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.