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.