Friday, August 26, 2005

Inconsequential Intuition Test

An exchange I had with Vera recently struck me as making very stark the contrast between consequentialism and deontology. Vera wrote:
Suppose you are approached by credible aliens from constellation Sadists-R-Us, and they tell you that they are planning to destroy planet Earth. However, they say, you can save it if you yourself (and they will provide you with the tools to do it): 1) round up all the children under 10 and torture them to death under excruciating conditions, or 2) infect all humans with a lethal strain of plague (but you, your friends and close relations will have immunity), or 3) roast all your close relatives or friends on the spit alive, and then eat them, or 4) insert the most hideous "unthinkable" evil you yourself can think of. Is there any point along the continuum of evil where you would take a stand and say, no, THAT I will NOT do?

To which I replied:
Let me flip your question around: consider a horrible action that you would be (understandably) reluctant to perform -- say, torturing a baby. Are there any possible consequences that would make you reconsider, that you would be willing to sacrifice your "moral purity" for? Say the aliens would torture every baby if you didn't do this one, and then they'd blow up the world as an added bonus. Is there any point along the continuum of evil where you would take a stand and say, no, THAT I will NOT allow?

Chances are, you'll feel a lot more sympathy for one or other of these two lines of attack. If the first, you exhibit symptoms of deontology, and should consult a health professional immediately for psychiatric evaluation. If the second, you have broadly consequentialist intuitions, and should not be allowed near sharp implements, babies, or political power.


  1. I'm not sure either of these cases are particularly well suited for separating the deontologists from the consequentialists.

    In the first case one could be a consequentialist and still refrain from taking the aliens up on their offer. One may, for example, be an Epicurean sort of consequentialist, thinking a) death in and of itself isn't so bad and b) whatever positive values that may come out of life are small compared to the negative values of extreme pain, torture, disease, etc.
    To such a consequentialist all the offered options would be worse than the destruction of the earth.

    In the second case, a consistent deontologist could plausibly say that they are not (for instance) treating the tortured baby as a mere means because they are not subjecting it to something it would not have experience anyway, and that in such extreme cases such a torturing shows greater 'respect for persons' than refraining.

    I also think it's worth noting that it seems possible to be both a deontologist and a nonabsolutist. Stanely Benn provides an account of something like this in A Theory of Freedom.

  2. I'm not sure this is a good illustration except for atheists. After all most theists would argue that the reason we'd cringe for the example is that we believe there is a reward after death.

    Even for separating out the deontologists from the consequentialists among atheists, one might say that the consequentialist *ought* accept the torture, but their intuitions are simply still contaminated by theistic thinking.

    That is, if this is an appeal to intuition, one has to be clear the roll society is playing on the intuitions. I think that one problem atheists will face in making these intuition examples is that almost everyone socialization is thoroughly infused with theistic assumptions. Some might even take the more controversial position that our DNA and thus brain structure entails us to making such assumptions intuitively even if *rationally* they don't make sense.

    (Which is all just a round about way of saying I tend not to trust intuitions without strong caveats.)

  3. I think there really ought to be a third category called "realistic deontologist," which is the category that acknowledges that (s)he'll never have to torture an innocent baby to save the world, and that shooting highly guilty dictators, mass murderers, etc., is consistent with at least some deontological principle that we can rationalize...

  4. One often objects to such examples simply because one does not trust the aliens not to kill us anyway (or not to be bluffing) Iwonder if there is a wy to rephrase it with no requirement to trust the aliens.

  5. We simply stipulate that the aliens are honest and that we are somehow in a position to know this.

    As for the other points, yeah, it probably isn't the perfect test. But at least it does make lucid the different approaches to the (supposed) doing-allowing distinction.

    Clark - I can't say the possibility of an afterlife even crossed my mind when considering this or similar scenarios. I don't expect it would for most other New Zealanders either. I guess it really depends what society you're in. I should remember not to trust American intuitions in future ;)

  6. I know it doesnt really cahnge the logic of your main point but the fact that you dont know why you believe the aliens is likely to play a role in the background of the debate.

    I mean it is a bit like how people may resort to "means dont jsutify the ends" because in their memory the means are thingsyou know and the ends are not. therefoe they may have difficulty with a "do the means justify the ends" hypothetical even if jsut at a subconcious level.

    I was just thinking somthing more like "I need to prevent a bomb going off but I dont know who has the knowledge to diffuse it - will I torture everyone untill I get that information?"

  7. Thank you Richard, for enlarging on our discussion. And I think you nicely point out the absurdity of both sides.

    Myself, I take the stand that yes, there are certain things I will not allow. But I am not constrained by the justificatory paradigm to pretend that what I have done is 100% moral.

    If I torture and kill a baby to save a 100 babies, then I have done something good, and I have done something evil. I do not sweep the dark stuff under the rug under the guise of justification.

    ARGH! :-)



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