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The Flaw in Pure Consequentialism

 
 
Ray
 
Reply Tue 21 Feb, 2006 12:20 am
An event A causes an event B,
but because of physics,
event B will cause an event C,
event C will cause an event D,
and so on ad infinitum until time ends or significant interactions between particles end.

The argument of consequence being all that matters in determining the ethical status of an action, is false because one cannot judge whether an action A, will result in the best results as you would not only have to consider the result of B, but also the result C as a consequence of B, and so on.

A consequentialist could argue that an action is ethical if you do what you think will produce the best result regardless of the limit of your knowledge. However, such an argument would imply that the ethical merit of an action is also determined by the intention of the agent. Therefore pure consequentialism has contradicted itself.

Does this show some of the flaws in utilitarianism?
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Shapeless
 
  1  
Reply Tue 21 Feb, 2006 10:53 am
Re: The Flaw in Pure Consequentialism
Ray wrote:
However, such an argument would imply that the ethical merit of an action is also determined by the intention of the agent. Therefore pure consequentialism has contradicted itself.


I imagine that a pure consequentialist would claim that the agent's intentions are themselves a result of causal relations between things--neurons and synapses and what have you.

I've never quite understood the relationship between consequentialism and ethics (or, more generally, emotions). Theists often play this card on materialists (those who believe that everything in the universe can be explained in terms of causal relations between objects, which seems more or less like what you're describing as consequentialism): the claim is that materialists believe human beings are "merely" a collection of atoms, and that, therefore, there can be no such thing as love since (1) love too becomes reduced to "just" a relationship of particles, robbing it of its emotional essence and (2) even if we grant that love is a legitimately felt emotion, to apply to something that is "just" a collection of atoms is to rob love of its true meaning. Neither of those has ever made much sense to me; I don't see how materialism dictates the way you treat things.
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Ray
 
  1  
Reply Thu 23 Feb, 2006 12:42 am
Quote:
I imagine that a pure consequentialist would claim that the agent's intentions are themselves a result of causal relations between things--neurons and synapses and what have you.


I don't think they'll argue that, fortunately. It's really asking for trouble.

Quote:
I've never quite understood the relationship between consequentialism and ethics (or, more generally, emotions). Theists often play this card on materialists (those who believe that everything in the universe can be explained in terms of causal relations between objects, which seems more or less like what you're describing as consequentialism): the claim is that materialists believe human beings are "merely" a collection of atoms, and that, therefore, there can be no such thing as love since (1) love too becomes reduced to "just" a relationship of particles, robbing it of its emotional essence and (2) even if we grant that love is a legitimately felt emotion, to apply to something that is "just" a collection of atoms is to rob love of its true meaning. Neither of those has ever made much sense to me; I don't see how materialism dictates the way you treat things.


Well that's not quite what consequentialism in ethics is. It just means that the results is what matters period.

I do agree though with what you're saying about how it's wrong to degrade human existence into mere particles, etc, and nothing else. I mean, our bodies are made of particles and so much more, but one cannot ignore the phenomenal existence of a person. That in itself should be included in one's knowledge about human beings.

Anyways, the intent of my original post was to criticize utilitarianism. Very Happy
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Cyracuz
 
  1  
Reply Sat 25 Feb, 2006 08:21 am
Quote:
The argument of consequence being all that matters in determining the ethical status of an action, is false because one cannot judge whether an action A, will result in the best results as you would not only have to consider the result of B, but also the result C as a consequence of B, and so on.


Agreed. The idea of consequence does not extend to ethical aspects. We can determine that there will be an effect to any cause, but we cannot say anything as to the nature of that effect.
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joefromchicago
 
  1  
Reply Sat 25 Feb, 2006 01:59 pm
Re: The Flaw in Pure Consequentialism
Ray wrote:
The argument of consequence being all that matters in determining the ethical status of an action, is false because one cannot judge whether an action A, will result in the best results as you would not only have to consider the result of B, but also the result C as a consequence of B, and so on.

That's merely a practical consideration, not an ethical one. If actions are judged by their reasonably foreseeable consequences, it's not necessary to take into consideration all of the potential long-range consequences.

Ray wrote:
A consequentialist could argue that an action is ethical if you do what you think will produce the best result regardless of the limit of your knowledge. However, such an argument would imply that the ethical merit of an action is also determined by the intention of the agent. Therefore pure consequentialism has contradicted itself.

How so? The ethical merit of an action is often determined by the intention of the agent. For instance, if I hit you over the head with a two-by-four intending to injure you, but instead I cure you of your amnesia, is my action good or bad? I would expect that most people -- including utilitarians -- would judge it to be bad, even though it had beneficial consequences, solely because the motives were bad. When someone is slicing you open with a knife, it makes a morally significant difference whether the blade is wielded by a murderer or a surgeon.
0 Replies
 
Ray
 
  1  
Reply Sun 26 Feb, 2006 01:09 am
Quote:
How so? The ethical merit of an action is often determined by the intention of the agent. For instance, if I hit you over the head with a two-by-four intending to injure you, but instead I cure you of your amnesia, is my action good or bad? I would expect that most people -- including utilitarians -- would judge it to be bad, even though it had beneficial consequences, solely because the motives were bad. When someone is slicing you open with a knife, it makes a morally significant difference whether the blade is wielded by a murderer or a surgeon.


To utilitarians such as Bentham, that would be an immoral action because hitting a person in the head reduced the amount of happiness, because the person felt the pain. His theory does not consider the intention of the person.

Let's say that the attacker's intention was to harm the person because that person had angered him the day before, and let's say that the hit on the head cured the person of an extreme migraine that he would have felt for weeks if the attacker hadn't hit him on the head. From what I gathered from reading Bentham's work, he would say that the action has moral value even though the intention of the attacker is wrong.

I'm not sure how Mill would think of this, but I was showing how consequences of an action is not the only thing that gives an action a moral value, and it would be absurd to think that it is.

Quote:
That's merely a practical consideration, not an ethical one. If actions are judged by their reasonably foreseeable consequences, it's not necessary to take into consideration all of the potential long-range consequences.


Yeah, that was leading up to my rejection of pure consequentialism. It was also intended to show how it is impossible and ridiculous to judge the merit of an action purely by its consequences, because you would have to put a limit somewhere.
0 Replies
 
joefromchicago
 
  1  
Reply Mon 27 Feb, 2006 08:52 am
Ray wrote:
To utilitarians such as Bentham, that would be an immoral action because hitting a person in the head reduced the amount of happiness, because the person felt the pain. His theory does not consider the intention of the person.

It has been a long time since I've read any Bentham, and I don't have the time to check if you are correct, so I'll just assume that you are. What you are describing, though, is pure act utilitarianism, which is a minority position even among utilitarians. A rule utilitarian would take the actor's intentions into account.

Ray wrote:
I'm not sure how Mill would think of this, but I was showing how consequences of an action is not the only thing that gives an action a moral value, and it would be absurd to think that it is.

If your goal is to attack act utilitarianism, you've set your goals fairly low.

Ray wrote:
Yeah, that was leading up to my rejection of pure consequentialism. It was also intended to show how it is impossible and ridiculous to judge the merit of an action purely by its consequences, because you would have to put a limit somewhere.

Why can't limits be drawn?
0 Replies
 
Ray
 
  1  
Reply Mon 27 Feb, 2006 10:21 pm
Quote:
What you are describing, though, is pure act utilitarianism, which is a minority position even among utilitarians.


Alright then, if you say so.

Quote:
If your goal is to attack act utilitarianism, you've set your goals fairly low.


That, and consequential argument such as the end always justifying the means.

Quote:
Why can't limits be drawn?


It can, but if it is drawn, then it would refute the whole theory behind a purely consequential ethics.
0 Replies
 
joefromchicago
 
  1  
Reply Tue 28 Feb, 2006 08:38 am
Ray wrote:
Quote:
Why can't limits be drawn?


It can, but if it is drawn, then it would refute the whole theory behind a purely consequential ethics.

You still haven't explained why limits can't be drawn. Just because consequences have consequences doesn't mean that consequentialism is impossible.
0 Replies
 
Thomas
 
  1  
Reply Tue 28 Feb, 2006 11:20 am
Re: The Flaw in Pure Consequentialism
Ray wrote:
The argument of consequence being all that matters in determining the ethical status of an action, is false because one cannot judge whether an action A, will result in the best results as you would not only have to consider the result of B, but also the result C as a consequence of B, and so on.

I can see two attacks on this thesis: (1) Even if one cannot calculate in detail all the consequences of ones actions, one can make probablistic assumptions about them, and make one's decisions on that basis. Hence, the reasons for reaching your decision will be imperfect, but they will still be consequentialist. (2) Because people are impatient, the consequences of your actions will become less and less important today the farther in the future they occur. (That's a utilitarian version of what economists call trade across time.) Hence it isn't necessary in practice to evaluate all the consequences of your actions. At a certain point in the future, they become too irrelevant to be worth worrying about.

Ray wrote:
A consequentialist could argue that an action is ethical if you do what you think will produce the best result regardless of the limit of your knowledge. However, such an argument would imply that the ethical merit of an action is also determined by the intention of the agent.

Not in a utilitarian framework, because there the "best" result is judged by the preferrences of those affected by it. Hence, while the merit of an action will be determined by the agent's aptitude at evaluating those tastes, his intentions do not enter the decision.
0 Replies
 
Ray
 
  1  
Reply Fri 3 Mar, 2006 09:24 pm
Quote:
You still haven't explained why limits can't be drawn. Just because consequences have consequences doesn't mean that consequentialism is impossible.


Where and how would the limits be drawn? Only at the direct result? And how would you justify that limit when future events are triggerred and thus caused by that one action?

Quote:
Even if one cannot calculate in detail all the consequences of ones actions, one can make probablistic assumptions about them, and make one's decisions on that basis. Hence, the reasons for reaching your decision will be imperfect, but they will still be consequentialist.


A probabilistic assumptions about the chain of results in a possible infinite time is almost impossible.

Yes, the agent will be thinking about what he thinks will give the best result, but then that is asserting that even if it doesn't, the action is still ethical because the person intends to do the best action, or because it is thought to produce the best action by the person, hence the consequences are not all that matters.

I see how one can argue that it is still somewhat consequential, but it is not purely consequential.
0 Replies
 
Thomas
 
  1  
Reply Sun 5 Mar, 2006 07:02 am
Ray wrote:
A probabilistic assumptions about the chain of results in a possible infinite time is almost impossible.

Why not? We do it all the time. I agree our assumptions usually aren't perfect -- but this means that we make mistakes, not that we act immorally.
0 Replies
 
Ray
 
  1  
Reply Sun 5 Mar, 2006 02:23 pm
Quote:
Why not? We do it all the time. I agree our assumptions usually aren't perfect -- but this means that we make mistakes, not that we act immorally.


I don't know, I just think that it's conceptually impossible to think of the overall results of an infinite chain of events. Yeah, not knowing this does not mean that we are acting immorally, but it does seem to me to indicate that arguments such as the end justifying the means is totally flawed.
0 Replies
 
Shapeless
 
  1  
Reply Tue 14 Mar, 2006 05:10 am
I just came across this article by Richard Dawkins which seems loosely related to this post--specifically to the "moral" dimension of consequentialism, if there is such a thing.

http://www.timesonline.co.uk/newspaper/0,,176-2075334,00.html
0 Replies
 
Ray
 
  1  
Reply Tue 14 Mar, 2006 07:33 pm
Interesting Shapeless.

It's filled with too much teleological language to have me read that book though. No gene in nature "chooses" to do something, nor does nature "chooses" to select something. A natural set of events such as evolution or the passing on of a "type" of gene occurs because of multiple factors. I've never been fond of using languages such as "choosing" or "selfish" in describing unconscious natural events. It is a misleading word, "selfish," because it brings with it a connotation of either a purpose/intention and some form of metaphysical proclamation. I think it is also misleading in ascertaining a "selfish" or "cooperative" gene, since genes typically affect each other's expressions and I think it's too complex to describe it like that, if that's what the author intended or wrote.
0 Replies
 
Sentience
 
  1  
Reply Thu 24 Jun, 2010 10:12 pm
This is a universal flaw. You think it's wrong to kill someone, but don't you consider the possibility that by not thrusting your knife towards his heart, which would in reality miss, you will later throw it off a building and kill someone?

The absolutely greatest moral outcome possible is where you do that which benefits everyone the most throughout the rest of time.

The most moral moral action is to do that which benefits most people to the best of your knowledge.

It's all about what you're intending to do. For example, in The Watchmen Dilemma, by pushing the button I do not do so with the intent to kill, even though I know it will happen, but with the intent to save.
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