Defending Perceived Extremes of Consequentialism

Updated: May 28

Because Google Adsense deemed this website to have too little content for ads, I'll be posting my top 25 undergraduate papers. This is the term paper for the most advanced ethics class I took. Getting deep into the weeds of ethical theory is very fun, I promise.




Dalhousie University

PHIL 3105

November 22nd, 2019



Consequentialism is perhaps the most commonly criticized and defended moral theory. Consequentialism posits that the morality of actions is to be determined by its outcomes. Utilitarianism is one of the more common varieties of consequentialism. It asserts that the act which creates the most utility (happiness/wellbeing) and diminishes the most disutility is the most moral action. While simpler than most moral theories, consequentialism and utilitarianism have come under plenty of scrutinies since their inception. One of the most common critiques of the two is how demanding they are.(1) Not only that humans need to be giving up their earned resources to save other sentient beings from harm, but also because utilitarianism implies that you would be forced to kill an innocent to save multiple innocents. Both of these objections have problems and utilitarians are too frequently on the defence with regard to the extremes of the theory. In reality, there is plenty to be arguing offensively about when it comes to the perceived extremes of those moral theories.

The most jaw-dropping criticism of consequentialism is one of the most common. And that is that adhering to it is too difficult and too demanding. The idea is that no human is capable of living to its standards. Not only that it requires us to reject our instinctual emotions but also because humans would be forced to kill other innocent humans to net save lives. What makes these criticisms jaw-dropping is the lack of self-awareness around epistemology. The odds are that any given person making that criticism believes in the general scientific method to determine truth. Generally, mathematicians are trusted when it comes to math. Chemists are to be trusted when it comes to chemistry. Biologists are to be trusted when it comes to biology, and so on. Although there exists a significant denial of chemistry, in the case of vaccines and of biology, in the case of evolution, people, in general, would say those people under those titles of education should be trusted at least in theory. Now, imagine a mathematician saying "string theory can't possibly be correct because it's too difficult to live with." Imagine there's an asteroid plummeting to earth according to the astronomers at NASA. And a physicist has the reaction to be skeptical or deny that reality, merely because the reality is too demanding with how little it caters to our human emotions. It seems eerily similar when a philosopher makes the case that consequentialism is not a good moral theory because it is too demanding.

In fact, it is not the case that the extremes of consequentialism are always negatives that need be defended. In some cases, the extremes, which are inherent to the idea, have provided great progress on a variety of issues. The one that potentially stands out the most is the topic of revenge/punishment. Of the largest and most common moral theories, consequentialism and utilitarianism in particular, by definition sees acts of revenge as unethical. If someone happens to suspect somebody they cared about had been murdered, seeking revenge (i.e. murdering the alleged murderer) would not add any net utility to the universe. Some may argue against this assertion claiming that killing someone who killed somebody you cared about would make them feel better about the situation. Looking at the evidence, it appears that there isn’t much of a difference in happiness when comparing states with the death penalty to states that don’t.(2) However, there is an inherent risk of adding more disutility to the universe in most cases. If the person who is suspected of the crime happens to be innocent and is falsely accused, taking revenge upon that person would be a great injustice in terms of the level of disutility added to the situation. It is difficult to imagine any government ever having the capacity to be correct 100% of the time about its accusations of crimes warranting the death penalty. And it is that kind of thinking which has reformed the prison system in developed countries in such a way as to make the death penalty reserved to a few oddball states within that group.(3)

Punishment is not the only area that utilitarian thinking has reformed. Utilitarians throughout history have been pioneers on human rights being applied universally. In previous centuries they were mostly alone in granting equality in suffering to women and minorities.(4) And over the previous century, the most famous animal rights proponents tend to be of the utilitarian variety as well. One of the most prominent defenders of the fundamentals of utilitarianism is Peter Singer. He wrote an en entire book in 1975 titled “Animal Liberation” where he advocates for Veganism and animal rights based on utilitarian ethics.(5) Utilitarians are also some of the most prominent voices on reducing global disutility that may be out of sight of those who have the capacity to help. Peter Singer also wrote an essay titled “Famine, Affluence, and Morality” about famine relief and our moral obligations to help those affected, even if we've never seen them.(6) These unique stances that are granted by the fundamentals of utilitarianism at one point or another were considered extreme in mainstream thought. So, while consequentialism and utilitarianism are seen as too demanding and too uncomfortable, that is objectively an unreliable predictor of the moral consensus of the future given how much it has already changed.

Perhaps one of the reasons why the implications of the fundamentals of utilitarianism seem extreme is because the rebuttal is often comprised of a vague explanation without detail. The sentence would usually be in the form of "It can't be morally permissible to murder an innocent to save the lives of more innocents." The 2015 movie "Eye in the Sky" is a case study which explores the difficulty of situations often used as rebuttals to utilitarianism. In the film, multiple military intelligence agencies across a group of nations are tracking two of their most wanted terrorists. Although they're trying to have them captured, they follow their car ride with a drone into territory that is controlled by the terrorist group with which associate. The intelligence agencies are working with a local couple who live outside of the terrorist territory. That couple flies a tiny drone that looks like a hummingbird into a house now containing the two most wanted terrorists and a couple more people. They discover that terrorists that are wanted, along with the others, are strapping on suicide vests and performing the religious rituals which are done before a suicide attack. The group is set to leave in two separate vehicles and is most likely going to perform the attack at a crowded shopping mall. However, the drone in the sky can only follow one car at a time. After they are granted approval to strike the house with the drone in the sky, they find that a little girl is selling bread outside the house. Being that the intelligence officials are well-intentioned, they try everything they can to save the little girl by sending someone to purchase her bread and in attempting to strike the house in the exact spot which grants the lowest chance of shrapnel damage from where the little girl is seated. Even though they calculated a less than 50 percent chance of death, the little girl ends up tragically dying from the drone strike. While one of the politicians witnessing this happening from a room in the United Kingdom is appalled by what she saw, the military general in the room is quick to remind her that he has seen the carnage of mass suicide bombings in person.(7)

That is a case in which the utilitarian issue of killing one innocent to save multiple comes into play in the real world. The utilitarian, in this case, would point out that the death of the little girl is a tragedy. However, it would have been a far greater tragedy had they not struck the house. And like the utilitarian Peter Singer often points out in “Famine, Affluence and Morality” that complacency holds equal moral culpability as murder if one has the ability to prevent the death. The point in using the premise of this film as a defence of the perceived extremes of utilitarianism is that it presents a detailed specific case. Whereas the critics of utilitarianism who use a mundane sentence of "you shouldn't kill one to save more than one" are using an explanation without any details or real-world ramifications. Imagine conducting a poll of the public and asking if it would be appropriate to kill one innocent to save the lives of multiple. Then conduct another poll asking if the right decision was made in the movie "Eye in the Sky." Is it irrational to assume the results of the second poll would be higher? If behavioural economics teaches anything, it's that the framing of something can change everything. Some might object to this comparison claiming that consequentialists think you should murder an innocent to save multiple more innocents, whereas in the film, they weren’t purposely trying to murder the little girl. That objection is irrelevant in consequentialism as consequentialism only looks at outcomes and not intentions.

Therefore, the moral of the story is that when objections to consequentialism and utilitarianism are raised, it would be more beneficial to use a real-world scenario to break down the extremes of those theories. Such as using the case of "Eye in the Sky" over the trolly problem. In the trolly problem, you have no idea why there are people on the track and its universe is not relatable in the slightest. To some, consequentialism and utilitarianism seem too demanding. They claim it is too hard on human emotions to ask them to kill an innocent to save multiple innocents. And the burden of having to prevent all pain and suffering in existence seems exhausting. However, these objections say nothing about whether or not the theory is logically valid. That is why we rely on the scientific method to grant objective truth and not human emotions in the first place. It is also clear that consequentialists and utilitarians spend too much time on defence with the perceived extremes of their moral theory. When in reality, their moral theory has been seen as extreme throughout history for reasons that we consider mainstream common sense today. Such as granting equality in suffering to women and minorities. And also how the death penalty is counterproductive because there's always a risk that it will drastically add more disutility than utility to the universe.

The more logical problems with consequentialism are that it doesn't innately factor in the role of motivations like Kantian ethics does. In Kantian ethics, the reason why you do something is just as important as doing it, as explained by the categorical imperative.(8) Kantian ethics also provides an impetuous against lying with the concept of universalizability implied by the categorical imperative. Whereas in a consequentialist only world, a person cheating on their spouse is doing nothing wrong if the spouse is unaware of it. Another logical critique of consequentialism is that it doesn't factor in people putting others at risk the way Contractualism does with its account of substantive responsibility.(9) Contractualism implies an immorality in risk because if the outcomes are all that matter, there is nothing wrong with putting people at unnecessary risk if the risk pays off in the end. This has negative ramifications such as there being nothing wrong with playing Russian roulette as long as you don’t die. Those objections should always be immediate when looking at the downsides of consequentialism and utilitarianism. While complaints that the theory is too physically and emotionally demanding should be an afterthought in comparison.




Bibliography


Ashford, Elizabeth and Mulgan, Tim, "Contractualism", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Summer 2018 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/sum2018/entries/contractualism/>


Berg, Maarten. "Death Penalty and Happiness in States. Was Jeremy Bentham Right?" Journal of Social Research & Policy, 2010, 137-52.


Eye In the Sky. Switch International, 2010.


“Five Reasons to Abolish the Death Penalty.” Amnesty International Australia, June 19, 2019. https://www.amnesty.org.au/5-reasons-abolish-death-penalty/.


Kant, Immanuel, and Mary J. Gregor. 1998. Groundwork of the metaphysics of morals. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.


Mill John Stuart. “The Subjection of Women.” London: 1869.


Railton, Peter. "Alienation, Consequentialism, and the Demands of Morality." Philosophy & Public Affairs 13, no. 2 (1984): 134-71. www.jstor.org/stable/2265273.


Singer, Peter. “Animal Liberation.” London: The Bodley Head, 1975.


Singer, Peter. "Famine, Affluence, and Morality". Philosophy and Public Affairs. 1972. 1 (3): 229–243.




1 - Railton, Peter. "Alienation, Consequentialism, and the Demands of Morality.” Page 162. Philosophy & Public Affairs 13, no. 2 (1984)

2 - Berg, Maarten. "Death Penalty and Happiness in States. Was Jeremy Bentham Right?" Journal of Social Research & Policy, 2010, 137-52.

3 - “Five Reasons to Abolish the Death Penalty.” Amnesty International Australia, June 19, 2019.

4 - Mill John Stuart. “The Subjection of Women.” London: 1869.

5 - Singer, Peter. “Animal Liberation.” London: The Bodley Head, 1975.

6 - Singer, Peter. "Famine, Affluence, and Morality". Philosophy and Public Affairs. 1972.

7 - Eye In the Sky. Switch International, 2010.

8 - Kant, Immanuel, and Mary J. Gregor. 1998. Groundwork of the metaphysics of morals. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.

9 - Ashford, Elizabeth and Mulgan, Tim, "Contractualism", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Summer 2018 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.)