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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11 responses to “The Far Reach of Consequentialism and the Deep Time of Morality

  1. I think the big problem in this kind of arguments is that such historical counterfactuals are simply not knowable (is it really impossible to reach the same research level e.g. in Europe, without killing native indians ? Maybe we would have taken benefit from their alternative way of thinking and reach an even greater level). There are so much interrelated possibilities, most of them being beyond our imagination, that calculating somecorrelations between consequences so far apart is pure wishful thinking. So basically, killing native indians had just one practcal consequence : those people were killed. The rest lies beyond our knowledge.

  2. Vladimir

    Hi, I really enjoy reading your blog. How do you deal with the possibility that, given a long enough stretch of time, the results of all actions even out? For example, if the human race, or perhaps even the universe, will one day cease to exist and there is nothing within our power to prevent either of these events. Does your deep-time consequentialism still work if this is the case?

  3. Han

    Very interesting post! I like the illustration of consequentialism, although I don’t quite see that being aware of temporal biases helps anything.

    This reminds me of “In the long run we are all dead.” You can take a wide enough timescale, over which nothing really changes. x(t=0) = x(t=N) = 0. By this line of thinking every moment becomes morally equivalent to the Big Bang or the Big Bust or the Heat Death of the Universe. While you can “hold” this to be true, I don’t see how such a nonspecific belief can have any consequence at the level of action.

    This is a tangent, but you may be interested in this paper, which formalizes how some scientists conceptualize emergent phenomena.

    The scope or “window” is crucial to perceiving a phenomenon, so a too-short or a too-long window can “solve” moral problems by eliminating morality as a relevant phenomenon.

  4. Gary Williams


    I don’t think epistemological limitations should constrain the reach of our moral imagination. If there is such a thing as a metaphysics of morals, I would argue that any moral thesis (i.e. consequentialism) should apply in all possible worlds, not just the actual world. If it’s good to maximize well-being in this world, it should apply to all imaginable cirumstances as well. This is why I don’t think it’s actually an objection to my argument to say “Well that’s just a counterfactual!” I agree it’s a purely counterfactual and even speculative story, but that’s the nature of the beast. When we engage our moral imaginations, I don’t see why we can’t radically simplify to eliminate morally irrelevant details. Such thought experiments create a conceptual clarity in regards to what really matters by extracting the relevant variables.


    I think that any theory of well-being or “The Good” is going to have to end up saying that the well-being experienced by an entity is an “intrinsic” good, meaning that it’s good to simply experience the well-being. Moreover, on Four Dimensionalism, the fact that eventually a creature will cease to be doesn’t mean that their temporary existence is now unreal. Every point of time from the beginning of the universe to the end is eternally real. Thus, if humans eventually die out as a species, it won’t “erase” the intrinsic good-making realized in virtue of those humans having lived well.


    >>>While you can “hold” this to be true, I don’t see how such a nonspecific belief can have any consequence at the level of action.

    I think you’re right that such moral “truths” have no direct consequence on action, but I believe it’s possible for them to have an indirect effect. Suppose after having contemplated such Deep Time moral issues, nothing immediate changes but the high-level conceptual awareness of such issues nevertheless percolates deeply in the recesses of our minds. Thus, the effect might be diffuse and hard to detect. Similarly, if you learn about the concept of evolution, it probably won’t change anything on the direct level of action, but knowing such truths might subtly change how you perceive the world, and/or influence the direction of your life (maybe it will influence what classes you take in college, or influence what books you choose to read).

  5. My intuition is that quantifying the desirability of possible worlds in the long run is both impossible and irrelevant. It requires assuming values which might have a limited scope, and any far-reaching causal link is arbitrary because of the chaotic nature (in a scientific sense) of the world. There are no laws in history (because nothing is reproductible) and historians always avoid history-fiction (which is considered not serious).
    One’s own limitations in scope and predictability should be acknowledge first before entering an ethical debate. I think ethical questions are inherently contextuals.

    • Gary Williams

      >>>My intuition is that quantifying the desirability of possible worlds in the long run is both impossible and irrelevant.

      Assume a quantification of either 1 (desirable) or 0 (not desirable). Now imagine a possible world exactly like ours except with 1 trillion more tortured souls in it, and compare it to a possible world exactly like ours but where everyone has satisfied something like Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. So if faced with a forced choice, when I assign a 0 to the first possible world, and a 1 to the second, am I performing an impossible act? Surely not. Also, why are chaotic links more arbitrary than any other? Consequentialism cares nothing about the “strength” of the causal links, it only cares about consequences. If a butterfly’s wings helped indirectly cause something horrible, then from a consequentialist perspective that wing-flap is “bad”. It’s not surprising that historians avoid history-fiction, but Im not a historian, Im a philosopher, and thought-experiments have a long and distinguished history in philosophy.

      So clearly it’s not “impossible”. Your more damning point is about relevance. But relevance for what? I often hear people in ethics complain about consequentialist counterfactual scenario’s by saying “That’s irrelevant to real practical ethics, like the day-to-day stuff!” My response is that no one needs to study academic philosophy in order to learn to be compassionate or empathetic. The moral emotions that govern our day-to-day affairs have a deep genetic basis. So, frankly, if consequentialism is irrelevant to practical ethics, then so is deontology and virtue ethics and any other exercise in academic ethical thinking. Pretty much all of philosophy is “irrelevant” to people dying of poverty and disease.

      >>>One’s own limitations in scope and predictability should be acknowledge first before entering an ethical debate.

      This is a completely arbitrary limitation on what ethical discourse must look like. Suppose I am debating with a friend about whether we should dump nuclear waste in a mountain disposal site. Even if we cannot predict such an event would happen, we could both agree that it would be bad for the waste to leak into the environment 1 million years from now. Like I said above, an ethical thesis should apply to all possible worlds. Keep in mind such talk does not commit me to any metaphysical thesis about the existence of these possible worlds. Im strictly an instrumentalist about them. They’re a conceptual tool for doing philosophical work.

      >>>I think ethical questions are inherently contextuals.

      Thought experiments are explicitly defined with respect to a possible context, so even if ethical questions had to be situated within a particular context, this wouldn’t exclude the possibility of using your imagination to think ethically. You would just whittle the context down to its essential elements. For example, when considering a proposed action on a group of persons, their different hair colors are morally irrelevant so we can idealize over hair color for the sake of the thought experiment.

  6. Nick

    What makes you think that you know how big the loaf of bread is? How do you know which position you are in? These are the questions that Nagel asked in the Possibility of Altruism: why do we think we’re justified in making these “tenseless” judgments about what the entire span of time looks like?

    No, really: from what perspective do YOU (Gary) judge that there will be “untold billions” that might justify past atrocities? Oh, that’s right: YOUR embodied, earthly, so-called “biological” perspective, your beliefs, your expectations. And you’re asking Native Americans to accept that your particular perspective is actually a God’s eye “Deep Time” perspective, one which knows about the future and can judge that there is such a thing as a consequentialist justification for the near-extermination of their race?

    Kind of ironic, really. They were used to missionaries claiming to know both the mind of God and know that God knew what was best for them. It’s hard to see how they could tell you from any of the others.

    “I fell in love with philosophy for the same reason I love sci-fi”

    A wonderfully honest confesssion, but one that may betray you, here. Utilitarianism is the morality of technology, and it brings along with it all of the false confidence that the technological mindset provides. I earnestly hope that you’ll think about this: for all its reliance on facts and science, the position in this post requires a metaphysical faith that rivals that of the world’s religions.

    • Gary Williams

      “No, really: from what perspective do YOU (Gary) judge that there will be “untold billions” that might justify past atrocities?”

      I judge it from the perspective of a hypothetical. You know, like a conditional: IF P, then Q. The antecedent doesn’t have to be true for the conditional to have a truth value. Surely you admit it’s merely possible for the human race to continue for untold billions of years. My argument gets off the ground on that mere logical possibility.

      “one which knows about the future”

      You completely misread read my modal claim for an epistemological claim. I claim nothing about knowing whether this IMAGINED future will come true. I only claim it’s possible. Obviously I can’t know the future with any certainty, nor anyone else, especially not billions of years in the future (for crying out load we can barely predict the weather!) That’s an epistemic limitation on all of us. But right here in my chair with my “embodied” brain I can imagine possibilities in the future.

      “for all its reliance on facts and science, the position in this post requires a metaphysical faith that rivals that of the world’s religions.”

      The only thing I have “faith” in for this post is faith that my powers of imagination are working, and that I’m capable of thinking of hypothetical scenarios in the future. I never said my powers are of looking into the future and having a “metaphysical faith” in the truth of this imagined world. I can also imagine a future possible world where American technology destroys humanity and thus, the American invasion would be damned on the consequentialist view. Both are equally possible. But that says nothing about consequentialism itself. It’s neutral.

      • Nick

        Uhh, no, sorry. You said that you can think of the span of time as a loaf, with our perspective as a time-line moving along the loaf, and with your magical god’s eye perspective looking at the whole loaf. That means that you are claiming to know things about how big the loaf is. If it were infinitely long, for example, then the line wouldn’t be “moving” at all, mathematically speaking. But since the line is moving, then you know that the loaf is of finite size. That’s metaphysical faith. If you back away from it by admitting the possibility that the loaf is infinitely long, then your metaphor falls apart: only God could look at an object of inifinite size, and no act of human imagination could even come close to approximating that perspective.

  7. Han

    That’s a neat, honest response to the issue I posed!

    Somehow I get the impression that a diffuse causal role is not going to satisfy those who prefer explicit, concrete ways of thinking about morality. I’d put the diffuse percolating causal response in the category of a mystical experience — it seems useless and may not have any direct bearing on anything, but can modulate attitude and behavior in ways that are not quite conscious.

    Of course the danger with vagueness (and mysticism, religion or drugs) is that diffuse nonconscious moral trajectories can have unintended consequences. For every person who sees Deep Time as a source of meaning and value, others might see it as an enhanced justification of hedonism or nihilism — “live in the moment, since it’s so fleeting!”

    Humans are good at valuing both what is eternal and what is ephemeral, so one can never fully anticipate how the ‘Total Perspective Vortex’ will affect someone. 🙂

  8. Gary Williams


    The space-time loaf metaphor is borrowed directly from physicist Brian Greene’s book The Fabric of the Cosmos. Read it for yourself:

    Click to access Greene-The-Frozen-River.pdf

    So if I am making some horrible leap of “metaphysical faith” in imagining space-time as a loaf of bread, then Einstein can be accused of the same thing. I stand in good company. Google “space-time loaf of bread” or “space-time worm” or simply study the theory of Four Dimensionalism.

    Also: humans can think about infinity quite easily using mathematical concepts.

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