Mainstream media coverage of the FTX crash frequently suggests that a utilitarian ethic is partially to blame for the irresponsible behavior of top executives. However, consequentialist reasoning - even in its most extreme "ends justify the means" form - does not endorse committing crimes with the goal of making money to donate to charity.
- This post is not about FTX. I want to abstract away from that specific circumstance and make a broader point about consequentialism and applied ethics. These arguments are relevant whether or not fraud was committed by FTX leadership.
- This post is nothing revolutionary; I just think these arguments need to be reiterated succinctly.
- I do not consider myself a hardcore consequentialist. In general, I find it strange to believe that a single ethical theory could/should possibly guide all aspects of one's life.
- I am not a trained philosopher; please use the comments if my understanding of consequentialism is flawed.
In my opinion, the heart (and most interesting feature) of consequentialism is determining the downstream consequences of an action, especially those consequences which influence others' actions. However, this calculus is rarely mentioned in popular discourses on utilitarianism. When somebody brings up the drowning child problem, they don't ask you to consider how your decision will impact the future of the pond's availability for public bathing. That issue is hardly relevant to whether or not you choose to save the child. But real-life decisions are not thought experiments, and if we want to be serious about consequentialism, downstream effects are crucial to every moral calculus.
This is not a novel idea within consequentialist thought. Consider the famous transplant thought experiment. The experiment imagines that a healthy patient walks into a hospital, and the doctor must decide whether to kill her and harvest her organs to save five dying patients. The most intuitive consequentialist response is: "I don't care if it saves five lives; if hospitals begin killing healthy patients our entire health system will crumble."
The same intuitive response should also apply to breaking the law in order to make money to later donate to charity. Off the top of my head, here are a few downstream consequences which make that decision a bad idea:
- You're caught and you never get the chance to donate the money because you are forced to forfeit it.
- You ruin your reputation and lose opportunities to perform good actions in the future.
- Your moral calculus was incorrect, and the illegal action does more harm than your donation does good.
- If you are part of a movement that advocates doing good in the world, the exposure of your actions causes harm to that larger movement.
These are all consequentialist arguments - they rely on expected value calculations not rights violations or virtue ethics. Taken together they demonstrate why, in the vast majority of imaginable circumstances, the ends simply do not justify the means when it comes to breaking the law with the goal of making money to give away.
Naive vs. sophisticated consequentialism
I've been talking a lot about "downstream consequences". If you've spent some time in EA circles, you might object that I've only considered "sophisticated consequentialism", but "naive consequentialism" might support immoral behavior to benefit some greater good.
I disagree. The EAForum post on naive vs. sophisticated consequentialism states that:
Naive consequentialism is the view that, to comply with the requirements of consequentialism, an agent should at all times be motivated to perform the act that consequentialism requires. By contrast, sophisticated consequentialism holds that a consequentialist agent should adopt whichever set of motivations will cause her to in fact act in ways required by consequentialism.
Given this definition, my entire argument has been, counterintuitively, based off naive, not sophisticated, consequentialism. Moreover, my argument stands under the above definition of sophisticated consequentialism, too, because it's hard to imagine a set of motivations which include committing crimes and also lead to the actualization of ideal consequences.
But sometimes naive consequentialism is defined another way. The same EAForum post states that an even more naive consequentialist does not "consider less direct, less immediate, or otherwise less visible consequences". Interestingly, this definition makes the illegal behavior even more immoral. Because, under this form of naive consequentialism, you cannot consider the downstream consequences of your action, you cannot consider the fact that you will later donate the money to help people. The only consequences you can take into account are the immediate effects of the illegal action itself, and in all relevant cases, those will be bad.
Therefore, in both its naive and sophisticated forms, consequentialism does not endorse the illegal behavior.
It's the ideas that matter, not whether they were applied correctly
You might object that, even accepting the conclusion that a good consequentialist wouldn't commit the crime, what matters more is that actors might misconstrue consequentialism and use it as moral backing for their fraudulent behavior.
I agree that this is a real problem, but I don't see it as a valid objection to my claims in this post. Anybody can misconstrue any theory and "use" it to "endorse" any action. In other words, a theory is not inherently wrong just because it can be incorrectly understood and then leveraged to justify harm.
That being said, the EA movement is broadly consequentialist, so we should examine our own theoretical endorsements under a broadly consequentialist framework. If we determine that publicly advocating consequentialism directly causes many people to act immorally "in the name of consequentialism", we should either 1. change our messaging or 2. stop advocating consequentialism even if it's still what we truly believe.
I didn't write this post to advocate for consequentialism. I wrote it because I think consequentialism should be taken seriously as a moral theory. And consequentialism taken seriously does not entail that any ends justify any means. Consequentialism is so interesting precisely because it asks us to at least consider the ends when we examine the means. But when the means are potentially catastrophic, they are unlikely to be justified by any ends, no matter how good.
Some of these arguments might reasonably used against earning to give more generally, especially for those who choose morally questionable career choices, but that's not relevant to this discussion.
I wrote more about this strange conclusion in Part 2 of this post.