What’s Wrong With Consequentialism
As this first tweet in a series of thoughtful questions from my friend Bear Braumoeller points out, the difficulty for my argument that George W. Bush ought not to be compared with Osama Bin Laden is attempting to sort out intentions.
In my most recent post on Noam Chomsky’s comparison of Bush and Bin Laden, I ascribe terrible intentions to Bin Laden and less terrible intentions — in fact, I wrote “good intentions (insofar as he didn’t set out to kill civilians)” — to Bush. I have to leave open the possibility that I might be wrong, of course: Bush might have intended to kill lots of civilians. But I suspect not. For all of his many faults and for all of his terrible policy choices, I’ve never seen any evidence that Bush intended to kill civilians in Iraq.
But then Braumoeller brought up the sanctions policy:
I mean, it’s inconceivable that they didn’t know that civilians would die. A LOT of civilians. Tiny ones. Before acting.
Braumoeller is right that sanctions are a terrible policy and I said so to him on Twitter. The people who implemented the sanctions— not limited to Bush, of course — ought to have chosen a different policy for a great many reasons. I am very confident about arguing that sanctions seldom impact the elites — like Hussein in Iraq — and most often harm the people, those we say we’re trying to assist. If I had to choose a policy, I wouldn’t choose this one … because, historically, it hasn’t achieved the aim it purports to achieve. From a range of policy options, I’d select one that has a better track record. But that’s quite different from making the choice not to implement sanctions because of their possible negative consequences in the future. So, what I want to suggest is two-fold.
First, we can guess at the possible (and even the likely) consequences of our actions, but guessing is the best we can ever do. We won’t ever know for sure what the consequences will be — even if we’ve already tried the same policy — until we’ve taken the action and then looked at what has happened as a result. That’s why Kant rejects consequentialism as a way to make decisions: it doesn’t help us to make decisions in the same way that, for example, the categorical imperative helps us. For Kant, the policy we should adopt is the one that is right and the way to determine a policy’s rightness is to consider whether or not we could will its universalization, not whether its consequences will be good or bad.
Second, what this entire discussion demonstrates, more than anything else, is the single biggest problem with consequentialism: we can use the theory to make any sort of argument we’d like. In other words, we can make a case for taking the actions that Bush took and we can make a case for not taking the actions that Bush took … using the components of utilitarian consequentialist theory. Here’s how that works:
Bush could have reasonably guessed at the terrible consequences of both the war and the sanctions, and should have chosen different policies because of these consequences. But, using the same logic, he could have done that guess-work and concluded that the benefits for the greatest number of Iraqi civilians outweighed the costs. There’s nothing wrong, according to consequentialism, with sacrificing some people if the result is good for a greater number of people. These are the two sides of consequentialism and they allow us to either condemn Bush for his terrible policies based on their consequences or to excuse Bush for selecting policies based on a “greatest-good” calculation.
The same simply cannot be said about Bin Laden, which was my original point. For whatever similarities there might be in the consequences of their actions, their intentions were very different. We don’t have any reason to believe that Bush knew sanctions would kill a great many innocent people and that he then chose that policy because it would have those consequences. We know exactly that about Bin Laden.