Back to Consequences

Ok, we took a detour to the movies.  Now, back to ethics.  We have looked at Shaw’s plea for choosing the action that brings about the best consequences.  Today, we will hear from Peter Vallentyne on why Consequentialism cannot stand alone.

Peter Vallentyne takes issue with the kind of consequentialism proposed by William Shaw.  Vallentyne makes a clear distinction between Act Consequentialism and Rule Consequentialism.  The former “holds that an action is permissible iff [if and only if] the total well-being that it produces is no less than that produced by any alternative feasible action.”  In other words, this would mean you have done the right thing if you have taken an action that produces the greatest amount of good.  If there were other actions which produced greater good, then it would be your duty to choose those actions instead.


As for Rule Consequentialism, it “holds that an action is permissible iff it conforms to rules that, if generally followed, would produce aggregate well-being that is no less than that produced by any feasible alternative set of rules.”  The distinction is, of course, the insertion of basic life principles or rules to be used as a guide. 


Vallentyne has two corrections in view here.  First, he seeks to correct the inherent problem of Act Consequentialism which, basically, makes any action moral if it produces good in the end.  It might be moral, for instance, to kill all the children who misbehave in your second grade class if, in the end, that would spare twice as many people from being harmed later by those misbehaving second graders.  Or, we might think it morally imperative for those who drive armored cars to take the money for the good of all.  So, for instance, if Wells-Fargo has just collected money from all the local Kroger stores, the driver has it within his ability to feed an entire village in Malawi for an entire year.  Surely, Kroger will be able to do without the money.  They have insurance and reserves.  They will still be able to meet payroll.  Sure, it will be a huge hassle and an inconvenience for a week or two, but the greater good will be served by saving an entire village of people in Africa.  Scenarios like this abound.


In response, Vallentyne says there must be rules in place that promote certain values in a society.  Life, marriage, honesty—these values ought to be promoted regardless of the consequences, precisely because we believe the consequences of upholding such values will, in the end, produce the greatest good.  So, Vallentyne seeks to correct Act Consequentialism by demonstrating that it needs values in order to actually produce the greatest good.


Second, Vallentyne seeks to correct the mistake of maximizing that is inherent in Act Consequentialism.  One of the problems with Act Consequentialism is that it requires the moral agent to sacrifice excessively his own well-being.  Sacrifice itself is not the issue.  After all, everyone—in any moral system—must sometimes sacrifice for the well-being of others.  But, in consequentialism, the system requires the sacrifice.  How does one ever feel “right” about spending $20,000 on a new car knowing that the same money could feed 40,000 Sudanese for an entire year?  Every action must be done with a view to the whole—always. To get a sense of how burdensome this ethic becomes, just imagine putting your little boy down for the night.  Did you put the diaper on him that brings about the greatest good?  What about his pajamas? Did you purchase the PJ’s that promote the well-being of children in China and Indonesia, or are you allowing him to wear PJ’s that promote child (or slave) labor?  And the crib, was it made by an environmentally irresponsible company?  Does your having that particular crib encourage deforestation?  The sheets? The mattress? The comforter?  The pillow? The toys?  Did you bathe the child with the right shampoo, or did you use a shampoo that includes chemicals difficult to dispose?


In short, a true consequentialist will paralyze himself with indecision over which action is actually best, and he will always be in this dilemma with every action he takes.  Vallentyne argues for certain restraints to correct these problems.  Human beings must not be treated as means.  (Technically, Vallentyne does not mean human beings.  He means “psychological autonomous beings,” which, I suspect, means that invalid human beings are not psychological autonomous beings.  Also, he may leave room open for animals and other beings of moral worth).  At any rate, Vallentyne attempts to correct the problems of Consequentialism and also hold to a form of it which is more societal and normative, a form which relies on principles good for all.  We won’t be at all surprised if those principles for societal flourishing turn out, in the end, to be the very principles God commands.  


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