Sunday, October 22, 2006

Consequentialism (Sean)

Here is a counterexample to consequentialism that I've been discussing with someone, and I'd like to hear others' thoughts on it and whether it's a standard example in the voluminous literature on consequentialism and, if so, whether there is a straightforward way of handling it.

Ten members of a firing squad each fires one shot at an innocent man, each bullet hits him, and he dies. Suppose that the first bullet that hits him also kills him immediately. It is false of the soldier who fired this first shot that had he not fired the bullet, the man would not have died, so this soldier's action of firing at the man had relevantly similar consequences as the counterfactual action of not firing. 'Relevantly similar' means that the morally relevant features of the consequences of each action--whether or not an innocent person died--are the same. Thus, if consequentialism is true, then there is no basis for saying of this soldier that he should not have fired at the man, because the morally relevant consequences of doing so would have been the same as inaction. We can suppose that this is a voluntary firing squad, so that no one would have suffered reprisals from a commanding officer or anything like for not firing. We may suppose that this soldier is a nihilist and shot the man on a whim and derived no satisfaction from it and nothing else good came of it, in which case consequentialism would seem to have the absurd consequence that it is not true that this soldier should not have fired at the innocent person, or we may suppose that he derived some small amount of satisfaction from shooting at a human being or some other trivially but positively valuable consequence resulted from firing the shot, in which case consequentialism would seem to have the absurd implication that it was better for him to fire the shot than to not fire it.

5 comments:

Brandon said...

A problem I see in Sean’s hypotheticals is that they do not address soldier X’s reasons for firing the bullet. From certain consequentialist perspectives, the answer to the question of whether X acted rightly in firing the bullet hinges on X's reasons for doing so.

Suppose that to act rightly is to act in order to maximize expected value (this is Philip Pettit’s formulation of consequentialism). If there were no foreseeable benefits to X's refraining from firing the bullet (as Sean supposes first), then X still should not have fired. This is so because, from X’s perspective, it was (I am assuming) possible, though extremely unlikely, that his firing would cause the innocent man to die. Thus, whereas X did not have reason to think that, by not firing, he was any more likely to produce negative value than he was to produce positive value, he did have reason to think that, by firing, he was more likely to produce negative value than he was to produce positive value. X therefore acted wrongly in firing the bullet.

Now suppose again that to act rightly is to act in order to maximize expected value, and suppose, in contrast to the first hypothetical, that there were foreseeable benefits, however trivial, to X's firing the bullet (as Sean supposes second). In this case, it may be true that X should have fired the bullet. To illustrate, we can imagine that X expected that his commanders would respect him more if he fired the bullet, and that, for him, the estimated probability that his firing would cause the innocent man to die was so low that the expected value of firing was greater than the expected value of not firing. It follows that X should have fired. This is a troubling consequence for consequentialists.

It seems to me, in sum, that whereas the first of Sean’s hypotheticals does not militate against consequentialism, the second does. What I’d like to know is how a clever consequentialist would react to the second.

Sean said...

First what is I think a minor point: you write as if the soldier in question did not actually cause the person’s death, but he did. He fired a bullet, which hit the person in such a way as to cause his death. The unrealized possibility to which you mean to refer is, I think, not that of causing his death (which actually occurred), but the possibility that one would cause his death without the death being “overdetermined,” i.e., without it being true that he would have died anyways at others' hands.

You write: “Thus, whereas X did not have reason to think that, by not firing, he was any more likely to produce negative value than he was to produce positive value, he did have reason to think that, by firing, he was more likely to produce negative value than he was to produce positive value.” If what you mean is that the soldier has reason to think that if he fires, he as opposed to someone else will probably cause the bad event of an innocent person dying, then this is true, but not relevant. If what he should care about are the consequences of his action, why is it relevant whether those consequences are brought about by himself or by someone else? I assumed that from a consequentialist’s standpoint, it is a morally irrelevant fact whether the victim dies from soldier A’s or soldier B’s rifle. What matters for a consequentialist (on Pettit’s definition or any other, I would imagine) are how the values of different possible states of the world, discounted by their probabilities conditional upon one's available actions, tally up, and we can suppose that the probability that the innocent person dies given that soldier A pulls the trigger and the probability that he dies given that soldier A does not pull the trigger are the same. So unless you wish to say that not only the victim’s death or survival but also the identity of his shooter are morally relevant facts, my first hypothetical example, in which the shooter shoots him on a whim, still seems like a problem for consequentialism.

Anonymous said...

This post is by Lucas, who has forgotten his blogging sign-in password.

Sean writes: “It is false of the soldier who fired this first shot that had he not fired the bullet, the man would not have died, so this soldier's action of firing at the man had relevantly similar consequences as the counterfactual action of not firing. 'Relevantly similar' means that the morally relevant features of the consequences of each action--whether or not an innocent person died--are the same. Thus, if consequentialism is true, then there is no basis for saying of this soldier that he should not have fired at the man, because the morally relevant consequences of doing so would have been the same as inaction.”

Tell me what’s wrong with the following reply when offered by a consequentialist.

(1) It is false that the soldier’s action of firing at the man had relevantly similar consequences as the counterfactual action of not-firing. The firing of the soldier in question caused the man’s death. But, the (counterfactual) not-firing of the soldier in question would not caused the man’s death. Rather, had the soldier in question counterfactually not-fired, the man’s death would have been caused by another soldier’s firing.
(2) One should attempt to maximize the expected utility of one’s _own_ actions. Thus, it is wrong for the soldier to fire because his action has a negative consequence – it causes a person’s death – whereas it would not be wrong for him to not-fire because his not-firing would not have a negative consequence. Were the soldier to (counterfactually) not-fire, the man’s death would be a consequence of another soldier’s firing (which action would be wrong, for parallel reasons).

Sean said...

Just to be clear about what this hypothetical defense comes to, what would it say about the case in which, if the first soldier doesn't shoot him, he knows with certainty that the next soldier will shoot the man? Must he then compare the value of keeping his hand's clean with the value of the other soldiers' keeping their hands clean? Or should his reasoning be more self-absorbed, always giving priority to his own purity of soul over others'? In the first case, we presumably have the same absurd conclusion that whether he shoots the man or not is a matter of indifference.

This sort of response is not in the spirit of what I think of as traditional consequentialism, but perhaps it sits well with some modern brands. Michael Smith defended the thesis that everyone is a consequentialist in a talk last spring, because he thought these types of maneuvers still counted as consequentialist, but some distinguished audience members dissented. But in any case, I don't really care what consequentialism in general is committed to saying about this case.

What got me thinking of this example and what really interests me is not what it says about consequentialism but what it says about the species of consequentialism that leads some people to think that voting is irrational. For the reasoning seems the same in both cases. There is some state of affairs (government by the people, the man being shot) which will either come about or fail to come about irrespective of what one chooses to do. In both cases, most of us, or at least those of us not already in the grip of a philosophical theory, think that we know what one should do: one should vote and one shouldn't shoot bullets at innocent human beings for no reason. Most naive versions of consequentialism will say the same thing about each: your expected marginal contribution to the good state of affairs is negligible, so it doesn't matter what you do (unless there are other costs and benefits in play).

Now, you might say the two cases are not analogous because the sort of causal link between one's act and the bad event, redundant though it is in the firing squad example, doesn't hold in the in the voting case, so that Lucas' proposed response works in the firing squad case but not in the voting case, in which the same form of consequentialism, even equipped with its sensitivity to the needs of Hegel's self-absorbed beautiful soul, will tell one not to vote. That may be true, but if the injunction to keep one's own hands clean is the only way that the type of consequentialist reasoning that by its specific valuation of different consequences leads one to the conclusion that one shouldn't vote can reach the conclusion that the soldier shouldn't shoot at the person, then the voter's paradox will no longer trouble me. If anyone can think of other consequentialist explanations of why the soldier shouldn't shoot that wouldn't lend themselves to a consequentialist explanation of why one can rationally vote, I would like to hear them.

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