Another counterexample to consequentialism
Jason Soon alerted me to this obituary for Sir Bernard Williams in which he is said to have refuted utilitarianism, or rather consequentialism, with arguments such as the following
Williams pointed out, a very quick way to stop people from parking on double yellow lines in London would be to threaten to shoot anyone that did. If only a couple of people were shot for this, it could be justified on a simple Utilitarian model, since it would promote happiness for the majority of Londoners.
I guess one shouldn’t try to refute an obituary, but it’s better for an intellectual to be criticised than ignored, so I will respond with the observation that I hope this wasn’t really one of Williams’ strongest criticisms of utilitarianism. Does anyone really think such a policy would actually work in the way claimed?
As Jason points out, a little bit of mathematics goes a long way in checking out this kind of argument. It’s easy to see that if the number of executions was small enough to produce the kind of favorable benefit-cost ratio claimed it would be too small to deter double parking. After all, large numbers of jaywalkers, speeders and innocent bystanders are killed on the roads every year, and this does not lead people to stay at home, or even to obey the road rules.
If maths isn’t your strongpoint, how about history? The “Bloody Code” of English Law in the 18th century included over 100 different laws for which the death penalty applied and nearly all of these laws were violated regularly. Pickpockets were particulary active in the crowds watching public executions for crimes which included the picking of pockets.
And, in pointing out its failure as a deterrent, we haven’t even started on problems of the death penalty (miscarriages of justice, uneven application, brutalisation of society, and so on). Most consequentialists I know don’t think the death penalty for murder produces good consequences, and the arguments against executing murderers apply in spades for less serious offences. Williams’ argument, like most of the philosophical ‘counterexamples’ to utilitarianism I have seen, proves only that false premises imply silly conclusions.