David Oderberg on Consequentialism

If one listens very carefully to activists, politicians, and related characters in the media, one begins to hear a certain kind of ethical view beneath some policy recommendations. I’m not going to provide an example, so if the reader does not know what I’m talking about, or does not believe me, they may ignore my comments without further ado. But I know that I’ve heard these views, and so I want to briefly refer to one response to them.

The view affirms some human rights as inviolable, but then also appeals to a kind of consequentialist or utilitarian logic. Several varieties of this perspective appear in academic ethical philosophy, which the interested reader could track down if they please. At the moment, though, I only want to point out one response.

David Oderberg’s paper Why I am not a Consequentialist gives several lines of argumentation against consequentialism in general; I will not discuss them all. Helpfully, Oderberg highlights his most forceful argument:

I have given a number of fairly abstract reasons why consequentialism is on the face of it unintuitive and unmotivated. But I also think it is straight out false, and not only false but an evil and dangerous theory – a view I am not alone in holding. There are a number of ways in which I could defend the view, but I want to focus on one in particular, the one that has always seemed to me – at least ever since I stopped being a consequentialist – the most damaging. It is a very familiar objection, but no less persuasive for being well known. This is the charge that consequentialism allows, indeed requires, certain kinds of action that are obviously wrong and so not to be done. In particular, consequentialism permits and requires actions that are horrendous evils, as evil as anything can be. The typical example often given is of the judge who condemns an innocent man to death in order to satisfy a rioting mob that will murder hundreds of people if the judge lets the innocent man go free. Another is the doctor who kills patients for their organs so he can transplant those organs into many other patients who need them. In general, according to consequentialism, it is at least permitted, often obligatory, for a person to commit what looks to any sane observer like a blatant and serious violation of someone else’s rights, and hence to commit an act of grave injustice, in order to maximize value, or at least to do what he thinks is likely to maximize value. Now, for the non-consequentialist, no intuition his opponent can bring to bear in support of the consequentialist position on this matter is as strong as the intuition that such apparent injustices are indeed injustices, and so to be forbidden on all occasions, no matter what the consequences. According to Elizabeth Anscombe, even to entertain the supposition that the judge is allowed, let alone required, to condemn the innocent man to placate the angry mob is to show evidence of a morally corrupt mind. Someone who thinks the issue debatable, she says, is not someone with whom you should enter into debate

After, Oderberg engages with responses to this point, including an academic example of the view I described above, in the person of Philip Pettit. Pettit argues that consequentialists should want to maximize dignity. Oderberg replies that this can be interpreted in two ways. One is that on closer inspection of Pettit’s work, it seems like he’s redefining dignity to presuppose consequentialism, and so falls foul to the various problems with consequentialism. The other is that Pettit is actually appealing to a non-consequentialist understanding of dignity, in which the right people have to respect is not grounded in how their being respected contributes to the maximization of social benefit. Oderberg replies that this approach will undermine Pettit’s project, since taking this view of dignity will contradict consequentialist principles, rendering Pettit’s system incoherent.

Oderberg’s penultimate paragraph describes the situation for all attempts to support this kind of mediating position between the idea of human rights and a consequentialist approach to ethics:

There is more that can be said about Pettit’s and other attempts to give a consequentialist defence of rights and justice. All such attempts will fail, simply because the structure of rights and justice and the structure of consequentialist thinking are contrary to each other. The only way the consequentialist can reconcile them is by reinterpreting rights and justice in terms that are explicitly or implicitly consequentialist. For the non-consequentialist, this would not merely be a case of begging the question, but of discarding at least some of the non-negotiable intuitions we have about rights and justice, such as the inherent and absolute injustice of knowingly condemning an innocent man to death. On the other hand, if the consequentialist wants to preserve such intuitions, he must incorporate into this theory principles that are themselves non-consequentialist. But if he does this, there is no logical stopping point short of abandoning consequentialism altogether.

The implication of Oderberg’s argument for ethics and politics, at minimum, would be that those who wish to coherently defend human rights need to seek support elsewhere. Something like Kantian deontologism, divine command ethics, or natural law ethics, would certainly do a better job (Oderberg chooses natural law ethics), though a further discussion would have to continue between those three possibilities (and others) in order to determine the ultimately correct system.