Evangelical Outpost recently featured a discussion of consequentialist ethics, the view that the rightness of an act is a function of the consequences it produces and not the motive behind the act. A specific example of this type of ethics is utilitarianianism, the view that an act is right if it maximizes happiness. That is, if it produces the greatest amount of happiness for the greatest number of people. Utilitarianism is one of the dominant schools of thought in our universities and law schools today. Even so, it is seriously flawed.
Imago Dei features a post which illustrates the failure of utilitarianism:
There are other reasons for rejecting consequentialism as well. For example, how do we determine which consequences are to be aimed for? Should we pursue happiness, pleasure or justice? What standard enables us to choose between them? The classic utilitarians opted for the first two, but consider this true story:
Some years ago four young men in L.A. were arrested and charged with homicide. Their crime was that they would travel into the areas of the city where they could find some homeless derelict and they would take him up on a tenement roof, play music, drink, tell stories and in general show the poor man a great time until he was thoroughly besotted and oblivious to what was happening. The young men would then culminate the evening by pushing the fellow off the roof and watching him fall to his death on the pavement below.
Assume these guys never got caught. Assume that no one was made unhappy by their act (the victim, remember, was so inebriated that he didn't know what was happening to him), and that they were made happy by carrying out their executions. How does a consequentialist avoid the conclusion that there was nothing wrong with what they did?
Here's another problem. This story is taken from Lewis Smedes' Mere Morality. In the wake of WWII a German woman, innocent of any crime, was nevertheless interned in a Soviet detention camp. As time went on she realized there was little chance of her being released. She took a chance, however, and seduced a guard, got pregnant, and petitioned for release on the basis of her pregnancy. Release was indeed granted and she was reunited with her family which was delirious with joy to have her back. They raised the child whom they loved and called their freedom child. Did the woman do the right thing? The utilitarian would have to say yes. No one was hurt and everyone's happiness was increased.
But suppose she had done what she did and gotten pregnant but was then denied release from the camp. Suppose further that she had contracted syphilis from the guard which she then passed on to her child who suffered terribly from the disease. Suppose both mother and child lived a miserable existence in the prison camp until they died. Now the utilitarian has to say that she did the wrong thing because no one, except perhaps the guard, is happier and everyone involved is unhappier. But how does she know whether her act is right or wrong when she does it? She can't because she can't know all the consequences before they occur. Shakespeare built a considerable reputation writing plays which illustrate just this difficulty.
The consequentialist can give us no reason for choosing the particular consequence we aim for. He can, if he's a utilitarian, offer no reason why someone is wrong to do a grave injustice if it makes more people happy, and he can offer no way of evaluating the rightness of the act until all the consequences are known, something which may take generations to ascertain.
Finally, utilitarianism suffers from an even more fundamental flaw, one which afflicts every non-egoistic system of ethics based on human reason. It can give no explanation why we should seek to promote the happiness of others rather than simply promote our own happiness. In other words, it can give no answer to the question, why should I care about other people? Utilitarians just assume that all thoughtful people will agree that we should care about other people's welfare, but when pressed to give a reason why we should they simply cannot produce one that makes any sense.
The decision to treat other people in a fashion likely to increase their happiness is a purely arbitrary choice on the part of the agent, grounded in nothing more than irrational or non-rational preferences and biases. If someone makes the choice to be a complete egoist the utilitarian has no grounds for claiming him to be wrong. The most the utilitarian can say is that he's simply made a different choice, one which the utilitarian personally dislikes.
None of this is to say that consequences are not important in deciding matters of moral import. Of course they are. But they are not all that matters. It is perhaps as incorrect to say that consequences don't matter at all as it is to say that they are all that matters.