Bryan Caplan  

Most People Are Consequentialist???

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Robin blogs a new piece based on a survey of Swedes.  Its conclusion: most people are consequentialist.  I don't buy this for a second.  Consider the response options:
How bad an action is, from an ethical point of view, depends primarily on:
5.3% How bad the consequences of the action are for myself
62.7% How bad the consequences of the action are for other people and for society
17.5% The extent to which the action infringes upon someone else's natural rights
10.6% The extent to which the action violates what is natural
3.7% The extent to which the action violates Christianity according to the New Testament in the Bible
0.3% The extent to which the action violates the rules given by any other religion (such as Islam or Buddhism)
I detect serious bias.  The main deontological option uses obscure jargon ("natural rights"?; why not just "rights" or "freedom").  And there's no fairness option, such as "How fairly everyone has been treated."  There isn't even an equality option, which I suspect would be quite popular in Sweden.

Worse still, the main conclusion hinges on responses to an extremely abstract question.  When you pose specific moral questions, Jonathan Haidt and others show that almost no one is remotely close to pure consequentialism.  Swedes' true commitment to consequentialism is as illusory as Americans' commitment to free markets.


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COMMENTS (5 to date)
Ari T writes:

I'm not a Swede, but I know many Swedes and generally there's a lot of similar mental atmosphere among Nordic welfare states.

I think David Friedman put it best. Since moral philosophy is not figured out yet or anytime soon, he prefers consequentialist arguments.

I'd guess from anecdotal evidence that there's a lot less natural rights arguments in the welfare states than there are in US. People make natural rights arguments every now and then, but there's a preference towards consequentialist arguments.

For example, in US health care debate I see people constantly referring a lot to constitution or natural right not to have a mandate on health care. Such arguments would signal simple-mindedness here (I'm not saying it is but what it looks like to many).

I'd guess our preferences in real-life (not politics) reveal we care much less about natural rights, but we talk a lot about in politics (signalling anyone?). But that's just a guess.

Alex Godofsky writes:

It's pretty clear that most people are some flavor of rule consequentialist; they will stick to a principle until the consequences of that are sufficiently bad to defect. For example, see the "ticking time bomb" thought experiment for justifying torture: almost everyone ends up either agreeing that torture is OK, or disputing the consequences.

alanmcole writes:

Consequentialism is clear and succinct, so the poll option for it represents it quite well. Non-consequentialist ethics are harder to describe, so the poll options for them are less able to capture all the non-consequentialist people.

Jameson Burt writes:

Ethics is merely a subset of decision theory.
So, making an ethical decision can acquire the structure for making a decision,
a loss function, a probability distribution,
and it can decide this for future consequences in 20 years.

Deliberating on consequentialism easily over-simplifies to its false rejection.
Counter-examples look like closed physical systems
rather than open physical systems.
Here's an example from the college textbook, page 147 of the 1998 edition,
Ethics: a contemporary introduction
by Harry Gensler
used at the Catholic school John Carrol University,
"You're a judge who sentences an innnocent man to death
for a crime he didn't commit.
By discouraging terrorism, your act maximizes the total pleasure."
Such examples measure pleasure as some inspiration in the head.
Grounding instead on the observed world,
a good measure of pleasure is something like GDP.
Does this action improve the GDP of the community
-- killing a member of the labor force probably reduces GDP.
The U.S. Constitution resolved consequentialist problems,
where the group's utility beats-out the individual's utility,
by adding a Bill of Rights.

Harry Gensler disparages consequetialism.
On the otherhand, the most used ethics college textbook
The Elements of Moral Philosophy
by James and Stuart Rachels
touts in the last chapter a version of consequentialism.

Most approaches to ethics amount to logical wrecking balls.
As Gensler says and as statistical decision theory supports,
"A consistent [non-consequentialist] moral system can't have more than
one exceptionless norm; otherwise it'll lead to contradictions."

The statistician David Moore points out to his students
two appraoches to statistics -- theoretical and frequentist.
Theoretically, a die rolls 6 with chance 1/6,
but the frequentist approach reveals an actual loaded die.
Similarly, most approaches to ethics reflect evolution,
a true frequentist rolling of dice billions of times

-- not just revealing ethics,
but producing memes and genes that can even mirror others' pain.

"Subjectivism" reflects genetic's embedded pleasure from food.
"Cultural" relativism reflects poor people using harsh spices on rotten food.
"Emotivism" reflects our feelings/need for food -- "yumm."
"Egoism" reflects a need to consider ourselves,
and a theoretical foundation similar to economic's "invisible hand".
Standard ethics goes about wrecking each approach to ethics.
Instead, each approach to ethics reveals a different ethic's plane,
some more usefully than others
.
The various approaches, including the category of consequentialisms,
should be added to your ETHICAL TOOLBOX.

Olof Johansson-Stenman writes:

Hi Bryan, just a brief correction regarding my forthcoming piece in Economics Letters: The third choice alternative is actually not "The extent to which the action infringes upon someone else's NATURAL rights" but simply "The extent to which the action infringes upon someone else's rights", i.e. in line with what you suggest. (Perhaps Robin Hanson wrote this too quickly on his blogg.)

You are of course right that there could have been more options to choose from, and there is for example no explicit mentioning of intentions, references to other deontological approaches than rights-based ones, and also no alternative reflecting virtue ethics. The motivation for this is (very) briefly discussed in the paper.

Also, there is no explicit reference to fairness either. I guess this is primarily due to the fact that fairness consequences is often seen as one of several consequences, in line I think with writings of Amartya Sen and others.

You are of course also right that there are advantages with using concrete ethical questions, including that such questions are easier to understand and hence respond to, (this is also mentioned in the paper), but here are disadvantages too.

It is also true that there are several studies, by Haidt and others, that have found that people tend to respond in inconsistent ways, i.e. ways that make it impossible to charactarize them in terms of any consistent ethical theory.

However, in my view this does not show that people do not have fundamental ethical views, which are possible to broadly charactarize as one out of a finite set of alternatives. Likewise, I do think it make sense to often assume that people have well-behaved preferences more generally, even though there is much psychological and behavioral economics evidence pointing towards inconsistences of choises etc.

Finally, I certainly do not want to claim that the last word is said on the main issue of the paper, which ends as follows:

"Future research that uses other methods and samples, as well as analyzes other schools of ethics, is encouraged in order to test how robust the results presented here are, and the extent to
which they can be generalized."

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