Philosophical Multicore

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Article of the Day: Consequentialism FAQ

Posted by Michael Dickens on October 3, 2012

http://raikoth.net/consequentialism.html

Today’s article is an excellent piece that explains consequentialism and why it makes sense, and explains some of its implications. It is probably the best introduction to consequentialism that I have ever read.

Here’s an excerpt:

In the deep jungles of Clamzoria across the Freptane Sea is a tall and snow-capped mountain. Within this mountain is a cave which is the lair of the dreaded Hrogmorph, Slayer of Men. Encased within the chest of Hrogmorph is a massive ruby called the Heartstone, a ruby with legendary magic powers. The stories say that whoever wears the Heartstone is immune from the moral law, and may commit any actions he desires without them being even the mildest of venial sins.

Lured by the legend of the stone, you sail the Freptane Sea and trek through the Clamzorian jungle. You defeat the dreaded Hrogmorph, Slayer of Men, in single combat, take the Heartstone from his body, and place it around your neck as an amulet. Upon returning home, you decide to test its powers, so you adopt a kitten from the local shelter, then kill it.

You feel absolutely awful. You just want to curl up in a ball and never show your face again. “Well, what did you expect?” asks the ghost of Hrogmorph, who has decided to haunt you. “The power of the Heartstone isn’t to prevent you from feeling guilty. Guilt comes from chemicals in the brain, chemicals that live in the world like everything else – not from the metaphysical essence of morality. Look, if it makes you feel better, you didn’t actually do anything wrong, since you do have the amulet. You just feel like you did.”

Then Animal Control Services knocks on your door. They’ve gotten an anonymous tip – probably that darned ghost of Hrogmorph again – that you’ve drowned a kitten. They bring you to court for animal cruelty. The judge admits, since you’re wearing the Heartstone, that you technically didn’t commit an immoral act – but you did break the law, so he’s going to have to fine you and sentence you to a few months of community service.

While you’re on your community service, you meet a young girl who is looking for her lost kitten. She describes the cat to you, and it sounds exactly like the one you adopted from the shelter. You tell her she should stop looking, because the cat was taken to the animal shelter and then you killed it. She starts crying, telling you that she loved that cat and it was the only bright spot in her otherwise sad life and now she doesn’t know how she can go on. Despite still having the Heartstone on, you feel really bad for her and wish you could make her stop crying.

If morality is just some kind of metaphysical rule, the magic powers of the Heartstone should be sufficient to cancel that rule and make morality irrelevant. But the Heartstone, for all its legendary powers, is utterly worthless and in fact totally indistinguishable, by any possible or conceivable experiment, from a fake. Whatever metaphysical effects it produces have nothing to do with the sort of things that make us consider morality important.

This article was written by Scott Alexander Siskind. He has written a number of excellent pieces and frequently contributes to Less Wrong.

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2 Responses to “Article of the Day: Consequentialism FAQ”

  1. oneworldnet said

    Apart from reading like a computer fantasy game, there’s no logic in this argument, since all conclusions are based on fantasy ‘facts’ and not real. If a person does something in a spirit of love, giving, tenderness, compassion and co-operation and as a result something bad happens to another which could not have been foreseen but which is the result of coincidence and natural forces, how could the person who committed that act be judged a morally wrong act? It makes no sense, and if posed in real circumstances and not a computer game, this is abundantly clear.

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