2012-03-27

Problem: Solution

We live in an increasingly consequentialist world.

Consequentialism is, broadly defined, the belief that the consequences of one's actions determine the degree to which one's consequences are ethical. Of course, long-time Stationary Waves readers know that I object to consequentialist ethics. My core objection is that while one may have good intentions, one's conduct en route may be highly morally questionable.

Think of a few examples that highlight my point:
  • The Count of Monte Cristo dedicated his whole life to revenge against a terrible wrong that was done to him and his true love. He kills and hurts a lot of people along the way.
  • In choosing to save a nation of people from a terrible dictator, the US government killed thousands of innocent victims.
  • A Wall Street executive is morally compelled to act in the best interests of his shareholders, because they have entrusted their interests to him. Along the way, he discovers that accepting a federal "bail-out" leaves his shareholders and his family in the best possible position. He therefore agrees to privatize gains and socialize losses.
Entrenched in the consequentialist viewpoint is the idea that the actor is better at assessing total utility than anyone else. Not only do I disagree with this viewpoint, I further believe that it is impossible for any one human being to evaluate utility for others.

Hence, while I think the spirit of consequentialism is good, the methodology is bad; and, ironically, consequentialism seems to lead to many bad consequences.

The Problem
Nevertheless, consequentialism is at the root of most policy these days. By "policy," I mean both new legislation at the federal, state, provincial, and local levels, as well as corporate policies, terms & conditions, legal contracts, and so on. I think consequentialism is a major source of conflict in the world today. People believe that as long as they're aiming for a good outcome, their actions are justified. If this is a person's core assumption, then there is potentially no limit to the bad behavior in which they are willing to engage.

Consider yesterday's report from the Associated Press, covering the cancellation of a community Easter Egg hunt due to "pushy parents."

Lenny Watkins, who lives a block away from Bancroft Park, took his friend's son, then 4, to the hunt in 2009. "I just remember having a wonderful time, him with his Easter basket," Watkins said, adding he can understand why a parent would step in. 
"You have all these eggs just lying around, and parents helping out. You better believe I'm going to help my kid get one of those eggs. I promised my kid an Easter egg hunt, and I'd want to give him an even edge." 
Jennifer Rexford, who used to live near the park, said she participated in public Easter egg hunts with her boys, ages 3, 8 and 14. She doesn't anymore, because of "pushy parents" that she said she has dealt with at the hunts. 
"It just seems to be the mindset. People just want the best for their kids," Rexford said.
To many of these parents, it simply doesn't matter whose children's Easter Egg hunt they ruin, because the ultimate consequence is a good one: "What's best for their kids."

As you can see, this isn't just an abstract problem, nor is it merely crass political yammering. The problems of consequentialism impact us all the time in ways we don't immediately understand if we're not well-versed in ethical theories.

The Solution
The Prisoner's Dilemma is the problem in Game Theory that describes two people's incentives to cheat against an agreement between them when they have a reason to believe that the other person might cheat.

In other words, if I have reason to believe that you're going to hop the fence and grab some Easter eggs for your kids, I have all the incentive I need to do the same. But please realize: in doing this, we might be ruining this Easter egg hunt along with all future hunts.

If we don't have it in us to craft a really good abstract argument against consequentialism and apply it to all future ethical problems we come across, then we might on the other hand need a simple, rational way of looking at these situations that is enough to make our knee-jerk consequentialism abate a little bit.

The Golden Rule is handy, but it's not enough. The temptation to cheat is too much.

Well, we'll never control the actions of other people. We'll never prevent them from cheating, taking, grabbing everything they can and ruining it for the rest of us. But we can change our own behavior. To that end, I'd like to make two humble suggestions as starting points for a solution to rampant consequentialism:
  1. Limit Your Exposure To Collectivism: While a city Easter egg hunt could be a fun community event, it is probably highly inadvisable to wed your child's Easter fun to that one event. If you want to participate in such things, go ahead. But plan some other activities with your children, too. In doing so, you replace a major disappointment with a minor one. You also teach your child a good lesson about the Tragedy of the Commons and the tendency people have to take all they can get. Taking this outside the context of a community event, don't submit too many aspects of your own personal happiness to the community at large. Don't couch your medical future on socialized medicine. Don't hang your notion of safety on foreign wars and airport security. Don't marry your concept of economic prosperity to the actions of governments or central banks. Live your own life, and take your licks.
  2. Practice Utility Temperance: Utility Temperance is what I call a person's ability to exercise restraint in the face of unabashed hedonism, simply for the sake of not being too decadent. A sweet-tooth might forego a second helping of cake, not because he'll "get fat," but because eating multiple pieces of chocolate cake is wholly unnecessary and decadent. This is a concept that ties into Virtue Ethics in that the restraint being practiced isn't practiced because the long-term outcome is bad, but rather simply because avoiding unabashed hedonism would simply, objectively be a bad thing. If you can take a step back from time to time and not simply hoard every scrap of tangible benefit you can get your paws on, you come to a point where you better appreciate the things you have. Put another way, sometimes turning off the stereo helps you appreciate the value of silence.
I'm not saying these two suggestions will solve all of our problems, but they are certainly a start. We don't want to clear-cut our moral forest. Hopefully you will find these ideas helpful the next time you face the darker side of consequentialism in your life.