the Disillusioned kid: Consequentially Speaking
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Saturday, April 09, 2005

Consequentially Speaking

Having elucidated my political philosophy it might be worth considering the closely related matter of ethics. Again, this is inspired by Alex's blog and a debate me and him had of the back of a piece he wrote. Incidentally, if you're looking for proper philosophy from someone who actually knows what he's talking about than he's your man. Like Alex I consider myself a consequentialist, but we disagree on some of the specifics (although I wonder if we actually disagree about anything of consequence).

It is normally asserted that consequentialists believe that what is significant for evaluating the morality of an action is its consequences. This is not entirely true, however. Were this strictly the case it would mean that people would be unable to judge the morality of an action until after the action and its consequences had taken place. Further, considering only the actual consequences of an act gives us nothing to compare it with; how do we decide if it was a bad thing to do unless we have some idea what would have happened had alternative action been performed? Therefore it seems - to me at least - that the key thing is probable consequences. Shooting someone is bad, therefore, because they will probably (almost certainly?) die.

The next question which arises is consequences for whom? I think this is best evaluated according to the principle of "equal consideration of interests". This principle holds that we should give equal weight in our moral deliberations to the like interests of all those affected by our actions. This should apply regardless of arbitrary distinctions, perhaps even regardless of species (Peter Singer makes a compelling case for pursuing the principle to this end in his Practical Ethics).

This then leads us onto the problem of evaluating consequences. This is often expressed in terms of maximising the "good", which poses the question of what exactly constitutes "good". Utilitarians often talk about happiness or pleasure, but this is not universal and Singer, probably the world's most prominent living utilitarian, focuses much of his writing on minimising or ending suffering. Alex suggests that there are seven elements to this, while Ted Honderich proposes a list consisting of six. Both have some value and there is a considerable amount of crossover, so much, perhaps, as to suggest that they will in fact lead to the same result even if by aparently different means. Regardless of what is or isn't on the list, I think that in most cases it'll be pretty obvious what should be considered to be "good" and what shouldn't.

How we apply this good is a further point of difficulty and was central to the debate which inspired this piece. Alex is uneasy about the use of a rights-based system in which we measure the "good" in terms of inherent entitlements. If we accept (as I and many others do), for instance, that people have a right to freedom of speech then in this conception we should seek to ensure that as many people as possible are able to exercise that right.

It is important here to emphasise that rights should not be conceived of as absolutes, a common mistake. Rights systems are not axiomatic (without contradictions) and it is important that we are aware of this. Noam Chomsky uses an example (in Understanding Power) which I think is useful for explaining this point: I have a freedom of speech. We might well seek to ensure that I can exercise this as extensively as possible, but that does not mean that I am entitled to say whatever I want, whenever I wante, wherever I want. I am not entitled to burst into somebody else's house and begin pontificating on the justice of this or that cause and emblazoning the walls with propaganda. The reason I'm not entitled to do this is because it conflicts with the residents right to privacy. Further examples would probably not be that difficult to come up with.

A rights-based system also helps by making it simpler to measure the good (provided we work out what rights we are concerned with). One of Alex's criticisms, however, is that it places too much emphasis on the individual and not enough on the collective. In fact this is (too some extent) one of the things which draws me towards this approach. One of the major criticisms of consequentialism is that it allows the ends to justify the means (in fact the reality is more complex, but this post is getting long enough as it is). It is often alleged that provided the benefit to society was great enough, consequentialism would allow some people to be held as slaves. Emphasising the rights of individuals should avoid this danger (overplayed anyway in my opinion, but a justifiable concern nonetheless). While I'm not neccesarily saying that a rights-based approach is the best way of organising a consequentialist system, I am as yet unconvinced that it is a bad way of doing so.

(The balancing of the individual and the collective is a perenial problem and one which I'm not going to consider in anything like the depth it merits here. Anyone interested in this issue might care to consider this piece which I think is heading in the right direction.)

I've probably missed a lot out and done a great deal of violence to some quite involved ethical philosophy. Shame. Any thoughts, disagreements, corrections etc. in the comments box.

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