The paper discusses moral consequentialism and evaluates its criticisms. Critics of consequentialism argue that the latter doctrine requires us, under certain conditions, to do what seems intuitively to be the morally wrong act. The nature of this criticism originates from the widely accepted vision of consequentialism as too permissive and too demanding. The detailed analysis of the philosophic and moral assumptions renders a conclusion that both the permissiveness and demandingness of moral consequentialism are easy to argue and even deny.
Whether moral consequentialism requires individuals to do what seems to be the morally wrong act depends on how they interpret these acts and in what conditions these acts are to take place. Briefly, this paper turns moral consequentialism into a conjunction of highly relative and subjective norms/ standards which change their meaning and leave no room for objective judgments. Keywords: moral consequentialism, permissiveness, demandingness, moral, philosophy. Moral Consequentialism Throughout its history, philosophy was always centered on the two major sides of the moral argument: deontological and utilitarian.
Most of the time, philosophers found themselves torn between the need to follow the basic rules of the moral conduct and the need to achieve the greatest good for the greatest number of people. Today, deontology and utilitarianism/ consequentialism represent the two distinct lines of philosophic thinking and create a vision of continuous philosophic disintegration. Moral consequentialism is, probably, the major topic of the philosophic discussion and the principal object of philosophic criticism.
Critics of consequentialism argue that the latter doctrine requires us, under certain conditions, to do what seems intuitively to be the morally wrong act. This criticism grows from the two most important philosophic assumptions about the permissiveness and excessive (almost extremist) demandingness of moral consequentialism. However, the detailed analysis of these arguments renders a conclusion that both assumptions are easy to deny: as a result, whether moral consequentialism requires individuals to perform acts that are intuitively wrong depends on how they themselves judge their actions and conditions in which these actions take place.
Moral Consequentialism: A Flawed Theory of the Greatest Good Moral consequentialism argues that the need to promote the greatest good for the greatest number of people is the only moral factor that counts in the decisions, which individuals will take for or against particular acts (Kagan, 1998). The consequences of each particular action serve the basic criterion for judging its moral appropriateness. Contrary to deontology, which promotes and emphasizes the importance of rules and norms/ standards an individual is to follow, consequentialism seems to disregard these rules and sacrifices them for the sake of consequences.
For this reason, moral consequentialism often becomes the primary object of philosophic criticism. Despite the relevance and importance of moral consequentialism in philosophy, its principles and assumptions are not without their flaws. More often than not, moral consequentialism is being criticized for the lack of adequate moral reasoning and the growing relativity of moral norms and standards, which individuals use to achieve the greatest good for the greatest number of people.
McLean and Ellrod (1992) argue that “consequentialism is hardly a workable form of practical reasoning and calls into question the moral significance of its results” (p. 171). The problem with consequentialism is in that the need to promote the greatest good for the greatest number of people by all possible means fails to do full justice to the personal character of the moral duty (McLean & Ellrod, 1992). Consequentialism often makes no difference who is to produce the maximum good and who is to become its beneficiary, while this difference is increasingly important and must count in any kind of moral judgments (McLean & Ellrod, 1992).
In this sense, consequentialism seems to operate in the atmosphere of the misplaced emphases and distorted views regarding morality, because morality is inherently personal and must focus on one’s moral identity. Consequentialism, however, denies the relevance of personal morality against the importance of the public good. The second problem with consequentialism is its functionality and its ability to lead individuals to the best moral conclusions. That consequentialism makes it difficult to arrive to objectively practical judgments is often considered as one of its major flaws (McLean & Ellrod, 1992).
Here, the two basic problems become obvious. First, the growing relativity of the moral norms and standards deny us an opportunity to judge what the maximum good for the greatest majority is and how we are to achieve it. Second, this very relativity of norms creates a number of conflicts in the process of choosing between several permissible alternatives: whether individuals are to choose the greatest good or the least evil is another point of philosophic argument (McLead & Ellrod, 1992).
However, even if these flaws are important and deserve attention, they only shape the basis for the profound philosophic analysis of consequentialism and its philosophic criticisms. Critics of consequentialism argue that the latter doctrine requires us, under certain conditions, to do what seems intuitively to be the morally wrong act. In this sense, two essential elements of moral consequentialism require attention: its overall permissiveness and moral demandingness.
Critics of moral consequentialism claim the latter doctrine to be too permissive with regard to the acts and judgments individuals can make to achieve the greatest good for the greatest number of people. Others are confident that moral consequentialism imposes extreme (and even extremist) moral requirements on people, and they have but to comply with these requirements to maximize good for the greatest number of people. Moral consequentialism implies that individuals will have to overstep their moral convictions and perform acts that are intuitively wrong. The following sections analyze these two assumptions in more detail.
Moral Consequentialism: Permissiveness and the Subjectivity of Judgments Critics of moral consequentialism claim that the latter doctrine may require individuals to do what seems the intuitively immoral act. In other words, moral consequentialism provides individuals with the absolute freedom to choose between acts which, although morally inacceptable, still lead them to achieve or to maximize the public good. “Because moral consequentialism accepts an inappropriately short list of normative factors, it permits acts that are not in fact morally permissible.
[…] In short, consequentialism permits too much” (Kagan, 1984). For example, individuals may choose between killing a person and letting a person die simply because a murder or a death will save the lives of ten other people. Always immoral and intuitively wrong, the act of murder here is an excellent example of the permissiveness which moral consequentialism promotes and defends. To make the case more comprehensible, it is interesting to refer to the case of Chuck which Kagan (1998) describes in his book Normative Ethics.
Kagan (1998) describes the case of the five patients, each of whom faces equal chances to die unless he can timely obtain an organ transplant. According to Kagan (1998), one patient needs a heart, two other patients need kidneys, one patient needs new lungs, and the fifth patient is in need for a new liver. Because of medical problems and because their tissues are incompatible, these five patients can hardly become donors for each other (Kagan, 1998). Yet, there is Chuck, a young man who comes to the hospital for a regular medical observation and has all organs necessary for the five patients to survive (Kagan, 1998).
A surgeon thus faces a dilemma: to kill Chuck and to use his organs or to leave Chuck alive and to let the five patients die. This is the case which emphasizes the inherent permissiveness of moral consequentialism. Moral consequentialism justifies the decision to kill Chuck for the sake of saving the lives of the five patients. In case of killing Chuck, the surgeon will, most likely, achieve the maximum good for the greatest number of people: one does not need sophisticated knowledge of mathematics to understand that five lives are more than one.
Regardless of the immoral character of murder, the holy goal of saving five lives will overweigh the terrible act of murdering one single person. This is where consequentialism justifies an act which seems to be intuitively wrong but which, nevertheless, helps individuals to achieve the maximum benefit for the greatest number of people. The question is, however, in whether moral consequentialism is always permissible and morally blind and whether the assumption about the moral permissiveness of consequentialism is always objective and justified.
It appears that whenever individuals engage in activities that seem intuitively wrong but help them to achieve the maximum good for the greatest number of people, all they need is to reconsider and reframe the conditions in which these actions take place, to make them meet the basic requirements of morality. For example, the surgeon may find out that all Chuck’s organs are perfectly healthy and fit all five patients – in this way, he will meet the maximum benefit requirement (Kagan, 1998).
The surgeon may kill Chuck secretly, to make his death look like the result of medical complications – in this way, he will avoid difficulties associated with the fact of murder (Kagan, 1998). Finally, the surgeon may pretend that the results of Chuck’s routine medical examination require immediate surgical intervention and that the life of Chuck is under threat – Chuck’s murder will thus look like a moral obligation the surgeon had to fulfill to save Chuck from physical suffering. If that is the case, the surgeon’s decision to kill Chuck will no longer seem intuitively wrong, and moral consequentialism will no longer look too permissive.
The question is in whether it is worth killing one healthy person to save the lives of the five patients who, due to their health condition, will still die very soon. What are the chances that the value of their five lives will overweigh the value of Chuck’s life? These are the questions which one can answer only in particular circumstances and conditions. As a result, whether moral consequentialism requires that individuals perform acts that seem to be morally wrong depends on how they themselves judge their actions and in what particular conditions these actions take place.
Moral Consequentialism, Demandingness, and the Value of Denial Critics argue that in particular conditions, moral consequentialism requires that individuals perform acts which seem to be morally wrong. This criticism originates from the assumption that moral consequentialism is inherently demanding and imposes too many moral obligations on individuals, even if the former go against the basic moral principles and individual convictions. Actually, moral demandingness of consequentialism is the notorious topic of discussion.
Critics of consequentialism assume that moral consequentialism obligates people to make sacrifices that go beyond the limits of commonsense morality (Baier, 1958). For example, societies tend to believe that rich and better off society members are morally obliged to give up a share of their wealth to support those in need. Others are confident that, under the influence of consequentialism, individuals must make the largest possible contribution to the overall good regardless of the sacrifice such a contribution may incur (Kagan, 1984).
Kagan (1984) even claims that “there is no limit to the sacrifices that morality can require; and agents are never permitted to favor their own interests at the expense of the greater good” (p. 239). Mulgan (2001) calls these claims as extremist and admits that at times the overall demandingness of moral consequentialism will make individuals perform acts that seem morally wrong. In his book The Demands of Consequentialism, Tim Mulgan (2001) provides a short tale: Clare, Amy, and Bob are sitting in the living room when a space alien enters their apartment in the striving to devour Clare (p. 154).
The only way the company can save Clare from the tragedy is to cut away Amy’s arm and to throw it into the alien (Mulgan, 2001). The act will distract the alien and will give Clare more time to escape; meanwhile, Bob will find his weapons and will vaporize the newcomer (Mulgan, 2001). For Amy, who is to sacrifice her arm to save the lives of her friends, the decision will, naturally, seem inacceptable and intuitively wrong. However, because this is the only way for her to save the life of Clare and to achieve the greatest good for the greatest number of people, Amy will be pressured by the moral requirement to sacrifice her arm.
The moral unacceptability of the decision to chop off Amy’s arm will become even more obvious in case Bob is the one to make it for her. If Amy is not obliged to sacrifice her arm but is only permitted to do so, Bob can readily become the one responsible for the mission of cutting off Amy’s arm and saving his company from the alien. Mulgan (2001) recognizes that in this case, Bob is allowed to chop Amy’s arm, to save his own and the life of Clare, even if this act seems morally wrong to him.
In this case, the demandingness of moral consequentialism will reach the point, where individuals have the right to force other individuals to make sacrifices if they decide to refrain from such actions (Mulgan, 2001). Here, moral consequentialism becomes both permissive and demanding, and makes individuals engage in actions which seem to be intuitively wrong. Again, the extent to which this sacrifice is suboptimal is difficult to define. Whether the decision to chop off Amy’s arm is intuitively wrong will depend on a number of circumstances.
It will depend on how the person himself judges his own actions and decisions. For example, there is always a distinction between subjective expectations and objective probabilities that particular actions will lead to specific consequences (Mulgan, 2001). Bob may believe that his decision to chop off Amy’s arm will cause her unbearable pain and will thus refrain from cutting off her arm. In reality, however, Amy may accept the need to get rid of her arm for the sake of saving the lives of her friends.
In a similar vein, Bob may choose to interpret the decision to chop off Amy’s arm as the action with the lowest probability to cause harm to Clare and which also causes the least evil compared with other alternatives. Based on whether Bob views his decisions as the greatest good or the least evil, moral consequentialism will look more or less demanding. As a result, whether moral consequentialism requires that individuals engage in actions that are intuitively wrong depends on how they themselves judge their actions and in what conditions these actions are to take place.
Conclusion In broad terms, moral consequentialism claims that the need to promote the greatest good for the greatest number of people is the only moral factor that counts in judging the righteousness and moral acceptability of each particular action. Critics often argue that moral consequentialism requires that individuals engage in actions which are morally wrong. The nature of this criticism originates from the assumptions about the excessive permissiveness and demandingness of moral consequentialism.
However, the current analysis confirms that whether moral consequentialism pushes individuals to perform actions that are intuitively wrong depends on how they themselves judge their actions and in what conditions these actions are to take place. Despite relative demandingness and permissiveness, moral consequentialism always leaves much room for subjectivity and provides individuals with an opportunity to change their opinions and the opinions of others about the moral character of their actions and decisions. References
Baier, K. (1958). The moral point of view: A rational basis of ethics. Ithaca: Cornell University Press. Kagan, S. (1984). Does consequentialism demand too much? Recent work on the limits of obligation. Philosophy and Public Affairs, 13(3), 239-254. Kagan, S. (1998). Normative ethics. Colorado: Westview Press. McLean, G. F. & Ellrod, F. E. (1992). Philosophical foundations for moral education and character development: Act and agent. CRVP. Mulgan, T. (2001). The demands of consequentialism. Oxford University Press.
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