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Another counterexample to consequentialism

June 16th, 2003

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.

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  1. June 16th, 2003 at 16:50 | #1

    Hmm. Bernard Williams is one of the few modern moral philosophers whon I have read that I actually have any time for. Two explanations for this silly example spring to mind:

    1) He was pissed off about getting caught in London traffic;

    2) He was trying to be funny. Philosophers do this from time to time, with mixed results at best.

  2. June 16th, 2003 at 16:52 | #2

    There are two terms in the deterrence equation the:
    cost of the pay-out (punishment value)
    frequency of the pay-out (probability of detection)

    One can keep raising the “punishment” term up to infinity (ie death) but this has little effect if there is a low probability of detection.

    Or one can raise the “detection” term to a value approaching 1.0. This will quickly reduce the incidence of crime as the marginal value of a given crime rarely exceeds the marginal cost of even small punishments.

    I conclude that a utilitarian public policy will favour passive “Big Brother-type” round-the-clock surveillance.
    In fact this is already occurring with “cop-on-evry-corner” policing in Japan/Singapore and the ubiquitous placement of cameras in the West.

    The threat of mass-casualty “unpunishable” suicide bombers will only accelerate this tendency.

  3. John
    June 16th, 2003 at 18:00 | #3

    Jack, I think you’re right, and while it’s depressing, I don’t see an obvious alternative as long as terrorism and high levels of street crime persist. As regards the latter, I expect we’ll see some attempts to alter other parameters in the equation, for example by making it easier to secure criminal convictions. A return to full employment and job security would probably make a bigger difference, but that’s not going to happen any time soon.

  4. June 17th, 2003 at 16:32 | #4

    When you say “A return to full employment…” you mean “full Male employment” don’t you? There hasn’t been “Full Employment” since World War 2 as far as I know.

    And what level is “full Employment” anyway? I thought that the USA was getting right down there for a while with rates approaching 4%. Didn’t have zero street crime though.

  5. Barry
    June 18th, 2003 at 10:31 | #5

    Actually, there are more terms than that. The ‘cost*probability’ model assumes that people can perceive probabilities, and place a cost on things.
    It’s a naive economist view of things.

    I was told by a friend pulling a Ph.D. in psych (cognitive) that people are lousy at probilities – it’s one of the basic findings in the field.

  6. John Quiggin
    June 20th, 2003 at 10:43 | #6

    Barry, if you visit my website, you can read heaps of papers on probability distortions etc. But none of this affects the basic argument.

    Patrick, in this context it’s male full employment that’s critical, since males commit most street crime. 4 per cent in the US context is not full employment – it probably implies about 10 per cent of adult males are not employed, and far more in high-crime areas.

  7. June 26th, 2003 at 08:25 | #7

    I agree with your analysis of the empirical problem in Williams’ example (i.e. shooting a few double-parkers wouldn’t actually work as an effective deterrent). But my impression was that anecdotes like that were meant in a different way. If we assume for the sake of argument that Williams’ scheme would in fact work, then consequentialism would oblige us to do something that most people would find morally repugnant. In which case the response would be something along the lines that ethics shouldn’t be simply an attempt to codify what our consciences tell us (that would be anthropology), and it’s possible that something that feels morally repugnant is actually correct. Although, I imagine that appeals to conscience like this can be quite effective in turning people off to certain moral theories, as well as boosting the self-confidence of less critical holders of other moral theories.

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