Problems with Consequentialism Part 1 (a dialogue)

 

Problems with Consequentialism 

Problem #1: the Problem of Regress / Avoidance of the Problem of Ethics

 

Synepeia: Hello, Asophos! 

Asophos: Hi, Synepeia!  What's up?

Synepeia: Well, I'm fine, but I've heard that you have many problems.

Asophos: Really?  What are you talking about?

Synepeia: Well, I've heard that you have been arrested and are due to appear in court.

Asophos: That's true - but it's hardly a problem.

Synepeia: Oh I see - you think that you will be found innocent without much difficulty.

Asophos: No, I think they will probably find me guilty.

Synepeia: Then you think you'll get a light sentence?

Asophos: No, I think it will be quite heavy.

Synepeia: Don't tell me you are planning to escape and become a fugitive?

Asophos: Of course not!

Synepeia: Then how can you say you have no problems?

Asophos: Well, if I had actually done something wrong - that would be a problem, for certain.  

Synepeia: But you just said you weren't innocent.

Asophos: No, I said that the court would probably find me guilty - not that I actually am guilty.  They will, in all likelihood, find me guilty, but they will be in error.  As the guilt that they ascribe to me is a false guilt, the problems you say I have are not real problems.

Synepeia: That's a very strange way of looking at things!  Whether or not you are actually guilty, the consequence is the same.  Either way, you could face a very extreme penalty - and that's a very real problem indeed!

Asophos: Oh, forgive me - I thought, when you said that I had problems, that you meant something bad.

Synepeia: Well, isn't this situation very bad?

Asophos: How so?

Synepeia: How can you even ask?  A false accusation is a terrible problem!

Asophos: I don't see why.

Synepeia: You don't see why?  What are you talking about?

Asophos: Well, what do you mean by bad?  What is it that makes a situation good or bad?  What is the difference between right and wrong?

Synepeia: I think that this situation makes it crystal clear: it is precisely the consequences of something that makes it good or bad.

Asophos: Ah! Now we have found the source of our misunderstanding.  Now I understand why, until now, we've had so much difficulty communicating with each other.

Synepeia: What do you mean?

Asophos: Well, you are a consequentialist.  You believe that it is the consequences of something that makes it either good or bad.  But to me, this is merely a confusion.

Synepeia: Oh, boy.  Here we go.  Tell me how I'm confused, Asophos.

Asophos: The first problem with consequentialism is that it seems like avoiding the question.  

Synepeia: Which question?

Asophos: The question - or rather, questions - that I asked earlier: What is good?  What is bad?  What is the difference between right and wrong?

Synepeia: It seems to me that I didn't avoid the questions at all - in fact, I answered them.

Asophos: Let me see if I understood your answer.  Let's say there's a person, at one time - we'll call that time t.  Now, this person wants to understand what's good, what's bad, what's right, what's wrong.  So, your advice to that person is, if I've got this right, look to some subsequent time - we'll call it t+a.  Now, if that person sees something in their time, t, that will cause something bad to happen in t+a, they'll say that in t, that thing is "bad".  If they see something in t that causes something good to happen in t+a, they'll call it "good" in t.  If they look at their own possible actions, and they see something that they could do that would cause a bad thing in t+a, they'll call that action "wrong".  If they see something they could do that would cause something good to happen in t+a, they'll say that this potential action is the "right" action in t.  Do I have that right?

Synepeia: Yes, I think so.

Asophos: Well, how can they tell what would be good or bad in t+a?

Synepeia: Again, I suppose it would depend on the consequences.

Asophos: I see!  So we would know whether something is good or bad in t+a, by determining whether it had good or bad consequences in a subsequent time, after t+a - we'll call it t+a+b.

Synepeia: Yes.

Asophos: And then we would go on this way?

Synepeia: What do you mean?

Asophos: Well, how would we know what is good and bad, right and wrong in t+a+b?  I suppose we would have to consult a subsequent time, t+a+b+c?  And then, we'd have to go on to t+a+b+c+d, and t+a+b+c+d+e, and....

Synepeia: Yes.  And just what, exactly, is wrong with that?  It just means considering all the consequences - taking as much of the future into consideration as you can.  It seems perfectly rational to me.

Asophos: Yes, but have you ever considered that there's something fundamentally circular about this argument?  You're defining "good" as that which will have "good" consequences.  It's a circular definition, because the definition includes the term to be defined.  At no point, along this line, do we ever get around to defining just exactly what good and bad are.  We just endlessly postpone our definition to a later and later time.  And the further we go into the future, the more abstract and imaginary this kind of speculation becomes.  What we need is a definition of good and bad that will work in any given time, whether it be t+a, t+a+b, t + a million more intervals, some time t between t and t+a, or any other time.  And once we have that, it will be a definition that also works in t itself - the present moment.  And then we will have left consequentialism behind.


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