Monthly Archives: November 2012

The Far Reach of Consequentialism and the Deep Time of Morality

A counterintuitive result of consequentialism is that it can “justify” just about any horrible action so long as there is a counterbalancing greater future increase in well-being. For example, consider the monstrous actions Whites took against Native Americans in their “pioneering” conquests. Suppose that 10 million Native American lives have been negatively affected by White culture and the “Manifest Destiny” of Uncle Sam. Now, I can easily imagine a consequentialist story that justifies the destruction of the Native American way of life. All it would require is for an American research group to develop a technology that saved hundreds of billions of lives over the course of the rest of human history. If the Native American’s hadn’t been brutalized in order to make way for European technology, then the the advanced science characteristic of the highest levels of American research might not exist.

This story is neat and tidy for illustrative purposes. A complete consequentialist story would probably weigh many more factors than mere number of lives saved. Assuming we don’t end up destroying ourselves, human history could theoretically continue for billions of years until the universe ends. Consequentialism in principle takes into consideration this unfathomably far-reaching future, and could therefore justify almost anything provided that actions leads to overwhelming good-making in the future.

Many people think this is a good reason to reject consequentialism. To say that it was “good” for Americans to systematically brutalize Native Americans goes against our strongest gut feelings when it comes to fairness and morality. But I think the counterintuitiveness of consequentialism is actually its greatest theoretical strength because it provides a way of looking at the world from the perspective of what we might call the Deep Time of morality. Thinking from Deep Time abstracts from our narrow perspective where we only consider the well-being of people living within a few generations of our own. But don’t those untolds billions in the future deserve that life-saving technology just as much as the Native Americans deserve to be treated fairly? There is a theory of time called Four Dimensionalism that imagines the universe to be a giant space-time bread loaf. The first three dimensions are spatial, and the fourth dimension of time can be imagined by moving a thin slice down the length of the loaf. Four Dimensionalism is the view that the “end” of the loaf (the future) is just as real as the “front” (the past). We happen to live in the middle, but it’s a quirk of biology that we think only the eternal present moment exists.

I fell in love with philosophy for the same reason I love sci-fi: thinking about human society on the scale of Deep Time forces one to challenge the biological biases that makes us “discount” the future in favor of the immediacy of the moment. Learning philosophy could be thought of as the process of learning to ignore these biases or at least becoming aware of them.

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A Brief Response to Moore's Paradox

It is contradictory to simultaneously say “P and not-P”, but could someone coherently say “It is raining, but I don’t believe it is raining”? This odd little sentence is the heart of Moore’s paradox, what Wittgenstein thought was the most significant discovery G.E. Moore ever made as a philosopher. Moore’s sentence doesn’t strike me as obviously contradictory in the same way as “P and not-P”, but it is strange nonetheless. Presumably you would say “it is raining” when you can clearly see it is raining, so how could you not believe it? If you know it is raining such that you say it is raining, the rules of mental logic seem to suggest you should also believe it is raining, otherwise why say “it is raining”?. My solution to the riddle is that the claim about whether it’s raining is ambiguous between different criteria for satisfying the condition “it’s raining”. “It is raining” could mean that water is falling from the sky in a way that looks natural, or it could mean that natural precipitation is actually falling from the clouds. Why would you need the former locution? Suppose you work on a Hollywood set and you know that the artificial rain machines sometimes come on. All of a sudden it starts raining in the sense that water is falling from the sky in a way that looks natural (until you glance up at the giant machines). Now it becomes perfectly sensible to say “It is raining, but I don’t believe it is raining”. This in essence says “Water is falling from the sky but I don’t believe it is natural precipitation”. This is clearly a sensible thing to say in the circumstances.

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