Why Consequentialism is True

The thesis I will defend is that non-consequentialist moral theories are so flawed that they shouldn’t even be in the realm of consideration. Not only are they false, they are obviously false. I will show that to the extent they diverge from consequentialism, they fail independently plausible criteria for a good ethical system.

First, a word on the question of realism. This is an essay in normative and applied ethics, not metaethics. I am writing from a broadly quasi-realist or non-naturalist perspective, in which moral facts are heavily sequestered from non-moral facts. The arguments I make are a priori and concern abstract and formal requirements for moral truth, not a posteriori and concerning extrapolation from existing human desires and inquiries into the intrinsic goodness/badness of affective states like happiness and suffering. Think Parfit and Moore, not Aristotle and Mills.

What is consequentialism? What is non-consequentialism? I will carve the line at the distinction between agent-neutral and agent-relative theories. First, some background:

An agent is a machine (person, etc.) equipped with a probability function and value function over states of affairs, and a decision procedure for selecting actions with the highest expected payoff (in value). We stipulate that all agents share the same set of states of affairs.

Agent-Neutrality: all morally perfect agents have the same value function

Agent-Relativity: morally perfect agents can have different value functions

It’s not obvious what these definitions have to do with consequentialism and non-consequentialism. Let’s take two ethical theories and test them using this framework:

Utilitarianism: morally perfect agents assign value to a state of affairs proportional to the total happiness in the state of affairs

Kantianism: morally perfect agents assign infinite disvalue to states of affairs in which they violate the categorical imperative

There are two major differences between the two theories. First, Kantianism is an absolutist theory (it readily assigns infinite value/disvalue). It is important to note that there are numerous moderate neo-Kantian views that are not absolutist. Our issue is not with absolutism per se.

The second difference is that Kantianism, unlike Utilitarianism, fails to uniquely determine a single value function for all morally perfect agents. The indexicality in the definition of Kantianism (each agent must ensure that it itself obeys the categorical imperative) leads to a drastically different value function for each morally perfect agent.

I think this distinction is at the core of the consequentialist/non-consequentialist division. It is not just bad that a murder occurs, it is also bad to perform a murder oneself (says the non-consequentialist). The consequentialist promotes value whereas the non-consequentialist respects value.

Consequentialism is sometimes accused (and gleefully admitted by some of its proponents!) of leading to an esoteric morality that is put into practice in secrecy by an elite minority while a manufactured false morality that leads to good consequences is followed by common folk. Non-consequentialism faces its own problem of esotericism; why should a non-consequentialist promote the true moral theory? They do not care (as much as a consequentialist) about whether someone else does something wrong, so why bother spreading the word? Now, a fleshed-in moral theory could certainly fill this pothole, but a consequentialist could do the same with his problem of esotericism.

Non-consequentialist esotericism is far more problematic. It violates the intuitive principle:

Self-Promotion: agents following the correct moral theory tend to promote the influence of agents (that share similar probability functions) following the correct moral theory

To see why the non-consequentialist falls afoul of this principle, it might be better to get rid of the idea of a non-consequentialist theory altogether. Instead of Kantianism, we have Kantianism Benjy and Kantianism Michael Stevens etc.
What does KantianismBenjy have to do with KantianismMichael Stevens? Why should I care whether Michael Stevens obeys the categorical imperative? I don’t think the categorical imperative itself gives us an answer.

Perhaps I am wrong about the categorical imperative, and perhaps there are plausible extensions of the categorical imperative that solve this difficulty. But if a Kantian cared as much about whether a fellow agent followed the categorical imperative as she cared about whether she herself followed the categorical imperative, she would cease to be a Kantian proper and would be more like a categorical-imperative-obedience maximizer.

The categorical-imperative-obedience-maximizer lies to prevent others from lying and murders to prevent others from murdering. She is really a very strange sort of consequentialist.

What have we shown so far? That consequentialists necessarily care more about their moral theories than non-consequentialists care about their moral theories. From this, we can derive that consequentialists are more likely to form into groups (how are collective decisions even evaluated in a non-consequentialist framework?), more likely to preserve their moral theories for future generations and more likely to evangelize extraterrestrial civilizations. In short: the more consequentialist a theory is, the more likely it is to survive and reproduce. Non-consequentialism doesn’t make a good meme.

I think that most ethical theories propounded throughout history have been mostly consequentialist (in absolute terms). It doesn’t look like we see consequentialism adopted throughout the world because most theories have been consequentialist enough. Notice that radically non-consequentialist theories, like unadulterated Kantianism (even more so, egoism), are extremely rare.

Just because a theory is good at spreading doesn’t mean we should accept it. The fact that natalists create more natalists than anti-natalists create anti-natalists isn’t a very good reason to believe natalism. But consequentialist anti-natalists will at least do their best at making anti-natalism a powerful force, even if it means having kids.

We should take this all as a sign that non-consequentialism doesn’t really care about itself. What I am proposing is even weaker than Robin Hanson’s assertion that Morality Should Exist. I am saying that The Universe Should Be Left in the Hands of the Moral.

What is my vision of morality? Not a set of independent solipsistic value functions, but a transparent and universal blueprint for a good world. Moral agents should act in complete harmony with one another, completely dedicated to the singular task of perfecting nature. What is good is what is right to bring about and vice versa. Morality is not a lonely enterprise, we should take every action as if we are gears in an infinite machine.

Appendix: Supposed Benefits of Non-consequentialism

Consequentialists are sometimes accused of ignoring “the separateness of persons” when aggregating the wellbeing of populations. Aggregation is unavoidable for any serious moral theory. There is simply no better way of weighing the moral claims of distinct individuals. I challenge the non-aggregationist to come up with some other method for resolving difficult cases. Weighted lotteries seem to be the most promising route.

Consequentialist thinking is sometimes blamed for various catastrophes in human history. This argument is so frustratingly awful that I can’t even bear to address it in detail. Two notes: many disasters have arisen from not thinking like a consequentialist, and many false results have been accepted  because of the use of probability theory. We should not give up probability theory.

Consequentialism is sometimes criticized for making morality too uncertain. But why should we suppose that the right action isn’t uncertain? Sensitivity to epistemological considerations is a feature not a bug.


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