Luben on Deontological Ethics and Consequentialism

I need to post a few more quotes. These are excellent and worth reading – still from the first article:

My problem with consequentialism and utilitarianism has nothing to do with how they handle the hard cases and issues. Nor is my preference for deontological ethics based upon the hard cases either. My reasoning (pre-reading this article) has been identical to that of Luban, but he says it much, much better than I do:

“[A] familiar drawback to consequentialism: it always makes morality hostage to evil. ‘Would you torture to stop the ticking bomb from detonating?’ is no different in form from ‘Would you set up a torture bureaucracy in order to make sure you could torture effectively in a TBS?’; nor is it different in form from ‘Would you commit genocide to stop a larger genocide?’ or ‘Would you rape one child to prevent ten children from being raped?’  Consequentialism has easy answers to all these questions – Bernard Williams thought that fact is itself a fatal objection to consequentialism – and its answer is  that enormous evils can nevertheless be lesser evils, and lesser evils can be morally obligatory even though they are enormously evil.  The worse the world is, the worse the behavior that morality countenances to combat it, with no limit to how low we can sink.”

For many of us, however, a system that imposes no intrinsic limits on how low we can sink lacks the essential character of morality – call it the moral attractiveness of acting morally. What would be the point of morality if moral action no longer has any connection with elemental decency?

My argument here is not about personal integrity, that is, the special first-personal character of one’s own values, but about whether a system in which any atrocity, no matter how vile, can be permitted (or, worse, required) can count as a morality.  Consequentialists will not downplay the evils of torture, as I have described them above.  They cannot, because their system demands that they assign accurate weights to consequences.  But, without knowing what the alternatives are, consequentialists will likewise not believe that any moral conclusions whatever follow from identifying the evils of torture.  While their position is not a logical contradiction, it severs the ground of morality – the goodness and evil of states of affairs – from the ground of action.

There may simply be an unbridgeable gulf between the theoretical sensibilities of non-consequentialists, who regard compulsory choice among monstrous evils as morally pointless, the equivalent of rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic, and those of consequentialists, who patiently point out that the rearranged chairs actually would make the doomed passengers a tad more comfortable in their final minutes, and isn’t that a good thing?

Another indicator of the unbridgeable gulf is this.  To the non-consequentialist, recognizing the surpassing horror of torture provides an iron-clad reason not to engage in it.  To the consequentialist, recognizing the surpassing horror of torture provides an iron-clad reason to do anything to prevent it – including committing it in lesser degree.  Thus, in a variant of the TBS in which torturing one captive is the only way to learn the location where ten hostages are being held and tortured – not completely fanciful in today’s Iraq – the same revulsion toward torture that underwrites an absolute prohibition on torture also urges us to engage in it” (29-31; my emphasis).

I would continue quoting, but I’ve probably done too much already.

Rather, I would strongly encourage everyone to at least read pages 34-36 (marked as 35-37 on the PDF reader itself).

But just two more quotes – short summaries of the other two possible interpretations of Shue’s dictum:

(3) Ordinary practices of moral rationality fail in cases where all courses of action are monstrous.  The artificial cases ethicists cook up to control for monstrosity by isolating the right- and wrong-making characteristics of action are misleading.That is precisely because they cover over the monstrousness with a veneer of rationality.

(4) Artificial cases make bad ethics because their very artificiality makes the unthinkable thinkable (31-32, 36).