Thursday, December 12, 2013

A Brief Critique of Consequentialism (under Ethics)

Rationally analyzing specific types of human actions in isolation is not the only source of morality. Rational adults and ethicists understand that deliberate actions are performed by the mediators with motives and have outcomes which may or may not have been motivated. These are usually called the consequences. There is also the fact that the free agent of a deliberate action is surrounded by existing objects and a state of affairs that may or may not affect a choice. These are usually called the circumstances. Any one or anything encircling the action may modify or influence a supposed specific action performed in reality. 

Ethicists merge circumstances especially the consequences into a source of resolving morality. They ask questions like:


Which outcomes of a deliberate action harm targets and which outcomes help targets?
How does the outcome conceptually relate with the motive and specific type of deliberate action chosen by the mediator? 

Can motive and consequences change or override the quality of specific deliberate actions?

In this article I want to offer a little critique of the ethical systems categorized as consequentialism.

At Wikipedia, consequentialism is described as:

the class of normative ethical theories holding that the consequences of one's conduct are the ultimate basis for any judgment about the rightness of that conduct. Thus, from a consequentialist standpoint, a morally right act (or omission) is one that will produce a good outcome, or consequence. Wiki Link

At the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy:

Consequentialism, as its name suggests, is the view that normative properties depend only on consequences. Stanford Link

My critique of consequentialism in no way implies that I outright reject the bounty of excellent insights found in the consequentialist theories and systems. Consequentialist theories and systems highlight the unarguable importance of evaluating the consequences of deliberate action in a resolution of morality. Consequences are a rational basis of resolving the morality of deliberate acts whether in a study as an ethicist or in real life as a moral agent. Adults who assume a substantial degree of authority whether presidents, doctors, military officers, or parents alike understand the potential gravity of consequences in deliberate actions. Specific deliberate actions may have far reaching consequences for all those involved. Some consequences are foreseen and others unforeseen. Some consequences are intended and others unintended. Some consequences may indirectly help or harm self and others.

A great example to get a feel for consequences is the medical treatment called amputation. In an amputation the mediator, usually a doctor, directly ameliorates the target patient by removing an infected limb. Obviously this specific type of deliberate action is a category X. And this procedure is usually performed with the foreseeable outcome that the patient's life will be saved. An unintended bad consequence of an amputation is that the amputee will not have use of a limb for the rest of his or her life. But it is easy to understand that the good consequence of saving the patient's life via amputation far outweighs the bad consequence of loss of limb.

Another example would involve a murderer and a family.  The murderer is object A, father of family object B, mother is object C and children are object C1.  Object A directly deprives object B of his life and in doing so indirectly deprives object C of her husband and object C1 of their father.  The outcome of the consummated murder is that there is a hole or deprivation in the family.

Ethicists have identified and associated the interconnections of all human actions and they have done well to offer systems for evaluating consequences and helping others to conceptualize deliberate choices. However, the fatal flaw in the ethical theories and systems classified as consequentialism is they tend to conflate consequences as the ONLY source of morality. An ethical evaluation or the moral resolution of an acting subject is reduced to the the consequences and nothing else.

To illustrate where this tendency can possibly lead let me jump into a controversial historical example:

The bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Once the Manhattan Project was a green light the U.S. military, Truman et al conceived the idea to use nuclear bombs with the intended end and foreseeable consequence of Japan's unconditional surrender. The intended end and foreseeable consequence of ending the war without a land invasion could no doubt be categorized as an X (where X is good, moral, just, rational, etc.). Truman thought that a consequence of using the bomb would potentially save lives (both U.S. and Japanese), prevent an U.S. land invasion of Japan, save resources, end the war, etc. He conceived that these foreseeable good consequences of using the bomb would outweigh the bad consequences of using the bomb for example the psychological devastation to Japan.  Some speculate that he may have also had ulterior motives such as displaying U.S. might to Russia and the rest of the world.  An interesting albeit tragic side note is that not even the scientists foresaw the harmful consequence of radiation sickness.  And of course the detonated nuclear bombs had profound consequences on all humans for generations.

The the fatal flaw in Truman's et al's reasoning is that the specific deliberate action of bombing a population of innocent civilians is a category Y where this relational mode of action directly deprives those non-aggressive, innocent, civilian targets of their lives. This specific type of action is unarguably a category Y (where Y is evil, immoral, unjust, irrational). Directly bombing innocent targets is a sub-type of murder. It doesn't matter what context the act is performed under whether it be a terrorist attack or a single military attack even in a set of acts in a just war of defense such as WWII. No amount of good intent or good consequences can convert, change or override the severe harm directly imparted to innocent targets in a bombing. The context of a just war of defense cannot or did not convert, change or override the reality of innocent targets deprived of their lives in the bombing.  This is not a matter of opinion.  It is rather a matter of cold hard reason and fact.

An innocent population was the target in the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki; not military/aggressor targets or a military facility. The quality of bombing innocent civilians is always the same. Innocent human targets are always directly deprived of their lives by the mediators of the bombing in all contexts. I hate to even have to say this but the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki was essentially no different than all the terrorist bombings of history. This is a criminal act.  The terrorist bombings are merely done by different mediators with perhaps some different motives and in different circumstances with different consequences. But no amount of good motives or good consequences or extreme circumstances can change the quality of murderous bombing of innocents.

So Truman and all those who immediately participated in the act of bombing Hiroshima and Nagasaki committed a SEVERE evil in relation to innocent targets in spite of a good motive, arguably good consequences and even in spite of their possible confusion, ignorance, stress, etc.  They could have avoided using the bomb and taken a different course of action.  And this is where staking consequences along with circumstance as the ONLY or ultimate criterion of morality fails. In a theory or system that conflates consequences as THE single criterion of deliberate choices; a good consequence/intended end can supposedly justify an evil means where hundreds of thousands even millions of innocents are burned.


Herein lay an inherent contradiction.  A deliberate action in which mediators directly harm, deprive or damage a human targets in any manner conceivable, such as a bombing of innocent civilians, in any context conceivable, cannot be both Y and yet not Y because of an intended X consequence. A category Y cannot flip flop categories because of good consequences or good motives. And the reason is a category Y action is predicated on the harmful change effect undergone in the human target for the duration of the specific act in question.  A mediator directs any conceivable harm, damage or deprivation (whether physical, emotional, mental, vital, monetary, property, etc.) to or in a human target in a specific mode of relational action 'itself'.  The immediate term of the specific type of act called 'bombing innocent civilians' is the damage and/or death undergone in the targets by the bombing imparted by the mediators. A subjective motive or consequence or circumstance however good or extreme cannot change the reality that innocent civilians died or were harmed. This is easy to conceptualize.  And it is a given that a innocent human targets are to be respected and loved for their own sake. Humans are the best God or Mother Nature has to offer.

But back to the point:  It seems that in these consequentialist theories a good outcome for all may justify an evil means.  It would seem that according to consequentialism, one could rape, murder, defraud, pillage, plunder, lie to, sterilize, coerce, control and enslave another or even an entire population just as long as the good proportionally outweighs the bad for all those involved.  This is the danger I see in consequentialist currents of thought.     

In reverse no amount of evil motives or harmful consequences can change the inherent quality of a specific mode of action that directly helps a target.  For example:  Making a monetary donation always directly helps the target even if the mediator possibly has some sort of selfish or malicious or evil ulterior motive or an aim of harmful consequences.  So a more mature and integral way of evaluating or resolving the morality of deliberate actions, whether as acting subject or as a third party ethicist is a fullness of criterion not a single criterion. A fullness of criterion resolves 


1. the motive(s) of the mediator subject:  that for which a subject acts (synonyms: intention, intended end, purpose, aim, goal). Is the motive an X or a Y?


2. the specific mode of deliberate action conceived or performed by the mediator. Does the subjective mediator directly harm, deprive, or damage the objective target (whether self or others) in any manner conceivable in the specific mode of intentional action in question? Yes or no. Yes equals Y. No equals X. 

3. the circumstances--in particular the consequences. Do the foreseeable (or actual in a third party evaluation) good consequences outweigh the foreseeable bad consequences for all those possibly involved in the specific type of action? If the foreseeable good consequences equal or outweigh the foreseeable bad consequences then this font is categorized as an X. If not it is categorized as Y. A synonym of consequence could be outcome or indirect effects.  


Circumstances are the moral context of the deliberate act.  This concept includes environment, social pressure, duress, emergency, compulsion, etc. In short circum stantes is the entire moral context of the specific mode of deliberate behavior.  Certain circumstances are not fit for certain types of behavior, e.g. the middle of the street is not a good environment for a husband and wife to perform their intimate marital act.  To do so there would be irrational.  The circumstance is not a primary determinant of the specific action in question. The circumstance can increase or diminish the good or evil of an act but never change its quality.  Either an action directly harms or deprives the human target (whether self or other) and/or is inherently irrational or not.  No other thought is conceivable in context of deliberate human actions.  Circumstances and consequences are usually merged to a single criterion.  

In Latin, the above three criterion are called the fontes moralitatis (please note I am imparting a lot of my own insights).  The second font is by far the most important for all conceivable actions between humans have, as it were, their own end detached from a motive or circumstance/consequence.  The insights of the authors of consequentialism has improved the concept of the third font but like I said above the consequentialists conflated this font into a single criterion while disregarding or overlooking the first and second fonts, namely the motive and the act itself isolated and analyzed in terms of direct subject to object relations.


There is a helpful Latin axiom: Bonum ex integra causa = goodness comes from the integrity of the causes; malum ex quocumque defectu = evil comes from any defect. In the theory of the three fonts if anyone of these fonts is a category Y the overall act including motive, consequences and specific action is a category Y. There should not be any defect in the motive, or the specific type of action or the consequences. In a messed up world there will always be some indirect harmful consequences of our actions whether to self or others. If harmful consequences are foreseen they are not suppose to be intended.  One intends only the good consequences, right?  I hope that no one would maliciously aim to harm others (or even self) via any specific means of deliberate action even if that action does not impart direct moral harm.  
The foreseen helpful effects of a specific deliberate action are resolved to equal or outweigh the foreseen harmful effects. 

Yes this theory is more demanding but it is also more mature. The goodness of deliberate actions is always a fullness, a wholeness or an integrity that subsumes motive, the specific mode of action in question, as well as the consequences/circumstances. 

And of course it goes without saying that an exhaustive evaluation of consequences is not possible or even mandatory when resolving all subjective acts. In many circumstances a judgment of consequences is resolved swiftly almost at the velocity of light.  And one's resolution might be mistaken. But like I said above those subjects who hold a substantial degree of responsibility and care are keen to weigh consequences. This is why an adult will remind a young adult (whose pre-frontal cortex is not yet fully developed) to think about the consequences of his or her actions before acting. They understand through experience that some specific types of actions have far reaching consequences for self and others. I would even suppose that weighing the totality of consequences for all persons involved is mandatory in some circumstances such as establishing a policy for a nation or whether or not to wage of war.  Too not do so in certain circumstances would be an act of omission or negligence.

But then again even in grave circumstances an exhaustive evaluation of consequences is not even possible. The impossibility and impracticability of weighing the totality of consequences for all concerned is another reason why consequentialist theories and systems fail IF they posit consequences as the ONLY criterion for resolving the morality of deliberate human actions. And to be fair it is difficult to determine how far all the individual authors meant their readers to take their ideas in regards to consequences. But in supposition a subject can always have the good of the world in view when resolving his or her deliberate personal actions. Am I making the world a better place via my humble day to day category X actions? Will my pursuing this or that course of action help the world? This may sound trite but no man is an island. Our deliberate choices do in reality have some affect on the entire world for we are one family.


The consequentialist theories and systems can be useful only they are mistaken IF they stake the outcome as the ONLY or Ultimate criterion of morality. And they are mistaken if they reduce morality to merely 'pleasures' or 'pains' or 'maximizing good' or 'minimizing evil' for the entire world. There is more to human life than mere pleasure and pain or basic needs.  And each subject is unique and can help others in unpredictable and unexpected ways that cannot be forecast by sheer philosophy or scientific research.  A consequentialist theory of ethics cannot solve all the problems and complexity of consequences.  Heck, no ideology whether ethical, economic, political, scientific, religious or otherwise will transfigure the world or solve all problems. The transfiguration of the world begins and ends with the human subject who may freely choose to perform deliberate actions in relation to others and self that are overall morally categorized as X (where X is good, rational, just, moral, helpful, etc.) . . . ALWAYS.  This is how a human can change and mature.  

All things subject to change and to becoming never remain constant, but continually pass from one state to another, for better or worse... Now, human life is always subject to change; it needs to be born ever anew... But here birth does not come about by a foreign intervention, as is the case with bodily beings...[I think he meant inanimate]; it is the result of a free choice. Thus we are in a certain way our own parents, creating ourselves as we will, by our decisions. (Saint Gregory of Nyssa)   

And each new human subject conceived and born is as if the world begins anew. So there will always be a learning curve in terms of morality.  At least until kingdom come.

see also:

Subject-Object Relations in Deliberate Actions

The Two Fundamental Categories of Ethics

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