Tag Archives: consequentialism

Alastair Norcross

There may be a temptation to regard one life as trivial when compared with seven million. What difference will a choice of life or death for Smith make when compared with the millions who will surely die whatever you choose? Or perhaps we could say that it is not so much that one more life is trivial compared with several million, but rather than morality should not have anything to say about such a difference. Bernard Williams could be taken to be describing such a view when he talks of a moral agent for whom ‘there are certain situations so monstruous that the idea that the processes of moral rationality could yield an answer in them is insane: they are situations which so transcend in enormity the human business of moral deliberation that from a moral point of view it cannot matter any more what happens’. Williams constrats such a view with consequentialism, which ‘will have something to say even on the difference between massacring seven million, and massacring seven million and one’. One can certainly sypmathize with the agent who is so horrified at the scale of a massacre that she fhinds it difficult to deliberate rationally in the circumstances. This does not, however, support the view that from a moral point of view it cannot matter anymore what happens. If there really is no moral difference between massacring seven million and massacring seven million and one, the allied soldier arriving at Auschwitz can have no moral reason for preventing the murder of one last Jew before the Nazi surrender. The Nazi himself can have no moral reason for refraining from one last murder. While Williams’s moral agent is berating the universe for transcending the bounds of rationality, the consequentialist is saving a life. It is not hard to guess which of these agents I would rather have on my side.

Alastair Norcross, ‘Consequentialism and the Future’, Analysis, vol. 50, no. 4 (October, 1990), p. 255

Dan Moller

One need not be a consequentialist to find something odd in a Kantian’s proposal to donate $100 to a famine relief organization she happens to know is especially inefficient when there is a more efficient organization that will save more people standing by.

Dan Moller, ‘Should We Let People Starve: For Now?’, Analysis, Vol. 66, No. 3 (July, 2006), pp. 244

Louis Kaplow and Steven Shavell

[C]onsequentialists generally have not systematically elaborated how an ideal moral system should be specified; instead, they have tended to be reactive, offering rationalizations of existing moral rules or responses to particular conundrums put forward by critics. For example, consequentialists sometimes invoke various assumptions about human nature to explain certain imperfections in the moral system or to make sense of particular, problematic examples. Yet, no matter how plausible such arguments are in a given context, one is left wondering whether the consequentialist’s assumptions are employed consistently across contexts, and, more fundamentally, what would be the conclusions if one thoroughly investigated the assumptions’ implications.

Louis Kaplow and Steven Shavell, ‘Human Nature and the Best Consequentialist Moral System’, Discussion Paper No. 349, Harvard Law School, p. 3

Shelly Kagan

The objection that consequentialism demands too much is accepted uncritically by almost all of us; most moral philosophers introduce permission to perform nonoptimal acts without even a word in its defend. But the mere fact that our intuitions support some moral feature hardly constitutes in itself adequate philosophical justification. If we are to go beyond mere intuition mongering, we must search for deeper foundations. We must display the reasons for limiting the requirement to pursue the good.

Shelly Kagan, ‘Does Consequentialism Demand Too Much?’, Philosophy and Public Affairs, vol. 13, no. 3 (1984), p. 239

Samuel Scheffler

[C]ommon-sense deontological morality, standing between egoism and consequentialism, sometimes seems to be caught in a kind of normative squeeze, with its rationality challenged in parallel ways by (as it were) the maximizers of the right and of the left: those who think that one ought always to pursue one’s good, and those who are convinced that one should promote the good of all.

Samuel Scheffler, ‘Agent-Centred Restrictions, Rationality, and the Virtues’, Mind, vol. 94, no. 375 (July, 1985), p. 415

Frank Jackson

We think of certain departures from the principles encapsulated in probability theory, logic, decision theory, and Bayesian confirmation theory as irrational. For example, it is irrational to be more confident of the truth of a conjunction than of one of its conjuncts, and this norm corresponds to the fact that a conjunction cannot be more probable than either of its conjuncts. Should we think of departures from consequentialism principles in the same way?

Frank Jackson, ‘Departing from Consequentialism versus Departing from Decision Theory’, Behavioral and Brain Sciences, vol. 17, no. 1 (March, 1994), p. 21

Alan Carter

Consequentialism may be able to provide reasons for why their theory does not, in fact, entail some counter-intuitive outcome in the world in which we happen to live. But in relying on some contingent feature of the world, their theory, when it rules our such counter-intuitive outcomes, does so for the wrong reason.

Alan Carter, ‘Inegalitarian Biocentric Consequentialism, the Minimax Implication and Multidimensional Value Theory: A Brief Proposal for a New Direction in Environmental Ethics’, Utilitas, vol. 17, no. 1 (March, 2005), p. 71

Peter Railton

I doubt […] that any fundamental ethical dispute between consequentialists and deontologists can be resolved by appeal to the idea of respect for persons. The deontologist has his notion of respect—e.g., that we not use people in certain ways—and the consequentialist has his—e.g., that the good of every person has an equal claim upon us, a claim unmediated by any notion of right or contract, so that we should do the most possible to bring about outcomes that actually advance the good of persons. For every consequentially justified act of manipulation to which the deontologist can point with alarm there is a deontologically justified act that fails to promote the well-being of some person(s) as fully as possible to which the consequentialist can point, appalled.

Peter Railton, ‘Alienation, Consequentialism, and the Demands of Morality’, Philosophy & Public Affairs, vol. 13, no. 2. (Spring, 1984), p. 163, n. 32

Claudio Tamburrini

—Ya te dije, no me banqué la máquina. Algo tenía que decir; si no, me reventaban.

—Eso sí lo entiendo; la máquina no se la banca nadie. Pero ésta no es la cuestión. O uno se la aguanta y no canta, o si no se la banca, delata a los verdaderos responsables. ¿Pero en qué cabeza cabe traer a personas que no tienen nada que ver, para tapar a tu gente? ¡Es una turrada!

El Tano despliega todo su arsenal ideológico para justificar su táctica dilatoria. Su conducta había estado destinada a minimizar el daño. Los verdaderos implicados hubieran sufrido, seguramente, tormentos más severos que quienes no estaban comprometidos en actividades políticas de envergadura. Además, como ya se había comprobado en Atila, los perejiles eran rápidamente liberados. En ese aspecto, las predicciones del Tano habían sido certeras. Y a pesar de que todavía quedaba un perejil adentro, un caso aislado no bastaba para cuestionar la racionalidad de su táctica. Probablemente, su selectividad delatoria había logrado generar el menor sufrimiento posible, aun contando el daño que me había ocasionado.

Existía, no obstante, un aspecto problemático en ese cálculo. El precio de la táctica del Tano había sido pagado por inocentes y no por quienes, por propia voluntad, habían decidido correr el riesgo de ser capturados y torturados.

Durante unos instantes, desaparezco de la conversación, sumido en esos ejercicios de matemática moral. El Tano lo percibe y trata de aprovecharlo. Sorpresivamente, me extiende su mano derecha a modo de reconciliación, para zanjar nuestras diferencias. Mis sensaciones son ambiguas. No siento rencor hacia él. Más bien, vivencio rabia y frustración ante mi cautiverio. Y, por raro que parezca, el razonamiento del Tano me provoca dudas. ¿Era, en verdad, tan canallesco someter a inocentes a un daño menor, para salvar a los verdaderos responsables de una muerte segura?

Claudio Tamburrini, Pase libre: Crónica de una fuga, Buenos Aires, 2002, pp. 92-93

Jeremy Bentham

It is the principle of antipathy which leads us to speak of offences as deserving punishment. It is the corresponding principle of sympathy which leads us to speak of certain actions as meriting reward. This word merit can only lead to passion and error. It is effects good or bad which we ought alone to consider.

Jeremy Bentham, MSS 29, 32, University College Collection

Peter Railton

“Let the rules with greatest acceptance utility be followed, though the heavens fall!” is no more plausible than “Fiat justitia, ruat coelum!”—and a good bit less ringing.

Peter Railton, ‘Alientation, Consequentialism, and the Demands of Morality’, Philosophy & Public Affairs, vol. 13, no. 2 (Spring, 1984)

John Stuart Mill

That the morality of actions depends on the consequences which they tend to produce, is the doctrine of rational persons of all schools; that the good or evil of those consequences is measured solely by pleasure or pain, is all of the doctrine of the school of utility, which is peculiar to it.

John Stuart Mill, ‘Bentham’, Dissertations and Discussions, London, 1859