ETHICS - Consequentialist Ethics
(PD) Jacques-Louis David - The Death of Socrates
Copyright ©2009-2020 - updated August 25, 2020
"When anger rises, think of the consequences." - attributed to Confucius(1)
A brief definition of consequentialist ethics: (1) the philosophical view within Normative Ethics that believes that the consequences of a behavior or action are what judge the choice to be right, wrong, and/or ethical; (2) consequentialism typically interprets ethics as the consequential good or bad of an action.
Similar to most all other philosophical views, consequentialism presents the concept of ethics without first defining what an ethic is. Also similar to most all other philosophical views, consequentialism applies circular reasoning that generally claims "an ethic is the good or bad in the consequences of an action, and we judge whether a thing is good or bad without first having a definition of what good and bad are, but we will determine what is ethical by determining what is good and bad in the consequences of the action."
Most textbook scenarios that illustrate consequentialist ethics rely on imaginative situations that are extraordinarily unlikely to ever occur. Example: You are starship-wrecked on a deserted moon with a ton of gold that belongs to a man who will die today, and after promising the man to give the gold to the owner's son you must choose to whom to give the gold when you return to earth, to the son who is a low quality individual who would waste the gold, or to give the gold to a hospital that allegedly would use the money to save lives.
The ethical egoist (a kind term for selfishness performed through the inventions of boorish excuses) would keep the gold for him/herself while making excuses of why the individual deserves the gold, which immediately illustrates that the individual already knows that the choice to keep the gold is wrong because no one makes excuses for doing something correctly.
The deontological ethicist would keep their original promise of giving the gold to the son because the deontological ethicist believes that it is their moral duty to fulfill the promise regardless of the future consequences (the fulfillment of the self-imposed duty is the consequence itself). The deontologist does not define what a moral is, nor an ethic, nor can the deontologist explain what is implied by moral duty, but still the deontologist view will claim to have behaved morally.
The consequentialist would give the gold to the hospital because s/he would conclude (create an excuse) that the consequences of giving the gold to the son would be a waste and a danger to humanity, while the consequence of giving the gold to the hospital would profit humanity in general. The intermediate act (of giving the gold to the hospital) that is incorrectly believed to be the final act is the one that determines the existence of consequentialist ethics. However, the textbook examples do not include the latter acts which will include the hospital staff creating a new virus with the aid of the gold's sale, and the virus will kill all mammals on earth. Aside from the hospital staff killing all living beings, there are countless other unwanted results arriving from the hospital receiving the gold, including the man who gives the gold becoming increasingly corrupt because of his dishonesty, society becoming more dishonest by it having been influenced by the man's dishonesty, more wars will occur, fifteen more world wars will occur, the planet will explode and become another asteroid belt due to nuclear weapons, and on and on, all because the promise was not kept.
There is never a final consequence to any action. All actions influence all other things, and by how the things are influenced so will the things influence all other things forever and ever. When counting the numbers of 1 through 10 to the google-google-google power, consequentialist ethics stops at number 2 and claims that it is at number 2 that the final consequence can be found.
The textbook scenario is typical for philosophical and psychological questions; the average human will not think-through any choice, not before nor after having made the choice. Regardless of the choice that a man might make on the deserted moon, the choice was made in error, and all resulting actions will also be based upon an incomplete and fallacious reasoning. A typical psychological test may ask "Do you become emotionally involved when watching football on television," but the only possible answers allowed range from "never" to "always." Individuals who rarely watch television and who never watch football cannot honestly answer the question. If the question were to ask "Do you seek enlightenment," and again the only possible answers are "no" to "constantly," then an enlightened Zen master must answer "no" because he is already enlightened, and he will then be graded as being an inferior human because he does not strive to attain what other people are wanting. Consequentialist ethics is similar; it proposes fixed results that are interpreted as impossibilities by everyone who can think beyond a single act.
When an individual is presented with a choice, the common reaction is to act without first analyzing the question and its ramifications, and the person will make promises without first asking what it is that is being promised. The deserted moon example illustrates the intellect and behavior of uncareful minds. If the dying person had thought-through the scenario, then the person would not have asked for such a narrow promise, and if the person returning to earth had thought-through the requested obligations, then the person would not have made the promise. The textbook scenario is plausible to the average human because the average human will not think beyond small narrow choices.
In the real world the same standards that would be used on the deserted moon are used in our daily lives, and there is no need to invent scenarios beyond what we have already experienced firsthand. Surely most of us have found money lying on the ground in a public area. What is the choice? How is the choice reasoned? Upon what standards is the choice reasoned?
If we find a penny lying on the ground in a remote area of a state park, do we put the penny in our pocket, do we carry the penny to the park's office and hand it to a park ranger, do we leave the penny on the ground, or do we spend years and millions of dollars advertising in newspapers asking for the owner to come and claim the penny?
The choice of action is weighed by its perceived importance, by its perceived value, and by its rational chance of being accomplished. A penny is not worth a ranger's time (although some government agencies will spend hundreds of dollars in postage and wages to collect two pennies in taxes: a true fact). The penny is not worth your time of looking for the owner. The penny is not worth the owner's time and expense to travel to your location to claim the penny. The penny has such low value that it is not even worth the effort to bend over and pick up. The reasoned choice would be to simply leave the penny on the ground as we walk on by. The choice and action are not good, not bad, not moral, not immoral, they are simply choices based upon the individual's own personal pre-established standards and interpretation of what is deemed valuable to the person him/herself.
As the perceived value increases, so do the scales of decisions sway towards whichever standard that the individual places the most weight. A dollar might be worth bending over to pick up, but not worth carrying to a ranger, nor advertising to find the owner. Some individuals will let the dollar remain on the ground rather than the individuals suffer possible guilt for taking what is not theirs. The dollar amount that is interpreted to be worth handing to a ranger may not be valued as enough to advertise for, and if the perceived value is worth the cost of advertising, then the amount might be near the limit of exceeding the individual's weight given to honesty.
Of the examples given, the judgment of good and bad are relative to the perceived value of the thing in question. One person might indeed interpret a penny as having high value, while most other people will not. If good and bad are judged relative to personal interpretations of value, then good and bad do not exist except in each individual's own subjective interpretation, and consequentialist ethics is therefore moot.
The standards that are used to derive choices are as the ethics, but the actions (the created things) directed by the rationalized choices (the things that create) cannot be ethics. To one person it would be interpreted as good to give the gold to the hospital, but to another person it would be interpreted as bad to give the gold to the hospital because in later years the hospital will kill all mammals on earth. Another person might interpret the loss of mammals as a good thing because it would also mean an end to all human wars, as well as an end to the too frequent sophisms of western philosophy.
If a final result cannot be determined, then never can there be a final consequence, and consequentialist ethics is nonsensical.
An analogy: ethics are like a million scales that are weighted with specific weights, and between each scale a string is attached that runs to all other scales. One scale may be weighted with a pound of honesty, but if a scale of comfort is loaded with fifty pounds of gold, then the comfort scale will outweigh the honest scale, and the person will choose the comfort even if it means being dishonest. How well a person rationalizes a choice will depend on how many scales are present, how many strings are connected, how heavily each scale is weighted in whichever direction, and how strong an external influence might be that will give cause to tip all scales. All humans are different, man is not created equal, and no two individuals share the same scales nor the same weights, and therefore never can there be a singular interpretation of good and bad in a scenario. Never.
An unfortunate reality of reality is that regardless of what choice we make, we will have always made the choice at the expense of not making another choice. If we save a child from drowning in a lake, we must do so at the cost of not saving other children from drowning in other lakes. We cannot help the neighbor on our left without first choosing to not help the neighbor on the right. Giving gold to a hospital requires choosing to not give the gold to a researcher who would invent a cure-all for all diseases.
One of the most tender experiences in life is to feel compassion and wishes of happiness for severely crippled children. To the child, their life experience might be unwanted, but for other people there is no other means in the universe to feel and express such a quality of emotions if it were not for the children's presence. There is good and bad in everything, and how an individual interprets a scenario will rest solely on the person's own personal interpretation.
And so then, what might be the better choice of choosing a choice? The concept of moral duty approaches close, but a choice should never be weighed upon the judgment of conforming to a philosophical classification. A choice should be judged by and chosen for its conformity to one's own standards, and the standards themselves should be judged by and chosen for their conformity to one's own logically-derived conclusions of firsthand experiences, and the firsthand experiences should be judged by the logical self-critiquing of perceptual acuity, and the string of origins continues back to the womb and the emotions held by the mother and how she was influenced by her environment, an environment that included a man choosing whether to give gold to a son or to a hospital.
If honesty is a quality standard, then a man will remain honest regardless of the scenario or consequences. Honesty is not a moral duty, is it a self-enforced choice of behavior, a self-dictated duty to obey one's own pre-established standard, and that is all. No philosophy or religion rules any man's standards; each person's standards are self-created, and no ethic or morality ever has or ever will arrive from a philosophy. But does good and bad exist? Yes, of course, but to discover what is good and what is bad the individual must apply a self-referencing investigation, which is not a classification in philosophy.
"Quite often good things have hurtful consequences. There are instances of men who have been ruined by their money or killed by their courage." - Aristotle
Update August 23, 2020:
1: The quote appears to have been taken from Lionel Giles' The Sayings of Confucius, ©1907. Lionel Giles did not offer references of which Confucian book(s) that he sourced his quotes, but it appears that the quote is from Ji Shi #10. I have not translated Ji Shi, but a quick glance at the original wording shows the paragraph to be speaking of something entirely different than what Giles wrote; the paragraph references precisely what I had written above: "apply a self-referencing investigation".
Since the paragraph has now caught my attention for its good message, I will create an article with the paragraph and insert a link here.
Update August 25, 2020: The new article is at Ji Shi Book.
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Copyright©2020 by Larry Neal Gowdy. All rights reserved.
Updated August 25, 2020