact amount of violence and pain it takes to produce it. By this reasoning, the normal meat-eater is simply ignorant, not acting unethically but just not realizing the price of the meat they consume.

However, I find the opposite to be convincing enough to merit argument. A hunter knows what it takes to harvest meat, knows how much she enjoys meat, and makes the decision to hunt fully-informed, which clearly shows that the benefits outweigh the costs in her head. A normal meat-eater, however, is consuming meat without full knowledge of the costs, and may in fact not eat meat, or eat much less, if required to witness or cause the death each time. They are acting recklessly in their consumption, and likely not making a balanced moral decision like the hunter.

So does this second argument have merit? When evaluating decisions with a "bad" consequence, does fully understanding and accepting the consequence make the decision more or less ethical? Is ignorance an excuse or an ethical failure?

Edit*: A second example, to avoid tangling this up in discussions about eating meat. You are a feudal lord who has sentenced a thief to death. If you decide to execute him yourself, are you acting nobly by taking responsibility for your own actions, or violenty/sadistically by choosing to commit violence when you have the option of letting someone else do it?

  • "Its common to argue that in this case, the hunter is making a less ethical decision when she eats meat," -- 1) what exactly do you mean with 'less ethical'? Less concerned with ethics? Then 2) why do you say that is common to argue? I find it a strange claim. – Keelan Jun 2 '15 at 4:39
  • I guess, given that most people would consider killing to have some level of undesirability, people who choose to kill when they don't have to may be seen as acting more violent/morally bad/unempathetic etc. – Cain Jun 2 '15 at 16:27

Knowing or not knowing the consequences of an act is essential to evaluating the morality of a choice. Take one of those contrived examples where some evil genius has rigged explosives to a light switch such that when Mrs. Smith turns on the light, the victim is blown to smithereens. If Mrs. Smith knows of the consequences of turning on the light, and assuming there isn't some countervailing life-or-death paradox involved, then the moral choice is to choose not to turn on the light. If Mrs. Smith has no knowledge of this arrangement, the moral choice is to turn on the light (rather than curse the darkness). In the former case, she is choosing to both turn on the light and to kill the victim (the latter being the immoral choice), but in the latter case she is not choosing to kill, though that does turn out to be an unforseeable consequence of the action. The operative principle is that choosing to kill an innocent person is immoral; not all choices constitute "choosing to kill".

Your two examples have in common killing, but that is not the only domain of moral evaluation. To see whether there is a general principle (i.e. are we just dealing with a viceral reaction against death, are you getting bogged down in death penalty morality or meat-eating), you should look for a less extreme scenario. The proper moral question to ask is whether it is morally justified to choose to execute a person for theft, per se. If it is not, then doing it yourself versus commissioning someone else to do it for you does not change the picture, and it is even less relevant whether you implement the execution yourself.

  • So to narrow it down then, say there is some act that is necessary, but in itself is morally ambiguous or bad. Is there any difference at all between committing the act and having someone else do it? So Mrs. Smith knows what happens when she turns on the light, but say if it isn't turned on then everyone dies. Is there a difference between her turning it on, and her leaving knowing that someone else will come turn it on? – Cain Jun 2 '15 at 18:51
  • Note that you're moving towards another subtopic where knowing isn't the issue, it's direct agency versus an indirect relationship to the action. There is no significant difference between doing it and having i.e. making someone else do it: you are culpable for murder whether you directly kill an innocent, or hire an assassin. Scenarios where everyone dies no matter what and you are infallibly certain that there is such a dichotomy are not ethically informative, IMO. – user6726 Jun 2 '15 at 20:51

Not meaning anything against you (Cain), here, but I think the example in your question gets mileage out of a fudge.

If we assume that killing an animal and eating its meat is not morally wrong, then the whole scenario is devoid of moral content.

If, conversely, we assume that killing an animal and eating its meat is morally wrong — perhaps the same in kind but not in degree, as doing this to another person (human being) — then… I venture that it is fairly obvious what one would think of someone pulling a chunk of human thigh meat out of the freezer and eating it (the question of whether or not the person in question suffered being important but tangental).

My own view — informed by my world view and sub-beliefs — is that eating (animal) meat is not how it would be in an ideal world, but is okay in this particular world as it is. Of course, I would think it terrible if the pertinent animals were subject to needless suffering (and, rightly or wrongly, I would be more concerned about a cow than about a fly).

Thinking of the question of whether or not eating meat is morally wrong… although philosophers seek to argue through to positions that their opponents must accept (and this is a worthy pursuit), it is nonetheless obviously true that … not only one’s starting position, but also how one builds on it, is very much a function of one’s world view.

As for your original question…

We need here to draw a distinction between the natural and immediate consequences of an action, and consequences that might arise in some particular situation. The former is the content of the moral principle in question. To kill someone is morally wrong precisely because they end up dead; this is definitive of the concept of killing someone.

Beyond that, there is the interesting field of ethical dilemmas (which I take to include situations of that sort that are hardly any sort of dilemma).

Borrowing the extreme example of User6726… turning on a light is not morally wrong, but it is theoretically possible that a situation obtain in which doing that would result in a death (and the tangental questions around the contingency that the subject does or does not know this).

In the case of this extreme example, it is quite obvious that, if indeed one did know that flicking the light switch would result in a death, it would be definitely morally wrong to do so. Again, this is an extreme example of ethical dilemma; in such cases, there are no implications for the moral value of turning on a light.

That suggests a discussion about consequentialism. This is a difficulty for consequentialism (which, I think I can safely say, defines moral wrong as pertaining to situations, rather than to universal principles); if we do not believe beforehand that killing people is wrong (or that doing to people things that they strongly dislike is wrong)… it is difficult to argue that a particular act in a particular situation is wrong on the grounds that it involves killing someone. (Alternatively, we simply have a moral principle that hurting people is morally wrong, and the rest is situational detail.) [I could possibly have quoted a source for this line of argument in the past. It is a basic, early objection against consequentialism.]

Having said all that… it seems that your question is (perhaps) really about whether someone who is involved in, but more distant from, an evil act is less guilty. To think about this, we need an example in which someone does something that is immediately wrong, and presumably benefits from this, and someone else also benefits from it through endorsing it.

If we assume that the second someone benefits just as much as the original evil-doer, then an example might be that there are two people who stand to gain a lot of money by killing someone; one does the killing and both benefit. My intuition, in this case, is that both are guilty of the killing, but that we tend to assume that the one who was not directly involved did not quite have the stomach for it and is slightly less morally depraved (but we do not actually know whether they are or not).

Thinking of an example in which someone is more distant from an evil act, but still involved, is not so easy. (Also, I am not very good at thinking of examples.) A group of people physically attacking someone does not work, because each one participates directly, to a lesser or greater degree.

I am thinking that it is actually not logical to have someone somehow distant from an evil act, but still personally responsible for the act being done. It is possible to be in a position to benefit from an evil deed that is simply a past event into which one has no input, but that is a distinct question.

The example of the feudal Lord is interesting, but I think is obscured behind the fact that the Lord is ostensibly executing justice as a qualified political persona.

I am inclined to think that there is indeed no type of case in which one is responsible for an evil act, but distant from it in some way that retains the moral responsibility but somehow decreases it according to the postulated “distance” (and that it is not merely that I can not think of an example).


In legal terms, you often read "X knew or should have known...". I eat meat, with pleasure. I know what happens to the animals that supply the meat that I eat. Anybody at some level of life experience knows what happens to the animals, unless they keep their eyes firmly closed. If there was a legal question, not knowing something that you should have known is no excuse. If you sell drugs and carefully avoided ever looking at the consequences of your drug dealing, then your lack of knowledge of the damage you cause is no excuse, neither legally nor ethically.

It is the same with ethics. It's not the knowledge per se. If your action caused damage that could have been avoided with the right knowledge, what makes a difference is whether you had no reason to believe you needed that knowledge, or whether you negligently, or recklessly, or intentionally avoided gaining that knowledge.

Of course your example is a bit leading, because many people, including me, don't see anything unethical in eating meat.

  • It's not that eating meat is unethical, just that there is probably some level of undesirability in killing something. Killing for fun could certainly be seen as wrong, for example. Maybe it's less about knowledge, because you're right in saying everyone knows what happens to the animals. But in the case that something is going to die, if you choose to kill it yourself are you "owning" the action and taking responsibility for it, or acting violently or wrongly by killing when you don't have to, because someone else could do it for you? – Cain Jun 2 '15 at 16:25

It is important to distinguish between the moral status of actions from the moral status of agents. The rightness or wrongness of actions does not depend on mental states of any kind. If it is wrong to contribute to the torturing of factory farmed animals, then it is wrong regardless of whether or not the person contributing to this torture (by purchasing factory farmed meat) knows all the consequences of her actions.

The moral status of agents, however, does depend on intent, knowledge, and the like. So a purchaser of factory farmed meat may be doing something wrong in purchasing that meat, even though, in the event of complete ignorance, she may not be morally blameworthy for doing so. Similarly, a criminal who intends to do harm but ends up unintentionally helping someone may have done an action that was morally right, but she is unlikely to be praiseworthy for doing it.

So, to answer your question, knowing the consequences of an action may determine whether or not someone is blameworthy or praiseworthy in performing that action, but it does not affect whether or not that action is objectively morally right or morally wrong.

As regards your specific example, the immorality of purchasing factory farmed meat consists in the fact that doing so often contributes to the torture of animals, and the benefits of torturing animals in this case (affordable nourishment, gustatory pleasure) are grossly outweighed by the costs. Hunting and swiftly killing wild animals and eating them may provide benefits which outweigh the costs, and that is perhaps why this seems more acceptable.

As a side note, it's not just whether or not someone knows the consequences of her actions that determines blameworthiness, it's also whether or not she should reasonably be expected to know such consequences. E.g., you cannot stab someone to death and expect to get away with it by claiming that you have never stabbed a human being before and therefore did not technically know what the consequences of doing so would be. So those who claim not to know the consequences of supporting animal torture through their grocery store purchases are either lying, and are therefore blameworthy, or they should be expected to investigate these consequences and may be blameworthy for not doing so.

  • " Hunting and swiftly killing wild animals and eating them may provide benefits which outweigh the costs, and that is perhaps why this seems more acceptable." I guess this is a core piece of my question, because many people who eat factory-meat consider hunting to be wrong, violent or distasteful. Is there a legitimate framework to this view, or is it just ignorance/logical fallacy/naevete, etc? – Cain Jun 16 '15 at 14:10
  • If the hunting in question involves killing wild animals as quickly and painlessly as possible and then eating them (not just killing for sport), a case can be made that hunting is morally superior to purchasing factory farmed meat. The suffering of animals hunted in the wild is signifiicantly less than the suffering of animals raised and slaughtered on factory farms. Moreover, hunting cultivates in the hunter certain virtues which buying factory farmed meat does not (compassion for the animals hunted, reverence for the environment and our connection to it, etc.). – J-Dawg Jun 16 '15 at 17:52

Does knowing the consequences of an action change the ethics of doing it?

To look at the question without the example, there is no immorality without knowledge.

Animals, acting with animal instinct, do not suffer sin or virtue. That is to compare immorality with sin.

If a particular act is immoral then it is. To do so knowingly is immoral. To do so or to cause to be so or to cause be done unknowingly cannot be weighed except where it ought to have been known and the doer may have an ethical responsibility, aka a duty-of-care, to find out first.

So, certainly knowing the consequences of an action (being unethical) changes the ethical question that must be answered in doing it.

The underlying question is, "What is ethical and how should I know?"

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