Hide table of contents

I'm a grad student philosopher at Sydney Uni (if anyone is there- shoot me a message!). I normally work on welfare economics and AI, but I wrote this piece on consequentialism and I wanted  to share it here for obvious reasons.

A) On being the target of disgust, and being pitied for alienation

I’m a pluralist consequentialist. I believe many things are good. Beauty, friendships, joy, freedom, dignity and so on. I believe that to act rightly is to maximize the good, where the amount of the good is some complex function of those things that are good.

Most consequentialists believe something like the following:

Unrestricted potential obligation (UPO): For every action, there are possible circumstances in which you would be compelled to do it.

It’s a terrifying result. There may be a few (trivial) exceptions from the consequentialist’s point of view. For example, you should presumably never deliberately increase the amount of net evil in the world. In the main though, UPO holds on most forms of consequentialism. There’s nothing the right (wrong) circumstances could not compel you to do if you are a committed consequentialist. In the right circumstances- if the world would blow up if I didn’t do it- I would be obliged, for example, to kill my dearest friends, lovers, and parents. We can think of even more disturbing possible actions- I’ve even had people put them to me in arguments. This is not something I take lightly. I regard the UPO as a grave and tragic truth.

There’s an industry dedicated to sneering at consequentialists about their moral ruthlessness- arguing it implies a kind of alienation. Bernard Williams for example accuses the consequentialist of having “one thought too many” by even considering whether to save a relative or a stranger. Now it just so happens that I would save my relative, and I think there are good consequentialist reasons for doing so- consider both the inherent value of friendship and the utilitarian benefits of upholding a culture of caring for one’s loved ones. However, Williams is saying, among other things, that there is something peculiarly alienated about the mentality of the consequentialist, even if they come to the ‘right’ conclusion. These things, argues Williams, shouldn’t even be seen as a matter of calculation. To this I would say yes, morality is sometimes alienating, but who promised you that morality would fit comfortably into your life? Who promised you that morality would come without sharp edges, that it would never pull you out of your comfortable lifeworld? Force you to put you aside, and view things in a larger scope, maybe even from the point of view of the universe.

But alienation isn’t the only charge levied at consequentialists as a result of the UPO. A lot of people think consequentialism is disgusting in its willingness to potentially commend anything. I think I detect an element of disgust in Williams, and in the work of others who have criticized consequentialism in a similar vein. This sense of disgust breaks into various components. Consequentialists are seen as grubby, treacherous, ruthless, cold, and unsentimental due to the UPO and similar results. From this “disgust” follows a simple argument. You are a human being, not an abstract moral agent. As a human being, with human sentiments, cognitions, relations and biology you couldn’t live with yourself and have a sense of coherence as a moral being if you were really serious about consequentialism and fully aware of its implications. Ergo, consequentialism is psychologically self-defeating for humans.

Nor is giving permission to do terrible things in terrible circumstances the only reason Consequentialism is condemned. I remember, for example, listening to an ethicist - a Catholic virtue ethicist - say that while he disagreed with Kantianism he could at least respect it. Consequentialism seemed like frippery to him.

So to recap, we have three arguments:

Consequentialism is alienated from simple connections with fellow people because the consequentialist needs to consider all sorts of options under the UPO. This alienation makes consequentialism impossible and damaging to follow as a human being.

Consequentialism is disgusting because consequentialists could do anything due to the UPO. No consequentialist can hold their head high, or have a morally positive self-conception, as a result of the UPO. This sense of indecency makes consequentialism psychologically self-defeating for humans.

Consequentialism is fripperous. This makes consequentialism morally damaging for people.

All of these points together point to the idea that consequentialism isn’t compatible with being human. Maybe if there were a super-computer somewhere, looking out for our collective interests, but with no special connections to anyone, we might want it to be a certain kind of consequentialist. But it’s not compatible with humanity. However, I want to make the argument here that there is dignity to consequentialism, and that is fully compatible with human existence. I believe consequentialism possesses intrinsic dignity and aesthetic wholeness.

In part, this can be seen as a continuation of a longstanding project of mine- to argue that there are aesthetic problems in philosophy and that we need to resolve them to help give meaningfulness to life. I regard the problems I’m dealing with here not just as ethical problems, but as in part, problems of aesthetic conception- giving a sense of organic unity and dignity to consequentialism. They are also psychological problems.

It’s important to be clear that I am not resolving the problems it might, at first, look like I am. I am not, for example, defending the UPO on a strictly ethical basis. This is, in some sense, as much about morale as anything. I want to ‘frame’ consequentialism in a way that makes it a coherent part of a human’s moral self-conception. I want to show how it fits into an aesthetic conception of your life, its place in the universe, and the moral order. I am not so much arguing it is right here as that it possesses dignity. This is, I think, necessary, but not sufficient, to show that it is the right outlook for humans to adopt on ethics, because an ethics like consequentialism but without dignity couldn’t recommend its own adoption, and would thus be self-defeating.

With all that said, let us proceed.

<I’m also going to quote the bible a lot, because my form of consequentialism is crypto-secularist-Christianity, lol. Take that Williams you Nietzschean fucker.>

B) Taurek, the many and the few- consequentialism and the simple decency of caring about the good by seeking to make more of it

I’m first going to respond to the charge that consequentialism is in some way cold, ruthless or unsentimental- i.e. that it is disgusting. I will argue, on the contrary, that there is a simple decency to it, and a consequentialist can draw pride from it and live with a coherent moral self-image as a result. I’m going to do this by comparison with an argument by John Taurek.

[To be clear: The pride I am talking about is pride in one’s ethical system- not pride in one’s actions. Even an ill-behaved wretch like me can take pride in the ideals I aspire to, though I fail to live up to them.]

In 1977, John Taurek wrote a paper: “Should the numbers count”. I find it disgusting. I have the same intuitive sense of revulsion towards it that many people have towards consequentialism.

Years before John Taurek wrote his paper, Phillipa Foot imagined the following case. There are five doses of a medicine and six people. All will die without the medicine. However, the sixth person has a slightly different condition and needs a higher dose. So you have two choices:

Save five lives

Save one life

Foot asks “is it permissible to save the one life.”

Taurek argues that it is permissible. He argues roughly as follows (thanks to Tyler Doggett in a talk at the University of Sydney for this broad framing, however, any errors are my own).

P1. Suppose that you knew and liked the fellow who needed five doses. Suppose he was a friendly acquaintance- but not a close friend. It would be permissible to save him.

P2. Merely casually knowing and liking someone is not a basis to save someone at the cost of five other lives.

C1. Ergo it can’t be your friendly acquaintanceship that justifies you saving him.

C2. But since you are justified in choosing to save him rather than the five (by P1) and since his only specified feature doesn’t justify saving him (by C1), you must be intrinsically justified in choosing to save him, just because.

C3. Ergo, it is permissible to choose to save the one not the many.

Now I want to be clear this is not a reductio absurdum. My natural instinct would be to read it as such- as a proof that casually knowing someone doesn’t justify saving them, because it leads to the absurd and obviously false conclusion that you may save the one rather than the many. However, Taurek is deadly serious about this. He thinks that you can save the small group or the large group at your pleasure.

I’m sure Taurek was a good man in his personal life and were he still alive I would mean him no ill, nonetheless, I feel obliged to admit that I am revolted by this. I find it sickening.

I can understand, and accept, that someone will save their child, their partner, or even a very close friend rather than a larger group. As I said above, in the right circumstances I might even be able to argue for it on consequentialist grounds. However, I find the idea of someone who would save a casual acquaintance over five strangers, all else being equal, borderline revolting. I would also find the idea of someone who might randomly choose to save one stranger over five revolting, but it’s past even that point, it’s just alien, almost inhuman to me.

Why do these claims make me so angry, and what does this have to do with the dignity of consequentialism? I think that the fact that consequentialism leaps to the correct answer, in this case, speaks to what gives it dignity. Fundamentally, the problem with Taurek’s attitude is it does not treat humans as properly valuable. Now I know that there is sometimes held to be a distinction between honoring the value of something (a human life) and promoting a certain kind of value, but I think that the most straightforward way to honor the good is to promote it, in this case by protecting as much of it as possible. Getting the right answer here immediately speaks to the simple goodness of consequentialism- good is good, ergo spread the good.

Obviously, most non-consequentialists would disagree with Taurek, at least about the claim that you can choose to save a complete stranger over five other complete strangers, and maybe also about the claim that you can choose to save an acquaintance over five strangers. Given that, where is the special dignity of consequentialism, relative to these non-consequentialist views that also disagree with Taurek?

Let me put something a little like a consequentialist version of the one thought too many argument here. What is so commendable about consequentialism here is that Taurek’s question doesn’t even arise. There is beauty and dignity in the simple concern the consequentialist has for the welfare of others, and for other good things in the world. The consequentialist gets merit for leaping straight to the right answer. A framework for seeing the world in which Taurek’s and Foot’s question doesn’t even arise has much to commend it. On the other hand, any moral framework in which Foot’s question does arise has one thought too many- it lacks the simple, good promoting orientation of consequentialism.

Now my argument here is psychological and aesthetic, so whether I have given enough reasons to believe in the dignity of consequentialism will be a matter of opinion. Some might not see any dignity here at all and what can one say except de gustibus non est disputandum? However, it’s enough for me.

C) Against the world, to save it- Alienation enriches us (in which I ill-advisedly quote the bible a lot to promote a secular ethic)

How should we respond to the charge that consequentialism pulls us out of our lives? That it is alienating?

As Williams put it, Utilitarianism, and by extension, the more pluralistic consequentialism I favor urges us to live sub specie aeternitatis (translatable as, in Sidgwick’s phrase, “from the point of the view of the universe”.) Williams says “that [aeternitatis] is not a very good species to view it under”

First, this isn’t wholly true. Certainly, the fundamental rules might be, in some senses, written sub specie aeternitatis, but there are very good reasons why, for most people, most of the time, most decisions are not to be made this way. These reasons are wholly compatible with a belief in consequentialism, as other consequentialists have noted.

Granted though, one will be under that specie sometimes in practice. if one is under that specie, things may be difficult. You may feel and be alienated from your lifeworld. But I’m not convinced humans live best when shelled wholly in their own lives.

In the bible we find:

Wisdom calls out in the street,

she lifts her voice in the square;

in the main concourse, she cries aloud,

at the city gates she makes her speech

Wisdom goes on to, in modern parlance, “call out” the people of the city for their foolishness. Wisdom is at once fully present in the world, willing to speak with everyone, but critical of what she sees there.

As a consequentialist, I see morality in much the same way as the passage imagines wisdom. Morality stands outside the gate of the city, outside the gates of our lives, those lives so often comfortable in their routines, even if they are utterly miserable. Morality is not the easy continuation of life, morality calls on us to care, to really support the good things and really oppose the bad things. To those who say that the consequentialist “thinks one thought too many” or otherwise says that consequentialism is alienated, I’d say who promised you any of this would be easy? Why would you expect your experience of morality would never alienate you from yourself, your feelings or your relationships?

But is alienation compatible with life? There would be something, at best, rather silly about an ethic that can’t be lived, even as it tries to promote and protect lives. But that which nourishes life is not necessarily that which sits comfortably with life. We humans have, for a very long time, tried to imbue our lives with transcendent meaning. Those transcendent meanings have not necessarily fit in within our lives, in fact their extension beyond our lives and personal projects, and thus their potential incompatibility with them, is the point or at least part of it. The fact that you might be called upon, for example, to give up your own life, places that life in the context of a system of value which makes it more, not less meaningful. It is transcendent not in the sense of an otherworldy ghost, but in the sense of being larger than your own existence, something beyond your struggles great and petty. It does not matter, by the way, whether you think morality flows from reason, or objective ethical truths separate from the world, or if, like me, you think morality is largely a matter of sentiment. This kind of transcendence is compatible with all of those, all that is needed is a larger mission, the source matters little.

So yes, there is a tension here, but it is a productive tension- the tension between everyday life and the transcendent. Humans have lived with that tension possibly as long as there have been humans.

D) The re-enchantment of the world

The main problem people have today seems to me not to be an addiction to thinking sub specie aeternitatis, but rather the opposite. We are caught in small personal worlds under siege, without any larger conception of the good to form the basis of solidarity and shared demands- to fight back.

Consider the extreme of this anti-alienation position- someone who says that of course ethics would never alienate us from our fundamental projects, of course, ethics wouldn’t require us to get into the muck. This is not a multidimensional and rich view trying to save us from simplistic consequentialism. No, the opposite is true, the total rejection of alienation is a flattening of the world, a disenchantment.

Taking ethics seriously- seriously recognizing the sweeping claims of the good- seeing that we do not live up to them- is a form of re-enchantment. It forces us to recognize something outside ourselves, a voice screaming at the gate help them. If you’re looking for a progressive alternative to both sterile middle-class modernism and the facile larping of the trads, this is it- it’s very simple. Care for all people and act for a better world.

Consequentialism is, of course, not the only way of taking ethics seriously in this sense I allude to above. Consequentialism is not the only view that will take you out of middle-class habit, or ground your life in a mission larger than itself. However, it gives an almost comically simple charge to make things better. That charge rings out to and cuts through so many lies, impasses, and evasions we try to erect to wall in our obligations to the good. For all that people complain that consequentialism can, in theory, justify terrible cruelty, I find in practice it mostly calls for greater generosity and kindness. Of course, I can’t prove consequentialism is the best road in the context of this essay, but these higher demands seem wholly compatible with life.

Is the consequentialist view of things too demanding for its adherents to live with themselves? I don’t think so. You’re not a saint. In some sense, you could be a saint. You’ll always be haunted by that, sure, but once again is this really such a terrible thing to be haunted with? Do you really want to be without higher aspirations?

It can hurt like hell. It forces you to gaze at yourself, and see how you’ve failed, to recognize that you could be doing more, but you’re not, because you’re very far from perfect. That’s a good thing. True, we don’t want people wrapped up in extremes of self-indulgent introspection, but neither do we want people who have no sense of something higher to aspire to.

I myself have been through these things I tell. I have severe anxiety and other problems. One of the only things that has kept me going is the sense that I am connected to something larger than myself. This alienation or getting out of my own skin or viewing things sub specie aeternitatis has sustained me. First, you think to yourself, “If I lay dead in a ditch tomorrow, lives would go on” and then you think “how could I make those lives better”. Then you have something to do apart from wallowing- preparing a better world from the point of view of the universe, whether you will be there or not. I can only imagine having no larger point of view within you would be a terrible burden in the dark moments.

Appendix: a word about family and other intimates

Maybe this is intrinsically obvious, but I feel like it’s worth spelling it out. The idea of family as a source of moral permissions and obligations can get vicious, quickly. At the talk by Tyler Doggett that inspired this essay, there was a lot of talk about family and consequentialism and how important being partial to one’s family is. I think the nearest and dearest objections to consequentialism are often treated as much more benign than they really are. They are at least in the neighborhood of some very dark phenomena.

I accept that most people if they could save two people or a family member would save a family member. As I said earlier in this essay, I even think, up to a point, it has a consequentialist justification. However, it only goes so far. I want you to take very seriously the dangers of unreservedly accepting nearest and dearest arguments.

When I used to work in an emergency department, patients were mostly well-behaved. The people most likely to scream at you were relatives. Family can be a bottomless well of moral justification, from which you can draw forth enough water to flood away everything from the principle of turn-taking to the idea that functionaries need to be impartial.

A staple of action fiction, television and films is the idea of drawing an unlimited license to do “whatever you need to do” to protect your family. While fascists ultimately destroy even their own families and often mistreat them in the meantime, fascists’ claims to be overwhelmingly concerned with family are not entirely groundless.

I once saw an argument on Twitter about non-offending pedophiles. “It is not just”, argued the liberal “to contain, let alone execute, people who have not done anything wrong”. The conservative replied thus: “I don’t particularly care whether it’s just or not. I need to protect my kids.”

Too many examples would belabor the point. A logic of family and clan can lead to very dark places very quickly. This is obvious or should be. Perhaps the fact we have to make this point reflects the relative peace of the post-WWII era. There may come a time in which we don’t have the luxury to treat an overwhelming devotion to family, at the expense of universalized compassion as harmless.

I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to turn

a man against his father,

a daughter against her mother,

a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law.

A man’s enemies will be the members

of his own household.





More posts like this

Sorted by Click to highlight new comments since: Today at 11:11 AM

I think most non-utilitarians would  say that the real reason you'd save a loved one instead of a stranger is because you  *love* them (duh!). And the reason you come across as having an "alienated mentality" is precisely because you intellectualize your decision and  dress it up with utilitarian philosophy instead of just admitting that emotions are relevant and matter.  

Even your decision to be a utilitarian is probably more motivated by feelings and your own self-conception as a "rational" smart person than  anything about the philosophy itself. To wit: I almost never see utilitarians actually construct an argument for why being having utilitarian beliefs is the best way to achieve utilitarian ends. Instead it's simply assumed. 

I think you'll have a better understanding of yourself, other people, and the world if you admit to yourself that math and rationality aren't the only things that matter.  I don't think people can truly get beyond limited human perspective, and if you try to take the perspective of the entire universe you'll just be reinforcing your own biases in a slightly less direct manner.

Curated and popular this week
Relevant opportunities