Consequentialism and Unit Conversions

August 7, 2009

It is easy to compare measures in the same units; comparing measures in different units of the same type (as length or time) merely takes a bit more work. But how is one to compare measures in units of different types? Is a mile more or less than a minute? One can answer this question readily in a specific context; if driving at 60 mph, the two may be called equivalent. But unlike a conversion between, say, feet and metres, where the conversion is inherent to the units involved, such a conversion between miles and minutes relies also on the situation.

All this is a very roundabout method of presenting my fundamental difficulty with consequentialism: it relies on mathematically impossible calculations. A consequentialist asserts that the value of an action can be measured by its consequences, and actions compared by the relative worth of their consequences. The difficulty is in comparing the value of disparate things. A typical consequentialist argument that I hear too often is that the harm done by taxation is smaller than the good provided by the security that the taxation can secure, and that therefore taxation is a net good. This argument could mean one of two things. Possibly, it means that physical security is more important than financial security, and therefore that any increase in physical security outweighs any amount of taxation. But this seems false; is security so valuable that the smallest modicum of security outweighs the greatest theft?1 Perhaps, then, the argument is proportional: the actual security gained outweighs the theft, although were the provision of security less efficient it would not. But security is one thing, and theft another. By what conversion are we to coIt is easy to compare measures in the same units; comparing measures in different units of the same type (as length or time) merely takes a bit more work. But how is one to compare measures in units of different types? Is a mile more or less than a minute? One can answer this question readily in a specific context; if driving at 60 mph, the two may be called equivalent. But unlike a conversion between, say, feet and metres, where the conversion is inherent to the units involved, such a conversion between miles and minutes relies also on the situation.

All this is a very roundabout method of presenting my fundamental difficulty with consequentialism: it relies on mathematically impossible calculations. A consequentialist asserts that the value of an action can be measured by its consequences, and actions compared by the relative worth of their consequences. The difficulty is in comparing the value of disparate things. A typical consequentialist argument that I hear too often is that the harm done by taxation is smaller than the good provided by the security that the taxation can secure, and that therefore taxation is a net good. This argument could mean one of two things. Possibly, it means that physical security is more important than financial security, and therefore that any increase in physical security outweighs any amount of taxation. But this seems false; is security so valuable that the smallest modicum of security outweighs the greatest theft?1 Perhaps, then, the argument is proportional: the actual security gained outweighs the theft, although were the provision of security less efficient it would not. But security is one thing, and theft another. By what conversion are we to compare one to the other? It might be objected that individuals perform such tradeoffs daily; when one purchases a good or service one is asserting that one prefers the item to the money, and the conversion is contextually supplied by one’s preferences. However, another might choose differently, and therefore the conversion is therefore not universal but situational. Furthermore, only individuals hold preferences, strictly speaking; societal preferences must be built from individual preferences, and no method of doing this is inherent to the preferences.2 And, even if such a conversion did exist, I have never heard mention of it in such discussions. How does the consequentialist decide which quantity is greater, aside from a conversion standard? He cannot. Yet one who asserts one thing to be better than another without comparison of their effects by some such conversion is no true consequentialist.

Some utilitarians, such as the hedonists, seek to avoid this problem by avoiding such conversions, claiming that only pleasure is good and thus that all things may be compared in common units of pleasure. But pleasure is by no means as simple to measure as distance. J.S. Mill, for example, divides pleasure into higher and lower types, which are to be valued differently. But at what exchange? Bentham attempts to avoid that difficulty with his claim that “quantity of pleasure being the same, pushpin is as good as poetry.” But how are we to measure pleasure? What, precisely, is a packet of pleasure? Or is it continuous, rather than discrete? I see no path around the question within consequentialism, nor do I see a direct solution.

Therefore, it seems to me that consequentialism cannot serve as a guide to conduct. Whenever you hear someone saying that we should do something because its gains outweigh its losses, or one thing rather than another because its net gain is greater, and the consequences at issue are disparate, ask by what conversion he compares the two. If he cannot answer, his argument is nonsensical; if subjective, his argument fails to bind others. A legitimate answer I have never heard.

1: I do not wish to assume that theft is innately bad, which any consistent consequentialist would deny, but that the seizure of resources prevents them from being used elsewhere, causing (presumably) some loss of good.

2: This, of course, does exclude any claim that the free market uniquely identifies societal preferences. On the other hand, it also precludes any argument that it does not–the matter is simply undefined. Distribution must be determined without recourse to welfare arguments (which allows the reentry of the free market as just).