Why consequentialists should read Aristotle

Raphael_[detail] Aristotle from The School of Athens

I am a consequentialist. That is, I think the best purpose to which we could put our moral instincts and cognition to work is the enlargement of the well-being of organisms.

However, I am also sympathetic to an approach to normative ethics which has traditionally been contrasted with consequentialism—virtue ethics. I think the traditional antipathy between the two schools of thought is unnecessary, at least in one direction. There are at least four reasons why I think consequentialists and utilitarians should study and take to heart the lessons of virtue ethics:

1.) Virtue ethicists have thought longer and harder about The Good Life than utilitarians. Consequentialists fixate on how we ought to act in particular moral dilemmas (seemingly mostly involving trolleys), but virtue ethicists talk about how we ought to maximize eudaimonia by organizing the overall pattern of our lives. Most of us aren’t Stanislav Petrov, and the overall pattern of our lives will be more impactful than any one decision we make. We’re more likely maximize flourishing in the world if we spend five days a week for a few decades putting our talents to use in a mostly helpful way, than we are patrolling the street looking for good deeds to do. (Bruce Wayne would be better for Gotham if he invested in education reform and mental health services, rather than exhausting himself Batmanning all night.) Contrary to the trolleyologist picture of the world, human moral life is not a series of deliberate decisions. Much of our existence is lead in habits, routines, and the incremental advancement of long-term (even intergenerational) projects. Virtue ethics gives us resources to think about what sorts of habits, routines, and projects we should cultivate in the long run. And the individual who is both a consequentialist and virtue ethicist can think about what habits, routines, and projects one ought to adopt to maximize value in the world.

2.) Doing good requires practice. If we see a drowning child, we can’t do the right thing if we have not cultivated the courage necessary to risk our lives to save them. Virtue ethics can teach us how to hack our personalities to be disposed to act in a flourishing-maximizing manner.

Also, building on 1.), we are not archangels, and don’t always have the time or mental resources to consciously weigh probable consequences and rationally consider what we ought to do in every particular situation. Therefore, we ought to cultivate automatic responses and personality traits which usually produce the best results for the people around us. Think of virtues as welfare-maximizing heuristics of action.

3.) There are objective as well as subjective components to well-being; alternatively, we value things other than pleasant experiences. (This point will be contested by hedonic utilitarians. I myself used to be a hedonic utilitarian, but was convinced of the value of the objective components of well-being after reading Owen Flanagan’s 2008 book The Really Hard Problem.) For example, on the epistemic axis of human flourishing, we consider someone to be thriving if they earnestly pursue the truth, even if that truth is useless or unpleasant (e.g. “pure” mathematicians’ contributions are appreciated, even if they have no bearing on physical sciences, computing, or engineering; and we can admire Nietzsche, even if his exposition of religion and ethics is demoralizing).

Furthermore, few consequentialists and utilitarians want to bite the bullet when presented with rat-brains-on-heroin-tiling or Experience Machine-like thought experiments. If all we valued were pleasurable stimulation, I don’t think we would work so hard to avoid pro-Experience Machine commitments. We want to actually be physically fit, not just to believe we’re physically fit regardless of our actual health. We want the satisfaction of genuine knowledge, not just the warm comfort of certainty. We care (or at least should care) not just about contents of our experiences, but the causes of our experiences. e.g. We value the satisfaction we receive after a day of volunteering for a worthy organization more than the satisfaction we receive finishing a videogame level, even if the intensity of the pleasure of the former is lower.

I think a relatively simple intuition pump can illustrate the key difference between my own view and that of a hedonic utilitarian. It involves the conceit that we can accurately quantify human emotional well-being over the course of a lifetime:

Imagine two women, Aminah and Alex. Both women, because of genetics and early childhood experiences, suffer from chronic major depressive disorders. Because of their disorders, they have identical emotional experiences, despite other differences in their lives. They report identical levels of subjective well-being, their dopamine levels are functionally equivalent, brain scans suggest they have identical levels of negative and positive affect, etc. A hypothetical utility-measuring superintelligence would consider them to be totally equivalent in terms of subjective affect. However, Aminah is comfortably middle class, fit, healthy, and well-educated. She is on good terms with her family, and has a loyal circle of friends. Alex, on the other hand, is poor, sickly, poorly educated, and lonely.

Now, I think a hedonist is committed to saying Aminah and Alex are equally well-off, full stop. As the hedonic utilitarian only considers subjective experience ultimately important, they (probably?) think because Aminah and Alex are equivalently depressed, their welfare is identical. The hedonist might even say that the resources used making Aminah employed, healthy, and educated would be better spent elsewhere, on someone without depression who could enjoy employment, health, and education more than Aminah.

I disagree; I think Aminah is better off than Alex, even though they are equally depressed. And I don’t think the resources spent on Aminah are wasted. I want to maximize things like economic security, health, and social standing in addition to positive conscious experiences. That’s why I’m a consequentialist, but not a utilitarian: I think there’s more to flourishing than pleasure.

I think this is especially important for a non-speciesist ecological ethic. Plants probably don’t have subjective experiences, and unless Eric Schwitzgebel is right about materialism, whole ecosystems don’t have consciousness, either. But flora and ecosystems clearly can be sickly or healthy, unharmed or harmed. If we care about the future of life on this planet and beyond, we ought to care about maximizing the welfare of non-experiencing organisms and environmental systems.

4.) Relationships matter. Utilitarianism is usually contrasted with virtue ethics, in that the former supposedly demands its adherents adopt a degree of detachment from family and friends in the name of adopting agent-neutral reasons for action and a Sidgwickian Point of View of the Universe; while the latter commands us to special partiality for our kin, neighbors, and country. I think this contrast is superficial and ill-founded, and that even after the adoption of a Sidgwickian universalist perspective, we are obliged to cultivate special relationships with those near and dear to us.

It is undeniable that we humans are social animals. A necessary condition of our thriving is having partial relationships with other people—familial love, dear friendship, romantic partnership, workplace solidarity, soldierly comradery, patriotic unity, etc. Just as they need food, clean water, and shelter, men and women need the affectionate attention of familiars, without which they will wither and die as surely as if they are deprived of nourishment. A world that isn’t filled with people partial to their neighbors and kin is a world full of miserable, stunted persons. Therefore, even though the consequentialist finds herself obligated to lend aid to distant strangers, she is also required to be supportive of the people she happens to be close to, and be an upright citizen of the state she happens to live in. No one can provide friendly personal warmth, except a friend. And no one can make a nation livable and just, except its nationals.

Virtue ethicists (and also proponents of Confucianism and the ethics of care) have literatures on how best to fulfill our social roles, and should therefore be of interest to consequentialists.


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