The Consequences of Consequentialism

Monday, 02-08-2016

As my regular readers know, I reserve Mondays for letters.  This one is from an undergrad student.


The other day someone told me a scenario from the war in Bosnia in the 1990s.  As a matter of military policy, Serbian units systematically raped Bosnian women.  One soldier refused to participate.  As a punishment, his commander took the inhabitants of an internment camp, divided them in two, and ordered the soldier to kill half.  If the soldier refused, the officer would kill them all, and kill him too.

As St. Paul said, it is wrong to do evil so that good will result.  So I said the soldier should refuse to rape or murder no matter what the consequences.  The other guy was not convinced.  He thought the soldier should have given in because the results would have been better:  In the end, fewer people would have died.  How would you have answered him?


The other guy's view is called “consequentialism.”  Consequentialism means that when you're deciding what to do, nothing matters but results.  Be sure you get the point:  Consequentialists don't just say results matter; we all believe that.  They argue that nothing else matters but results -- that results can turn intrinsic evil into good.  Is it all right to lie and cheat?  Is it all right to have an abortion?  Is it all right to sleep with your girlfriend?  Is it all right to commit atrocities?  The consequentialist’s answer will always be the same:  “It depends.”  What does it depend on? The results.

Can results really make intrinsic wrong right?  The question comes up every day, and it isn't just for armchair philosophers.  Consequentialism wrecks lives.  Also civilizations.  It has gone a long way toward wrecking ours.

It's difficult to get through to someone who takes the results-only line, but keep trying.  One way is to make your friend begin doubting his assumptions about what the results will be.  Another is to show him that ironically, the attitude “nothing matters but results” has bad results.  Best of all and most fundamental is get his conscience on your side -- to show him that something does matter besides results.

In your shoes, I might make one of the following points.  Don’t drop them all on your friend.  A conversation isn’t a bombing run.

1.  “Considering that genocide was Serbian policy, it would have been naïve to think that a promise like 'If you murder these, then I won't murder those' can be taken seriously.  The only real question facing the soldier was whether he would join in the murdering.”

2.  “The Serbians committed genocide for the sake of consequences that they considered better.  If the soldier agreed to participate in their murders for the sake of consequences that he considered better, then how would his hands be less dirty than theirs?”

3.  “Participating in murder for fear of consequences has a consequence too.  The consequence is that you yourself become a murderer.  Can you live with that?”

4.  “Sometimes those who commit atrocities are even more intent in getting others to cooperate with their atrocities.  So if you do become complicit, you’re not just helping them kill.  Aren’t you also helping them turn people like you into people like them?  And don’t you then acquire a motive not to bring them to justice, because you too would be punished?”

5.  “According to consequentialism, nothing whatsoever is intrinsically wrong -- not even systematic rape and genocide.  Anything whatsoever is okay if the consequences are good enough.  Look me in the eye.  Is that what you really believe?”

6.  “Suppose we all did become consequentialists.  We would then live in a world in which people did believe that nothing whatsoever is intrinsically wrong, in which they did believe that anything whatsoever is okay if it gets the results that we want.  What would be the results – the consequences -- if everyone did take that line?”

7.  “Is there anything you wouldn't do for the sake of results you liked better? Would you murder six million Jews, like Hitler?  Would you molest children?  Would you eat them?  Would you rape and torture your mother?  What -- did I hear you say “No”?  Did I hear you say that there is at least one thing you wouldn't do no matter what?  Then you admit consequentialism is wrong.”

Start with the last point. Most people are consequentialists only when their consciences don't hurt enough yet.


How the Meaning of Liberty Did and Didn’t Change

Sunday, 02-07-2016

Aristotle famously remarks that everything which the law does not expressly permit is forbidden.  Some people take this as showing how different the classical concept of liberty is from the modern one.  For we say just the opposite:  That everything which the law does not expressly forbid is permitted.

There really is a difference between the classical and modern concepts of liberty, but that isn’t it.  If Aristotle’s remark had been intended literally, it would be absurd.  Because of the law’s silence about rotation, respiration, and osculation, you would be forbidden to turn over in bed, take a breath, or kiss your spouse.

What Aristotle did mean by his comment isn’t clear, but there are all sorts of ways to make sense of it without taking it literally.  What he actually says is that “the law does not expressly permit suicide, and what it does not expressly permit it forbids.”  But suicide is self-murder, and murder is expressly forbidden by the law.  So some think he might mean only that in the context of an existing prohibition, any act for which the law does not expressly declare an exception is prohibited.

So if that isn’t it, then what is the difference between the classical and modern concepts of liberty?  Among the classical thinkers (bearing in mind that not all ancient thinkers were classical), the term “liberty” referred not to the absence of governance, but to a certain kind of governance -- whether over a multitude of people, a single man, or an aspect of a man.

Thus, in the political sense, the people of a republic were called “free” because they collectively ruled themselves (rather than being under the thumb of a tyrant).

In the domestic sense, a freeman was called “free” because he ruled himself (rather than being ruled by a master).

In the moral sense, a virtuous man was called “free” because he was ruled by the principle which most fully expressed his nature, his reason (rather than being at the mercy of his desires).

And in the religious sense, a Christian was called “free” because he served the Author of his being, in whose image he was made, apart from whom he could not truly be himself, for to be alienated from the one in whose image I am made is to be alienated from my own being.

By degrees, the meaning of the term changed.  So long as they do not think too deeply about the matter, modern people tend to regard freedom not as freedom from the wrong kind of rule, but as freedom from rule.

In the political sense, this would make the people of a republic freer than the people of a tyranny only if they happened to make fewer rules for themselves than a tyrant would.  In fact, the only true freedom would be anarchy, which has no rules at all, although freedom in this sense turns out to be inconvenient.

In the domestic sense, a freeman would be freer than a slave not because he ruled himself, but only because he was more nearly able to do as he pleased – if, in fact, he was more nearly able.  In the moral sense, a virtuous man would be freer than a vicious one only if his reason happened to put less constraint on his will than his base desires did.  The only true freedom would be following whatever impulse one happened to have at the moment.  However one might dress this up by calling it “autonomy,” as though we were gods, the condition is less superhuman than subhuman.

In the religious sense, a person would be free only if he served nothing and no one.  Since in this view of things, God looks like a tyrant, some suppose that the only free spirit is the atheist.  Carrying the modern line of reasoning still further, some take the view that not even the atheist is truly free, if he serves the cause of atheism.

The culmination of the modern idea is that no one is truly free unless he does what he does merely because he does it; unless he has no particular reason for doing anything at all; unless his choices are meaningless.  In this sense, freedom is not so much inconvenient as futile, and human existence is absurd.  Which is just what such people conclude.


Forms Are Conserved

Saturday, 02-06-2016

Nature exhibits organisms with one-chambered hearts, two-chambered hearts, three-chambered hearts, and four-chambered hearts.

A certain kind of thinker regards this as proof of Darwinism.  See?  First came the one-chambered heart, then the two, then the three, then the four.

But try to imagine a transition.  How could a species make a gradual transition from, say, a two- to a three-chambered heart?  No halfway house could function.

This is not an argument against descent with modification.  But it does count as a strong objection to the gradualist, adaptationist explanation of how the modifications happened.  Other things may evolve; basic forms are conserved.

I first came across the argument years ago in biochemist Michael Denton’s Evolution: A Theory in CrisisIt was the first work I had read which showed me that there might be purely scientific grounds to reject a theory which up to then I had considered unassailable.

What spurs the recollection is that Denton has just published a new book, Evolution:  Still a Theory in CrisisI look forward to reading it.


A Little Conversation about Value

Friday, 02-05-2016

“Nothing is objectively good for human beings; or at any rate, if anything is, there is no way to know.”

“Is that so?  Then put your finger in this candle flame.”

“I’ll do no such thing!”

“Why not?”

“Because it would hurt, as you well know.”


“So I don't like pain, all right?”

“Why don’t you?”

“I see what you’re trying to do.  You want me to admit that pain is bad.  Have it your way: Pain is bad.  According to taste.”

“What do you mean, ‘According to taste?”

“I mean that it’s merely my subjective preference.  I make no claim that it holds in any objective sense.”

“You mean that it’s like your preference in flavors of ice cream?”


“What flavor do you like, by the way?”

“Chocolate.  Why?”

“Do you like vanilla?”

“Hate it.  You still haven’t told me why you’re asking.”

“Give me a moment.  Have you always liked chocolate?”

“No.  When I was a little boy I hated it.  I liked vanilla.”

“Doesn’t it distress you that you changed your mind?”

“Why should it?”

“Then it doesn’t?”


“Why not?”

“Because it’s just a subjective preference, as I told you.  It makes no difference.”

“Do you find it upsetting to imagine yourself enjoying vanilla again in the future?”

“Of course not.”

“For the same reason, I suppose.”

“Yes, for the same reason.”

“Put your finger in this candle flame.”

“What’s the matter with you?  I told you, I don't want to get hurt.”

“I thought you might have changed your mind.”

“Why should I change my mind about a thing like that?”

“Just thought you might.”

“Well, I’m not about to.”

“But it doesn’t bother you to think that you might.”


“I mean that you wouldn’t have any problem about becoming a masochist and seeking out painful experiences.”

“Are you trying to insult me?”

“Not at all.  Do you mean you don’t fancy becoming a masochist?”

“Of course I don’t.”

“But how is this subjective preference different from the other?”

“What do you mean, ‘different’?”

“Well, it doesn’t matter to you whether you prefer chocolate to vanilla, or vanilla to chocolate, so long as you get what you want at the moment.”

“True.  So?”

“Yet it does matter to you whether you prefer pleasure to pain, or pain to pleasure.  See the difference?”

“Yes, I see it now.”

“Good.  Now when you were explaining your tastes in ice cream, I understood you to mean that the reason it doesn’t matter to you whether you prefer chocolate to vanilla, or vanilla to chocolate, is that your preference for one over the other is, in your own view, purely subjective.”

“Drat.  I see where this is leading again.”

“Tell me.”

“You want me to say that if, whenever I regard my ordinary preference as purely subjective, I have no higher-order preference about what preference to have, then, whenever I do have a higher-order preference about what preference to have, I must regard my ordinary preference as other than purely subjective.”

“Right.  Go on.”

“And so in the ease of pleasure and pain, where I really do prefer to go on preferring pleasure, it must be my view deep down that my preference for pleasure over pain is objectively reasonable.”


***    *    ***

Do not reproach me for the brevity of this slice of conversation.   I know full well that no self-respecting philosopher would give in so quickly; that is not the point.  I am only offering an illustration, and you need not agree to any of the claims to which the speakers agreed.  All I ask you to recognize is that this conversation belongs to the genus of rational argument.

Seeing that, if you don’t like the way it was conducted, you may write a better one yourself -- or have a real one.



Thursday, 02-04-2016

When I was a grad student and a nihilist, I perceived that my closest professors also held nihilist assumptions, but they didn’t draw nihilist conclusions.  Of course this is still going on.

They too believed that judgments of good and evil have no rational foundation, but went about their daily life as though this made no difference.  They married, raised families, gossiped and argued as though these things actually made sense.

In a certain sense, so did I.  I took care of my children; I didn’t take up with other men’s wives.  But it bothered me that on my assumptions the central concerns of my life were mere preferences -- and it didn’t seem to bother them that on their assumptions the same thing was true of all of theirs.

My supervising professor found my attitude amusing.  Existential anxiety is so old fashioned.  Why all the anguish?  We’re not nihilists, we’re liberals.  Since judgments of good and evil have no rational foundation, why, then, we’ll all just get along.

This was expressed with many references to non-judgmentalism, moral neutrality, purely procedural democracy, John Rawls, and the virtue of doubting everything, which my supervisor called negative capacity.

But if judgments of good and evil have no rational foundation, I wondered, then why is getting along any better than cutting each other’s throats, and why is being doubtful about it better than being certain?  I saw my professors as smart but weak-nerved thinkers who couldn’t face the implications of their nihilism.  I resolved that my nerves would be stronger.

In aftertime (no longer a nihilist), I came to think I was mistaken.  There are no nihilists; there are only pretended nihilists.

The soft sort of nihilist certainly draws some of the conclusions of his premises:  Duties can’t be shirked, but preferences are infinitely fluid.  So if there are no duties, but only preferences, nihilism gives him a pre-arranged excuse for – why, anything he might need one for.  Of course the only reason one needs to prepare excuses is that one does know one’s duties.  So he isn’t really a nihilist after all.

But I was pretending too.  I thought I could accept my duties; what I couldn’t accept was that I had not made them myself.  I would rather have had Nothing than submit.  But then – even if not for the reason my supervisor gave – his mockery was right.  For why all the anguish?

After all, I had got what I wanted.


What Your Recommenders Need to Know

Wednesday, 02-03-2016

If you are a person of faith seeking admission to grad school, more power to you!  But be sure that the persons whom you ask to write letters of recommendation for you exercise caution.

I once received a note from an acquaintance at a highly ranked religious university, who was flabbergasted that the student he had recommended for graduate studies – probably the best he had ever taught -- hadn’t been admitted.  He wondered whether I might have any idea why he wasn’t.

The young man was intelligent, strongly motivated, and had good character.  He had done excellent undergraduate papers, and both his grade point average and his GRE scores were stellar.  His personal statement was very good, and all of his recommenders praised him to the skies.  By every conceivable measure, he was superior.


One of the applicant’s professors had naïvely devoted a few sentences of his letter of recommendation to what a wonderful Christian the young man was.

Apparently the writer didn’t know that at many secular universities (and even at some nominally religious ones), that is the kiss of death.  He might as well have remarked that the student wore a codpiece, spoke only in Klingon, or was an expert in the application of thumbscrews.

Perhaps that wasn’t the reason for the student's rejection.  But the chances are good that it was.

So if you are applying to a secular graduate school, and if any of your recommenders are persons of faith, make sure they know that the members of admissions committees probably aren’t.

It’s fine for your letter writers to describe your intellectual strengths and weaknesses.  Are you intelligent, imaginative, and logically rigorous?  Do you possess initiative?  Are you willing to follow evidence wherever it may lead?  Are you collegial, and open to hearing new points of view, whether in class or conversation?  Do you take constructive criticism in good spirit?  When you disagree with others, do you speak with respect?  Do you have good reasons for wanting to enter grad school?  Is your interest in teaching and research strong, serious, and persistent?  All that is grist for the mill.

But these souls should be as silent about your religious beliefs as though they were proposing you for a quiet civil service job under Nero or Domitian.

Don’t explain this to your recommenders yourself.  You don’t want to be the sort of person who tries to teach his teachers.  But it wouldn’t be presumptuous to share this post with them.

Maybe they don't need it.  But they might.



Friedrich Nietzsche -- and Why I Believe in Penance

Tuesday, 02-02-2016

Surely the soul of Friedrich Nietzsche is pierced with lances whenever a page of his work is touched by an interpreter.  He has forever lost the chance to make himself clear.  He has been praised as a great thinker, dismissed as a mediocre poet, derided as a fountain of lunacy; his thought has been classified under every heading from existentialism, to fascism, to far worse.  Perhaps it is all true – or all false – but there is reason to believe that the real Friedrich Nietzsche remains lost to us in darkness.

This was a night he brought upon himself, for he claimed that thought is only a relation among our psychological drives, that rationality is only a kind of thought we cannot get free of, that conscious intentions are only a kind of symptomology, and that we are living at our best when we are in some sense unconscious.

Some, supposing one of the fates of the damned to be idiocy, would be content to leave the matter there.  But deciding who is damned and who is not is not a proper work for humans, and it is fair to ask whether a man who makes assertions like Nietzsche’s can be understood at all.  Just a few should try.

Yet there is an undeniable streak of diabolism in Nietzsche.  Those who are temperamentally immune to his spell may take this as a mere metaphor if they like – but he has the power to possess, as he himself was possessed.  He spoke of himself as a new pen that something was trying out.  Shouldn’t he be left alone?  Why risk infection?

I regard this as a cogent argument, and I would never expose young minds to him.  But the day is long past for quarantine:  The infection is already abroad, and walking nihilism is far more prevalent than walking pneumonia.  We should analyze a thinker like Nietzsche for the same reason that we culture diphtheria or dissect hookworms:  To study cures.

In my own case, three decades past, there was another reason, for mine was one of those young minds which should never have been exposed to him.  When finally, by sheer mercy, I was set loose from what the old rite called the glamour of evil, I found for a time a continuing infirmity in the powers that had been touched by it.  The close proximity of his books affected me as you might be affected by the close proximity of a caged but snarling wolf, or as the smell of almonds might affect someone who had once suffered cyanide poisoning.

This was the moment of my discovery of penance.  Although the Protestantism in which I had been raised had no penitential tradition, in my naïve way I had read enough to know what it was.  In the spirit of accepting a penance, I forced myself to submit to the medicinal pain of writing once more about Nietzsche, this time as a diagnostician and epidemiologist, for the benefit of others.

As doctor who treats himself has a fool for a patient, so perhaps a penitent who assigns himself his penance.  But the balm was applied by the divine physician who was really in charge, and the treatment was successful.  I have no words for the relief:  Only certain passages of music, which even now breathe the scent of the fields of heaven.