On consequentialist ethics

I was somewhat amused to learn, from a LessWrong survey, that a great majority of the rationalist community adheres to consequentialist ethics. It’s not that I would like to see them switch to some other system and not that I think it makes them in some way less ethical than I would like. It’s simply that consequentialism is not, you know, very rational.

It certainly looks mighty rational as you’re deducing consequences and calculating probabilities. In the end, however, it’s simply kicking the can down the road. Instead of deciding whether something is good or bad, you’re looking at its consequences. Fine, but why are those consequences good or bad themselves? Look at their consequences… and so on ad infinitum.

To be sure, looking at consequences is not a vain exercise. We do it all the time, whether we’re making an ethical choice or any other kind of choice in life. But it’s not really about ethics. It’s about steering your course – it’s what you do to leave rocks and sandbanks safely behind, but it’s not a way to figure out where you want to travel in the first place. To put it bluntly, consequentialism is not a kind of ethics; it’s just a tool to apply whichever real ethical positions you hold.

Mistaking consequentialism for a valid ethical position in and of itself leads to all kinds of paradoxes. For example, killing people is bad, but what if you save ten people for killing one? Not save ten by killing one, as war-on-terror apologists claim to, but simply save some unrelated ten people and then take this as an excuse to kill just one. That sounds wretched but it’s what you get if you stick to consequentialism: after all, the consequences of your combined action (saving + killing) will be overwhelmingly positive.

“This is a bullet I am weirdly tempted to bite,” concludes the author. “Convince me otherwise.” Well…

As for my own take on the matter, I call it live ethics.

Update (Aug 2016): the linked blog post no longer contains the words about biting the bullet. I think it’s a good sign.


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