Monday, August 26, 2013

The -ism Mistake and Consequentialism

-ism has a plurality of functions in English. X-ism, whatever X may be, can indicate a propensity or tendency to emphasize X; or it can indicate a philosophical system or theory that takes X to be especially important or fundamental in some way; or it can indicate a process or activity as a whole in contexts in which it is more convenient to use it as a noun rather than a verb. This plurality of functions sometimes trips people up. Probably the most common I've come across is shifting from talking about natural explanations (as opposed to preternatural or supernatural ones) to talking about naturalistic explanation. Naturalism, however, is not the appeal to natural explanations, nor is it even the tendency to emphasize natural explanations; as far as explanations are concerned, it is the position that only natural explanations are legitimate explanations. You can't be naturalistic in a single explanation; you can only be naturalistic about how you approach explanation as a whole.

One I've seen a lot recently is the same kind of problem with consequentialism. Consequentialism has a well-established philosophical meaning. In the words of the SEP article:

Consequentialism, as its name suggests, is the view that normative properties depend only on consequences.

Or in the IEP article:

Consequentialism is the view that morality is all about producing the right kinds of overall consequences.

Even Wikipedia has the right idea:

Consequentialism is the class of normative ethical theories holding that the consequences of one's conduct are the ultimate basis for any judgment about the rightness of that conduct.

(Of the three, the SEP is the most accurate, because it recognizes the existence of consequentialist approaches to things other than morality. But this is just a matter of how restricted our focus is rather than any fundamental difference.) You'll notice that in each case the issue is taken to the limit: "only" in SEP, "all about" in IEP, "the ultimate basis" in Wikipedia. Thus nothing can be consequentialist unless it is in a context in which the entire approach to the area relies on consequences 'only' or as the whole point or as 'the ultimate basis', however you prefer to phrase it.

There are a lot of amateur consequentialists on the internet, however, and they tend to slip up at precisely this point and treat any ethical justification or account in terms of consequences as consequentialist. This hopelessly muddles up every sort of ethical discussion in which the slip is made. Not every appeal to consequences as a moral consideration is consequentialist. If you appeal to consequences in moral reasoning, but what counts as the right kinds of consequences ultimately depends not on the nature of the consequences themselves but their conformity to some moral law or universal set of obligations, you are not a consequentialist but a deontologist. (Kantianism, which a major form of deontology, rejects all appeal to consequences in moral reasoning, but this is not universal among deontologists.) If you appeal to consequences in moral reasoning, but what counts as the important, right, or good consequences depends on how they reflect on, or feed into, character in some way, you are not a consequentialist but a virtue ethicist. To be a consequentialist in a particular area, everything has to trace back to consequences -- if anything essential doesn't, you aren't a consequentialist.

Likewise, the fact that people appeal to consequences in moral reasoning has nothing to do with consequentialism as such. You could make an argument for consequentialism based on how easily people slip into appeals to consequences, but this would be an obviously weak argument without a considerably greater amount plugged into it. But mere appeals to consequences in moral reasoning is not consequentialist; for anything to be consequentialist, they have to be the only admissible appeals in moral reasoning ever -- it all has to come down to consequences directly or indirectly, and nothing else. The mistake of conflating the two things is equivalent to assuming that to be rational we must all be rationalists.

This is all exactly parallel to the fact that mere appeal to rules or moral obligations doesn't make you a deontologist. People aren't generally inclined to slide from 'justification based on obligation' to 'therefore deontology', though, and I think it's the -ism mistake that makes the difference. There are other examples besides these of the -ism mistake -- empiricism seems to get a lot of it, too, in which people move freely from 'empirical' to 'empiricist'. It's something that generally needs to be avoided, though, when -ism indicates philosophical positions, systems, or theories.


  1. Mike Flynn7:48 PM

    One of the problems in design engineering's Failure Modes and Effects Analysis [FMEA] and in Fault Tree Analysis [FTA] is how far to chase the effects. I can't suppose that ethical consequences are any less complex than a pressure vessel; but I always get the feeling that they only mean those consequences that are immediate and obvious to the actor.

  2. Aron Wall1:59 AM

    Wait, I'm confused. If my action affects my own character, or someone else's, why shouldn't that count as one of the "consequences" which a consequentialist would take into consideration?

    You say that for a consequentialist, everything "essential" to the view must trace back to consequences. But that seems clearly wrong. One can judge whether an action is good or bad on the basis of whether it has good or bad consequences, but obviously we can't judge all of the consequences themselves on the same basis. That would lead to an infinite regress. The consequentialist, like Aristotle, must therefore postulate that some things are good for their own sake (e.g. for the hedonic consquentialist, the good consequence is pleasure), and that the best actions are those that maximize those things, whatever they are.

    I see no reason why a consequentialist couldn't say that the thing which is good for its own sake is people having a character of a particular kind. Arguably, such a theorist would ALSO be a virtue ethicist, but I don't see why they would stop being a consequentialist.

  3. branemrys7:43 AM


    It can be one of the consequences taken into a consideration; what the consequentialist can't do is pick out what consequences count based on considerations of character. To be a consequentialist is to be committed to the direction of selection always going one way -- what's important about character is determined on the basis of consequences, what rules are acceptable is determined on the basis of consequences. If what's important in terms of consequences is determined on the basis of how it contributes to character, this is a non-consequentialist approach to consequences.

    In a genuine consequentialist scheme, everything essential does have to trace back to consequences: infinite regress is avoided, depending on the consequentialist, by the fact that some things (actions, pleasures, pains) as at least partly consequences of themselves, or, as you say, because some consequences are taken to be good simply by being the consequences they are (usually pleasure or preference-satisfaction), and other consequences are derivatively so. But this is just to say that they are obviously or self-evidently good as consequences, and for no further reason, not because of how they relate to character or any such thing. The consequentialist never gets to a point, though, in which the goodness of consequences is glossed in terms of anything other than the consequences themselves. Anyone who does that is not a consequentialist, even if they regard consequences as very important.

    'Consequentialism' wasn't invented to describe people who appeal to consequences in ethics; it was invented as an insult term to apply to people for whom consequences trump absolutely everything else, and then began to be used by consequentialists themselves because the term fit better than any other term available. It's a term of art, and as a term of art it only applies to the limit cases -- hence the 'only' in the SEP and the 'all about' in the IEP. You can't both be a consequentialist and a virtue ethicist; they have mutually exclusive view about what is foundational. You can be a consequentialist with a virtue theory (like Mill) -- but, again, the direction has to go all one way, so that analysis of consequences is foundational for determining what counts as a virtue. If it goes the other way, this is to fail to be a consequentialist.

  4. branemrys7:51 AM

    That's definitely a significant problem for consequentialists. Sophisticated consequentialists usually try to get around it by making a sharp distinction between general 'criteria of rightness' and 'decision procedure' for handling particular practical situations, and that they are only talking about the former. My own view is that making the distinction as sharp as they need to in order to avoid the problem ultimately ends up taking away all the primary reasons one might have for being consequentialist. Nonsophisticated consequentialists, of course, do exactly what you say.

  5. Zippy1:56 PM

    for anything [argument?] to be consequentialist, [consequences] have to be the only admissible appeals in moral reasoning ever -- it all has to come down to consequences directly or indirectly, and nothing else.

    This seems to run the risk of divorcing the concept of consequentialism from the actual content of the moral law, specifically with respect to intrinsically immoral acts. One might make a consequentialist argument about a specific moral norm without necessarily embracing consequentialism with respect to all moral norms.

    "Abortion is permissible when the mother would otherwise die, because in this case the consequences determine the morality of the act" is a consequentialist argument, for example. But one might selectively make that consequentialist argument in a particular case without making that kind of consequentialist argument in all cases or arguing for consequentialism generally.

    Also, there seems to be some tension with Veritatis Splendour here, which (IIRC) appears to treat consequentialism as a denial that the moral quality of intrinsically immoral acts can be determined apart from consideration of the consequences. The difference is subtle, but this sort of consequentialist could suggest that he is in fact taking into consideration other factors in addition to the consequences, but the consequences are so grave that the act is permissible. See my old post here.

  6. branemrys4:22 PM

    It is certainly possible to be consequentialist in one domain and not
    another -- that's why the SEP article is more accurate in its
    characterization of consequentialism than the others, and part of the
    reason why I didn't restrict my claim to arguments in particular --
    which does complicate things. But I don't think that it does so in the way you are suggesting. "Abortion is permissible when the mother would otherwise die, because in this case the consequences determine the morality of the act" is a consequentialist argument only insofar as the last clause is understood to indicate that consequences are the absolutely definitive ground of the morality of the act -- that there are no other independent grounds that could even possibly trump the importance of the consequences for moral judgment. But if it's true in this case, it generalizes to all similar cases to the extent that they are similar, and a fortiori to all weaker cases. People can and do ignore the fact that logically their position in one field has implications for at least some other fields, and that ethical arguments tend to have many connections to many different fields because of the centrality of ethics, so that any particular moral judgment is bigger than it looks; but that's just ordinary inconsistency. It would be entirely possible, however, to give the argument without being a consequentialist at all; and this wouldn't really affect anything for Catholics. While we tend to abbreviate by saying that Veritatis Splendor condemns consequentialism, its argument is not actually that restricted; consequentialism is explicitly just the pure case of what it's criticizing.

    The encyclical preserves the limit-case character of the term 'consequentialism', defining it as the position that "claims to draw the criteria of the rightness of a given way of acting solely from a calculation of foreseeable consequences deriving from a given choice." This is exactly right, if we are (as the encyclical is) restricting ourselves to moral matters concerning action and choice. I think you might be thrown by the fact that Veritatis Splendor is attacking both consequentialism and proportionalism as analogous errors, under the general label 'teleological theories of ethics' (the word 'teleology' is the older word, whose meaning is distinct from its metaphysical meaning, for the sort of position consequentialism is); the consequentialist you mention as an example sounds more like a proportionalist.

  7. Zippy5:07 PM

    Yes, I'm aware that VS condemns 'teleological' theories of morality in general. Part of what I am responding to may be the ambiguity (to me) of this bit:

    the entire approach to the area relies on consequences 'only' or as the whole point or as 'the ultimate basis', however you prefer to phrase it.

    "In an extreme case, consequences trump an otherwise valid condemnation of a specific kind of intrinsically immoral behaviour" is a condemned 'teleological' theory. Consequences are dispositive in the theory in some cases; but the theory doesn't rely on consequences only -- it merely employs consequences to distinguish one case from another.

    I don't know what the OP is responding to so I don't have context. But if the objection is that this isn't technically 'consequentialism' (is Anscombe the authority?) but it is still a condemned 'teleological' theory, I don't have any objection. On the other hand I expect Catholics on line to continue to refer to it as consequentialism, and I'll know what they mean when they say it.

  8. branemrys9:27 PM

    I simply don't have enough information to say; it sounds utterly incoherent, because something can't be intrinsically immoral and yet somehow made not immoral for extrinsic reasons; if it can be made moral on an extrinsic basis, that directly implies that it is not intrinsically immoral. It still sounds like proportionalism; but conceivably it's some kind of consequentialism. And even if not there are plenty of cases where it would be reasonable to use 'consequentialism' regardless, just because it's the reference case in the family, being the unadulterated version. In the absence of a useful word meaning 'consequentialism-ish' it would sometimes be hard to find a better label. It's a rather different issue than the one in the post, which is people, particularly amateur consequentialists, assuming that because someone appeals to consequences they've conceded something to consequentialism.

    Anscombe's the ultimate source, since she invented the word as it is used today, but the definition of 'consequentialism' is a well established matter of general usage, used by philosophical consequentialists and non-consequentialists alike; which is why, allowing for wider and narrower applications of the term, all four sources -- the two philosophical encyclopedias, Wikipedia's ultimate source, and Veritatis Splendor -- have the same essential features.

  9. Fair enough then. "See, consequences (sometimes) matter, so that supports consequentialism" is certainly as dumb an argument as "see, consequences aren't the only thing that ever matter in my theory, therefore my conclusion in this case isn't consequentialist." (The former being your target and the latter mine, as it were).


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