Consequentalism vs. Morality

While I should perhaps avoid the eternal debate, I shan't. Frequent commenter Thea writes, in response to You Are Not The Marginal Case:

I don’t think that laws should be made based on moral consequences, but on rights. I believe that marriage and intact families have social benefits, but even if it could be proven that homosexual marriage had a negative effect on these, I don’t think that it would be sufficient reason to outlaw it.

Just like with Galt’s other point, birth control. I think that the introduction of birth control has had several negative ramifications on society, and am morally opposed to it. This means that I would never use birth control, not that I would ever support a law against it or to regulate its use by consenting adults.

I think that an argument of this nature could only convince someone not to engage or to encourage others engage in homosexual marriage, not convince someone that force should or could legitimately be used against someone who would like to engage in homosexual marriage.

I'm sure that Thea means well in boldly stating and being willing to follow her principles of non-agression - principles which I find noble and inspiring. But I also believe that this sort of attitude greatly reduces the relevance of the holder's opinions to actual society. Since irrelevant ideas get ignored, and I very much want libertarian ideas to be listened to, I will reiterate the arguments for the consequentalist position.

While Thea may care more about rights and not consequences, not everyone does. For example, many people have beliefs about what is right which include what the consequences of doing what's right are. And I'm not so sure that Thea isn't one of those people. Is there really no point at which the negative consequences from gay marriage would be so bad that she would decide it is worth violating freedom to outlaw?

In these situations, as David Friedman points out, people are often dismissing the consequences because they are convinced they won't be that bad - not because they don't care. So it's not that they give morals absolute priority, but just some priority. And once you realize that, it is hard to condemn people who give morals slightly different degrees of priority than you do.

Also, the question at hand is not just what Thea's perfect society would do, but what our imperfect society should do. A society, as all of us have probably realized, which is composed of lots of people who have rather different beliefs about rights and morality than we do. We can make all the moral utterances we want, and it's all just as much hot air to them as an appeal to Allah's will is to most of us. So lets not dismiss consequential arguments so readily. They are damn useful at convincing those who disagree with us about the moral reasons for a policy that it is still the best choice.

Now, its easy to say that when consequences go our way. But the flip side, I believe, is being willing to be convinced (to some degree) by consequences in return. Not convinced that something is moral, or even convinced that it is worth trading morality for consequences (we all have our individual opinions on that). Rather, convinced that across the broad spectrum of varying moral beliefs which people hold, it is a reasonable compromise. And unfortunately, in our dictatorial system of Voice and not exit, our huge democracy which serves the minorities so poorly, that is the solution that most matters.

Thea's point about the two different types of argument is a good one, but I believe she has the wrong dichotomy. Yes, a combination of our morals and our beliefs about consequences is what we should use in guiding our own decisions. But the idea that the only guide for writing laws should be an absolute standard of rights, like the non-aggression principle, is probably wrong and certainly irrelevant to modern society. Its irrelevant because society has huge disagreements about what that absolute standard would be.

We may see something as a poor tradeoff because it violates a right we care deeply about, but if few others care about that right, then it really doesn't matter how we see things. And if we insist in being rights-centric, coercion-centric, and libertarian-centric, then our opinions and arguments will be irrelevant to society, and we will continue to be relegated to its fringes.

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I suspect some people

I suspect some people respond well to deontological/rights/absolutist arguments, while others respond better to consequentialist/utilitarian ones.
I'm willing to posit that kind of thing is how people are built, as if how their brain chemistry is structured.
Some of us are rigid, highly principled sorts.
Others of us are flexible, pragmatic, unprincipled sorts.

Something I've been puzzling

Something I've been puzzling over for a while, maybe you can provide some insight.

Which approach is the easiest to deal with in the real world, where policies have to be set, and BSing and manipulation lead to disaster? I'm not sure consequentialism has much over morality here, and sometimes I lean toward the idea that it's more open to abuse: because consequences have to be prioritized, and investigated, and extrapolated, etc. Seems that also contributes to institutional decay over time.

Consequentialism also always has, at its heart, the question: *whose* consequences? You can always cop out and say "the majority." But, aside from its problems w.r.t. abuse and extrapolation, it also suffers in that if you were to break down the political structure a different way, the consequences might be different. So you end up breaking down political structures into small, voluntary associations, which leads us into anarchy - which also is a "fringe" idea that nobody's going to take seriously.

Of course, moral arguments have well-documented problems of their own.

From an evolution-and-survival standpoint, it's good to have healthy strains of both in society. There are just going to be times--sometimes brief, sometimes prolonged--where one or the other will be essential for the advancement, if not the survival, of a society. (To say nothing of individual psychology.)

Patri, Your argument seems

Patri,

Your argument seems to be of a pragmatic sort. Such is often appealing in a pluralistic society, but its results can be harmful. As a liberty-minded individual, I would love to see the libertarian principles that are enshrined in the Constitution shown the respect they deserve.

I would argue that the consequentialist view point, along with utilitarianism, is responsible for the asinine notion that the Constitution is a “living” document that can be altered at the whim of every new majority. Also, someone’s sensibilities will always be offended, no matter how the rules are rearranged. The only way to ensure maximum liberty and equal treatment is to maintain an irreducible number of laws, to which all are subject without exception.

One problem with depending

One problem with depending on consequentialism is that it all too easily becomes case-consequentialism instead of rule-consequentialism. For example, in the gay marriage case, Jane Galt may have a good empirical point about the particular effects of disallowing gay marriage; but she doesn't cast her net wider to consider the consequences of allowing the state to discriminate for what it thinks are good social reasons vs. not allowing it to do so.

One of the most popular pro-gay-marriage arguments is "People have a right to equal treatment under the law, and restricting marriage to heterosexuals infringes on that right." While this may seem weak if you view it only as a deontological claim, it actually can be seen as a rule-consequentialist claim: we have powerful general evidence that it's good, consequentially, to make a rule that says people must be treated equally under the law. And putting aside deontological, or deontological-looking, arguments as irrelevant can lead us to ignore such important general considerations..

Gay Marriage and "The

Gay Marriage and "The Margin"
Jane Galt has a confused, rambling non-sequiturfest at Asymmetrical Information in which she essentially calls on same-sex marriage advocates to "chill out" --
My only re...

I'm worried about the

I'm worried about the tendency to contrast 'morals' with consequentialism as if they are two entirely different sorts of things. As a utilitarian, I don't see myself as holding some view that is somehow opposed to morality. Rather, I endorse a _different conception_ of morality than the one that you hold. Maximizing total happiness just is the moral thing to do.

The contrast that you are looking for, I think, is actually between consequentialism and right-based moral theory. Rights accounts are typically grounded in some appeal to autonomy or human dignity (at least they are grounded that way when they are grounded at all, as opposed to just being intuited as some sort of natural law). Both rights-based accounts and consequentialist accounts are theories of morality, though, and it's misleading, if not question-begging, to characterize one as morality and the other as something different.

The distinction between rights-based moral theories and consequentialist moral theories is an important one; indeed, much of late-20th C moral philosophy revolves around this distinction. But it's important to make the proper sort of distinction here.

Michael, Actually, it's

Michael,

Actually, it's famously the case that, at least for utilitarians (the most prominent consequentialists), it doesn't particularly matter whose consequences we discuss. The issue is that we produce the most total happiness in the world. It doesn't especially matter how that is distributed as long as the happiness is maximized.

In that respect, utilitarianism has much in common with capitalism. The laissez faire capitalist doesn't particularly have to care how wealth is distributed; his argument is that laissez faire capitalism creates the greatest total amount of wealth. Ideally, that will mean that everyone benefits at least a little, but if that doesn't turn out to be the case, it's not necessarily a problem. We might decide privately to fix distribution errors, but doing so is hardly mandatory and advocates of laissez faire are free to disagree about the desirability of doing so.

I also find the line between

I also find the line between rights-based ethics and utilitarian ethics to be somewhat fuzzy. Presumably a utilitarian code prescribes its own unique set of rights: namely, the right of people to a world of maximized utility, et al. And in part, rights-based ethics could be squared with utilitarianism if we define utility as enjoying those rights we think people deserve to have.

But of course that ends up stripping the terms of all meaning.

Thea’s point about the two

Thea’s point about the two different types of argument is a good one, but I believe she has the wrong dichotomy. Yes, a combination of our morals and our beliefs about consequences is what we should use in guiding our own decisions. But the idea that the only guide for writing laws should be an absolute standard of rights, like the non-aggression principle, is probably wrong and certainly irrelevant to modern society. Its irrelevant because society has huge disagreements about what that absolute standard would be.

I agree that right now there are disagreements about what these should be (I spent the last few hours at a sit-in organized by the Student Worker Alliance arguing, among other things, whether a living wage was a right), but I think that rights violations is still the only thing that law can be based upon.

Admittedly, I am Catholic, and so a lot of this comes from the perspective of the human life having intrinsic value, but I think that self-ownership, and by extension property rights could be agreed upon by almost everyone (everyone with which I would be willing to live in the same community in any event).

In modern society this is probably at least politically irrelevant, because the word "right" is so confused, but I think that helping others understand that negative rights are really the only rights that are truly rights is the main goal in my mind.

Joe-

Actually, it’s famously the case that, at least for utilitarians (the most prominent consequentialists), it doesn’t particularly matter whose consequences we discuss. The issue is that we produce the most total happiness in the world.

The problem I have is that it doesn't seem that you could ever possibly calculate the aggregate happiness of the world.

Another problem with the

Another problem with the consequentialist approach is that it is a hard sell to the masses. They seem to need absolutes, and since you seeem to get to the same end point with natural rights and consequentialist argumentation, the former seems to be a better marketing tool.

Another problem with the

Another problem with the consequentialist approach is that it is a hard sell to the masses. They seem to need absolutes, and since you seeem to get to the same end point with natural rights and consequentialist argumentation, the former seems to be a better marketing tool.

I couldn't disagree more. The average person is a pragmatist. There is more overlap between people of different ideologies wrt consequentialist goals. Even communists promised peace and prosperity.

I find it wrong to

I find it wrong to characterize the issue as "consequentialism vs. morality." Morality depends very much on consequences. Take liberty itself, for example, which we think of as a paramount right, and the violation of which we see as immoral. Liberty, in itself, is empty; it is merely the means to an end, which may be characterized as happiness or self-interest. That is why, when subordinate rights conflict -- as they often seem to do -- the only way to choose between them is on the basis of their consequences.

I agree that liberty and happiness are tightly bound, but they are not the same thing. It is evident that many persons, perhaps a large majority of them, willingly concede some degree of liberty for what they consider to be greater happiness (the illusion of economic security, for example).

Nicolas is right, and joe is

Nicolas is right, and joe is half-right, in recognizing that morality and consequences are not unrelated. We can think of 'rights' as rules which produce better consequenses than other sets of rules. Although past performance is no guarantee of future results, what we think of as rights are rules which have stood the test of time; they worked.
Cultures with these rights, these rules, were able to outsurvive cultures which lacked them. Rights have memetic fitness.
If a 'right', say a right to a living wage, produced horrible consequences, we would re-evaluate whether it was a right at all.

We may need to learn to present our rule-sets in consequential languge to some, and not to others, depending on what arguments they are open to.

I said joe was half right. He describes capitalism as optimizing overall
utility, which it does. But it does so by aggregating win-win transactions, so it doesn't treat people as fungible, but retains respect for personal autonomy.

Are there counter-examples to my way of thinking about this; are there clear cases where we say A has a right to do x, even if such a rule, in the long term, had bad consequences and leaves everyone unhappier?
If not, much of the apparent conflict is a semantic illusion.