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).


Indirect Proof and Necessary Evils

April 4, 2009

In most fields of philosophy, a set of propositions that entails a contradiction is held inconsistent, following the law of non-contradiction.1 Where one can rank the support for the various propositions, this allows the figure of indirect proof: if adding a proposition to a set of beliefs singly better supported than it produces a contradiction, the proposition added must be considered false.2

In one field of philosophy, however, most people seem to hold this method of reasoning invalid: ethics. Many proposed ethical systems place upon people burdens to two or more incompatible actions. Elsewhere, such a system would be held inconsistent, and in need of alteration. In ethics, however, the law of non-contradiction does not seem to apply: an actor faced with contradictory obligations should follow one, considering his violation of the other a necessary evil, regrettable but not fatal to the system.3

This strikes me as exceedingly sloppy reasoning. We do not hold that although Newtonian physics and relativity are contradictory, they are both true and we should follow one, considering our denial of the other necessary to avoid indeterminacy; we hold that the contradiction renders any belief in both necessarily false. So it should be in ethics. There are no necessary evils; only false ethical systems that produce them. The true ethical system will at no time obligate an actor to two incompatible actions. This does not mean, of course, that I believe that, a priori, if an ethical system is to prohibit, for example, lying, it must do so in all circumstances; that prohibition may have exceptions (“One may not lie except to criminals”, or even “One may not lie except when doing so is commanded by a higher principle”, with the precedence established).4 However, these exceptions must be inherent to the original ordinance, and not produced from the conflict of absolute ordinances.

Law being a subset of ethics governing enforceable interpersonal interactions, rights are also subject to this prohibition of contradiction. No right may be justly violated at the instigation of any other ethical principle. Thus, long lists of “human rights” such as those of the UN are necessarily false, for they place agents under competing ethical claims. Even the rights to free speech and freedom of property are inconsistent, as in the stock case of crying “fire”. Traditionally, it has been held that in this case the latter right overrides the former. I say, on the other hand, that this instead means that one of these rights is not a true right, but rather a manifestation of something else. Legal questions must be solved by argument from sound principles, not by weighing of incompatible principles in incommensurate units.

1: A strong contradiction is, however, necessary. A set of propositions that produces a paradox is not inconsistent unless the addition of other certain premises produces a strong contradiction.

2: Note, however, that this also applies to the better-supported premises; their contradiction of a supported premise lowers their support correspondingly, even though from the assumption that they are better supported than the new proposition their support remains positive. Thus, one cannot use a set of propositions to disprove a large number of propositions only slightly less-well supported; even though it is more plausible that any one of the introduced propositions be false, it is more plausible that some proposition in the original set be false than that all of the introduced propositions be false. Thus, the set of propositions believed true should be the set that minimizes the combined evidence in favor of propositions believed false.

3: And it is not clear to me why he should do one instead of the other. If government is a necessary evil, unjust but necessary to prevent other injustices, why should we not hold that the injustices consequent on the absence of government are a necessary evil, unjust but irremediable without other injustice?

4: This is ultimately the problem with Kantian ethics and rule utilitarianism. Kant’s categorical imperative may be valid in principle (and is a necessary consequence of moral absolutism), but his use of it to obtain, for example, an absolute prohibition on lying ignores that the true rule of behaviour is not necessarily “lying is acceptable”, but rather “lying is acceptable in this situation”, which one could wish to be a universal principle of action without the consequences attending permission of lying in general. Similarly, for any proposed rule under rule utilitarianism one could propose the modified rule that the previous rule is to be followed except when violations of it would improve utility. The rule utilitarian would then have to say that there is no such instance, which requires much stronger support (and, arguably, moves rule utilitarianism indistinguishably close to deontology, merely approaching from the opposite side (assuming the consistency principle)).


Is and Ought

March 28, 2009

Certain concepts are irreducible, lexically explicable only by circular reference. Reality is one such, definable only in terms of itself. One may specify its proper scope (e.g. “what does not cease to be when one ceases to believe in it”), but not its essential meaning.1 Obligation, too, is irreducible: one may say that we have an obligation to do what is right, and the pursuit of good is right, but ultimately must return to say that good is what we are obliged to pursue.

Inherent to the notion of a fundamental concept is that it is explicable only in terms of itself. Therefore, all attempts to define the nature of reality are pointless: we may be able to find an intricately circular definition, but it will ultimately come down to “what exists, exists”. Cartesian demon presentations of skepticism miss the point: if that is the nature of reality, then so be it. It is still reality, still an environment beyond my control. It is possible to argue that nothing is real, that there is no environment, that everything we experience we actively create, but that seems quite implausible (try as I might, I cannot make myself believe that I am a tree).

Obligation is, like reality, a fundamental concept not explicable except circularly. No amount of reasoning can move from a statement of reality to a statement of obligation. Any such attempt must involve an implicit normative premise, and therefore begs the question as an attempt to define obligation in terms of reality. Utilitarianism, for example, is not a simple definition of the good as the greatest aggregate utility; it is a normative statement that the greatest aggregate utility should be pursued. All ethical theories must contain foundational normative premises that cannot be reduced to observation of reality.

Choice relies on both these realms, applying a normative major premise to a positive minor premise returning an ethical statement to guide action. No theory can avoid this: one can explain the actions of others by positive determinism, but by introspection, one must have some other principle to guide one’s own deliberation. One may attempt to act in conformity to the factors determining the actions of others, but this itself is an ethical belief, that it is right to do so. Amoral action is impossible. Furthermore, relativistic moralities are incoherent, relying on the absolute premise that one should follow whatever relative standard is proposed.

The seeming consequence of this is that one can never violate one’s principles, for all actions, insofar as they are willful, arise from normative syllogisms. Thus, what does it mean to do what one knows to be wrong? Not to forsake ethics, but to abandon one’s former ethical system for another. All wrongdoing is intellectual error. However, we must remember that thought and memory is not static. One can forsake one belief for another in a moment and revert as quickly, as when one afraid of insects but cognizant of their harmlessness starts on encountering one. He started because he feared harm, which fear he knows to be groundless. Nevertheless, he deserted that belief when it became important. Similarly, one who does wrong that he knows to be wrong does not act contrary to his beliefs, but rather temporarily forsakes those beliefs. One may, of course, also be continually wrong, without such a reversion to right beliefs; such are those who know neither repent nor regret. In any case, the fundamental error is in the intellect, not the will. One can never act contrary to what one thinks right at the moment.

1 Many argue that one cannot define the essence of any concept. I would agree that one cannot define any term without recourse to concepts not essentially definable, but I believe that derivative concepts may be so defined.