How Consequentialism Leads To Bad Ethics: An Illustration

Tgt passes along this cartoon by Zach Weiner. He knew why I would like it: I am often railing about the misuse of consequentialism, justifying an act as ethical after it has produced desirable results. This fallacy bolsters “the ends justify the means” reasoning and makes every act, even clearly wrongful ones, theoretically redeemable in retrospect, after the results are in (although, of course, all the results are never in. That’s Chaos for you!)  The defense of torture by Bush administration defenders on the grounds that it may have uncovered valuable intelligence is the most recent example. Had the unconstitutional imprisonment of Japanese-American citizens in World War II  prevented some Japanese undercover plot by imbedded traitors, undoubtedly that fact would be used to justify an unjustifiable and disgraceful breach of American law and values. Looking backward creates this ethical distortion.

It is equally infuriating, to me at least, when good and ethical decisions are judged, usually by the media or by political pundits, as “wrong” or ” mistakes” because of bad results that could not have been foreseen when the decision was made or the act undertaken.

Weiner’s cartoon nicely marks the logical flaws in backward ethics, for those for whom the word “backward” is an insufficient clue.


Spark and Pointer: tgt

Source: Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal

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12 thoughts on “How Consequentialism Leads To Bad Ethics: An Illustration

  1. Now that’s just bad math. You need a coefficient for the probability of batman:
    p = probability of violently orphaned son becoming Batman
    Therefore, lives saved by the people who killed Batman’s parents = (B*p)-2
    Assuming (1/p)>>B, the number of lives saved by the people who killed Batman’s parents can be approximated as -2.
    There may be other problems with consequentialism, but bad math doesn’t help.

    • I’m wondering, does your improved equation assume that the action has not yet taken place — that is the action of killing batman’s parents? Would it be formulated differently if it were written after the life and death of batman himself?

  2. If it was deemed necessary by an honest assessment of the risks that in order to save the world from fascism and/or save lives, some group has to be imprisoned or even tortured I would hope the people making that decision are ethical utilitarians. If some other school of thought is willing to let many people die or civilization fall in order to prevent a relatively small injustice than I have no respect for it. This is very different from allowing someone to be redeemed by a bit of moral luck after doing something that at the time was unlikely to result in any good.

  3. No, the math fail is even simpler than you all are thinking. Lives saved do NOT equal lives taken. If I kill one person and save another, I am not at a “zero balance” karma-wise OR legally. Instead, I’m a murderer who also does nice things occasionally.

    In the comic, the folks who killed batman’s parents are double-murderers, who ALSO happened to unintentionally create a vigilante who saved people. That (unintentional, I stress) act doesn’t negate the fact that they’re murderers no matter how many lives that Batman will save.

    Indirect consequences are meaningless. I prefer to trust law, with intent and motive. Otherwise, it’s just as logical to say that when I coughed yesterday the butterfly effect was to cause a hurricane that will kill 10,000 Hindus in India a month from now, and to hold me responsible for it.

    Put that way, the idiocy should be obvious.

  4. ETHICS STILL BEING DEBATED: 1945, some 200,000 men, women and children, casualties in history’s only instance of nuclear weapons being used against the enemy.

    JUSTIFICATION: shortened the war. Had it been necessary to invade, there would have been thousands of American casualltties. And besides, the Hiroshima and agasaki casualties were only Japanese, not American.


    (How ethical is war, anyway?)

    • In my view. absolutely ethical.
      I am biased…one of those GI’s the atom bombs likely rescued from death (it rescued a lot of Japanese soldiers, too) was Jack Marshall, Sr,, but pre-Sr.

    • It’s a lazy argument. War and ethics don’t mix; that’s why the whole idea of war crimes is absurd. No winning side in a war is “guilty” of war crimes, and every losing side is. In the context of war, both the bombing of London and the Tit for Tat bombing of Dresden were ethical. The bombing of London was “more” ethical than bombing Dresden.

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