Thursday, October 14, 2010

Selfishness and squeamishness

Since I studied Mill as a first year undergraduate I’ve never seen the alleged counterintuitive results of impartial consequentialism (IC) as a cost to the theory. I’m not saying there aren’t good objections to IC, but the counterintuitive results always seemed quite a positive thing. It’s possible that justice or significant relationships demand that we let the world be a little worse than we have to, or maybe a lot worse. But isn’t that a shame? To my mind it’s simply perverse to look at the world IC asks us to live in and turn it down, actively seeking loopholes in the theory which allow us to live in a worse one. Of course it’s disingenuous to cast the point in precisely these terms: the counterintuitive results aren’t just about the world IC asks us to inhabit, but also about what it asks us to do. But it’s partly about the world it asks us to inhabit. I think all these complaints generally fall into one of two categories: selfish objections and squeamish objections.

I guess it’s pretty obvious where I’m going with this, so I’ll try to keep it short. An example of a selfish objection is that IC demands the rich give away most of their money, because rehydrating a faraway diarrhoea sufferer has better consequences than buying a pint. There’s the objection that giving away your money would just buy Mugabe a new solid gold bathtub, but IC only demands we give away our money if it would really help. Supposing it would help, I don’t see what the problem is supposed to be. We can spend the money improving the world or spend it on ourselves. Whose side would we expect morality to be on?

An example of a squeamish objection is the one that says IC sometimes demands framing an innocent man to stop a bloody riot, pushing a fat guy in front of a runaway train to stop it killing five workmen down the line, or voting tactically to keep the crazies out. It’s understandable that people don’t want to do these things, and sometimes in the long run it can help if people follow some rules, but IC factors in the long run and still sometimes asks us to get our hands dirty. I’m not sure which side you’re meant to be on when you watch Sartre’s Les Mains Sales, but I know which side I was on. Sometimes the only thing necessary for evil to triumph is for good people to act as if everyone was good.

I think that objections to IC stemming from significant personal relationships are a bit of column one and a bit of column two. Suppose I have to choose between saving my cat or two strangers’ cats from a burning building. (If the owner-cat relationship isn’t significant enough, change the example to friends, wives, mothers, children, whatever.) I’d rather save mine, but that’s selfish. It’d be unpleasant to let my cat burn, but that’s squeamish. You get the point.

There’s the demandingness objection to consider, but I don’t see that it’s properly separate. There are conflicts between following IC and indulging our selfishness and squeamishness. Maybe morality doesn’t always demand that we follow IC, but if we’re asking morality what the best thing to do is, I don’t know why we’d expect it to indulge us. If we’re looking for objections to IC I think we should look elsewhere than at our selfish and squeamish intuitions.


  1. Not sure what the force of this is. Do you just have conflicting intuitions, or are you attempting to explain why the alternative intuitions are somehow misled?

  2. I've probably been studying philosophy long enough that I don't have many moral intuitions anymore, but I suppose I'm saying why I'm unimpressed by the anti-IC intuitions of people who do have them. If they can all be put down to selfishness or squeamishness then they're unlikely to tell us to how to be good.