March 10, 2006


It's March in philosophyland, that magical time of year when college seniors who, for some reason, actually want to go to grad school in philosophy spend time hanging out with those of us who are already doing that. The idea is that us current grad students can make being a grad student in philosophy seem fun and interesting, as opposed to fun and interesting and a spectacular demand on one's time, and thereby attract future indentured servants, er, grad students.

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.


MosBen said...

Except that arguments about fundamental morality really don't change minds or really engage debate at all with people who disagree with you. Someone arguing with me that drug users are evil aren't going to be convinced by my "Actually, they're not evil at all" argument. Someone using the argument that "corporations have no moral duties and should act however they please" will not be convinced by my "Every entity, corporations included, has a moral duty to protect the environement".

Fundamental or moral arguments are conversation stoppers. If a debate on abortion comes down to "fetuses are babies" and "fetuses are not babies", then the debate has reached an impass.

I think consequentialist arguments are used in the discourse over policy because they it's easier to convince someone with observable facts than with nebulous notions of morality which they may not agree with. Much as femenists, myself included, love the autonomy argument it's going to convince a very tiny portion of people who already have opinions, which is to say most people. Most people, however, are weak enough in their beliefs that they might be convinced by a utilitarian argument. "You may think abortion is bad generally, but here are some facts that show it is socially necessary."

Noumena said...

I don't think consequentialist arguments are going to be any more or less effective than rights-based arguments. This is especially true in a political climate where ideologues are quite happy to pull bullshit 'evidence' out of their ass if it means they get to crown themselves Teh Winar and walk away with their ego intact.

Now, let's suppose we're actually in a situation where everyone is willing to fully engage with their opponent and examine their own presuppositions in good faith. This is probably a bit unrealistic, even among philosophers, but a lot of intelligent people are going to at least pretend to do this for a while. So one person says A, and their opponent says not-A. If this is all the more that happens in the exchange, then yes, no-one's going to be convinced. But a good debater isn't going to just sit at A; they're going to look for the point of common ground, the ideas everyone can agree on, and try to give a justification for A from there.

For example, take the method David Boonin uses in his book. Boonin makes it explicit (nearly ad nauseum) that he's interested in attacking the abortion critic's position on their own terms. He's not merely asserting A, but faithfully trying to uncover the assumptions behind not-A, and showing how these are actually more compatible with A. To take one example, the claim he spends nearly half the book defending is that, even if fetuses do have a right to life, this doesn't supercede the pregnant woman's right to bodily autonomy. The only avenue left to the critic of abortion is to deny that women have this right; and Boonin suggests that some of his students have actually changed their mind about the permissibility of abortion rather than make this denial.