Wednesday, December 21, 2011

On consequentialism.

Consequentialism -- also called utilitarianism -- is one of the going theories in moral philosophy. It's supposed to give us an account of what is and is not moral. So, not what morality is, nor why anyone should care about it, but how to tell whether a given course of action is morally right or wrong. I've always found it sort of a weird theory, in that I'm not sure it's really a moral theory at all.

There's a number of different forms of consequentialism, and I can't hope to do justice to all of them. But here's the summary. A consequentialist is someone who believes that the moral rightness or wrongness of a course of action is substantially determined by its consequences.

The first point to note is that word "substantially". Very extreme -- usually, early -- forms of consequentialism hold that the moral status of an action is fully determined by its consequences, but this has largely fallen into disfavour. The basic problem is that not everything that seems morally worthwhile is as worthwhile as its consequences would suggest. It seems like a good thing to be courageous or kind; even though these might have good consequences, that doesn't seem like it exhausts the extent to which these are good.

The second point is the word "consequences". It's pretty much a placeholder term, which gives you the form of a full consequentialist theory, without having much substance. Something that results from the action is what matters to determining its moral status, but exactly what varies depending on the theory.

The earliest consequentialist theories were hedonist (or hedonistic) theories; that is, theories which held that the consequences which mattered were the production of pleasure and pain, where pain is defined to be the strict logical opposite of pleasure. That is, when you're not experiencing pleasure, you are experiencing pain, and vice versa. The more pleasure produced -- or, in other versions, the better quality of the pleasure produced -- the more morally correct the course of action.

Of course, other sorts of consequences are possible. I recall reading one version -- the author escapes me, unfortunately -- where the consequence in question was the Kingdom of God. That is, actions were morally right insofar as they contributed to bringing about the Kingdom of God. (Don't ask me for the technical definition of that concept.)

The third point is the idea of a "course of action". On some versions, called "act-consequentialist", what matters is each individual act that someone performs. So, for every act, its rightness or wrongness is determined by its particular consequences. On other versions, called "rule-consequentialist", what matters is the general course of action that someone is following. So, for every act, its rightness or wrongness is determined by the consequences of actions like that, as expressed by a general rule.

The fourth and final point is the idea of predicting the consequences of a course of action. Exactly how far into the future is one supposed to be able to predict? Very strict versions of consequentialism hold one responsible for all consequences of one's course of action; so, if an act turns out to produce good consequences for one hundred years, but bad consequences for a thousand years thereafter, it would have been the wrong thing to do. Looser versions might hold one responsible for the consequences that can be reasonably foreseen; and very loose versions limit one's responsibility to the immediate consequences.

In any event, that's how one goes about filling in the details of a particular consequentialist theory: how much of the moral status of an action is determined by its consequences (all or most); exactly which consequences matters (pleasure/pain, something else); what a "course of action" is (act- or rule-consequentialism); and how far one has to be able to predict (all, reasonably-foreseeable, or immediate consequences).

So, here's my problem with this theory: why think that this is a theory of what's morally right or wrong? It looks to me like a theory of what's sensible or practical (in the common sense of "practical") to do. It makes sense to do what produces good consequences, and refrain from doing what produces bad consequences. That seems like a pretty reasonable thing to believe. But why believe that an action is right because it produces more good than bad?

There's a host of examples in philosophy for putting pressure on just this point; let me work through just one. Suppose that you have the chance to save someone from a burning building, but only have time and resources to save one. Unfortuately, there are two in the building. One is a world-renowned medical researcher on the verge of curing a serious and generally fatal disease (pick your favourite). The other is your spouse (or someone else very important to you personally).

I agree that it's the sensible thing to do to pick the researcher, and that this can be justified on consequentialist grounds. The reduction of suffering produced by curing a serious disease vastly outweighs any personal suffering caused by allowing one's own mother to die.

I don't agree that it's the right thing to do, though. It's right -- morally right -- if anything is to pay special attention to, and especially care for, those one has a close relationship to. And any moral theory which says otherwise is, to at least that extent, deficient.

Smart consequentialists will leap in at this moment and point out that there are consequentialist reasons to prefer people who will generally choose to save those close to them over important strangers. The basic point is that there are better consequences for having people who adopt this rule (or, who generally but not universally choose those sorts of acts) than not. To my eye, this seems to be admitting that there are consequentialist reasons to not always be a consequentialist, which pretty well torpedoes the theory.

So, am I missing something about why consequentialism is plausible as a theory of morality? Or is it a theory that's been misapplied -- that thinks it's about morality when it's really about practicality?


William Hayes said...

Herbert Garelick (Assoc Prof of Phil at Rutgers in the 50s/60s) required students to produce a sympathetic exposition (1/2 typed pages) of any work that they intended to examine critically.

Will you accept Garelick's challenge by choosing some consequentialist work, writing a sympathetic exposition, and then presenting a critical examination? If YES, let me suggest Peter Singer's essay "The Triviality of the Debate Over 'Is-Ought' and the Definition of 'Moral'," which is available online:

Let me know when you post something.

ADHR said...

I'm not sure if you're trying to or not, but you really come off as a douche here. I'm assuming it's poor phrasing and general lack of awareness on your part.

Look over at the sidebar -- I've got a PhD in philosophy. I know what I'm talking about when it comes to moral philosophy. You don't get to tell me otherwise.

Also, it's a piece that criticizes the whole point of utilitarianism. Giving some particular figure a "sympathetic exposition" (seriously, what is with the italics there?) would be completely irrelevant. This is particularly true of Singer, whose utilitarianism is notoriously crude -- as is his metaethic, IIRC. Honestly, why not pick someone interesting, like Hare, or someone ballsy, like Smart.

William Hayes said...

Thank you for your response, Philo. I accept your description, that I came across as a douche, though your saying so seems less than progressive--you are claiming to be blogging progressively, aren't you?

You asked, "Seriously, what is with the the italics there?" Nothing serious about it, Philo. I used italics instead of "". Sympathetic exposition was Garelick's term. Did I break one of your rules doing so?

Congratulations on your PhD, Philo. It was not my intention to tell you that you don't know what you are talking about. Why would anyone do that? What would be the motive for that crime? Must just be that I'm a douche, eh?

Rather, I was trying to suggest a way of developing an audience for your post on the subject of consequentialism. I assumed that you did want an audience. Perhaps that was foolish or, worse, impertinent.

Singer does want and certainly has developed an audience. My interest in his work is precisely because he does have an audience. He speaks to the public, to those whose lives are filled with consequences, to those for whom consequences are not at all inconsequential.

The Piaget-Kohlberg-Beck (I'm in Ontario) thread in moral philosophy has also developed an audience and is, therefore, also interesting--to me.

Seriously (now I am serious, Philo) without an audience, the work of moral philophers seems (to me) not only irrelevant, but also doomed to be overtaken by the work of brain scientists. Is that a foolish thought?

ADHR said...

Oh, dear. I've seen much better trolling than this. Implicitly lecturing me about civility, of all things? "Advising" me on how to "develop" the blog? FFS, this is amateur hour material.

If I'm wrong that you're trolling, note that I'm considering you a troll from here on largely because of the hectoring, pretentious tone, combined with the small-minded and ignorant content, of your remarks. If that's an incorrect conclusion, I'd suggest you revise your approach, drastically. If you want to "develop an audience", that is.