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[1] 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.

21 thoughts on “Consequentialism and confidence

  1. I think this is more an argument that rule consequentialism is unnecessary; a good act consequentialist trying to figure out consequences is going to be relying far more on general rules and advice from reliable sources than on attempts at detailed prediction of consequences in the particular case.

    I also think this can be turned into an argument that consequentialism is intuitively superior to deontology. For issues of public policy, most people accept consequentialist reasoning, but for individual decision-making they are stricter about the rules. But governments have vast resources to devote to figuring out consequences, and the consequences are big enough to make it important to get it closer to exactly right, and besides they have fewer good general rules to appeal to, while individuals have much less ability to figure out consequences, for most of their decisions it isn’t worth the cost in time spent calculating to figure out the absolute best option, and they do have a bunch of good general rules. So on consequentialism, you’d expect exactly the pattern of difference we observe between how people evaluate public policy and how they evaluate individual decisions.

  2. ” 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. ”

    I don’t see it as clear that the ‘millions of lives’ were sacrificed in the pursuit of an ultimate utopia. Seems to me that those who ‘sacrificed’ them, Stalin mainly, did so simply for power and with no other real goal. However, in China and Cambodia, ultimate utopia may have been the goal motivating those murders. As for Russia ending up with Putin and the oligarchs, the flood of ‘free market’ advice, after the fall, must bear some responsibility. A Marshall plan would have been so much better. Marshall is an unsung hero. His contribution to the world today is ignored because no one seems to recognise what could have been the European counterfactual. Similarly, the stimulus package is being undervalued simply because we do not have the counterfactual, thankfully.

    I think the real problem with utopians is a failure to understand how limited is our ability to comprehensively mold a society’s future in ways we can predict. This is not a rationale for no goals, but for small goals rather than grand ones.

  3. Aaron,

    “For issues of public policy, most people accept consequentialist reasoning”

    If you look at a policy issue such as climate change (which, for today at least, is “the” policy issue of the moment here in Australia) – are you saying that policy based on reasoning such as distributive justice (rights to emissions), procedural justice (participatory and democratic deliberation), corrective justice (polluters being held accountable for their historical debts), or even natural justice, is:

    -Held to be in the minority?

    -Not serious policy reasoning?

    -Far less superior to consequentialist reasoning?

    Or are you casting your definition of consequentialism so wide as to include this policy reasoning within it?

  4. @iain
    What you describe as “procedural justice” is certainly a standard part of consequentialist thinking, reflected in the fact that the utilitarians were among the first advocates of representative democracy. Unless everyone has a say (and as far as possible an equal say) it is unlikely that consequences affecting them will have proper weight in the decision.

    Apart from that, I would say that arguments based on justice have had a substantial net negative impact on the process. The justice arguments that have carried weight have been those referring to the alleged injustice of imposing costs on emitters, and the need for massive compensation.

    Consequentialists would in general prefer the discussion to focus on a policy that
    (a) works in reducing emissions
    (b) does so at the smallest cost possible to the community as a whole
    (c) allocates the cost to those best able to bear it
    Had this been the frame for discussion, we would perhaps have had a better outcome.

    Of course, all this is somewhat ideal-world stuff. In an actual debate where unashamed rent-seekers play a major role, and delusionist conspiracy theorists dominate one party, we’re never going to get a really good outcome.

  5. Speaking for myself I’m a rule utilitarian. I start from the Golden Rule. I may not deal with others except as I’d have others deal with me, unless through their conduct, they make it clear that they have a different and less onerous set of standards, in which case I’m entitled to deal with them in that way, should I think it worthwhile.

    It seems to me that a person who will act out of duty without respect to the consequences is structurally, some sort of sociopath. In my opinion, duties are imposed by consideration of the consequences of our actions, for our own interests, and for those whom we deem to fall within our concern.

    It seems to me that while good intent (especially when it proceeds from suitably informed and sound reasoning) may be pertinent in weighing the quality of an act it is not decisive in assessing the act’s worthiness. In the end, acts are worthy according to the extent that they contribute to public utility, and buttress/enlarge the capacity of individuals to secure their compelling and contested interests.

    One may object that having a Golden Rule is a kind of deontology, but it is a derivative and dynamic one. It derives from relationships and identity, both of which are in perpetual flux and are context-dependent.

  6. @Freelander

    Whatever the grand vision, the Bolshevik state was a response to the catastrophic social and political failure of Tsarist society. There were no means to build a utopia or even modern society, in 1917 Russia. Indeed, it was by no means clear that the Bolsheviks would not be murdered by the foreign-backed White forces before world revolution could come to their aid. Even today, Russia is not part of the modern world, at least in terms of the usages within its jurisdiction. It’s best described as an industrialised capitalist autarky.

    But back on the early Bolsheviks, avoiding being murdered does tend to concentrate the mind, and often, not in a good way. One suspects their reasoning was that of any group cowering behind the circled wagons — instrumental and reactive.

  7. If representative democracy is consequentialism then everything is, I guess. Which makes consequentialism meaningless to me.

    I can think of other forms of democracy other than representative democracy (eg deliberative democracy), and I would advocate for these forms, based on the rights they bestow on individuals. I’m not sure what the outcome would be. But I would advocate applying this to CC policy in a heartbeat.

  8. I’m in the consequentialist camp, and I see rules are a logical outcome of consequentialism. The problem with determining the consequences ad hoc are essentially practical and economic. Humans are notoriously bad at thinking straight: our thinking is inherently emotional, we’re fashion-driven, we’re self-centred, we can only handle a few variables simultaneous, our memory systems make stuff up, etc, etc. We don’t have an appropriate level of humility for the personal systems we claim to be running so are prone to significant errors. We can’t rationally expect to make reliable ad hoc decisions.

    On the economic front, the waste of time and resources required to make judgements of consequences scientifically in each individual case would be criminal. Rules (to a significant degree) are applicable across people and can be projected into the future. We work better with a bit of structure. The downside of using rules you are guaranteed to get it wrong some of the time.

    Apart from the craziness of the ethical thought experiment situations, they include the basic ingredient of conflict, so we are never going to feel completely satisfied with the result, to the extent that we can identify with the hypothetical actors involved. Consequentialist resolutions – just like any other enforced solution – won’t eliminate the possibility of someone feeling miffed. If the violinist is sufficiently good (and how good would that be!?) consequentialism could require us to enforce the nine month attachment but this would remain a personal violence against an the life-support person.

    At the base of any ethical systems is our biologically built-in moral capacity. Without it, human discourse would be radically different and no-one would be wasting time on the likes of the trolley problem. This places an additional constraint on rule-consequentialism, that to get agreement on the rules, even if they are perfectly rational, they need to be reasonable to the majority of the current expressions of that faculty in the juristiction.

  9. Freelander :
    As for Russia ending up with Putin and the oligarchs, the flood of ‘free market’ advice, after the fall, must bear some responsibility. A Marshall plan would have been so much better. Marshall is an unsung hero. His contribution to the world today is ignored because no one seems to recognise what could have been the European counterfactual. Similarly, the stimulus package is being undervalued simply because we do not have the counterfactual, thankfully.

    But there is a range of counterfactuals. The true free market counterfactual to Marshall Aid is the one in which the USA never diverted and expropriated an even greater amount of European capital in the 19th century. Had Europe still owned that, it would have served even better than the aid (as no strings would have been attached, e.g. there would not have been any sidelining of politically unacceptable countries). Likewise, there are better alternatives than simply not providing a stimulus today; my favourite is providing tax cuts structured to promote people out of poverty (ideally transitionally, with something like a modernised Distributism taking up the load after that). Today’s stimulus packages just don’t reach areas of actual need, something that shows as no or little recovery of effective demand, no or limited ability to service mortgage and other individual burdens, etc. And similarly there were better, untried alternatives for transition in the former Eastern Bloc, too.

  10. @P.M.Lawrence

    There are counterfactuals and there are fantasies. Because we never see the counterfactual there is an unlimited number of fantasies that can be claimed as what would have been. One purpose of science is to sort the counterfactuals out from the fantasies.

  11. The power of a demagogue, when out of government, is the ability to substitute fantasies for counterfactuals.

  12. Freelander :
    There are counterfactuals and there are fantasies. Because we never see the counterfactual there is an unlimited number of fantasies that can be claimed as what would have been. One purpose of science is to sort the counterfactuals out from the fantasies.

    But what is fantasy about the European capital that went into the USA and was expropriated? It really happened, and on that scale. And what is fantasy about other support schemes than today’s stimulus packages, when the one I cited was even canvassed on an earlier occasion by Professor Edmund Phelps, a Nobel winner?

    The most you can say against those is that they are not on current policy makers’ lists, or that they were no longer alternatives by the later stages when trouble hit. But that doesn’t mean that the actual choices made were the only sound ones in terms of internal logic, just that nothing else was done. That’s what counterfactuals bring out.

  13. jquiggin :
    PML, I was going to point you to Race Matthews, but I see he posts at the site you mention.

    Noted. I do have reservations about getting to Distributist policies (transitional issues) and about the freight of other stuff that usually comes bundled with their position, but I have no doubt that if (modernised) Distributist policies were once in place they would engineer out many current problem areas with little if any adverse repercussions elsewhere. But getting there, particularly if done wrong, might have all sorts of adverse effects…

  14. @P.M.Lawrence

    Yes, I am aware that European capital was expropriated (and patents violated) in the US when it suited them. It makes it all the more humorous when they insist that their ‘rights’ ought to be enforced in emerging economies. As always, might is right.

  15. Interesting. But isn’t ability to predict first a matter of degree, subject area and expertise (so why refer to an average ability? Average at predicting whether a bridge will fail is different for engineers than us humanities students, and it’s not hard to construct examples where the expertise makes a difference to the moral choice. For example, a really good intuitive physicist who is also a martial artist would know that the fat person will stop the trolley, and also know that he can throw him in just the right way to do so. How is he then different from a military commander ordering a subordinate to hold a post to the last, knowing through training and experience that this is necessary to save the rest of his army?

    Second, would not rules so framed as to be general be indistinguishable from the general rules arrived at from a deontological perspective where the issues were simple, and have the same problems where they were not? “Do not steal” is fine from any perspective unless it clashes with some other imperative. Do we then go to rules about rules?

    I think most people are deontologists first – because it’s quick and, crucially, avoids the temptation to argue oneself into doing wrong (anyone with children knows the perils of offering consequentialist reasons for restraint). We are consequentialists about more complex problems, where two or more moral values have to weighed against one another (and public policy is often of this sort). When faced with the really difficult choices, people seem to go to a virtue ethics (“what is right for me as I am/hope to be” or, as Luther put it “here I stand. I can do no other.”). Do we have to have one single type of solution for all cases?

  16. Speaking as a prent, one really has two not necessarily identical aims with children. One wants, in the end, to empower the child to achieve intellectual and social autonomy. Failure to achieeve this means that one has failed as a parent (in some cases there may be good reasons for the failure).

    That entails walking the child through the process of reasoning from actions to consequences in some cognitively-appropriate way.

    Of course, cognition is acquired progressively if at all, and survival is a necessary condition for autonomy, so a rule-based system inevitably anticipates a consequence-based approached to deriving rational acts. So inevitably, the adult makes Rule Number 1 — do as I say and does so without justification but rather, from axiom. At some point though, the child-becoming-an-adult has to buck that system and derive a new ethical paradigm, if he or she is to achieve adulthood.

  17. Consequentialism involves some deontology, in order to evaluate the consequences. An objective function, if you like. But deontology usually implies a long list of specific rules (and so leads to rule conflict issues).

    But I suspect that the issue is a proxy for other debates such as Christianity (deontological) versus atheism (consequentialist).

  18. Fran

    I was not endorsing parental dicatorship, just noting how often I (and other parents I know) have to cut short arguments because we are getting tangled in discussions of consequences that cannot be easily (or non-hurtfully) refuted. As in “but I’ll walk the puppy and look after it, and train it, so it won’t be any trouble, and I am sure my friends will look after it on holidays, and you can cut my pocket-money to pay for its food, and…”

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