Posts Tagged ‘consequentialism’

Earlier I made the argument that deontology requires consequentialism.  Over at Less Wrong, Alicorn has a great exploration of consequentialism and deontology that complements the discussion here.

If a deontologist says “lying is wrong”, and you mentally add something that sounds like “because my utility function has a term in it for the people around believing accurate things.  Lying tends to decrease the extent to which they do so, but if I knew that somebody would believe the opposite of whatever I said, then to maximize the extent to which they believed true things, I would have to lie to them.  And I would also have to lie if some other, greater term in my utility function were at stake and I could only salvage it with a lie.  But in practice the best I can do is to maximize my expected utility, and as a matter of fact I will never be as sure that lying is right as I’d need to be for it to be a good bet.”5… you, my friend, have missed the point.  The deontologist wasn’t thinking any of those things. The deontologist might have been thinking “because people have a right to the truth”, or “because I swore an oath to be honest”, or “because lying is on a magical list of things that I’m not supposed to do”, or heck, “because the voices in my head told me not to”6.

Read the whole thing.

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I clearly need to develop my thoughts about consequentialism further.  When I attacked the mistake of deriving libertarianism from first principles earlier, I actually thought Aaron and I were in agreement.  Once Aaron and I had a conversation with another person about Kant’s deontological ethics, and both Aaron I remarked to each other later how silly it was that this person advocated Kantian ideas.

I’m not so sure Aaron and I really do disagree.  Aaron gives deference to utilitarian technologies, which neoclassical economists certainly use, but with an important caveat, that utility is ordinal, not cardinal.  What does this mean?  It’s incoherent to compare the value of $10.00, a market price, of any particular good or service, between two different individuals.  Individuals value what they purchase subjectively.  Trade-offs will be different; individuals have different utility functions.

Ordinal utility serves as a good universal principle.  So does self-ownership, and so does the importance of property rights.  I don’t dispute that these are valid principles that can be universally applied.  Rather, I’m arguing that these principles must be defended consequentially.  I don’t think that Rand solved the is-ought problem, and Aaron hasn’t either.  Even just by describing a solid, consistent principle that can be universally applied doesn’t mean that it has been derived from the intrinsic nature of the principle.  My intuition is that if we evaluate such principles, we’re constantly judging them on the basis of their consequences.

Suppose I tell a progressive that health care should be allocated on a free market.  They object that the consequences of such a policy mean that some people would not be able to afford some minimum amount of health care.  They evaluate the consequences of my recommendation, because in their mind, the consequence they desire is for all people to afford care.

Suppose a Marxist tells me that property is theft, and that all goods and services should be allocated centrally.  I evaluate the problems with this by noting that the failure to legally recognize private property for private goods distorts incentives, and will mean forgoing wealth that is otherwise possible with free markets.  I evaluate the proposed Marxist principle consequentially.

I don’t think Kant was being honest.  What makes a categorical imperative categorical?  Do we not need to evaluate the consequences of a universal principle?

Suppose that I propose, as the basis of an ethical system, that it is proper for every individual to to murder all other individuals, as many people as they possibly can.  This is pretty clearly a terrible ethical principle, but why is it?  Think of what it implies consequentially.

In evaluating ethical claims, consequentialism is unavoidable.

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