Intelligent Design

How Consequentialism Consumes Itself

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Consequentialism always winds up devouring itself, and this is why:

STEP 1:  Define the “Good”

That act is good which causes the most net [here insert synonym that allows one to pretend the statement is not a tautology, e.g. human flourishing, increased wellbeing, etc.]. 

What causes the most [net increase in flourishing]?  Since there is no standard for determining it, it amounts to a subjective call based on the person’s preferences in every instance.

Thus, the good is ultimately defined as the “desirable” and the “desirable” is that which one actually, at any given moment, desires.

STEP 2:  Free Oneself From Limits

If result X is the good result (see above definition of “good”), what means may one employ to achieve X? 

The good must be achieved by any means necessary.

STEP 3:  Combine Steps 1 and 2

One may act to achieve that which,  at any given moment, one desires by any means necessary.

So, for example, if one thinks Trump is going to win in 2020 in a free and fair election, and one believes it would be “good” for Trump to lose, then one is not only justified in rigging the election to avoid that result, one is morally compelled to do so.

15 Replies to “How Consequentialism Consumes Itself

  1. 1
    hazel says:

    Terrible logic, Barry! 🙂 Among other things, what if one also believes that supporting the principle of free and fair elections are good, and trumps (pun intended, and hard to avoid) one’s concerns about who gets elected?

    In general, why would one believe “the good must be achieved by any means necessary” when one’s judgments about the morality of means has to be balanced against one’s actions.

    I find your posts with made up-conversations or thoughts of people you disagree with the height of strawmanship.

  2. 2
    ET says:

    hazel:

    Among other things, what if one also believes that supporting the principle of free and fair elections are good, and trumps (pun intended, and hard to avoid) one’s concerns about who gets elected?

    It is a given that not everyone against the President would be that person, hazel. It is also a given the majority of people who oppose the President wouldn’t care how he lost, just as long as he lost.

    In general, why would one believe “the good must be achieved by any means necessary” when one’s judgments about the morality of means has to be balanced against one’s actions.

    That’s where planning comes in. You want to do the most good with the least collateral damage. Unless the collateral damage is part of your subjective morality.

  3. 3
    hazel says:

    ET, you write, “It is also a given the majority of people who oppose the President wouldn’t care how he lost, just as long as he lost.”

    I seriously doubt that, and it’s certainly not a “given”. I think it is much more likely that a large majority of people who would like Trump to not win the next election would not condone at all using “any means necessary” to keep that from happening. They will work within the legal and democratic processes to help elect whomever the other candidate(s) turn out to be, but would not support illegal activities. I feel fairly certain this is true of the average voter. (Of course, there are outliers, but anecdotes are not data.

    But the more general issue is that people are often in situations where must choose among competing moral principles. Sometimes there is a clear-cut hierarchy, such as telling a lie to save a life, or respecting our democratic principles despite our belief that a candidate is a bad person, but other times there is significant moral conflict in a situation. Much of the power of great literature involves people being put in moral dilemmas where they are likely to violate some important principle in order to accomplish some other good. Moral life is messy!

  4. 4
    Barry Arrington says:

    Hazel:

    Terrible logic, Barry!

    Then by all means you should point out why you think so. I am arguing the the logic of consequentialism leads to certain conclusions. You respond with “not everyone takes consequentialism to its logical end.” That is true. But it does not address, far less refute, my argument.

  5. 5
    aarceng says:

    Hazel,
    While not everyone would agree I’m sure there are SOME people who would think that the “good” ousting Trump exceeds the “bad” of the means whereby they intend to achieve that. For those persons it would be morally justified to rig the election, put out fake news, move to impeach, or whatever is required.

  6. 6
    Bob O'H says:

    What causes the most [net increase in flourishing]? Since there is no standard for determining it, it amounts to a subjective call based on the person’s preferences in every instance.

    Barry, what does this have to do with consequentialism? Can you say which consequentialist philosopher advocated this?

  7. 7
    Dick says:

    I think there’s a major problem with consequentialism or any secular ethics which defines “good” as whatever produces the greatest “net” flourishing. The “net” seems arbitrary. A critic, for instance, might ask for a reason why it would be wrong to just promote my own flourishing and not particularly care about that of others. In other words, a secularist cannot give a satisfactory moral answer to the question why one should not be an egoist. Egoism may not be prudent in some cases, but on a secular picture of reality it’s not immoral.

  8. 8
    Barry Arrington says:

    Bob @ 6.
    All of them. You really need to bone up on a subject before you comment on it.

  9. 9
    ET says:

    hazel:

    I seriously doubt that, and it’s certainly not a “given”.

    I seriously doubt you, hazel. I have seen and spoken to many Trump haters and they would do as I said.

    I think it is much more likely that a large majority of people who would like Trump to not win the next election would not condone at all using “any means necessary” to keep that from happening.

    You are wrong.

  10. 10
    john_a_designer says:

    Not all atheists believe that morality is relative or subjective. For example, in his 2011 Notre Dame University debate with Sam Harris, one of the so-called “new atheists”, Christian philosopher William Lane Craig begins by complementing him. “One of the great merits of Dr. Harris’ recent book,” Craig said, “is his bold affirmation of the objectivity of moral values and duties. He inveighs against what he calls ‘the over-educated atheistic moral nihilist[s]’ and relativists who refuse to condemn as objectively wrong terrible atrocities like the genital mutilation of little girls.” Of course to defend the objectivity of morals from an atheistic perspective Harris had to espouse a version of consequentialism.

    Harris, no doubt was using the opportunity to promote his newly published book, The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values.

    In an interview with Jon Stewart, Harris laid out some of his reasons for writing his book.

    “I think the biggest challenge we’re facing is finding some way to create a global civilization based on shared values. We have to converge on the same kind of economic and political and social goals and so forth. We have to begin giving similar answers to the most important questions in human life; and the only way forward to do that I see is to begin to talk about morality and human values very much in the context of our growing scientific understanding of ourselves in the world….”

    Well those are commendable goals. They all sound very reasonable and they all pull at our heart strings. But how is Harris going to accomplish those goals?

    “Morality and value clearly relates to human and animal well-being,” Harris explains, “and our well-being emerges out of the laws of nature; it depends on the way the universe is…. all of these domains fall within the purview of science.”

    However, right out of the gate Harris is in trouble. He begins making the same mistakes others have made by trying to base a system morality on nature. He does not lay the proper philosophical ground work to even make an argument. He just posits an assumption by asserting it.

    For example, Harris does not (indeed because he cannot) explain how our morals and ethics can be grounded by a purposeless natural process. By definition naturalistic Darwinian evolution is purposeless. A universal and objective moral or ethical sense cannot be explained without purpose. So how does a purposeless process give rise to purpose? Remember if you hypothesize that ethics is something that you think can be determined empirical science, then it cannot be something that you simply believe, or is simply your opinion. In other words, the burden of proof is on those who claim something is scientific. They need to establish its scientific validity.

    In other words, he stumbles, apparently out of ignorance, on the problem, first identified by David Hume, of ‘how does one derives an ought from an is?’

    Thinkers like the ancient Greek sophist Callicles, Nietzche and the Marquis de Sade argued that if nature teaches us anything about morality it teaches us that “might makes right.” For example, Callicles argued that “nature herself intimates that it is just for the better to have more than the worse, the more powerful than the weaker; and in many ways she shows, among men as well as among animals, and indeed among whole cities and races, that justice consists in the superior ruling over and having more than the inferior.” (from Plato’s, Gorgias.) What makes such a view right or wrong? That is the moral question that needs to be answered.

    Harris thinks he has solved the problem by appealing to well-being or “flourishing”. But who defines well-being? Well-being seems to be a concept that is culturally relative. For example, the ancient Greeks certainly were concerned with well-being—their well-being. Like virtually every other culture in the world at the time the Greeks were very ethnocentric. It was the Greeks, for example, who gave us the term barbarian. (The ancient Greek word “bárbaros,” from which it derives, meant “babbler.”) They obviously felt superior to the uncivilized barbarians. Is ethnocentrism wrong? Is racism wrong? What makes them wrong? It seems to me that they have evolved very naturally out of our tribal nature. It is the way evolution has hardwired us to think. Harris however wants us to accept a view that extends well-being to all of humanity. What makes his view the only morally acceptable one? Remember Harris is arguing for an objective morality, so there must be a moral view that is the right one. His view must be the right one. But is it? I for one remain unconvinced.

  11. 11
    Bob O'H says:

    Barry @ 8 – can you give some specific quotes, please. I’ve never seen that claimed, but I’m happy to accept that I might have missed something, and I assume you’ve “boned up” on this, so you have the references to hand.

  12. 12
    hazel says:

    I think Barry has combined consequentialism with his standard diatribe against “subjectivism”. AFAIK, a consequentialist could believe in a transcendental moral standard, such as the right for all to life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness, and thus base his moral judgments on whether his actions helped obtain that. He would thus be both a consequentialist and an “objectivist” in respect to moral standards.

  13. 13
    critter says:

    My personal operating hypothesis is “enlightened self-interest”.

  14. 14
    john_a_designer says:

    Philosophers of morality and ethics (ethicists) tell there are three basic approaches to ethics:

    Virtue Ethics (or Virtue Theory) is an approach to Ethics that emphasizes an individual’s character as the key element of ethical thinking, rather than rules about the acts themselves (Deontology) or their consequences (Consequentialism).

    Clearly, if you ever bother to actually read the New Testament, Jesus’ was teaching was a form of virtue ethics. His emphasis was on being good rather than just doing good by slavishly following a set of rules.

    But how can humans be good when they are so morally flawed? That’s also something that Jesus taught. Unlike the virtue ethics of the Greeks it was not based on self-righteousness in any form, either personal self-righteousness or some kind self-righteous group think. Jesus clearly condemned this kind of self-righteousness, even those from his own religion. We need to keep in mind that Jesus was an observant Jew. He did worship at the temple. He did celebrate Passover.

    Furthermore, how can we be good if there is no standard of what it means to be good? Does such a standard exist? If it does where did it come from? Who created it?

    Apparently our typical “subjectivist” interlocutor thinks his self-righteousness is a sufficient moral basis for himself. But even if he deludes himself into thinking it is, it’s absurd for him to claim it is a sufficient basis for anyone else. So what exactly is he arguing?

  15. 15
    hazel says:

    That’s a good review of the three basic approaches to ethics.

    However, let me repeat what I said at 12: Barry’s post is about “subjectivism”, not consequentialism. As I wrote,

    AFAIK, a consequentialist could believe in a transcendental moral standard, such as the right for all to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, and thus base his moral judgments on whether his actions helped obtain that. He would thus be both a consequentialist and an “objectivist” in respect to moral standards.

    So consequentialism and “subjectivism” are two different subjects.

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