Wednesday, January 21

Consequential Ethics ?

Party alliance aside. I came across this video few days back and found the scenario given by the senator (to the nominated attorney general) interesting. After yesterdays class I am guessing this is an example for consequentialism.


  1. The obvious humor in this video aside, I found it really interesting that he attacked the absurdity of the hypothetical scenario, claiming that the real world "doesn't work that way". Does that mean that the hypothetical situation shouldn’t be taken into account? I have a strong intuition that hypothetical situations, even if they aren’t probable, still need to be taken into account when forming an ethical system (assuming, of course, that they are possible).

  2. I think this is a very tough nut to crack. I tend to agree with Holder that the hypothetical does not deserve answer, but this may set a dangerous precedent for the kind of wild thought experiments we philosophers love to offer (as you saw on Tuesday)! Highly "idealized" and unlikely scenarios are the stock and trade of philosophy for a reason: they put pressure on theories where they are likely to disagree. So how unrealistic can they be and still teach us something?

    There's been a lot of discussion of this sort of case (the "ticking bomb" is canonical example). For instance, one of my former teachers, Jeremy Waldron wrote this of the scenario as proposed by Harvard Law professor Alan Dershowitz:

    The hypothetical asks us to assume that the power to authorize torture will not be abused, that intelligence officials will not lie about what is at stake or about the availability of the information, that the readiness to issue torture warrants in one case (where they may be justified by the sort of circumstances Dershowitz cites) will not lead to their extension to other cases (where the circumstances are somewhat less compelling), that a professional corps of torturers will not emerge who stand around looking for work, that the existence of a law allowing torture in some cases will not change the office-politics of police and security agencies to undermine and disempower those who argue against torture in other cases, and so on.

    These issues point to a feature of sophisticated consequentialist theories (the only ones that I think have a hope of being acceptable) that makes ample use of rules and restrictions in seeking the best consequences. The permissibility of trade-offs (your life for the temporary comfort of millions, say) may in fact lead to worse consequences than the adoption of a rule that puts those sorts of trade-offs off limits. In other words, even a consequentialist like Jeremy Bentham who thought that talk about natural rights was "nonsense upon stilts" could find a way of making sense of the utility of rights-talk.

    If you want a good discussion of sophisticated versions of the major ethical theories I mentioned on Tuesday, you might check out this book.

  3. This is an either or fallacy. It should be mandatory that senators and representatives understand basic logical fallacies. If Eric Holder would have pointed this out, I wonder if Senator Cornyn would have even understood what he was talking about. Instead he refused to answer the question within the given parameters, which I can understand, given the unlikelihood that half the people in the room would have understood the above objection. It would be refreshing if our national dialogue could at least start from some semblance of rationality.


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.