My views on consequentialism

A reader asks how seriously I take my consequentialism,

As I listen to the democratic senators questioning Amy Coney Barrett, I hear them engaging in speculative consequentialism. They ask to what extent the judge should consider what the questioners regard as catastrophic consequences of a decision that is otherwise reached through sound legal reasoning and constitutional validity. In particular they are claiming that millions of people will lose their health care if the court strikes down the Affordable Care Act, even if the justices rightly believe the act to be unconstitutional. Therefore, they argue, the right thing to do is to uphold the act.

1. I don’t consider myself a devotee of any well-known moral philosophy. There is a reason that the field is still contested.

2. I make a case for consequentialism against the intention heuristic in cases of high causal density. In such cases, it is very hard to know the consequences of one’s actions. Will raising the minimum wage by $1 do more good than harm for low-wage workers? We don’t know. You have to take whatever information is at hand and make your best guess. But using as a shorthand the intention that you have of helping low-wage workers is a terrible way to form your judgment. In my view, the intention heuristic used in that way does not qualify as moral philosophy. It is bad thinking.

3. So don’t ask me to make a full-on stand in favor of consequentialism. But whatever virtues and defects consequentialism has in the abstract, in practice I think that paying at least some attention to consequences is better than relying on the intention heuristic.

4. In the question at hand, there is a question of whether consequences should be judged on a case-by-case basis or on the basis of general rules (“act” utilitarian vs. “rule” utilitarian). That is a can of worms I do not want to open. But suffice to say that allowing an unconstitutional law to stand might be ok in an “act” utilitarian sense but really bad in a “rule” utilitarian sense.

In short: Consequences are hard to predict. That is why we need to worry about consequences!