We all care about the future – after all, we hope to live there one day, despite the pesky inconvenience of always being stuck in the present. But is it possible to have an ethics of the future? And if not, why not?
Future ethics is necessarily concerned with outcome-focussed ethics. After all, the outcomes about which we are talking are projected into the future. Thus, the question of future ethics is tied up with Consequentialism – the ethical school that is primarily concerned with outcomes, rather than rights (rules) or the virtues of agents. The basis of Consequentialism is the idea that an action is morally good if it has good consequences, a belief that is often summarised in the maxim “the ends justify the means”.
There are three essential problems with Consequentialism: firstly, the conception that an action is good if it has good consequences fails to provide a working definition of ‘good’, although in practice the issue of determining what is ‘good’ plagues all moral philosophy. (Indeed, G.E. Moore coined the term ‘naturalistic fallacy’ to describe the problem that the question “what is good?” always remains open). Secondly, judging an action as morally good based on its consequences presumes we can accurately predict the outcome of our actions – as Nietzsche comments: “But does one know the consequences? Perhaps as far as five steps.” There are many processes about which we can confidently predict an outcome, but even taking all these into consideration our capacity to accurately predict the future is infinitesimally feeble. Finally, the idea that “the ends justify the means” allows for the most fearsome atrocities to be conducted in the name of a sufficient end – as indicated by the horrors of the Inquisition. Do we really want to employ a system of ethics that permits any evil provided we can conceive a justification in terms of some future good?
The most commonly espoused form of Consequentialism is Utilitarianism, which is generally attributed to Jeremy Bentham. Bentham considered pleasure and pain to be the only intrinsic values in the world, and thus conceived of an ethical system with the purpose to minimize pain and maximise pleasure, which he termed “the greatest happiness principle.” At its heart, the goal of Utilitarianism is sound – it expresses the idea that “the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few” to quote (of all people) Leonard Nimoy as Spock in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. The problem with Utilitarianism is that it is utterly untenable as a formal system, and as an informal system becomes little more than a mildly altruistic form of egoism (i.e. acting in one’s own self interest).
The problems with Utilitarianism are legion. For a start, it inherits all the problems of Consequentialism in general, and in particular the issue that we are not able to predict the future accurately and thus relying solely on outcome-focussed ethics leaves us guessing far too often. Additionally, the assumption that happiness is a comparable quality is untenable. Bentham believed (having faith in the remarkable progress of scientific thinking in his time) that it would be possible to construct a calculus to compare happiness – what he called a felicific calculus, but which later became termed a hedonic calculus. Unfortunately for Utilitarianism, no such calculus seems possible. In fact, perhaps the only form of calculation of this kind that can be made is when we are comparing the loss of lives – in this instance, and perhaps in this instance only, some form of Utilitarianism can be applied, for instance, in the case of the Trolley Problem.
The real death knell for Utilitarianism (or at least, the real challenge for people who wish to defend it) came with John Rawls’ A Theory of Justice. In this book, Rawls attempts to provide an interpretation of his idea of “justice as fairness”, and to develop Kantian ethics into a formal system that could be pragmatically implemented. Rawls project largely fails because of the number of assumptions he makes which are open to debate, although it still contains a great many interesting ideas. An unexpected side effect of Rawl’s work, however, is the exposure of fatal issues in Utilitarianism. For although Rawl’s formal Kantian system certainly would not be universally accepted, he was at the very least able to develop such a formal system – while it is becoming increasingly apparent there is little hope that an equivalent formal system could be developed for Utilitarianism. In fact, Rawls’ book is more effective in undermining Utilitarianism’s credibility than it is in advancing his own position.
The guiding idea behind Utilitarianism is sound – the idea that we should act towards “the greater good” – but alas no form of Utilitarianism proposed thus far has provided any viable mechanism of establishing how such decisions should be made. Since it now seems that human beings are particularly poor about predicting how future events will make them feel, and thus at gauging the best actions to bring their own happiness (as shown by Daniel Gilbert’s research), it is hard to imagine any credible form of hedonic calculus. Happiness is not only incommensurable between people, it is not within our power to predict!
None of these issues are reasons for individuals not to adopt a Utilitarian or similar outcome-focussed ethical system. As individuals we are free to choose whatever ethical system we wish, including the ‘minimal case’ of egoism. But collectively, these problems give us sound reasons for denying our politicians the capacity to use Utilitarian justifications for their actions.
State leaders are always able to cite ends of sufficient seriousness to validate their actions – “national security” is an oft touted but rarely justified excuse for all manner of human rights violations. In the light of the severe problems with Utilitarianism, do we really want the leaders of nations using the logic of Consequentialism as the basis for their actions? If we do, we face governments that are willing to use any means to achieve ends of their own devising, and which need not reflect the wishes or best interests of the citizens they (in democratic countries, at least) represent. As Hannah Arendt said: “As long as we believe that we deal with ends and means in the political realm, we shall not be able to prevent anybody’s using all means to pursue recognised ends.”
In order to make Utilitarianism viable, it is necessary for its application to depend on something more than the judgement of the individual (which, since we are assessing future outcomes that are inherently difficult or impossible to predict, allows the individual to justify almost anything they please). One way to recover credibility is Rule Utilitarianism, which combines outcome-focussed ethics with rights-focussed ethics. The idea here is that although utility (“greater good”) is still the guiding principle, it is not applied on a case-by-case basis (as in Act Utilitarianism) but rather used as a method of determining which rules will apply, and therefore which rights we shall have. At least in Rule Utilitarianism, we have the capacity to say certain means are not acceptable. However, this assertion may also be equivalent to saying that outcome-focussed ethics are insufficient by themselves – we must have some agent or rights-focussed aspect as well if the ethical system is not to collapse under the capacity to abuse it.
If Utilitarianism is to be rescued from the scrapheap of failed ideas, it may be necessary to begin by denying the viability of “the ends justifying the means” as a political tool. We should not allow our leaders to validate their actions in terms of the importance of their supposed ends – they can always claim that the threat to the nation is real, and thus justify any means to be employed. Instead, I suggest we should stand firm behind the human rights agreements we have already made and insist that some means are simply not permitted by these covenants. Torture, inhuman or degrading treatment, slavery or involuntary servitude, and propaganda advocating either war or cultural hatred are all prohibited under the United Nations so-called Universal Declaration of Human Rights. We should hold our governments to this agreement.
We cannot get by without using outcome-focussed ethics in certain situations – as the Trolley Problem amply demonstrates. But equally, we should not allow solely outcome-focussed ethics to govern our societies when the consequences of doing so can be so dramatically detrimental. I contend that it is never in the interests of the many to allow politicians to use Consequentialist logic to justify their actions. There can be no comprehensive and reliable ethics of the future – and to continue to believe otherwise is to hand our leaders a powerful tool to commit atrocities in our names. We should demand more from our societies – and by our actions, we can ensure that these demands must be met.
The opening image is Mechanics 3000 by Dawid Michalczyk, which I found here. Prints of Dawid's work are available from the artist's site. As ever, no copyright infringement is intended and I will take the image down if asked.