Sunday, June 12, 2005

Consequentialist Ethics

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:

Let me offer a scenario that, unfortunately, affects the way I perform in my career every single day. There is no greater honor that I have that my patients trust me to give them anesthetic medications and perform surgery while they sleep. I believe it is a great crime, worthy of great punishment, when that trust is broken in cases where a patient is inappropriately touched while anesthetized by a doctor like this. To be specific I am discussing a scenario when a doctor fondles a female patient while they are asleep for surgery. I believe this is one of the most immoral acts a doctor can perform.

However, according to utilitarian ethical theory, if the patient does not find out about the fondling, was an immoral act committed? After all, the patient has suffered no physical harm, and she has no awareness that anything occurred in that scenario. According to [consequentialism]:

"the consequentialist emphasis leads to a position of moral tolerance for any kind of behavior until it results in tangible good or harm to a person, at which point moral evaluation is required. (Rule-bound moralists, on the other hand, have to spend their entire time checking every act and circumstance to see whether someone, somewhere, is having a good time - so they can put a stop to it.)"

Since there was no "tangible harm" that was done to the patient, there is no basis in which to state the doctor's actions were immoral. In fact, one could argue that since the doctor received some tangible pleasure from the experience, and the patient suffered no tangible harm, that is actions were actually moral. His actions increased the overall pleasure from the situation, and no tangible harm to another occurred. In other words, only positive consequences happen as long as the patient remains unaware of what has occurred.

But it gets even stranger. Lets say a nurse walks by the room and witnesses the doctor fondling his asleep patient. What is she to do? If she does not tell the patient or turn in the doctor, moral "good" appears to be maximized. The patient would remain unaware, and would not suffer the emotional trauma in knowing that she had been innappropriately touched. The doctor would not suffer harm or prosecution if she stays quiet. The moral "good" would be maximized by her keeping the fondling a secret.

In other words, she would have a moral obligation to keep quiet. Remember, it is not the act itself which is either moral or immoral; it is the consequences of the act. If she stays quiet, she decreases (or maybe even eliminates) the harm from the act, and if she informs the patient and the authorities, she increases the harm from the act. Clearly, from a utilitarian viewpoint, the moral thing for her to do is to stay quiet, and the immoral thing to do would be to inform the patient.

In fact, her actions in telling the patient could be considered even more immoral than the doctor's. I would argue that the doctor caused no tangible harm as long as the patient remains unaware of what happened. Therefore, the harm that occurs from the scenario is not the act of fondling itself, but the patient being informed of the act. The nurse is the one who is responsible for creating the harm if she tells the truth about the situation to the patient.

I give anesthetic meds to over 20 patients a week who place their absolute trust in me and my office staff. Do you believe they would agree with the utilitarian ethic as described here? Is there something intrinsically immoral in fondling an asleep patient, or is the morality based solely on the consequences (or lack thereof) of such an act? Would anyone trust a physician who they knew ascribed to a utilitarian ethical theory to perform surgery on them?

Any theory that results in such blatantly absurd conclusions needs to be rejected. Utilitarianism and Consequentialism fail miserably on this account.

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.

Ken Taylor, 1917-2005

Kenneth Nathaniel Taylor, who founded Tyndale House Publishers after he had been unable to find a company willing to publish his Bible paraphrases, died at age 88 on Friday. Tyndale House is now a leading publisher of Christian books and resources. Taylor's biblical paraphrase, which became The Living Bible, sold more than 40 million copes in North America alone.

In 1950, Taylor also founded the Christian Booksellers Association, a trade association of Christian stores, publishers, and other retail companies now known simply as CBA. He also created the missions organizations Evangelical Literature Overseas and Short Terms Abroad (which merged with Seattle-based Intercristo in 1976).

A brief account of Taylor's life can be found at the link.