Friday, September 23, 2005

The Consequences of Consequentialism

This latest article from Colson, Machiavellian Morality, is a great set of thoughts on “ends justifies the means” morality. Though the setting of the article is the revelation of “deep throat,” the point is that believing justified ends warrant all means leads down a serious path of moral vapidity and relativism.

But this form of moral reasoning is commonly accepted in our cultural climate today. People get outraged at one political party, for instance, and don’t have the moral vision to be angered at “their” party for doing the same things. As long as the ends are right (so-and-so is in power), then the means have been automatically justified. I have been talking about Consequentialism in my Ethics class, and this is one of the classic moral blunders committed by a system that puts all its evaluative weight on consequences.

Take Mill’s argument for Utilitarianism for example. His basic argument might be summarized in this way:

P1: All actions are taken for some end.
P2: If an act is for the sake of some particular end, then the act is justified to the extent that the end is justified.
C: All acts are justified to the extent that their ends are justified.

So in Mill’s system, this justifies all actions that promote the end of “the greatest good for the greatest number.” A resulting problem, though, is that we can lie, steal, cheat and kill in order to make more people happy because the moral evaluation of an action is entirely wrapped up in its consequences. As long as "happiness" results, the acts that got us there are justified.

Sound rather academic and removed from the things you, the Average Bloke, encounter? How about, “it’s not wrong as long as nobody is getting hurt”? How many moral vices are justified with this kind of reasoning?