Last night's conversation turned, at one point, to consequentialism, an approach to ethics I usually call utilitarianism. Whatever name you give it, the idea is that all actions are to be evaluated by their outcomes or consequences (hence the first name), and the best action is the one that brings about the most happiness or utility (hence the second name), or minimizes suffering, or balances these two, etc. Our potential grad student guest put forward the following thesis: discussions about public policy in this country us consequentialist reasoning much more than any talk about rights or duties or the role the government ought to play. That is, according to this thesis, people generally don't say a certain policy is bad because it violates our innate rights or that we ought to adopt a certain policy because the proper role of the government is such-and-such, and so on. Instead, much of the reasoning boils down to 'because otherwise too many people will get hurt' or 'it will be really expensive and won't get us much'.
A specific example will be helpful. Let's say we're legislators, and we pass a 'three strikes' law that punishes heroin possession with fines the first two instances, but with ten years in prison for the third instance. In our debate over whether to adopt this policy, we might have said that the repeated use of heroin is so immoral that those who do it must be punished in this way; or we might have said that heroin is so deadly we have to impose controls to keep so many people from ODing on it, and this is the most cost-efficient way of doing that. The second argument is a consequentialist argument, as it's motivated by the consequences of various actions.
Now, I responded to this that I think reasons play very, very little in policy decisions, and mostly you have pols wrapping themselves in convenient rhetoric. And it's also the case that many specific policies are nominally adopted because they're the most cost-efficient way of achieving a certain end (whether or not this is actually the case). In the drug law example, we're most likely going to see arguments like the second one, but I think those are just covering up for a 'drug users are evil and must be punished!' sentiment that really hasn't been subjected to any kind of reasoned reflection and evaluation.
However, I claim that the consequentialist arguments that do get tossed around do not go all the way to the bottom. For example, we can ask questions like 'why is it bad if people are ODing on heroin?' I don't think the consequentialist can answer this except by talking about how human suffering in general is bad; but then we can ask about why human suffering in general is bad. Ultimately, when we get to the most fundamental issues, we have to leave the consequentialist arguments behind. Consequentialism is a decent tool for figuring out which of several policies to use in pursuit of a given end, but it cannot figure out which ends we ought to be pursuing.
And I think a great example of this is the way feminists defend abortion rights (you knew it was coming sooner or later). One common pro-choice argument is that, when they do not have access to safe and legal means of aborting an unwanted pregnancy, women will turn to extremely unsafe means, symbolized by the bloody hanger. This is a consequentialist argument; but notice that it takes it for granted that women will pursue abortions, even by extremely dangerous means, to end unwanted pregnancies. This just begs the question of why women would do such things (and the answer that abortion is safer than giving birth only works when abortion is safe, not when its done by your older sister using a hanger).
What makes abortion so important for women? Why are women so determined to have one, even if it is illegal, and at the risk of their own lives??
Because we are human beings....
Yep... and we have these crazy ideas that we have a right to have dreams and aspirations. We also know that manfolk are not to be counted on.
I Hate People)
So what's the more defensible pro-choice argument? The most common argument you find in the feminist blogosphere. The rights -based argument.