Consequentialism and Integrity (or: Why People Disagree About Iraq)

A few weeks ago, toward the end of a spirited exchange on Iraq, abortion, Catholic social teaching, and the presidential election (we like to keep the topics narrow enough to be manageable on this blog), I expressed some thoughts on consequentialism that I was leaving unfinished because I needed a book from my shelf. Today, I give you the coda to that discussion, which of course I hope will turn out also to be a prelude to other discussions. Discussions about Iraq? Yes, and other things. Your indulgence, please, while I fill in some background.

The book I was thinking about in my earlier post is Consequentialism and Its Critics (Samuel Scheffler, ed. 1988), part of the Oxford Readings in Philosophy Series. And the particular text I had in mind comes from a paper by Bernard Williams called “Consequentialism and Integrity.” Williams offers two fairly detailed hypotheticals to tease out some important features of consequentialist moral theories. Before we turn to Williams, though, let’s establish some basic definitions, courtesy of Wikipedia:

Consequentialism refers to those moral theories which hold that the consequences of a particular action form the basis for any valid moral judgment about that action. Thus, from a consequentialist standpoint, a morally right action is one that produces a good outcome, or consequence.

Consequentialism is usually understood as distinct from deontology, in that deontology derives the rightness or wrongness of an act from the character of the act itself rather than the outcomes of the action and from virtue ethics, which focuses on the character of the agent rather than on the nature or consequences of the action itself.

[The difference is not that consequentialists consider the consequences of their choices but non-consequentialists don’t. Practically any kind of reasoning about means and ends involves some consideration of consequences. But in a consequentialist moral theory, “the end justifies the means”; that is, as long as we get to the best possible outcome, it does not really matter how we got there.]

The best-known variant of consequentialism is utilitarianism, which makes the morality of any action depend on a particular subset of its consequences, namely the happiness or pleasure it produces in the world at large. Generally speaking, it is not supposed to matter which people are happy and which people are unhappy; that is the principle of impartiality which, as Williams notes, gives utilitarianism “a certain kind of high-mindedness.” Now consider the more pointed of the two hypotheticals in the Williams paper:

Jim finds himself in the central square of a small South American town. Tied up against the wall are a row of twenty Indians, most terrified, a few defiant, in front of them several armed men in uniform. A heavy man in a sweat-stained khaki shirt turns out to be the captain in charge and, after a good deal of questioning of Jim which establishes that he got there by accident while on a botanical expedition, explains that the Indians are a random group of the inhabitants who, after recent acts of protest against the government, are just about to be killed to remind other possible protestors of the advantages of not protesting. However, since Jim is an honoured visitor from another land, the captain is happy to offer him a guest’s privilege of killing one of the Indians himself. If Jim accepts, then as a special mark of the occasion, the other Indians will be let off. Of course, if Jim refuses, then there is no special occasion, and Pedro here will do what he was about to do when Jim arrived, and kill them all. Jim, with some desperate recollection of schoolboy fiction, wonders whether, if he got hold of a gun, he could hold the captain, Pedro, and the rest of the soldiers to threat, but it is quite clear from the set-up that nothing of that kind is going to work: any attempt at that sort of thing will mean that all the Indians will be killed, and himself. The men against the wall, and the other villagers, understand the situation, and are obviously begging him to accept. What should he do?

Williams notes that utilitarianism tells Jim to kill the “Indian”; and moreover, that under utilitarianism this is obviously the right answer. Nineteen lives will be spared, and all twenty candidates for the one life that will be lost (plus their families) want Jim to kill the one. Even if Jim himself were squeamish about this, how heavily could squeamishness weigh against nineteen lives? Yet many people would think Jim was in a very serious moral quandary here; a quandary in which, even if killing the “Indian” is the right answer, it surely cannot be obviously the right answer. What explains this?

I think Williams has the right answer: Consequentialism “cuts out of consideration” an idea that many of us intuitively accept, namely “that each of us is specially responsible for what he does, rather than for what other people do. This is an idea closely connected with the value of integrity.” This does not necessarily make consequentialism wrong, but it does help explain how people who are thinking very hard about a situation, and who share a surprisingly high number of background assumptions about good and evil, can come to very different conclusions about, say, whether to invade Iraq, or whether to withdraw from Iraq.

Why? Because the key feature of Williams’s hypothetical about Jim and Pedro is that if Jim fails to kill one person, Pedro will kill twenty. The claim of consequentialist moral theories is that Jim has a moral responsibility to avoid this outcome; but in so stating, consequentialists make Jim responsible for what Pedro does. (Or what Pedro may do or will probably do — consequentialists want Jim to predict this.) And this facet of the Jim-and-Pedro hypothetical is actually surprisingly common in questions of international affairs.

By chance, I first read this paper before the Iraq invasion, but after the war drums began to beat, and it seemed to me then that proponents of our invasion could squeeze the situation in Iraq into the Jim-and-Pedro mold without any great difficulty. Saddam Hussein brutalized his people; we could save at least some of them by killing others; and even though some of the people we killed would be completely innocent — wedding parties, four-year-old children, etc. — consequentialist moral theories at least allowed the possibility of justifying the cost as a humanitarian gesture, wholly apart from any national interest of ours. Likewise, many of those who oppose withdrawal from Iraq today do so for consequentialist reasons (whether they know it or not), arguing that “things will be worse” if we leave — even though the reason things will be worse is because of what we think other people will do. In my opinion, many of those who favor a continued presence in Iraq (and elsewhere, for that matter) fail to place sufficient weight, or in some cases any weight, on the difference between our killing people and other people’s killing people. I am just old-fashioned enough to think it matters who is doing the killing.

I’m not qualified or prepared to take the discussion much further than this — for example, by purporting to refute all consequentialist moral theories here on this blog. But it does seem fair to me to expect people to be consistent in their reasoning, and if our willingness to sacrifice some lives for others in the case of war and peace is ultimately based on consequentialist assumptions, then many who supported our intervention in Iraq, and who support our continued presence there, might be very surprised by the number of other offenses against human life that can be justified in this way.

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5 Responses to “Consequentialism and Integrity (or: Why People Disagree About Iraq)”

  1. Timothy Peach Says:

    Someone, if they run into him, please thank Bernard Williams for clarifying matters with another really great “lifeboat dilemma”. Because we were so short on them. No one was really getting it until now.

    Let me just say this: we’re all agreeing that just because one considers what the other guy might do, it doesn’t make that person a “consequentialist”, yes? Well, I would just offer that, in matters of war, I am hard-pressed to come up with a situation in this era, with regard to the US, where any potential military action doesn’t consider what the other guy might do. Korea, Vietnam, Kuwait, the Balkans, Darfur, Mogadishu, etc etc etc. They’re all centrally about what the other guy will do if we sit back. In some cases, it’s about how much watching the other guy we’ll do while we have the power to stop it.

    I can respect anyone who believes we should never have been in Iraq. But whether to intervene in Iraq wasn’t categorically different from our other interventions. We’re always debating when we have enough “national interest” to go in. I hate that argument. Let’s just get down to brass tacks — pick a philosophy, and derive your conclusions from it. You can be a pacifist, an isolationist, a a “might for rightist”, or an interventionalist. I’m not sure any of these positions necessarily has a monopoly on the high ground. Each believes it is either maximizing good or minimizing evil.

    In my case, when it comes to the deployment of military strength justly, in an era where simple self-defense is clearly not the only motivator for its use, the principle that applies most directly is: “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.”

    I’m not saying that always means killing foreign thugs when we have the chance and are adequately provoked. But sometimes it does. It’s a legitimate debate as to whether we need to keep doing that now, for now.

  2. Douglas Karr Says:

    You can never count the lives that you’ve ‘saved’ by removing a brutal dictator. That is the unknown. However, we do know from the worlds’ past how many we’ve lost from dictators… millions.

    Folks who believe in the war believe that we HAVE saved more than we’ve lost because they can look to the past and see evidence where we didn’t act earlier. Folks who don’t believe in the war believe we’ve lost more than we’ve saved. They don’t believe either Clinton nor Bush’s administrations’ intelligence on WMD, connection to terrorism, and Iraq’s growing threat to our national security.

    There is a third group, though, that has nothing to do with the END or the MEANS. This is the group that believes a LOSS of one of US is never worth saving one of THEM. The third group is the one that scares me – they are the people that see no value in human life unless it is one of our own.

    As for the END and the MEANS, we can not ever state with any clarity how we may have changed history. Perhaps the Iraqi War thwarted instability in the region that would have lead to World War 3. Perhaps we could have waited a few more months until Hussein was killed by his own people.

    There’s no way to predict the future on actions that we don’t take, only the collection of facts to collaborate the actions we do take. I pray that the actions we’ve taken have been the right ones – regardless of the latest polls.

  3. David Fitzgerald Says:

    Let’s extend the hypothetical a bit. Neither Jim nor Pedro know that one of the 20 Indians is actually the leader of the rebellion against the oppressive regime. He is on the verge of a breakthrough with the other contentious factions opposed to the government and, if he lives, within a week they will all agree to a general strike that will topple the existing military regime and result in a peaceful end to the police state and thousands of lives will be saved. Jim accepts Pedro’s offer and kills the leader of the rebellion thus prolonging brutal reprisals against thousands by the government.

    I could, of course, go on. One of the more obvious objections to consequentialism is that human knowledge of the future is, at best, flawed. Imperfect knowledge of all potential consequences, of course, is not a sufficient reason, in itself, not to act. If it were, no action for good or ill would ever be or could ever be taken.

    However, the law of unintended consequences seems to demand that in taking a decision of profound, perhaps even infinite, moral weight…like the decision to take the nation to war… it is essential that (i) all options short of war be exhausted, (ii) an honest case for war is presented to both the people and their elected representatives, (iii) an honest assesment of the costs, risks and goals of the war be presented, (iv) a commitment to pay for the costs be demanded and (v) the people’s representatives and the people themselves take clear and unambiguous responsibility for the waging of the war in the form of a clear declaration of war and shared sacrifice in order to achieve its ends.

    Funny, but by that criteria we have dovetailed from a consequentialist justification to one that requires the sincere (one could say integral) commitment of the nation as a whole and one that looks surprisingly (although not completely) like satisfying the Just War criteria.

  4. Timothy Peach Says:

    David, I think in order to follow your approach, we’d need to do two things:

    (1) Have a special election on whether to go to war. This might actually be possible. But more importantly:

    (2) We’d have to be convinced that the “will of the people” was an intelligent opinon on the topic.

    If there had been (1) here in late 2002, the vote would have been “yes”. And even though I would have voted “yes” myself, I don’t think I’d have said that (2) would have been satisfied.

    In a representative model of democracy, one of the things we’re delegating to our elected representatives is making judgments on when to go to war. In this case, they did, based on the information available at the time. Some of it turned out to be faulty, but hindsight is 20/20.

    Incidentally, all options short of war are never exhausted, since not going to war no matter what will always be a residual option. I thought we had exhausted all reasonable options myself, since the alternative appeared to be conceding to Baghdad that there were never going to be any real consequences of their flouting of UN resolutions indefinitely.

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