By Michael De Dora

I have never thought much of consequentialism, the moral theory which asserts that determining “the good” or “the moral” is a matter of measuring outcomes. Decisions about what is moral, consequentialists say, should depend on the potential or realized costs and benefits of a moral belief or action. There are myriad problems with this line of thought, and while I have already discussed several on this blog, I would like to use this post to examine in more depth what I think are the four strongest objections to consequentialism.

First, consequentialism says nothing about the substance of one’s ethic. While most consequentialists are utilitarians — a position I also consider vague and tenuous — one obviously needs only value consequences to qualify as a consequentialist. Yet, since everyone has different moral goals, everyone will have different views about potential outcomes. For reasons discussed below, consequentialism does not help us decide which are better or worse. Rather, one’s moral values come prior to consequential calculation, and help determine what one thinks about the consequences.

Second, consequences are often not at all predictable or in line with the actions that caused them. For example, does the fact that certain Muslims riot over the printing of anti-religious cartoons suggest that printing said cartoons is immoral or wrong in some other way? Not in the slightest. It only suggests people have some twisted ideas regarding free expression. Or, consider an exchange I witnessed at a recent Intelligence Squared debate. At the event, two sides of two speakers each debated the motion “The U.N. should admit Palestine as a full member state.” The side taking position against the motion argued that the audience ought to stand with them because of the potential military situation — probably started by Israel — that could be brought on as a result of the U.N.’s recognition of Palestine. Unfortunately, there was no discussion about whether such military action itself would be reasonable.

This gets at a third problem with consequentialism: it often ignores foundational questions of right and wrong for questions of expediency. Or, it ignores concerns about intent for pragmatic concerns. The question of whether a war might start due to the U.N. admitting Palestine as a full member state is an important and interesting one, but it does not answer the distinct question of whether it is right to admit Palestine to the U.N. as a full member state. Those are two different questions that must be considered separately.

Lastly, consequences must be weighed alongside other factors and possibilities. Let us examine a recent exchange on this blog. It occurred in the comments to the recent post, “Massimo’s Picks, special Hitchens edition.”

In the comment thread, Massimo wrote about his skepticism toward the effectiveness of New Atheists like Christopher Hitchens to better the public acceptance of atheism. I replied that:

“Hitchens might not have been the person best fit to sway the majority to our side, but he was part of a movement (the so-called “new atheists”) that I think did do two things to help us get to the point where that’s even feasible. First, their out-front writings and speaking engagements put atheism on the forefront of the Western world’s consciousness, and created the space for more widespread conversations on religion (like this one!) that were not happening here beforehand. Second, their public work encouraged many apathetic secularists and fence sitters to be more assertive and engage with the problem of religious dogmatism. I think both of these were productive first steps toward getting a majority to embrace secular thinking. And I think these two points can be accepted whether or not you agree with their arguments, or how they stated their arguments.”

Massimo replied:

“… for an allegedly evidence-driven community I hear a lot of claims about all the good that the New Atheists have done, with precious little backing up in terms of data. Are we seriously arguing that atheism wasn’t widely discussed before the Hitchens-Dawkins-Harris-Dennett books? And on what evidential grounds are you asserting that more fence sitters have been drawn inside the movement rather than repelled by the NA’s rhetoric?”

I replied by asking Massimo: “certainly atheism was being discussed long before the arrival of the New Atheists, but on such a widespread and popular scale? The NA all had best-selling books, major TV and magazine appearances, and auditoriums packed with sometimes thousands of people.” His reply: “Nobody doubts that the NA have had an impact. The question is whether it was an overall positive one.”

Massimo’s legitimate empirical question aside (any takers?), I think his last comment is most relevant to our discussion on consequentialism. Whether or not the New Atheists were effective in broadening public acceptance of secular thinking, Massimo raises the following questions: Were the New Atheists necessary to raise such recognition? Couldn’t atheism have been put on the map in some other form or fashion? Indeed, hadn’t atheists previously in human history tried other effective methods? If not, why?

The point here is that there are certainly other possibilities for fostering the kind of space atheists wanted, or an even better space. None of those possibilities were enacted, so we should be thankful for where we are right now. But that does not make what happened desirable.

Regardless, consequentialists could reply that ignoring what may be terrible consequences is unethical. Would they have a point? Consider this common thought experiment: you are a German hiding a Jewish family during World War II, and Nazi guards are at your door asking if you have seen any Jewish people lately. Do you lie to potentially save their lives? Or do you tell the truth and essentially kill the Jewish family? The point here is not that there is an easy answer between lying and not lying. The point is that the consequences — a dead family — are so compelling that they warrant consideration. And this is just one of numerous examples.

What are the implications of all this? That consequences are important, you might conclude? Not necessarily. Instead, I think we have realized only that we have a range of different values, some of which are or can be in tension among themselves. For example, in the case we just considered, we might be stuck between, on one hand, the value of honesty, and on the other, the value of human lives.

As such, perhaps consequentialism should not be looked at as an ethical system in itself — again, it is bare of ethical content — but as a way to figure out if our different ethical systems — based on duties, obligations, virtues, rights, etc. — are working properly or as intended. In other words, consequentialism might help us to see if we are securing the kind of consequences we want. And if we aren’t, it’s time to adjust our aim and try for better consequences.