Nov 4, 2009

Philosophical Phun - Consequentialism :o)

Consequentialism, as its name suggests, is the view that normative properties depend only on consequences. This general approach can be applied at different levels to different normative properties of different kinds of things, but the most prominent example is consequentialism about the moral rightness of acts, which holds that whether an act is morally right depends only on the consequences of that act or of something related to that act, such as the motive behind the act or a general rule requiring acts of the same kind.

One common illustration is called Transplant. Imagine that each of five patients in a hospital will die without an organ transplant. The patient in Room 1 needs a heart, the patient in Room 2 needs a liver, the patient in Room 3 needs a kidney, and so on. The person in Room 6 is in the hospital for routine tests. Luckily (for them, not for him!), his tissue is compatible with the other five patients, and a specialist is available to transplant his organs into the other five. This operation would save their lives, while killing the "donor". There is no other way to save any of the other five patients (Foot 1966, Thomson 1976; compare related cases in Carritt 1947 and McCloskey 1965).

We need to add that the organ recipients will emerge healthy, the source of the organs will remain secret, the doctor won't be caught or punished for cutting up the "donor", and the doctor knows all of this to a high degree of probability (despite the fact that many others will help in the operation). Still, with the right details filled in, it looks as if cutting up the "donor" will maximize utility, since five lives have more utility than one life. If so, then classical utilitarianism implies that it would not be morally wrong for the doctor to perform the transplant and even that it would be morally wrong for the doctor not to perform the transplant. Most people find this result abominable. They take this example to show how bad it can be when utilitarians overlook individual rights, such as the unwilling donor's right to life.

This problem cannot be solved by building rights or fairness or desert into the theory of value. The five do not deserve to die, and they do deserve their lives, just as much as the one does. Each option violates someones right not to be killed and is unfair to someone. So consequentialists need more than just new values if they want to avoid endorsing this transplant.
Another popular charge is that classic utilitarianism demands too much, because it requires us to do acts that are or should be moral options (neither obligatory nor forbidden). (Scheffler 1982) For example, imagine that my old shoes are serviceable but dirty, so I want a new pair of shoes that costs $100. I could wear my old shoes and give the $100 to a charity that will use my money to save someone else's life. It would seem to maximize utility for me to give the $100 to the charity. If it is morally wrong to do anything other than what maximizes utility, then it is morally wrong for me to buy the shoes. But buying the shoes does not seem morally wrong. It might be morally better to give the money to charity, but such contributions seem supererogatory, that is, above and beyond the call of duty. Of course, there are many more cases like this. When I watch television, I always (or almost always) could do more good by helping others, but it does not seem morally wrong to watch television. When I choose to teach philosophy rather than working for CARE or the Peace Corps, my choice probably fails to maximize utility overall. If we were required to maximize utility, then we would have to make very different choices in many areas of our lives. The requirement to maximize utility, thus, strikes many people as too demanding because it interferes with the personal decisions that most of us feel should be left up to the individual.

However, most people begin with the presumption that we morally ought to make the world better when we can. The question then is only whether any moral constraints or moral options need to be added to the basic consequentialist factor in moral reasoning. (Kagan 1989, 1998). If no objection reveals any need for anything beyond consequences, then consequences alone seem to determine what is morally right or wrong, just as consequentialists claim.

For me, it is about personal choice and considerations of others around us. We start with those we love, they come first. Then, we move down to acquaintances, they may or may not be deserving of our benevolence, but again, it is a personal choice. Beyond that, it becomes much more altruistic. To me, the summation comes from Spock in Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan; "The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few, or the one". It is up to each and every one of us to make these distinctions for ourselves, within our belief systems.


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  2. Hi Ken,
    I wonder what happens if this consequentialism runs amok. Murder's just dandy as long as you don't get caught? Stealing's just peachy ... just don't get caught and steal from people who might not even notice what's missing?

  3. lelocolon said...
    This post is significant to me because it helps me take another look at your personal philosophies. I can understand now much better your point about the Urine test and how it will help those in need. I wish I can say that my life is as simple and explainable as Consequentialism proposes. I tend to believe that there is importance even in nature disorders. Imagine what the universe has accomplished with all its chaos. However on a practical and realistic world Consequentialism has its merits.

  4. Ken, I knew you were going to use that quote! I'm not a mind reader, just another Star Trek fan.

    In essence, every life form on the planet unknowingly follows Spock's principle, save one. Only the species that should know better, for the moment, doesn't follow that principle. Balance is the key from my perspective. Later we will either learn from our mistakes or force our own extention, but back to the topic.

    I am deeply driven by the feeling that I need to do as much as I can to fulfill our world's needs. I see us all interconnected; how can I not when I see everything connected together on a subatomic level. The divisions are an illusion, the one is the whole. Anything done effects the rest. That we lack the ability to see the effects, the distinctions, doesn't negate their existence.

    The needs of the whole most certainly outweighs the needs of the few. I don't think that makes the individual any less important, in fact the individual is of equal importance to the many, as they are actually the same thing.

  5. This is pretty deep, Ken. Do I think that consequentialism is related to my interpretation of a egalitarian Utopia, which does not yet exisit. There is so much subjective to what makes for the normative ethic.

    For instance, the Health Care debate is one where it seems that it would be obvious that by doing something to allow for those without access to proper health care to have that access, we'd be doing the most good. In one way, they uninsured would benefit like the five patients in the example.

    But the donor patient is aware that what is going to happen to him would bring him to his demise. And he is protesting.

    That changes the dynamic and make the case for a more complex equation. What if the donor patient was going to the recipent himself of a new procedure where the donated organs were going to be replaced and he would live?

    All the questions that come from that added dimesnion is similar to the Health Care debate. The patient is being told that he can both maximize his usefulness and still enjoy a full life.

    Maybe he can ... maybe he can't. The debate about Nationalized Health Care has been mixed, because of a lack of information. Again, another layer that is unavailable to the patient.

    The dilemma is a moral one, and morals are all subjective. For it to become objective, I am thinking that it would mean that everyone would have to share the same philosophy, wouldn't it?

    I could just be talkin' ... I don't mind saying what comes up and out!!

    p.s. 'Rouge' is a color ... or a X-Men character!!


Tell Me What You Think, Don't Make me go Rogue on you :o)