A moral dilemma to disprove consequentialism

February 1, 2007    By: Jacob J @ 9:05 pm   Category: Ethics

I find that many moral dilemmas concocted to show the problems of consequentialism assume the moral reality to be more obvious than it is. In considering moral dilemmas, I often find it useful to imagine how I would react if I learned that God had done the thing being described as immoral. The reason this is useful is that it allows me to strip away all the considerations which are only necessary because of human limitations and imperfections.

We have a limited knowledge

This limitation is an obvious one, so I won’t say too much about it. As humans we are tremendously limited in our knowledge of the facts. We don’t know what people are thinking, we can never be sure who is actually guilty and to what degree, and we don’t know what the ultimate consequences of our actions will be. Our limited knowledge is the source of endless limitations in making moral judgments with confidence.

We are always on the precipice of a slippery slope

As humans, we are terribly susceptible to sliding down the slippery slope. If we make an exception this one time for good and justifiable reasons, we are thereby more likely to make an exception next time on less justifiable grounds. This is the reason we must construct so many moral hedges. We set limits for ourselves which are not truly the moral limits themselves, but which keep us from getting too close to the moral line. God has sure footing and need not be so cautious when treading on a slope. God does not put himself in future moral danger by making an exception to the rule as we do.

We have a limited perpective

This is best illustrated with an example. We don’t have a very good idea why God is so concerned about taking life. From his perspective, things must look very different. After all, he is aware of the deaths of lots of people every day, and he does nothing to stop them. I don’t suspect he is particularly saddened by death in the way we are. We often live in a fantasy that we will never die, but surely God does not–he knows we are all going to die some day. In many cases, it must make little difference to God if someone dies now or in five years. After all, the fact that God has left people free to murder can only mean that when someone does murder, his plans for the victim are not thwarted. So, what makes it so terrible for us to take life? I am not asking this as a question to be answered here, but using it as an example to illustrate that we have a severely limited perspective. When we try to do moral calculus about physician-assisted suicide of terminally ill patients suffering in agonizing pain, we are limited by the fact that we don’t fully understand the basis of the commandment not to kill.

The Moral Dilemma

With some of our limitations in mind, consider the following example I’ve taken from an online paper discussing act-utilitarianism and rule-utilitarianism.*

A common argument against act-utilitarianism is that it condones unjust acts: there can be situations which would be considered right by utilitarian standards, but would conflict with our moral intuitions about justice. For example, suppose I am a doctor, giving a friendless and kinless elderly miser a check-up. He is perfectly healthy, and could potentially live many more years. He also has healthy organs, and I know that there are five children in the hospital awaiting organ transplants, and they will die if they do not receive them. Given that there is no alternative, utilitarianism would imply that I should painlessly kill the miser, and use his organs to save the others. The argument runs that, if what this theory advocates conflicts so greatly with our intuition, it is surely the theory which is wrong. (Will Crouch, http://onphilosophy.co.uk/utilitarianism.html)

The quote above suggests that our intuitions about this situation are clear and obvious, but I don’t think it is so simple. Certainly, I agree that we have a clear intuition about the rights of the miser, but we also have an intuition about the children who will soon die without organ transplants If we are faced with such a situation, our ability to get at the fundamental moral calculus is clouded by our need to protect ourselves from the slippery slope. We must be very cautious about making an exception to our standard moral rules. We are also dramatically limited in the example above by our limited perspective. How can we weigh one life in the balance with another when we know so little about what makes mortal life valuable?

It is here that my original suggestion could potentially help us consider the situation in a new light. What if you learned that God had decided to end the miser’s mortal life so that the children could live? Would that strike you as unthinkable? Or, can you imagine it relatively easily? Given the kinds of things God has been known to do (like flood the world, command the Israelites to slaughter everyone in the promised land, tell Nephi to kill Laban), I don’t think it is unreasonable to imagine that God might view the situation in a different way than we do and be less knee-jerk in applying our blanket rules.

Personally, if I found out that God had killed the miser, it would not be difficult to imagine grounds upon which he could justify such an action (he views death in a different way than I do; he can tell if the life of the children is more important, he can tell if the miser is actually deprived of anything important by dying earlier rather than later, etc.) To be sure, I would be very much against authorizing a doctor to kill the miser and harvest the organs, but I can imagine God doing it relatively easily. To me, this implies that some of the “certainty” about the correct decision assumed by the concoctor of this moral dilemma arises from human limitations rather than the actual clarity of the moral situation.

Is my moral compass sitting too close to a magnet, or is the moral reality less obvious than it is made out to be? Does putting God in the place of the doctor cast it in a different light for you?

* If you are not familiar with act-utilitarianism, all you need to know for this quote is that act-utilitarianism claims that the rightness of an act is determined solely by the consequences of the act.


  1. The problem with all these sorts of discussions is that they appeal to our intuitions to judge ethical positions whereas sometimes we judge our intuitions to be unethical. Same circular problem with the whole dealing with exceptions.

    One of many reasons why I don’t find ethics to be that interesting. As Williamson said, when philosophers run out of arguments they turn to intuitions. (grin)

    Comment by clark — February 2, 2007 @ 12:07 am

  2. There are a few problems which I see with all forms of consequentialism:

    1. They don’t allow anything to be exceptionless or inviolable. Consider Bentham’s view of rights as “nonsense on stilts.” Under consequentialism rights are simply indications of how we should treat people under most circumstances. This seems to be a pretty watered down version of rights.

    2. In the case of utilitarianism, the argument for what the ultimate good is, that which gives goodness to some consequence over others, comes always in the form of assertion. People just say that goodness is reducible to pleasure, joy, happiness, love, etc. but no argument is ever given in support of such claims.

    While I certainly acknowledge that consequences greatly constrain our moral norms, I do not think that such norms can really be reduced to their consequences and nothing more.

    Comment by Jeff G — February 2, 2007 @ 1:00 am

  3. Clark: If you don’t trust intuitions, do you also reject the concepts of: (a) the light of Christ; (b) conscience; (c) the sense that the other has called us?

    What do you propose? We could have the rationalism of Kant that bases ethics on the nature of obligation and duty itself for a rational agent I suppose. Further, where do our intutions about morality somehow lead us wrong?

    Comment by Blake — February 2, 2007 @ 7:37 am

  4. Jacob: Here you reject the notion that God has enough information to make assessment about some ideal best good (which just strikes me as odd and bizaar) doesn’t entail that: (a) killing the old miser is just even if God did it; (b) we could ever make such a decision based on our abilities at reasoning. Yet the argument is precisely that our intuition about killing the miser as unjust could be shown to be wrong. The injustice is that the life of the old man couldn’t be valued against other lives by utilitarian considerations because to do so treats them all as just objects — something like cattle. Kill the old bull to save the calves because we get more meat. That doesn’t seem to me to be a consideration about ethics at all but about economics.

    Comment by Blake — February 2, 2007 @ 7:43 am

  5. I don’t find the light of Christ to be equivalent to intuitions. At least it isn’t for me. Conscience I do find equivalent to intuition. (Indeed I find it a form of it and probably largely the result of cognitive structures developed evolutionarily) The “sense of the other” isn’t intuitive either. I reject that kind of phenomenology. I’m more a Heideggarian than a Husserlian.

    Our moral sense in the religious sense is a form of communication. Beyond that we just muddle as best we can which may mean using intuitions and inductive generalizations. But we can’t draw philosophical inferences from that.

    Comment by Clark — February 2, 2007 @ 11:08 am

  6. Clark (#1),

    All reasoning, logical, moral, or otherwise grounded in intuition. All rational thought strikes me as circular in the sense you are talking about. Epistemology is perpetually concerned with how to deal with this same circularity. Or is it different and I misunderstand?

    Comment by Jacob J — February 2, 2007 @ 12:34 pm

  7. Jeff G (#2),

    I don’t agree with Bentham’s characterization of rights. Be that as it may, I agree that the lack of anything exceptionless or inviolable seems problematic. When I doubt consequentialism, it is on this ground. On the other hand, I am not sure I have identified anything I am comfortable describing as geuninely exceptionless. (Blake obviously has identified such a thing for himself, which is why we go different directions I think.) On most days, the idea that all rules are only usually true strikes me as correct.

    About your second complaint, I think lots of people have made arguments about how they can tell goodness is reducible to pleasure/happiness/whatnot. Is it just that you find those arguments unpersuasive, or have you really not seen such an argument?

    Comment by Jacob J — February 2, 2007 @ 12:34 pm

  8. Blake (#4),

    First, through our discussion over the last couple of days, I now understand what you mean when you say consequentialism is just public policy or economics, so you may be heartened to know something is coming through.

    There seems to be a few words missing from your first sentence, so although I tried parsing it a few times I am still unsure I fully got it. That said, I am saying that killing the old miser is potentially the right thing to do, even if it is unjust according to our ability to judge justice with our very limited perspective.

    One possibility is that if God decided it was right he would do so based on the fact that he can tell it is not genuinely unjust (his view of death being different than ours).

    Another possibility (the one you will be most opposed to) is that it is genuinely unjust, even in God’s view, but that the injustice is outweighed by a greater good. That is, perhaps ethics is dilemma-prone even for God. It is true that I find it unjust to imprison innocent people, but I still imprison people, knowing that some of them will be innocent, because the alternative of letting all criminals go free is unacceptable. We seem quite aware of the fact that we must make these sorts of consequentialist calculations in mortality, but we assume something similar doesn’t exist for God. I am not sure why we think that. It seems to me that there will always be conflicting goods that must be managed, even in heaven. Doing so does not reduce people to cattle, it is simply the best we can do within our actual constraints.

    Comment by Jacob J — February 2, 2007 @ 12:50 pm

  9. “All reasoning, logical, moral, or otherwise grounded in intuition. “

    I don’t agree with that. Could you explain why you believe that?

    I see a keyboard in front of me and reason that it is where it appears to be. Where is the intuition? I reason that it is the same keyboard that was here an hour ago. Where is the intuition?

    Comment by Clark — February 2, 2007 @ 8:52 pm

  10. Ok, I’m coming in late, and haven’t read the comments, but I wanted to play with the miser a bit.

    1. Man doesn’t know if he is damning the Miser or Saving him by killing him at instance X, God (as set up in this story) does know the fate of the man post mortally. God is thus able to allow the man’s death while man is not able.

    2. If the Miser asked to be killed and asked to have his organs used, would it make a difference?

    Comment by Matt W. — February 2, 2007 @ 9:17 pm

  11. Jacob,

    I have seen such accounts, but I do not see them as arguments. They simply show how all good could possibly reduce to pain, pleasure, happiness, etc. In this I am greatly influenced by Moore and his arguments against analytic naturalism as it applies to ethics. I must confess that I am not terribly familiar with any arguments which have come after Moore. (That should all change for me next quarter.)

    I also see most of these accounts as having overly simplistic conceptions of emotional experience. As if some experience only contain one judgment (good/bad) and that such judgments could some how be tallied in any meaningful way. Pain is a good thing in its proper context, as is anger, sorrow and pretty much any other emotion we can think of (except perhaps envy).

    As to norms being exceptional, how about this:
    Violating somebodies rights sometimes is the moral thing to do. However, not believing this fact is the moral thing to do. Thus, sometimes it is moral to believe false things. Perhaps, then, rights-talk could reduce to the good which is produced by our not violating them, but in our believing them to be inviolable.

    If some account like this is not possible, then I see no way of escaping Bentham’s depiction of rights.

    Comment by Jeff G — February 3, 2007 @ 1:44 am

  12. Clark (#9),

    I always have some trepidation when exchanging comments about philosophy with you, Blake, and Jeff, since I, by comparison, have read nothing. So, I allow for the possibility that you may mean something more subtle or nuanced in your language than I am getting from it.

    That said, your complaint in #1 seemed to be that at the root of ethical discussions like this one are judgments which have no basis other than the way it strikes us. These “intuitions” are the ultimate ground for the whole discussion, and yet, as you say, sometimes we want to question those intuitions, so how can we do that without sawing off the branch upon which we sit. Is that what you meant?

    If so, that seems very parallel to the problems we have with epistemology and even rationality itself. When you see the keyboard in front of you and reason that it is where it appears to be, you base this on the way the immediate sense data strikes you. If I suggest that there is no keyboard, that you are in the matrix, to what can you appeal which does not rely wholly on the way things strike you?

    Now, perhaps you will argue that sense data is different than intuitions about morality. Perhaps a better analogy is to our intuitions about logic? Upon what grounds do we hold the law of non-contradiction but an intuition about its truth? Certainly, there have been plenty of people who have denied its veracity, and upon what grounds do we have to argue with them other than that our intuition about logic? And yet, despite the fact that the whole thing rests on our intutions about logic, we still have plenty of opportunities to question other logical intuitions and judge some of our logical intuitions to be ultimately illogical. Seems very analogous to me.

    Anyway, that is the sort of angle I had in mind.

    Comment by Jacob J — February 4, 2007 @ 11:58 am

  13. Matt (#10),

    Your 1. is just the sort of thing I mean when I say we lack perspective, so I agree with your direction on that.

    As to 2., I think it does make a difference because this plays directly into our notion of justice. So, for the purpose of the example, it is important that he not volunteer. (If he volunteers it does not isolate the problem that the moral dilemma is working hard to isolate.)

    Comment by Jacob J — February 4, 2007 @ 12:02 pm

  14. Jeff G (#11),

    I have been avoiding dealing with specific consequentialist theories (e.g. utilitarianism) in an effort to hash out some of the issues surrounding consequentialism itself, but the points you raise are good ones, as is to be expected. I won’t (can’t) take on your larger challenge head on here.

    But, when you say all these emotions are good in their proper context, it seems you are explicitely not saying that they are all good, per se. It seems that the “proper context” for which sorrow becomes a good is the context in which it is necessary for the realization of happiness or of greater happiness. No? If so, then the argument for proper context might very well point to the view you see as overly simplistic.

    I started to respond to your argument about Bentham, but then deleted my response in favor of thinking about it some more.

    Comment by Jacob J — February 4, 2007 @ 12:26 pm

  15. Jacob said of Clark: “That said, your complaint in #1 seemed to be that at the root of ethical discussions like this one are judgments which have no basis other than the way it strikes us. These “intuitions” are the ultimate ground for the whole discussion, and yet, as you say, sometimes we want to question those intuitions, so how can we do that without sawing off the branch upon which we sit. Is that what you meant?”

    Clark, I have a similar question. You appear to me to take the position that the sole basis for any moral belief, or even the belief that we have any moral obligations at all, is intution. Yet intutions are unreliable and not a good guide to the truth of the matter. It seems to me to follow that you don’t believe we have a good basis either for moral judgments or even believing that there is such a thing as moral or ethical obligations at all. Is that you rather eliminativist view?

    Comment by Blake — February 4, 2007 @ 1:24 pm

  16. Blake, my personal view is that we have epistemological access to knowledge about the good but that it doesn’t arise out of philosophical analysis of intuitions. Rather I think that the good is real and really acts upon us and that as we inquire we reach stability in our beliefs regarding the good which indicates the truth about our beliefs on good and evil.

    I don’t have any eliminatist views that I’m aware of in this regard. However simultaneously I’m rather skeptical about attempts to capture in a totality of definitional views. So while I’m quite sympathetic to loosely consequentialist approaches to Ethics I’m rather doubtful of any ability to define the good in terms of any totality of things or their definite properties.

    Put an other way, my view of The Good is that it is real but beyond definition.

    Comment by clark — February 4, 2007 @ 11:01 pm

  17. “When you see the keyboard in front of you and reason that it is where it appears to be, you base this on the way the immediate sense data strikes you.”

    But that’s not an intuition. Further I don’t believe in “sense data” the way you seem to be using it. (Sorry, there are technical reasons for this – those who talk about sense data like that are called Empiricists and there are lots of philosophical problems with thinking about things in that way, not the least of which being the nature of what “sense data” is)

    Certainly I experience a phenomena of the keyboard, my typing and so forth. But the phenomena of how good and evil are presented to me seem a bit different. Further, when philosophers talk about intuitions they tend to be contrived examples where they ask for people’s judgments about the thought experiment. These judgments are taken to be the intuition. I tend to distrust such things.

    Comment by clark — February 4, 2007 @ 11:13 pm

  18. Clark,

    I anticipated your response in #17 and provided a follow up point about logic in my last paragraph of #12. I am interested if you would respond similarly to that point.

    Comment by Jacob J — February 5, 2007 @ 10:23 am

  19. Jacob, there are multiple kinds of logic each with their own realm of appropriate usage. Not all have the law of non-contradiction.

    As to why we pick the logic we do, it is akin to why we pick the mathematics we do in physics – based upon our inductive understanding of the phenomena, our abductive guesses at best explanation, and our testing of the same to see if our ideas hold. Sometimes they do. Sometimes they don’t. One can look at the switch from classical physics to quantum mechanics as a switch between logics.

    Comment by clark — February 5, 2007 @ 12:22 pm