Monday, 8 December 2003

Jousting with strawmen

Keith Burgess-Jackson claims to have refuted consequentialism:

Consider an example: My neighbors are having a pleasant meal. I can easily disrupt it, but choose not to. I am therefore morally responsible for the pleasure of my neighbors. Generalize: I can spend my entire day preventing good deeds from being performed by others. If I choose not to do so, I am morally responsible for all the good that is done. It turns out that I’m morally responsible for a great deal of good, just by sitting in my study!

I agree that Prof. Burgess-Jackson has refuted a certain thesis: the thesis that whether one is “responsible” for an state of affairs is solely dependant on whether one’s action or inaction causally contributed to that state of affairs.

However, that thesis is not consequentialism.

Consequentialism is the thesis that the rightness or wrongness of a possible action, and which of all possible actions at a given time an agent should do, is solely a function of that possible action’s consequences. Consequentialism by itself does not have anything to say about whether an action is praiseworthy or blameworthy, or whether an agent is “responsible” for that action’s outcome.

Let’s look at another example:

Smith and Jones are standing near a swimming pool. Smith is an excellent swimmer, but Jones cannot swim at all. A small child falls into the pool. There is no way for the child to be saved unless Smith jumps in to save him. Smith does just this: jumps in and saves the child. Jones refrains from doing anything that would hinder Smith in her rescue attempt.

In conjunction with an axiology (theory of value) that entails that a drowned child is the worst outcome of all of Smith and Jones possible actions at the time, consequentialism entails that each of their actions, Smith’s rescuing the child, and Jones refraining from hindering Smith, were the right things to do. Consequentialism entails that nothing other than the possible outcomes of their action was relevant. It would not be relevant if the owner of the pool had forbidden Smith to swim in it. It would not be relevant if Jones had promised the owner of the pool to prevent Smith from swimming in it. It would not be relevant if Smith had made a deathbed promise to her mother to never go swimming.

Smith, of course, is a hero. And Jones is not. But consequentialism does not entail this. Nor does it contradict it. All it entails is that Smith and Jones both did the right thing. Consequentialism lays silent on the praiseworthiness of Smith's and Jones's actions.