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Reasons for not opting for the best consequences


To: Francis M.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Reasons for not opting for the best consequences
Date: 4th March 2008 12:32

Dear Frank,

Thank you for your email of 25 February, with your essay in response to the University of London Ethics Contemporary Perspectives question, 'Can there sometimes be good reasons for not trying to perform the act whose consequences are better than those of any alternative open to one at the time?'

I accept your point that the question, 'Can there be good reasons?' can be understood in the sense of moral reasons or in the sense of non-moral reasons. However, the most obvious meaning of the latter would be, 'Is it sometimes rational to not take the moral choice?' (however the moral decision is made, either by evaluating consequences or in some other way). For example, someone who argued that self-interest has a valid place alongside morality would say that it is sometimes rational to prioritise your own self-interest over the 'moral' choice, as defined by some theory of morality.

This is a tricky point, because another understanding of 'the moral choice' would be the all-inclusive 'best' thing to do, taking account of the rightful claims of self-interest. (For more on this see the quote from Henry Sidgwick in my article, 'The Point of Business Ethics' in issue 41 of Philosophy for Business

A moral theory which rejected consequentialism in favour of a more inclusive view would not see the conflict that consequentialism sees between morality and self-interest. Strictly applied, consequentialism requires that one regards one's own self as counting for one unit in the utility calculation, which does not amount to very much in the big scheme of things.

The rest of your essay is mainly concerned with showing how actions which we resist doing despite their 'better consequences' -- sacrificing Jack who has come in for a medical checkup in order to donate his organs to five other people, or convicting an innocent man in order to prevent a riot and bloodshed -- can, in fact, be justified on a consequentialist view. As you so neatly put it, no-one would risk going into hospital for a checkup if they suspected that this might happen.

This is part of an answer to the question. You might have also considered an objection to this line, where we have a case where we can be confident that the secret would not be let out. E.g. one-time decision made by a man on his deathbed to which no-one else is privy, which involves an action we would regard as morally abhorrent from the perspective of our moral 'intuitions' but which has better consequences. At the least, one can say that the consequentialist is hard put to find explanations of why consequentialism can come up with an answer which corresponds to our intuitions in every case.

Bernard Williams has pushed this line one step further, in arguing that consequentialism is self-defeating, because for good consequentialist reasons we should not judge moral questions from a consequentialist standpoint. It is better all round if people do not believe the theory of consequentialism as a way of resolving moral questions. However, this still concedes the argument to the consequentialist. R.M. Hare, who has developed a theory of preference utilitarianism, accepts the view that there are effectively two 'tiers' in society, the philosophers who grasp that all moral questions are ultimately decided by evaluating consequences, and the rest of the populace who are taught moral principles and kept in the dark about their ultimate rationale.

Another point you make is that it is not clear how, in a real situation, one evaluates consequences. The point about causation is that we have to evaluate likely consequences as well as certain consequences. If you give a knife as a present to a young child, the likely consequence is that someone will get hurt, and therefore you am to blame if this consequences occurs. You are not to blame for consequences which could not possibly have been foreseen.

However, Bernard Williams (in Smart and Williams 'Utilitarianism For and Against' Routledge) also develops an anti-consequentialist line, using two examples:

1. On a visit to a South American dictatorship you are invited by an army Colonel to kill a rebellious villager, as a consequence of which the other rebels who have been rounded up will be allowed to live. Otherwise all will die.

2. You are a Chemistry BSc who after months of fruitless searching is offered a job at a chemical weapons facility. You desperately need the money to support your family. You consider the possible reason that if you take the job, the research will be conducted with less enthusiasm than if a supporter of chemical weapons research took it.

Williams accepts that it would be 'morally self-indulgent' to refuse to take the offered gun in 1. On the other hand, it does seem wrong to argue, on the basis of consequentialism, that you should accept the job in chemical weapons research if it goes against your deepest pacifist principles.

Williams uses this to develop a view of 'moral integrity' which, arguably, cannot be justified or explained in purely consequentialist terms. We are not, ultimately, expected to be 'self-sacrificing cogs in the utility machine'. It follows that there can sometimes be good reasons -- in terms of the requirements for not losing one's sense of integrity -- for not trying to perform the action which one evaluates as having the best consequences.

A famous argument which Williams also mentions is the 'Archbishop Fenelon' case, where you have the choice of saving Archbishop Fenelon, a very worthy man who has made many lives happier, or his housemaid from a fire. The housemaid is your mother. What kind of person could ruthlessly ignore the piteous cries of his mother in order to perform the action with the better consequences? Consequentialists will use this as an argument for the 'two tier' view I alluded to above, which is why it is not conclusive as an objection to consequentialism, as it has sometimes been taken to be.

I've mentioned Williams' view of integrity because it is one of the basic arguments that need to be considered. I don't think that it is sufficiently compelling on its own. It becomes more attractive when combined with the other arguments against consequentialism.

I did get a sense from reading your essay that you have worked out your answer to this question largely on your own, with minimal reading. Any reading that you can do on this question will help improve your chances in the exam.

All the best,