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A brief treatise on answering consequentialism

haksayngAug 15, 2018, 10:53:30 PM

Wouldn't we all like less traffic accidents, less homelessness, less starvation, and less police violence?  If policy ABC can fix problem XYZ, shouldn't it be implemented? 

The temptation of power

Consequentialist arguments for programs like the forced redistribution of wealth, stricter gun control, and measures to make funding equal for men's and women's sports are united by one common thread: it is sometimes necessary to apply some force to get desirable results.

Apply force? Won't people peacefully get on board with programs for good causes?

Here's the rub: if it wasn't necessary to force people to do something, then we wouldn't need laws with guns behind them to make people do the thing.

Consequentialist arguments thus commonly emerge from envisioning "if only..." scenarios. People don't do the thing a law would be necessary for, so some force is necessary to "nudge" the meanie poo poos into line.

You, the philosopher king!

There are people that lie, cheat, and steal. But if you were in power, surely you could make things better? Yes?! If you were put in charge of your country's budgets, you could do sooooo much more. What if you were king of the world?

Consequentialist arguments start with assumption that you can know the future. Armed with big data, machine learning, blockchain technology (or whatever is trendy these days), you (the smart one) know how to make things better.

So why isn't everybody listening to you already? Here is where the temptation starts.

Populist morons just want a demagogue. Sheeple just need something to believe. Asking? Respecting property? We need revolution. (I'll be in the ruling class, of course). Well, maybe we can start with institutional reform. But I'll need some capital to get started... please!

Who is right?

The first problem with consequentialist arguments is that nobody knows the future perfectly.

Two people may argue on and on about whose policy is a better idea, but without some objective way to compare two methods, very little middle ground if any is likely to be found.

For instance, suppose Andrew is advocating for Universal Basic Income (e.g. $1000 a month in your bank account, no conditions) while Bernie is advocating for a needs-based supplementary income program combined with a $15/hr. minimum wage.

Whose plan will work better?

Andrew and Bernie both take turns pointing to their favorite European countries, speculating about what the future might hold. Whose proposal will work better to alleviate the sufferings of the poorest of the poor? Whose proposal will do better to expand the middle class?

Return to principles

Here, let us define having power as being able to initiate the use of force: making someone do something under the threat of violence. Let theft be defined as depriving somebody of their property by force. There are many words for using force to physically hurt or kill people, including assault and murder. 

The basic moral framework here is the silver rule: do not do to others what you would not like them to do to you. Hence, do no murder, do not steal, and so forth. Religions such as Christianity teach these rules as coming from God, e.g. à la Ten Commandments.

By these definitions, taxation is theft because it is making people either (a) hand over the shekels, or (b) get locked up in a cage (go to jail). Thus, the principled approach to the Andrew vs Bernie debate is...

...both are wrong because both programs will have to be fueled by taxation.

The preferred politician is the one that aims to curb or reduce government size in the long run, steering towards a maximally free, minimally coercive society.

Answering consequentialism

The principled solution to social ills is therefore: do not fight evil with evilUsing slavery to end slavery? Using theft to combat theft? To these, we must say NO!

Answering consequentialism with principle is choosing not to fight in the mud.

There is an old proverb, "the road to hell is paved with good intentions". How is it that well meaning people end up doing terrible things? Or, how do people initially intending to do good become cynical and jaded and end up becoming what they first despised? [1]

The suggestion offered here is that embracing consequentialist arguments and submitting to temptations of power may be how many embark down that dark road. Pursue and promulgate universal principles, not more theft-funded programs and legislation.

If knowing the future is your gig, then go make tons of money and build your Utopia! But please, do not force other people that do not share your vision of the future to comply to your wishes with threats of violence.


[1] I'll leave it to the comments section for people to suggest their favorite films, novels, etc. that tell this story.