March 25, 2021

“I told you so” has to be the most irritating phrase in the English language. It represents a claim to foreknowledge when, in truth, none ever existed. Take those now crowing that the failure of the EU vaccine roll-out demonstrates how right we were do decide to leave the EU. Of course, it doesn’t. Back in June 2016, not even the wildest imagination could have predicted Covid-19 and its consequences.

And what rankles most about all this Brexit triumphalism is that it distorts the reasons why many of us voted to Leave. I had no idea whether Brexit would be “a success”. And I didn’t vote for it because I thought it might be – I voted out of sheer principle: for me the nation state is the upper limit of democratic legitimacy. Others believed that co-operation was intrinsic to the European project, and voted for that. I respect that view, even though I don’t hold it.

Even more problematic, though, is how an essentially moral decision – and a clash of different principles – has been turned into a kind of glorified guessing game. One in which how things turn out is the only basis on which a decision should be counted as morally commendable. After all, if you save a child from drowning, and that child goes on to be some mass murderer, you don’t conclude that the saving act was a morally bad one.

The trouble is, if a decision is to be judged solely on the basis of its consequences, then we consign moral success to the swirling darkness of the future, with all its unknown unknowns, all its unintended and unexpected twists and turns. So we can never be confident that we have made the right call. In any case, at what point in the future might we judge a decision the right one – after a year’s consequences, after 10 years, a century? When do we close the book on a decision’s consequences, and proclaim some final judgment? Consequentialists don’t tell us because there isn’t an answer. In other words, they don’t have enough respect for the utter mysteriousness of the future, enough humility before the unknown.

Kant understood the alternative — that we make many moral decisions on the basis of principle and not consequences. As he put it: “A good will is not good because of what it effects or accomplishes, because of its fitness to attain some proposed end, but only because of its volition, that is, it is good in itself … Usefulness or fruitfulness can neither add anything to this worth nor take anything away from it.”

This basic principle applies just as much to many who voted to Remain as it does to Leavers. I take it that many Remainers believe the basic principles of the EU are so morally commendable that they would regard their decision to vote as they did to be right, even if, over time, its “usefulness” seemed to tell against them. To this extent, I do not believe that the failure of the EU vaccine roll-out has anything significant to tell us about the rightness — or not — of the decision to leave the EU.

But I must acknowledge a deep problem with my position. For notwithstanding my commitment to principle over consequence, we do often accept the moral valence of consequence irrespective of intention. For example, in law, we broadly accept there is a difference between murder and attempted murder. In terms of intention, the two are indistinguishable. If I seek to shoot someone, and they trip just before the bullet reaches them, the difference between murder and attempted murder is nothing more than luck. The mens rea (“guilty mind” in Latin) is surely identical. Yet nonetheless, we treat the two actions differently. Success or failure does seem to have a moral significance here. And this moral significance is something that the philosopher Bernard Williams described as “moral luck”.

In his famous paper of the same name, published in 1976, Williams considers a semi-fictionalised Gauguin who makes a decision to leave his family and head off to Tahiti to become a great painter. For Williams, the question of whether he made the right — in some sense, the morally justifiable — decision hangs on something he could not possibly know: whether he would indeed produce works of great art. In other words, the view that would mitigate the abandonment of his family on the basis that he went on to produce some extraordinary works of art is a kind of retrofitting that could not have been justified at the time.

Williams’s essay set the cat among the pigeons. And it doesn’t feel to me like we have satisfactorily resolved the problems he raises. To what extent does future success – subject to the vagaries of change and chance – effect the rightness of a decision made? Like Kant, I want to defend an approach to moral decision making in which the rightness of the decision does not depend upon outcomes. Does the economic flourishing of China justify the human rights abuses of the Communist Party? No. The ends do not justify the means.

There’s an apocryphal tale told about Zhou Enlai, the first Premier of the People’s Republic of China, being asked by Richard Nixon in 1972 whether he thought the French Revolution was a good thing. His alleged response, “It’s too early to tell”, would make for a refreshing contrast to the short-termism of the modern political mind-set. It shows a proper humility in the face of an unknown future. But there is a cynicism about it too.

For if this is how we are to judge the rightness of our moral commitments, how can we ever know if we have decided right about anything. And if so, then why bother with morality at all? Because the answer to any moral challenge can be “just wait and see”. And that is another way of saying that morality doesn’t count.

Kant’s “good will” — or what I would call principle — may not suit the technocratic and utilitarian approach to politics so prevalent these days. But without it, the question of whether an action was moral or not has almost no meaning, relegated as it is to the distant court of history. How convenient for our politicians.

Consequentialist leavers may have been lucky — for now. But that doesn’t mean they were right. Something else will no doubt turn up soon for the Remainers to cheer about. “I told you so” follows an opposite “I told you so” in an endless tit-for-tat. Never to be settled as history keeps on stretching out before us, with new things to argue about, debates over Brexit will go on and on. It’s like some hideous never ending Groundhog Day. The trouble with consequentialism is that it never allows you to move on.