Consequentialism's obvious flaw

Consequentialism tells us it is good to do something if the consequences of doing it are good. But how do we judge if the consequences are good? If we do so by looking to their consequences, obviously we have entered an infinite regress. Therefore, we need non-consequentialist criteria for judging a consequence good or bad.

In that case, consequentialism turns out to be not a complete system of morality, but merely the idea that we ought to pay attention to the consequences of our actions. But what moral theory says we should not pay attention to those consequences?! Every moral thinker of whom I am aware would differentiate between cutting a person with a knife to kill them from cutting them with a knife to save their life in an operation, which is judging the action by its (likely) consequence. (Yes, intentions are involved, but the intentions just are aiming at a certain outcome, right?)

So consequentialism is either impossible or trivially true.

8 comments:

  1. I don't know much about philosophy, but I think the idea behind consequentialism is separate from the ultimate source of value. Two people can agree on the source of moral beliefs, but one can believe that the application of these beliefs must be done through rules that govern action and another can think that what matters is the end, regardless of the rules that one follows in acting.

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    1. Consequentialism is a program for judging policies and actions, not ultimate value as JFC notes.

      Imagine Gene and Fetz have different ways of puring beer. I can say I prefer the one that spills less, a consequentialist approach, can't I, without having to debate the value of beer in a glass vs beer on a floor?

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    2. That is precisely the trivially true sense I mention above; taken that way, who is NOT a consequentialist?

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    3. Jonathan, that won't demarcate consequentialism: Think of someone who says "we should follow rules, because otherwise the consequences will be terrible."

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    4. "taken that way, who is NOT a consequentialist?"
      Kant. Rothbardians. Imams. Popes. These folks really do NOT judge a policy by its effects. Consider a Rothbardian like Rod Long and his "don't eat the apples" essay you blogged on, or some imam or pope confronted with evidence that prayer damages health or the effects of legalizing homosexuality. They may make some prudential judgements on the basis of consequences when they judge the moral issue has been dealt with but not most policy decisions.

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    5. "Kant. Rothbardians. Imams. Popes. These folks really do NOT judge a policy by its effects."

      It is simply amazing what positions people can talk themselves into when they want to hold some view, isn't it?

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  2. On cue MR has a piece where consequentialism was ignored http://marginalrevolution.com/marginalrevolution/2013/06/the-great-canadian-sperm-shortage.html

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    1. Wow, Ken, is the goal to make each comment worse than the one before? CONSEQUENCES were (perhaps) ignored in this case. Aristotle (not a "consequentialist") would have called that a lack of prudentia. All mainline Christian thinkers (none of them "consequentialists") would have agreed with him that failing to take into account the consequences of one's actions is a vice.

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