Obviously the ends justifies the means

There are two mainstream versions of the idea that "the ends can't justify the means" that need refuting. One is based on the "non-aggression principle" and says it can never be justified to violate rights in any situation, which is a common belief among libertarians. Michael Huemer's "Risk Refutes Absolutism" gives as good an argument against this one as I can give. But there's another common deontologist position, based on Thomas Aquinas's principle of double effect, which says that good outcomes *can* outweigh evil outcomes (even rights violations), justifying the act, *if* the good outcomes aren't *because of* the evil ones. But besides being extremely counter-intuitive, this position suffers from its own logical problem: you can't always objectively define whether an act counts as having an evil *means* or an evil side effect.

Risk Refutes Absolutism

Let's look at two scenarios often used as examples, the organ transplant and trolley problem. The organ transplant is:

You are a doctor with 5 patients in need of various organ transplants. Without the organs, all 5 patients will die today. Time is almost up when an innocent bystander arrives at the hospital who has the required organs to save all 5 patients. You can either let this bystander walk away while your 5 patients die, or murder the bystander and use their organs to save all 5 patients. Assume the bystander doesn't consent to being sacrificed.

And the trolley problem:

A train is about to hit 5 people are tied to the track. You can either do nothing and let 5 people die, or you can switch the track, sending the train on a different path where only 1 person is in the way. Again, assume this person doesn't consent to being sacrificed.

Deontologists would say you can't murder the bystander because that would be an evil means, which can't be justified by the good outcome of saving 5 people, even though 5 is more than 1. But many of them would say you can switch the track because that kills 1 person *as a side effect*, not *as a means* to saving the 5 people.

Now, let me offer an alternate analysis with the same ethical theory: killing the hospital bystander is okay because you're not actually killing them *as a means* to getting the organs. The bystander dying is just a side effect of cutting them open, which allows you to get the organs to save the 5 patients.

(Incase you're thinking that cutting the bystander open is itself an evil means because it causes them pain: no, the pain you inflict on the bystander is a *side effect* of cutting them open, not a means to cutting them open.)

Why is this analysis wrong? How can you determine that killing the bystander counts as an indisivible action which is the means, rather than cutting them open being the means and everything else, including the death and pain you cause, being side effects and thus eligible to be outweighed by saving 5 people?

I call this the "arbitrary line" argument, because it shows that there's no objective way to draw the line between means and ends, so we can't use that as part of an ethical framework.

By the way, a consequentialist (or what Huemer calls a "moderate deontologist") doesn't have to think that murdering the bystander is acceptable. It's possible that the ratio needed to justify a rights violation is greater than 5:1 (maybe it would be acceptable if it saved *100* patients), or it's possible that the act is wrong because it doesn't actually have good consequences in the long term (once this incident becomes public knowledge, people might lose trust in hospitals and refuse to go to them for fear of being sacrificed, and maybe this would lead to many more than 5 deaths).

Secondly there's a misunderstanding about consequentialism that's important to dispel. Good ends can *justify* evil means, but can't *purify* them. For example in the organ transplant scenario, even if it's justified to murder the 1 person, it would *still* be murder, and if you were to meet your victim in another world, you'd owe them your life in restitution. Even though it was justified for you to murder them. If this seems bizarre, consider that if it had been possible to save the 5 people by sacrificing your own life instead of someone else's, you wouldn't have been justified in sacrificing someone else. The ends can *justify* the murder, but they can't make it not murder.

With that distinction illuminated, there's a fascinating observation I want to share about the effects of different ethical frameworks on the mind: *People who claim to think consequences can never justify evil means are more likely to make appeals to consequences than consequentialists.*

Examples: every conservative argument against anarchism, many conservative or libertarian arguments against communism (anything about incentives or historical results), and many right-"libertarian" arguments for national borders. I can't think of a single time I've heard an avowed consequentialist commit this fallacy.




There's a profound but straightforward psychological explanation for this. Their position doesn't work; its implications are too far from aligned with their conscience and intuition. They intuitively know that in some situations consequences can outweigh justice, but can't admit it, so the only path open to them is to say that injustice was actually justice because of the consequences. They're unwilling to separate justice from consequences, so they pollute them with each other.


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