Saturday, October 22, 2016

Another round on "consequentialism"

Yesterday, Christian philosophy prof. Paul Franks posted a critique of Wayne Grudem's recent article:

In some respects I agree with both of them and disagree with both of them. I agree with Grudem's case against Hillary. I disagree with his support for Trump, although I don't think his argument is "deplorable". 

Conversely, I agree with Franks' opposition to Trump, but I disagree with his central objection to Grudem's article. Today, Franks and I had an email exchange. I'm posting my side of the exchange:

I. First reply

Dear Dr. Franks,

Regarding your recent post on Grudem:

As a trained philosopher, I'm surprised to see you mischaracterize Grudem's framework. You repeatedly accuse Grudem of "consequentialism". Yet Grudem denies that consequences are the sole consideration. In responding to the (3) objection that “When faced with the lesser of two evils, choose neither one,” Grudem says:

Answer: I agree with this principle when facing a choice between doing two evil actions. For example, when faced with a choice between stealing and telling a lie, I should choose neither one. But this is not that kind of situation. We are not talking about doing something evil. We are talking about voting.

So Grudem clearly thinks some actions are intrinsically wrong. Consequences alone could never warrant those actions. He just doesn't think voting for Trump is one of those actions. 

Now, what Grudem says in that regard is very brief. It may not be an adequate counterargument to the objection, but he clearly rejects the position that consequences are a sufficient criterion in moral valuation. 

In addition, why do you seem to absolutize "conscience"? Conscience is not infallible. 

II. Second Reply

Thanks for your reply. Actually, I'm operating with standard definitions of consequentialism. For instance:

Consequentialism is the view that morality is all about producing the right kinds of overall consequences.   

Consequentialism, as its name suggests, is the view that normative properties depend only on consequences. This general approach can be applied at different levels to different normative properties of different kinds of things, but the most prominent example is consequentialism about the moral rightness of acts, which holds that whether an act is morally right depends only on the consequences of that act or of something related to that act, such as the motive behind the act or a general rule requiring acts of the same kind.  

Consequentialism assesses the rightness or wrongness of actions in terms of the value of their consequences. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy (1998), 2:603. 

But that's clearly not his framework. He cites two examples (stealing, lying) which he considers to be morally wrong regardless of the consequences. Hence, he doesn't think consequences are sufficient to justify every action. 

The question at issue isn't whether his argument is successful, but whether he's a consequentialist. His argument for voting for Trump may be an abject failure. That doesn't make him a consequentialist.

Suppose I'm about to drive home from work. The freeway is congested. At that time of day, a side street will get me home quicker than the freeway, so I choose the side street. Surely that doesn't commit me to consequentialism. 

Moreover, I don't know why you treat following one's conscience as the logical alternative to consequentialism. For instance, deontology isn't based on appeal to conscience. 

III. Third Reply

This is what I take you to be saying. Your position appears to be that although someone may not be a consequentialist, yet if in particular case he only take results into account in making his decision, then he is, in that instance, guilty of "consequentialist-based reasoning". If that's what you are saying, I think that's demonstrably false. 

Consequentialism is the position that, as a matter of principle, "morality is all about producing the right kinds of overall consequences," "whether an act is morally right depends only on the consequences of that act," or "the value of their consequences."

i) Now, to recur to my first example, in choosing which route to take home, I only care about the results (i.e. getting home by the fastest route). That, however, doesn't mean I think that, as a matter of principle, the value of the results is the only consideration in decision-making.

Rather, it means that, all other things being equal, the desired result is the deal-breaker. Put another way, in a choice between two morally neutral options, consequences may be all that matter. That's the decisive consideration. 

Again, though, that's different than saying, as a matter of principle, that consequences are the only consideration. Rather, it just means that in this particular case, there happen to be no other morally salient factors or countervailing factors. So, by process of elimination, preferred results are the only remaining differential factor. 

ii) Take another example: suppose I have a teenage son with cancer. With treatment, he has a 95% of survival. Without treatment, he has a 95% chance of dying. Given those options, I have him undergo cancer therapy. All I care about is effective treatment. That, however, isn't consequentialist-based reasoning. Rather, it means there are no other countervailing factors to consider in this instance. To bring that into relief, let's compare it to some different examples:

iii) Suppose two patients need a heart transplant to survive. One is 15 and the other is 75. Here the age of the patient introduces an additional moral consideration. It's not that the life of the 75-year-old patient is intrinsically less valuable than the life of the 15-year-old patient. And it's certainly not that the elderly are not entitled to good medical care.

But the 75-year-old patient has already had an additional 60 years of life, compared to the 15-year-old patient. And with a heart transplant, suppose that extends his life for another 10 years. It's unfair that he should have an extra 70 years to live at the cost of the teenager dying at 15. 

iv) Suppose I'm a ruthless military dictator. I discover that my teenage son has a congenital heart defect. He needs a heart transplant to survive. Without it he could drop dead at anytime.

I have my goons round up 50 heathy young men. I have them subjected to genetic testing to isolate the most compatible donor. I then have the donor euthanized to harvest his heart to save my son.

Now that truly is consequentialist-based reasoning. That's only concerned with the results–to the exclusion of countervailing moral considerations. 

v) Let's finish with a different kind of example. Suppose I believe that all other things being equal, a candidate's character is a morally germane consideration in choosing who to vote for.

Suppose, however, there are only two viable candidates, and both of them share the same morally disqualifying character. In that event, they cancel out the character criterion. 

It's not that I think character, per se, is irrelevant. But that criterion has been mooted by the two candidates. So I focus on their respective policies. 


  1. Good job posting someone's emails without permission.

    1. I didn't post someone else's emails. I posted the statements I made. I don't need permission to quote myself.

    2. Paul Franks was complaining about this on Twitter yesterday. Posted a picture of his email reply to you that showed some of your email... Did he ask your permission? Just curious.

  2. the James,


    From the top of Hays' post:

    'Today, Franks and I had an email exchange. I'm posting my side of the exchange: