Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Consequentialism, Part II

Consequentialism, I find,is typically espoused by people who like to see themselves as "hard-headed," practical, empirical sorts of folks. So, faced with something like the dropping of the atomic bombs on Japan at the end of WWII, they say, "Unlike starry-eyed idealists, I am a realist: I consider the consequences. The US won the war; therefore, dropping the bombs was worth it." (Note: I am not saying all consequentialists would approve of dropping those atomic bombs. I am just presenting a typical sort of consequentialist argument.) They actually convince themselves that people subscribing to other ethical systems don't think of the consequences of actions!

I guess it shows how easy it is too willfully blind oneself, because it ought to be rather obvious that the US winning the war was not quite the only consequences of dropping the bombs: there is also the minor consequence of a quarter of a million dead Japanese, and many more maimed and injured. The people who object to the bombing do so based on that consequence. Elizabeth Anscombe did not object to the bombing as such; she objected to the bombing because it had the consequence of killing numerous non-combatants. If the US could have dropped two bombs, killed no one, and won the war she would have been fine with it, I am certain.

What the consequentialist is really arguing is not that "consequences matter" -- absolutely everyone knows that -- but that he gets to decide how much weight to give to different consequences. And obviously one can't do that consequentially! (That creates the infinite regress I described in my previous post on this topic.) Somehow, the consequentialist has devised a scheme that weighs the consequence "American victory" as being worth much more than the consequence "lots of dead and injured Japanese."

Whenever one finds an obvious load of codswallop like consequentialism passing as a "theory," you can be sure something else is going on. I suspect for many consequentialists the real deal is that as long as they personally like the result of some action, they think it is OK. (For instance, they like the fact that the US won WWII, and they don't really care how many Japanese died or suffered in the process.) But unlike, say, Nietzsche, they don't quite have the guts to come right out and state this baldly. So, they declare themselves "consequentialists." But that is not an ethical theory: it is just some camouflage thrown over egoism.


  1. "lots of dead and injured Japanese."

    And lots of not-dead and not-injured Americans. And lots of not-dead and not-injured different Japanese.

    And lots of Japanese not ruled by Stalin.

    Your numbers are wrong. But more interesting is that they are not NET numbers. A consequentialist would consider the lives saved as well as those lost. Advantage consquentialist.

    1. Good move, Ken. When faced with a demonstration that consequentialism is either incoherent or trivially true, try to derail the discussion into one of "Was the bombing of Hiroshima a good idea?"! (As I made pretty clear, I was just using this as an EXAMPLE, and wasn't trying to address the topic itself.)

      I'm sure the consequences of steering things in that direction would be more pleasing to you than addressing the issue at hand.

    2. This is, though, a very good illustration of what consequentialism is "for": it can be hard to sleep at night after you mass murder a quarter of a million people. But you can rest a little easier if some "moral philosopher" can re-assure you it was really all for the best.

  2. It was your play Gene. But note I DID link it to the topic at hand by noting that for consequentialists the NET deaths matter. This is emphatically not the case for everyone. As an example I asked Bob Murphy if whilst Breivik took aim at another child would he, being armed, have shot Breivik to forestall him. Bob's answer was no. Right or wrong that is pretty clearly not a consequentialist answer. It's a deontological one.

    I gave a link on the other thread about sperm donors. That was pretty clearly a "principled" stand not a consequentialist one.

    I think you have things exactly backward. Rothbardians or pacifists tend to stick to a general principle and so they are the ones wanting to set the rules of the game. Consequentialists must, to be consistent, consider possibilities and evidence others adduce. I think most will agree with me that the most morally inflexible, for good or ill, are true believers in revealed doctrine. They are not consequentialists.

    1. " I asked Bob Murphy if whilst Breivik took aim at another child would he, being armed, have shot Breivik to forestall him."

      So Bob is not interested in the fact that the CONSEQUENCE of pulling the trigger would be the death of Breivik?!

      Ken, you are simply ignoring every thing I'm writing (except trying to sidetrack things into discussing Hiroshima!) and plowing ahead as though I haven't said a word.

      There is not much point in that!


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