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(i have something to ask on meta stackexchange or maths meta stackexchange, but I want to ask a philosophy thing first. In fact, I may not even need to ask on meta stackexchange after this.)


I could swear there was something about Kant or one of those opposites of utilitarianism that might be relevant here, but I can't quite remember.

Question: What philosophies/philosophers claim how 2 actions can have exactly the same effect/s but are morally different, i.e. 1 action is morally good, while the other action is morally evil)?

  • Definition: I use effect/s in the sense of thomas aquinas' doctrine of double effect.

  • Note: The word 'effect/s' may be wrong. This question may be kind of confusing. Please help me to edit accordingly. (Also based on your answer/s, feel free to edit the tags as you see fit, eg adding 'Kant' if your answer includes Kant.)


Context and further explanation:

Apparently, someone on maths stackexchange didn't like that a certain user was answering in comments

Arthur: If the alternatives are limited to "Answer in a comment" and "Not answer", the second option is better. (...)

Me: A easy loophole: all i have to do is feign misunderstanding of the question like 'is the answer perhaps [insert answer] because [insert reason]? if not then perhaps i misunderstand your question'. your move.

Arthur: Some times such a comment is a genuine concern about clarity and understanding. Some times it's a concealed desire to have an answer validated. It's always possible to be dishonest on this site. If you think that's fine then I guess we will just have to disagree. (...)

Me: The point is a supposed honest action and a supposed dishonest action have the exact same effect, so how can you characterise 2 actions different morally if in effect they are exactly the same? (And they should be the same regardless of any possible outcomes.) If you can't, then they are morally equivalent. Checkmate.

For Arthur: It seems that it is dishonest to disguise an answer in comment as a question on the question on the question post.

But this seems pretty weird. There's no way to actually tell if the person really is confused by the question post or not: By this logic, a confused person has the privilege to answer questions in comments while a non-confused person doesn't.

For me: Therefore, my rebuttal is that if it isn't dishonest for a confused person to (indirectly) help out by asking a question on the question post that (actually) answers the question, then it also isn't dishonest for a non-confused person to do the exact same thing.

Arthur's principle: What I understand is the principle behind Arthur's reasoning is that 2 actions may be morally different even if they are exactly the same in effect (in effect, in practice, in appearance, below and on the surface of the action. basically everything i believe except intent. Maybe this is a stronger condition than that the 'effects' are the same) because of intent.

I think this is similar/related to what I learned in Catholic/Christian schools eg good effects don't mean good act. You have to consider intent and other stuff. So I think these kind of (Christian?) philosophies may be relevant where different intent but the same effect may make an act morally wrong. (But in this case please clarify the difference of same 'effect' with same 'appearance, below and on the surface of the action', etc. I think there's something more than just effects that I didn't control for. I forgot all these philosophy terms already.)

Philosophy stackexchange vs meta stackexchange: But then my rebuttal is that in this kind of situation...intent is irrelevant. My idea is to leave this part, namely whether or not intent is relevant, for meta stackexchange and the above part for philosophy stackexchange. The philosophy stackexchange part is to please tell me the relevant philosophies for when intent is relevant even though the effects are the same.


(btw)

I actually commented a reply but Arthur seems to have overlooked this.

wait...i think i asked the wrong question: can i answer in comment as like a preliminary thing before i ultimately answer in a post? i think this way it will avoid downvotes, edits, etc. if i make a mistake in comment and post an answer then the question gets bumped to homepage once but if i post and then a mistake is pointed out and then i edit then the question is bumped at least twice. am i wrong?

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    "If it isn't dishonest for a confused person to (indirectly) help out by asking a question on the question post that (actually) answers the question, then it also isn't dishonest for a non-confused person to do the exact same thing" is not a rebuttal, it is just an assertion. And it is at variance with the common meaning of "honest", which depends on whether the person believes (or not) what they say or do. Consequences make no difference here. The doctrine of double effect is also irrelevant because it applies to cases when the consequences are foreseen even if not intended.
    – Conifold
    Oct 11, 2021 at 20:00
  • @Conifold well maybe it's like if we do think 1 act as honest and 1 act as dishonest yet the effects are the same then the maybe reductio ad absurdum or modus tollens suggests it's wrong to think of them 1 as honest and 1 as dishonest? Oct 11, 2021 at 20:08
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    You want to derive that rightness/wrongness are decided based on effects from... postulating that they are based on effects. There is no logic trick that can undo the circularity. You are free to have your own moral articles of faith, just do not confuse them with arguments against those of others. It is also preferable to use words as commonly understood in the process. Just say that dishonesty is moral in this case in your version of morality. Whether effects actually are the same is a separate issue, different attitudes likely affect future behavior of people having them, for example.
    – Conifold
    Oct 11, 2021 at 20:34
  • You are trying to argue that the effects are the same, so both actions ought to be allowed or disallowed. But this infers an ought from an is, which is not possible under any of the classical rules of inference, nor even under the more expansive rules of deontic logic (which do provide for more limited axioms such as "ought implies can").
    – Kevin
    Oct 11, 2021 at 20:56
  • Really rambling way to ask. If someone gets run over & dies, could be murder, could be reckless manslaughter, could be an accident. Same outcome. The idea intent doesn't matter, can't be squared with our intuitions. Basically no one argues for it.
    – CriglCragl
    Oct 12, 2021 at 6:22

2 Answers 2

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Non-Consequentialist Approaches

Basically you need to consider the non-consequentialist facets of moral reasoning, deontologic and virtue ethics, if you want to understand how actions with (apparently) identical consequences could be ascribed different moral valence. On the deontologic side, I could see a line of reasoning that goes in the lines of:

  • SE is set up as a community to produce high quality Q&A content on the internet
  • In order to achieve these ends the contributors of these sites need to "play by the rules" otherwise they are not most effectively contributing towards reaching that goal
  • Intentionally subverting the intent of the "no answers in comments" rules is a particular way of deviating from achieving the community's goals
  • therefore that action is wrong in this context

This is not meant to be a rigorous argument, just a highlight of some of the considerations that might come into play as one adopts a deontological approach.

I can see obtaining the same kind of judgement in the context of virtue ethics. Posing the answer as a question is being dishonest (in a sense), and that kind of mis-representation is counter to an ideal of being truthful and so on.

The consequences are not the same

If one focuses consideration on the effects of one comment on one question then they might look the same. However the situation is between the case where a user chooses to disguise their comment-answer by framing it as a question vs. not. The result of a user(s) like that is that the site will end up with a larger number of answers-in-comments, albeit disguised as questions -- an outcome that runs counter to the design goals of the site. Conversely, honest question askers will tend to ask clarifying questions on posts that are less clear, and overall the content of their questions will be different from the content posted by the dishonest people who post their answers as questions in the comments. The net result is that a site where a user (or users) decide to evade the "no answers in comments" by posing their answers as question will end up with different content than one where they don't.

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This is a frame challenge

It is not possible for two events to have exactly the same consequence, because two discreet events shall in ALL cases happen in a different location, and happen in a different time. Therefore, the environment influenced by every single event is completely unique, regardless how much effort you apply to making the superficial "observable environment" similar. Some may argue that two events happening in the same grocery store are happening in the same location; this requires us to assume the planet earth is not moving. It is moving, and all locations change constantly. You may argue that such wide-scale differences do not matter, but you do not know if they matter. Meteors are on a collision course with this planet at all times. Tomorrow, one of those meteors will be closer to us that in was today. Will the meteor falling into the grocery store change the moral implications of any act? The person making that assessment will have imperfect knowledge, and has no answer.

Therefore, any moral implication is a discrete measurement of an individual event and all the surrounding circumstances, which in every case will be unique. This universe disallows any two events to be both discrete and identical.

While it is possible to make outcomes have superficially identical outcomes (I stole an apple from the store on Monday, then I stole an apple from the store on Tuesday), the universe will not allow you to have control over every single variable. This case, the two "identical actions" occurred on different days, while different managers were present. No matter how tightly you close the box of controls around your action, there will be differences in your environments that will be uncontrollable.

If you try this experimentally, then you are not observing an organic act and your measures of control will create a unique environment distinct from what the real world can produce.

Because situations with ethical implications can not be replicated perfectly, this question can not in any way have an answer that applies to any events which occur outside a computer simulated environment and have their scope of influence also constrained to that simulation.

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