April 17, 2016

Consequentialism and Future Knowledge

(I open this post with "situation ethics" because it was raised by a commentator on a blog post - however, the post itself is intended to be much broader. Situation ethics is just a "lead in...")

In his book "Situation Ethics," the philosopher J.F. Fletcher promoted a variation on consequentialism called (logically) "situation ethics." The essence of situation, or situational, ethics is summed up as follows:
The elements of situation ethics were described by Joseph Fletcher, its leading modern proponent, like this:
Moral judgments are decisions, not conclusions
Only one thing is intrinsically good, namely, love: nothing else
Love "wills the neighbour's good" [desires the best for our neighbour] whether we like them or not
Love and justice are the same, for justice is love distributed
The rightness of an action does not reside in the act itself but in the loving configuration of the factors in the situation--in the 'elements of a human act' --i.e., its totality of end, means, motive, and foreseeable consequences.
So, in its execution, some commentators have noted that, with some minor differences, this is essentially the form of consequentialism espoused by Peter Singer and related philosophers. Under such a system, there is no consideration of any given action as good or evil in and of itself. So, for instance, there is no categorical classification of "lying" as good or evil - rather, such much be considered as to whether the end brought about by lying in any given situation will produce a "good" outcome. How "good" is defined depends on the philosopher in question, but in situational ethics or consequentialism, it is often defined a some variation on "increase the total love in society" or "producing the maximum benefit for the individual" where the calculus involves the "good" versus "bad" that happens to the individual.

I wish to focus upon one trait further, namely: "Consequentialism = whether an act is morally right depends only on consequences (as opposed to the circumstances or the intrinsic nature of the act or anything that happens before the act)." In this post, I do not intend to propose an alternative to consequentialism - rather, I want to focus on some seeming problems with this aspect of consequentialism. I should note that, not being trained in philosophy, or even a professional philosopher (disliking the taste of hemlock, as I do), I am sure the following criticisms have been stated (and answered) in a more comprehensive and thoughtful manner than I do here. Just a PSA for the reader...

In The Republic of Plato, during a discussion with Thrasymachus in Book I in attempting to define justice, Socrates deals with Thrasymachus' claim that justice is only the interest of the stronger. Thrasymachus argues:
And the different forms of government make laws democratical, aristocratical, tyrannical, with a view to their several interests; and these laws, which are made by them for their own interests, are the justice which they deliver to their subjects, and him who transgresses them they punish as a breaker of the law, and unjust. And that is what I mean when I say that in all states there is the same principle of justice, which is the interest of the government; and as the government must be supposed to have power, the only reasonable conclusion is, that everywhere there is one principle of justice, which is the interest of the stronger. 
However, Socrates notes that rulers may make errors, and states in such an occasion:
Then you must also have acknowledged justice not to be for the interest of the stronger, when the rulers unintentionally command things to be done which are to their own injury. For if, as you say, justice is the obedience which the subject renders to their commands, in that case, O wisest of men, is there any escape from the conclusion that the weaker are commanded to do, not what is for the interest, but what is for the injury of the stronger? 
While it is, really, a minor point Socrates makes, it almost always causes me to pause when I am reading Book I because...well, Plato almost always makes good points. Well, really because Plato reveals insight into human nature here concerning knowledge and fallibility - no human is master of future outcome, affected as that is by variables beyond our control. And, the further one travels temporally from a decision, the less control and prediction we will have over effects.

In other words, the consequences of an act can only be guesswork for the actor, to some extent. Hence, I think we must look at consequentialism as a philosophy either of hope or of immediacy (or both). By "hope," I mean that the actor, by taking a given action, can only say with a certain amount of certainty that a given outcome will occur, and only with a certain amount of certainty that other potential outcomes will not occur. Relatedly, the consequentialist is an actor of immediacy - that is, the outcome to which the actor aims must be the one immediately following the action. More remote consequences can only be (again) guesswork, or entirely unforeseen.

Given that an action is deemed "good" or "bad" depending on outcome, the consequentialist cannot take more remote consequences into account - if that were the case, no action could be judged for a much greater length of time than the immediate visible results. And, much greater knowledge and a greater vantage point would be needed to judge the ripples emanating from any given action.

Enter other forms of consequentialism. Per the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy:
Expectable Consequentialism: The morally right action is the action whose reasonably expectable consequences are best. 
Reasonable Consequentialism: An action is morally right if and only if it has the best reasonably expected consequences.
Dual Consequentialism: The word "right" is ambiguous. It has a moral sense and an objective sense. (i) The objectively right action is the action with the best consequences, and (ii) the morally right action is any action with the best reasonably expected consequences.
Rule Consequentialism: An action is morally right if and only if it does not violate the set of rules of behavior whose general acceptance in the community would have the best consequences—that is, at least as good as any rival set of rules or no rules at all.
All of these types of consequentialism (and others, if you take a few mins on the IEP) are attempting to deal with two problems: the lack of ability to predict all consequences of an action (i.e., lack of future knowledge) and the lack of a definition as to what makes up a "good" consequence of an action.

I cannot propose a variant of consequentialism which adequately deals with the question of lack of knowledge and of the meaning of "good" consequences. I can say that, to some extent, most people in modern society are, more or less, consequentialists. One encounters consequentialism in various forms related to abortion ("The woman and man will be happier in the future if she aborts her baby now"), contraception ("The woman and man will be happier in the future preventing pregnancy"), war ("This bombing may involve killing innocents, but it will prevent greater loss in the future") and so on. Once one becomes familiar with the ethic, it is not hard to detect.

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