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Friday, May 25, 2007

The Absurdity of Consequentialism

Here I found the remark that "The consequentialist [in ethics] is concerned with outcomes..." And only outcomes!

And thus consequentialism is no moral system at all. Because to judge actions by outcomes we already need to have some way to judge the outcomes good or bad, which implies some prior morality. (E.g., Benthamite utilitarians would argue that we should work towards the consequences that produce "the greatest good for the greatest number." But why should that be our goal? We shouldn't it be the greatest good for me I work towards, or my family, or my tribe, or the people of Uzbekhistan? Consequentialism gets us absolutely nowhere, because it can't tell us what consequences are good!)

12 comments:

  1. You can't measure what consequences are good with a moral system either.

    At best with morality, the path is the outcome you are seeking. Whatever consequence the path leads you too is rendered irrelevant, so it doesn't matter whether the outcome is good or bad, just that you followed the "correct" path. Something which I find absurdly authoritarian.

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  2. "You can't measure what consequences are good with a moral system either."

    Of course not. But, for instance, in Kantian ethics, you can see that stealing relies on the idea of property and so is a performative contradiction.

    "Something which I find absurdly authoritarian."

    The authority in the above is only the authority of logic -- and from that, I'm afriad, there is no hope of escape.

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  3. But claiming that stealing is "bad" because we invented the concept of property is putting the cart before the horse. Humans invented the concept of property and the idea of theft because the consequences are negative even if you cannot measure them accurately.

    Prior to the invention of "stealing". People would take things. This is a pure act--taking things. Sometimes taking things made people unhappy and sometimes it didn't. So humans invented property and theft to try to describe why sometimes taking things ends in a negative consequence.

    Claiming that there is some sort of superiority to the idea that "stealing is bad" because of everything involved in the concept up to the end consequence and not just the end consequence is like when your mom says, "because I said so." It is meaningless unless you bring in the consequences.

    While an act may be wrong and immoral, it may in the end have no negative consequences for anybody except that the immoral person is branded immoral. That is what I find oddly authoritarian about using morals to judge something when the consequence is the important issue.

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  4. "Prior to the invention of "stealing". People would take things.... So humans invented property and theft to try to describe why sometimes taking things ends in a negative consequence."

    There's no sense in taking something unless you have the concept that then it's "yours." And theft and property were certainly not invented in the sense that the light bulb was -- they evolved much as language did.

    "Humans invented the concept of property and the idea of theft because the consequences are negative even if you cannot measure them accurately."

    Once again, you already need the concepts of good and bad before you can say "the consequences are negative."

    "...the consequence is the important issue."

    But don't you see, unless you have a way of sorting "good consequences" from "bad consequences," the consequence of of no moment whatsoever? Discover a cure for a disease, wipe out the human race -- what's the difference?

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  5. "There's no sense in taking something unless you have the concept that then it's 'yours.'"

    Not really. You're hungry, so you take an apple off the tree and eat it. Unless there is another person there to compete with you for that apple, the concept of "mine" doesn't come into play. You just take what you need.

    "Once again, you already need the concepts of good and bad before you can say 'the consequences are negative.'"

    Good and bad as in moral concepts? Should I have used pleasurable vs. unpleasurable? Certainly, if you stub your toe, you aren't going to claim that you need to understand good vs bad prior to screaming your head off. Even newborns understand they don't like pain, hunger, cold and being left alone. Do they intellectually understand property and morality? They pick up on "competition" fairly early, but "morality" takes years and frankly a lot of people never get it. But, pretty much anything with a nervous system understands positive and negative feedback without understanding "good" vs. "bad" in an intellectual sense.

    "But don't you see, unless you have a way of sorting "good consequences" from "bad consequences," the consequence of of no moment whatsoever?"

    Huh?

    "Discover a cure for a disease, wipe out the human race -- what's the difference?"

    You can follow a "good" moral course and still end up with the eradication of all life on Earth. That's why consequentialists fetishize the end results instead of fetishizing the path one took there.

    Of course, with both moralists and consequentialists, the real end result is feeling better about one's actions.

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  6. "You're hungry, so you take an apple off the tree and eat it."

    That's just brief ownership -- you wouldn't pick it unless you thought you'd get to dispose of it. And that's all Kant needs -- the thief relies on being able to own what he steals, so he relies on the very principle he violates.

    "Good and bad as in moral concepts? Should I have used pleasurable vs. unpleasurable?"

    Now here's an actual moral theory: What is good is what is pleasurable, and what is bad is what is painful. I don't think this theory can be sustained, but at least it is not empty, like consequentialism is.

    And that should have read "are of no moment," not "of of no moment."

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  7. "That's just brief ownership -- you wouldn't pick it unless you thought you'd get to dispose of it."

    You're not seeing the forest for the trees.

    There's a more basic level than mine/not mine/his. It's usable/non-usable. What "property" as in "mine" is, is just a subset of "usable" that comes into play after the possibility of competition becomes a factor. There has to be more than one actor in the play for "property" to be an issue.

    First, you determine that you have a need that will be satisfied by the apple. Then you determine if conditions will allow you to use the apple in that way:

    Bottom layer:
    I am hungry and this apple will satisfy my needs because it is usuable to me as food.

    There are plenty of situations where we dont need to consider the concept of "property". Like if you land on a deserted island. This is so basic that it just stands as fact unencumbered by any moral considerations.

    Next step up: I own the apple therefore it is still usable.
    I don't own the apple so therefore it is unusable to me.
    I don't own the apple but Mel owns it and I can whup his ass and take it for my use, so it's usuable to me.
    I own the apple but there is a forest fire preventing me from reaching it, so it is unsuable.
    On and on...

    See, these are just conditions that modify the basic idea that something is usuable to you or it isn't. Now, applying these added conditions you could say is "moral" or "ethical".

    Now, back to what we were talking about earlier. You were against considering consequentialism as a moral theory merely on the basis that you can't quantify the results, right? To which, I complained that you can't do that with any ethical theory.

    In the same manner that I consider "property" just a subset of the idea of usable, I consider "ethical/moral" theories just subsets of consequentialism. All these theories are concerned with the end results. While you might measure how well you followed your selected path, with a simple "yes" or "no" and feel that you have made more progress than just with a feeling that you did better. In the end, following a specific moral path instead of a different one is based solely on the end results--the same as the consequentialist.

    I also think that these ethical theories developed out of a need to explain to people the bigger picture. We modify our behavior in seemingly counterproductive ways because in the end it tends to work better. Because of the difficulty of quantifying the end results, we just encourage people to fetishize the path so that they get the end results we want.

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  8. Weird.

    I left a comment the other day, that you can only read when you leave a second comment complaining that you left a comment.

    :(

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  9. "You were against considering consequentialism as a moral theory merely on the basis that you can't quantify the results, right?"

    No, I never mentioned "quantifying the results." What I said was consequentialism lacks a way to even call results "good" or "bad."

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  10. An interesting editorial bearing on this as it concerns morality, and in an unsuspected place: Analog Science Fiction, April 2005.

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    ReplyDelete