One objection to consequentialism is that there's no way we could even begin to guess at the full (long-term) consequences of our actions, millenia into the future. As such, we would seem to be 'morally blind', unable to attain moral knowledge. Now, I need to take this objection especially seriously, because - as an indirect utilitarian - I tend to think that the standard "counterexamples" to consequentialism (e.g. the organ-harvesting doctor) fail to take the big picture into account, and thus mistake what consequentialism would actually recommend. But then, it must be asked, when we do consider the big picture, what does consequentialism recommend?
The difficulty is exacerbated by the butterfly effect: the smallest changes in initial conditions can have momentous consequences, as the differences ripple outward, each sparking off a cascade of new differences itself, which accumulate and become ever more significant as time progresses. In a way, it's both gratifying and awe-inspiring: every decision we make, everything we do, has a profound impact on the course of future history. (This is the more ego-friendly way of thinking about determinism.) But what chance do we have of foreseeing this future?
Actually, I think we can generally know pretty well what sorts of actions are likely to produce a better future. These judgments are fallible, of course, but that's true of everything. It's possible that some particular repugnant action (murder or sadistic torture, say) will just happen to ultimately prove beneficial. But the vast majority of the time that surely won't be the case. So, as indirect utilitarians, we play by the numbers and adopt that "practical morality" or strategy that will give us the best results that are really possible for us.
I think it's interesting to ask what sort of practical morality would be recommended by this long-term view. The most morally salient action-types will be those which are in some sense self-propagating, setting up a "cycle" that will continue to echo through the generations. Bearing this in mind, child abuse is perhaps one of the most evil things in the world -- not just because of the damage done to the individual victim, but because it risks corrupting his psychology in such a way as to perpetuate the "circle of violence", as the victim grows up to become an offender themselves. Any one individual's suffering is not so significant in the grand scheme of things, however. So the long-term view might lead us to conclude that non-viral actions (might murder be an example?), which don't tend to self-replicate in this fashion, are not so serious. That is, we might be forced to conclude that it is better for an abuser to kill his victims rather than release them, if the former evil would be less "contagious". This is a surprising result. I'm curious to hear what others think of it.
The very best actions will also be those which tend to propagate themselves. Education stands out, for me, as a very significant issue here. But that's a topic for a future post. More generally, virtuous character seems to be pleasantly contagious. There are some people I've known whose sheer goodness makes me too want to be a better person. Random acts of kindness can inspire the recipient to "pass it forward" (there was a neat movie built around this idea), again creating a ripple effect which builds towards a significantly better future. Compassion, generosity, sincerity, and passion, all strike me as viral virtues. Each individual instance tends to do some minor good, and also tends to influence others to replicate it. Similarly, but in a negative fashion, for the vices: selfishness, deceitfulness, hatred, and perhaps apathy.
This is all very speculative, admittedly. (A philosopher's attempts at armchair sociology are probably not to be trusted.) So, if my meta-theory is correct, then our moral theorising will need to become more empirically informed about what I have called "viral" or "contagious" action-types. The future of consequentialism thus depends upon progress in developmental psychology, sociology, and the social sciences generally, if it is to survive skeptical concerns about the future.