Commonplace Consequentialism

Commonplace Consequentialism August 24, 2007

The notion that the morality of an act depends solely on a calculation of foreseeable consequences is endemic in our society. How many people truly believe that the rightness of the act depends primarily on the object chosen by the deliberate will, and that intentions or consequences are irrelevant if the chosen behavior is evil? Consider the following seven (obviously non-exhaustive) examples:

(1) The nuclear bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki was licit on the grounds that it brought an early end to the war, saving countless lives on both sides.

(2) Abortion can be justified on the grounds that the woman’s health, happiness, and prospects will be improved by terminating the pregnancy.

(3) Torture can be licit in the case of a “ticking bomb” scenario, as the number one priority is to extract any information that could save countless lives.

(4) Embryonic stem cell research is worthy of support, on the grounds that if offers the prospect of revolutionary medical benefits.

(5) On Sept 11, 2001, the administration was right to give the order to shoot down a plane hijacked by terrorists, preventing the mass carnage that would have arisen had the terrorist plans come to fruition.

(6) China’s one child policy is to be praised, as its rapid economic success and improvement in living standards depended crucially on controlling its demographics.

(7) Pinochet revolutionized the Chilean economy in a sea of economic backwaters, and so should be praised, despite his record of murder and human rights abuses.

What strikes me about these examples is that they span the entire political spectrum. Most people would support some of the above statements, and reject others. And the split would probably fall along standard left-right divisions. But how many people out there would seriously reject all 7 of these arguments? Very few, I would contend. We are a consequentialist culture.

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