Consequentialism and confidence
I’m finally collecting my thoughts in response to Chris Bertram’s CT post on Consequentialism and Communism, particularly this remark imputing to consequentialists in general
the very same disregard for, or scepticism about, the rights of individuals, the same willingness to sacrifice individual lives for valuable goals
that characterized the Bolsheviks and their successors.
As regards willingness to sacrifice individual lives for valuable goals, I think this is an unfair criticism of consequentialists. Look at any of the standard anti-consequentialist philosophical examples – trolley car, organ bank, survival lottery, violinist and so on. It’s always the hard-nosed consequentialist who is supposed to want to save as many lives as possible, and the noble anti-consequentialist who proposes to sacrifice individual lives for “valuable goals” such as clean hands, natural rights and bodily integrity.
The big problem with consequentialism evident both in these examples and the case of Communism, and brought out in the discussion to Chris’ post, arises when consequentialist ethics are applied by someone who is grossly overconfident of their ability to predict long-term consequences. This is obvious enough in the case of Communism – millions of lives were sacrificed in the pursuit of an ultimate utopia and instead Russia ended up with Putin and the oligarchs.
But it’s also standard in ethical thought experiments, and the reason why I find most of them totally unhelpful. Again and again, you are asked to accept, for the sake of argument, ludicrously improbable scenarios that you are supposed to believe with 100 per cent confidence. Unsurprisingly, to me at least, appeals to intuition in such cases don’t get you very far.
Thinking about this, it struck me that a sensibly fallibilist view of our individual capacity to predict consequences would lead directly to rule-consequentialism. I haven’t got this argument tight, but this is a blog, after all.
Here’s my view. Suppose that I make the general judgement (which must be right on average) that I’m no better than average in predicting consequences. Then, if the majority of my fellow-consequentialists agree that a particular course of action is the right one, I would do best to follow their recommendation rather than my own judgement. But, this recommendation obviously can’t take the form of a referendum on every action, so it must take the form of setting out rules, which may be more or less general or specific depending on circumstances. Given that consequentialists agree on a set of rules, I should follow them, applying my own judgement only where the rules don’t specify a particular course of action.
fn1. I’m going to simplify and assume that we all agree on how to evaluate different consequences.