The Great Misconception About Consequentialism

Consequentialism it is almost universally misunderstood and so, by extension, is Utilitarianism.

So, to start, let’s clear something up which I believe is at the heart of the matter: Consequentialism is not per se a normative position. Despite what many will have you believe, it is in fact nothing more than a law of ethics – what I would call a meta-ethical truth. In teaching this truth a typical pedagogue tends to explore abstract scenarios, tasking her students to conduct thought-experiments in order to solidify her students understanding, inspire debate and autodidacticism.

Let me attempt to make my point clearer: In the words of Moore, Consequentialism prescribes that “an act is morally right if and only if that act maximises the good, that is, if and only if the total amount of good for all minus the total amount of bad for all is greater than this net amount for any incompatible act available to the agent on that occasion”. The typical pedagogue provides this maxim before then turning to a thought-experiment. For instance, the Trolley Problem:

“Edward is the driver of a trolley, whose brakes have just failed. On the track ahead of him are five people; the banks are so steep that they will not be able to get off the track in time. The track has a spur leading off to the right, and Edward can turn the trolley into it. Unfortunately, there is one person the right-had track. Edward can turn the trolley, killing the one; or he can refrain from turning the trolley, killing the five.” – Judith Thompson

Typically, the students then engage in the thought-experiment – they consider the philosophical implications of the scenario, the ethics of responsibility and will, the distinction between action and inaction, the value of life, explore various definitions of ‘good’ (etc. – etc.) and a plethora of other topics which dress the study of Moral Normativity.

All the while the students subconsciously submit to the assumption that Edward’s unfortunate situation and their related evaluations (or at least aspects of them) are practicable in reality, in Consequentialist terms; they believe that what Consequentialism is telling us about what we ought to do, is to do what is ‘right’. But in doing this they assume a normativity that was never prescribed in the first place (and where other writers may describe the principle as possessing this characteristic, I contend that it should not). And this is where the problem lies.

You see, it is in the nature of such thought-experiments that true answers are only ever discoverable once the boundaries of the envisioned scenarios are absolutely defined. Such thought-experiments describe abstract closed systems wherein, by definition, there exist no spatiotemporal extensions beyond their descriptions. Or in other words, they define all the relevant epistemological factors of a given ethical conundrum. From within, and only from within, these closed systems can Consequentialism be appropriately assumed to have normative value (i.e., be appropriately applied). For, it is only from within closed systems that certainty can be made with respects to the consequences of all the potential optionable actions. When you concern yourself with the Trolley Problem, once you are given all the parameters and provided the rules, when asked about what Edward ought to do, there is only one correct answer. (In our case we are yet to define what ‘good’ means but if we were to adopt a Hedonistic sentiments as Utilitarianism does, the answer would be only to turn right). However, rarely in the real world is there such certainty surrounding the parameters of any ethical situations.

Reality is not a closed system. Or rather, if it is a closed system (in which case it must have a definitive spatiotemporal beginning and end, and be strictly determinate), in the real world we never obtain all the relevant epistemological factors for any ethical situations – possibly besides vacuous ones. Hence, we can rarely, if ever, confidently appropriately apply Consequentialism, trusting that we have strictly conformed to its maxim. Hence, whilst navigating ethical conundrums in the real world, one should rarely attempt to apply Consequentialism in an active sense because in doing so one would invariably contravene the maxim (or put another way, if Consequentialism incorporated a normative characteristic within its maxim, it would be as though it were ordering you always to take the right action whilst never really letting you in on which action is right).

Hence, for the most part, it is only really appropriate to consider Consequentialism as descriptive. It is a meta-ethical truth and nothing much more.

I guess what I’m trying to say is, Consequentialism deserves another run in. But this time we need to understand it and teach it correctly. Otherwise, it’s destined to carry an unjust reputation. As to how it’s compatible with other ethical theories, it’s precisely because it is not normative that it is so. But I’ll leave expounding upon that subject for another rainy day.


A.C. Stark

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The Glorious Twelfth: What the BASC Aren’t Telling Us

The Glorious Twelfth has passed. Which means that for the next 25 weeks droves of white, upper-class, tweed-adorned cronies, sharing in their conceited politico-moral sensibilities, will make to the Scottish Highlands, the Peaks and North Yorkshire (and anywhere else that’ll entertain them) to take part in a legalised blood frenzy.

It’s not that I have anything against the upper-class per se. It’s the corrupt, plutocratic manner by which many of them reign financially supreme that I detest. Yes, I’m sure many less-advantaged folk fancy the idea of blood ‘sports’ too, but that shouldn’t deflect from the fact that, for the most part, game shooting just isn’t an activity accessible to the masses. With a day’s shoot likely to cost £20,000 to £40,000 (in some cases up to £70,000), membership to this exclusive club is granted almost solely to the conservative financial elite.

This wouldn’t be so bad if ordinary taxpayers weren’t forced to foot the bill for their fun – or at least a large portion of it, as I discovered with a quick back-of-the-envelope calculation: Throughout England, Scotland and Wales there are roughly 300 grouse moors. The average size is 2000 hectares. Notwithstanding moorlands used for field sports other than grouse shooting, with moorland subsidies being ~£54 per hectare taxpayers subsidise this faction some £33,600,000 per year (in 2011 Animal Aid calculated a figure closer to £37,000,000). Is this some sort of sick joke?

Ironically, for some of the beneficiaries, oracularly denouncing benefits claimers has become a casual past-time. They conveniently fail to recognise that they’re the same as those they condemn. You see, despite the fact that they’re given a different name, subsidies (in this context at least) are nothing more than benefits for the rich. Benefits exploited by incredibly wealthy grouse moor proprietors, such as the Daily Mail’s editor-in-chief, Paul Dacre (who earned £5.36m in 2014-15) and pub-chain owner Michael Cannon (who’s net-worth is £240m), who’ve evidently already been heavily advantaged by a vastly disproportionate wealth distribution system. These plutocrats just don’t need the help. While benefits are cut and living standards for the lower classes continue to decline, the country’s richest are given pocket-money and told to go out and play. Adding insult to injury, these subsidies propagate financial inequality and miss-educated bigotry. It’s entirely unnecessary, offensive and damning to the every-day taxpayer.

What’s more, these ‘sports’ wreak havoc upon our environment, consequent to the pseudo-conservationist land management techniques used to maintain their requisite landscapes. One main such technique is swailing: the burning of mature heather shrubs in order to make way for newer shoots (which many gamebirds feed upon). Yet, despite that “[t]he burning… can lead to increased flooding, decreased biodiversity, more carbon being released into the atmosphere and increased water pollution. And [that] we have to pay for the water to be treated, and we pay higher home insurance bills because of that increased flood risk.” (Which is far from the propagandist assertion it has been described as (1, 2, 3)) – Despite that, the British Association of Shooting and Conservation (BASC) insists that the pros of this archaic practice by far outweigh the cons.

But their arguments are about as logical as those in favour of witch-dunking (i.e., they’re incredibly illogical). In their recent white paper, the BASC insinuates that unscorched terrains are bad for the environment; that any collateral damage resulting from land management, however immense it may be, is positively justifiable on the basis that denser populations of some red-listed wader species are found on moorland sporting estates. It’s absolute poppycock! Socio-economic injustices aside, what about the rest of our natural world? Why does the BASC disregard our depleting populations of hen harriers (1, 2), skylarks, or whinchats, of which all are red-listed also? What about the meadow pipit, the golden eagle, buzzard or carrion crow (1)? What about foxes, badgers, moles, voles, pine martens, weasels, pole cats, adders, mountain hares? All of these creatures suffer to the prevalence of blood sports, despite their legal protection under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981.

Since the establishment of gaming estates, the continuous decline of this country’s wildlife has been less attributable to collateral damage and more to all-out assault (as is eloquently detailed in Roger Lovegrove’s Silent Fields: The long decline of a nation’s wildlife). Indeed, there is much intention to the BASC’s general omissions of the wider facts. 

Why does the BASC value some creatures less? The answer is simple. They find them economically undesirable. They’re a hindrance to gamekeeping. They out-compete and at times prey upon gamebirds, ransack nests and feed upon their young. Unhabituated to human linearity (the human obsession to organise and manage everything), and unfamiliar with the concept of arbitrary borders, they wander, nest and predate wherever they please. Consequently, gamekeepers regard them as vermin, failing to recognise that the backbone of our world economy relies heavily upon a relatively healthy and stable global ecosystem. Yet, in our progressively liberal world, with laws prohibiting the senseless killing of wildlife, groundskeepers, the BASC, indeed all blood sports enthusiasts cannot risk being seen to denigrate any creatures, given the possibility of wide-spread public denouncement. Instead they sell falsities, hoping to foster a culture of ignorance, so that they can continue to exclusively quench their everlasting thirst for blood.

Occasionally, when they realise they’re opposition is qualified enough to expose their quasi-logics (as Chris Packham recently has) they resort to elementary politico-economic arguments, appealing to fear rather than reason. They argue that particular rural communities would fall apart if the shooting industry ceased to exist, since much of their income relies upon the industry. But this line – that there exists no alternative method of financial stimulation in rural areas other than by the running of killing estates – is a fear-mongering fallacy. We don’t permit human trafficking because failure to do so would put many people out of work. We disallow it because it’s wrong, inhumane, entirely immoral. And the same logic should apply to blood sports. They form a barbaric and damaging industry, and ought to be relegated to the history books.

When I first heard of this day, the glorious twelfth, I wondered what I’d been missing out on. I was ready for some sort of personal enlightenment. Instead I found disappointment, a deep sense of discomfort. For me the glorious twelfth celebrated something exceptionally inglorious. It celebrated wide-spread naivety, extreme social and environmental injustice, and a common indifference to the needless slaughtering of hundreds of thousands of birds.

#NotSoGlorious.

A.C. Stark

Look Zoos Talking

Blackfish stirred up a storm. The documentary exposed Sea World for the mistreatment of its captive orcas, its inhumane and sometimes fatal capture, breeding and training methods, its coercive staffing procedures, and the comprehensive duplicity of its senior management and public relations teams. In August 2015, almost two years after its release, Sea World reported an 84% drop in second-quarter profits. It’s stock prices have dramatically fallen. And in March of this year, in a desperate attempt to claw back a little credibility, the park announced the end of its whale breeding program. Hurrah!

But wait… Is this really enough? After all, the orcas remain in captivity, enclosed within tanks so small they’d have to swim well over 3000 lengths to match the distances they’d usually travel on a single day in the oceans. Reverberating throughout the tanks, their vocalisations cause disorientation and consequent unnecessary stress. Originating from different social groups, occasionally from distinct subspecies, they can be hostile towards one another. And as inherently social creatures, those that are subsequently separated develop chronic, sometimes manic, depression (as opposed to the regular state of despondency they’d experience if successfully socialised). As a result of all of this and much more orcas tend to live considerably shorter lives in captivity, with an average life expectancy of around 13 years, as opposed to the normal 30 or 50 (dependent on sex). So, clearly, captivity is far from the best place for these creatures.

The same can be said of countless other animals held within zoological parks worldwide. I dare say most of them. (They frequently suffer from zoochosis, a psychological disorder with obsessive and repetitive behavioural symptoms such as pacing or rocking back and forth for up to hours at a time. We’ve all seen it). Yet if captivity is not appropriate for them, why do we persist in containing animals? Do zoos really have an honourable purpose?

Many people believe they do (1, 2). They argue that zoos intrigue and educate us and that they’re integral to conservation. Others contend that zoos are entirely immoral; that they’re nothing more than profit-seeking businesses. Having experienced Sea World’s spectacular facade first hand, as well as dozens of other zoos and animal parks worldwide, I sympathise more with the latter school of thought.

Undeniably, zoos are both inspirational and educational (though, the extent to which they are either is debatable). However, it’s difficult to see their importance to environmental conservation when the methods of conservation employed by even the world’s biggest and best zoos are so clearly inexpedient. Both collectively and individually zoos spend absurd amounts of money upgrading facilities. Money that could be better utilised towards protecting or enhancing the natural habitats and ecosystems from which their detainees were originally hijacked. For example, in March of 2007 London Zoo opened its state-of the-art gorilla enclosure, the Gorilla Kingdom, the construction of which cost somewhere in the region of £5.3M. Better yet, the Bronx Zoo recently spent over $43M on its Congo Gorilla Forest, an enclosure unprecedented in both scale and diversity (holding 400 animals from 55 different species). But this 6.5 acre glorified gorilla asylum still compares to no more than 0.026% of what its primary inhabitant’s, the western lowland gorillas, home territory can naturally span. In being concerned with zoology these organisations are without doubt completely aware of their inherent inadequacies; they’re fully aware that true conservation requires much more than they’re willing to offer.

As an organisation capable of offering far less but which gives so much more, consider Trees For Life in comparison. In 2008 the charity purchased the 10,000 acre Dundreggan estate in Glenmoriston of the Scottish Highlands for a mere sum of £1.65M. They have since worked hard to reforest the area, planting 30,000 trees per year, enabling local ecosystems to flourish free from the constant and intrusive glare of bolshie spectators (they understand that to properly conserve the natural world is to preserve the world in which animals live naturally, free from the constant bombardment of human intrigue and activity). With the money used to finance Gorilla Kingdom, London Zoo could have purchased Dundreggan three times over. Equivalently, the Bronx Zoo could have purchased it almost 19 times over. Why then did they not invest in something more worth while, something more in line with the environmental conservation they’re supposedly so integral to? Simply put, inexpediency is good for business. Indeed, if zoo’s were sufficiently expedient, then they’d cease to remain profitable.

But inexpediency isn’t the only problem concerning our zoos’ conservation efforts. Some general practices also are greatly condemnible, on the grounds that they directly conflict with the very concept of environmental conservation and demote animal welfare. For example, in order to manage genetics, populations or sometimes simply in order to feed their more predatory species, zoos cull animals that aren’t useful to them. Undeniably this is a deplorable practice, contrary to conservation, which if justifiable at all is so only on shallow economic grounds (12, 3, 4). Consider also the practice of keeping elephants. It has been repeatedly reported that elephants in captivity live on average less than half as long as their wild counter parts. Still, the vast majority of commercial zoos worldwide retain elephants as a main feature. Why? Well, elephants draw a lot of attention from spectators, bringing more people in through the gates, increasing revenues. Further still, consider the after-hours adult only events hosted by many of our favourite national zoos – such as London Zoo’s late night parties, Bristol Zoo’s Sunset Specials or it’s Big Night Out, or Edinburgh Zoo’s Summer Nights – all of which encourage their guests to partake in hedonistic activities whilst the zoo’s inhabitants are obliged to endure a night shift haunted by jesting, inebriated merry men and their wandering bands of louts and ladettes. How’s that zoochosis now, lion?! This is yet another practice accepted solely on the basis that it gets more people in through the gates. So, undoubtedly, for many zoo’s profits are a key factor in determining their practices. Moreover, profits clearly take precedence over conservation, to a degree by which the pursuit of them is often detrimental to the conservation efforts they’re purportedly intended to fund. Worse even still, this capitalistic culture has cultivated a zoo industry which further blurs the already hazy lines between what is and is not deemed morally acceptable in zoological practice, according to the normative framework laid down by our Secretary of State’s Standards of Modern Zoo Practice.

As businesses more than anything else, their agendas are fundamentally at odds with environmental conservation. The problems associated with Sea World are not unique. They’re  wide spread. They’re happening right under our noses, on our shores, committed by our zoos and adventure parks. But this doesn’t necessarily mean that there isn’t a place for zoos in the contemporary world, only that we need to drastically reevaluate the standards of practice by which they are run – something which hasn’t been done here in the UK for decades! (Some zoos are doing this off their own backs (1, 2) while some governments, such as Costa Rica’s, are closing zoos down altogether).

Ultimately, here in the UK, we’re deeply in need of a comprehensive review of our Standards of Practice. Furthermore, as individuals, we ought to consider whether our zoos are currently worthy of our attendance fees. I myself will boycott them all. And I implore you to do the same.

A.C. Stark

 

 

 

 

You’re an Activist, Big Wow

At the dawn of the new year the British media decided that the SoCalGas leak in Aliso Canyon LA qualified as big enough news to permit a moderate level of broadcasting. The stories that followed focused almost solely on the evacuation of thousands of local residents who suffered from nausea, vomiting, nosebleeds and various other ailments, due to high levels of air-bound pollutants. Unquestionably, this widespread degradation of well-being was alone worthy of headline news. Yet, nearly all of the reports were overly anthropocentric and failed to paint a full picture of the disaster.

In response, alongside a multitude of others fully aware of the media’s inability (or sheer reluctance) to properly inform, I wrote to the BBC and engaged with social media to educate people on the wider scope of problems related to the leak, concerning global warming.

(To note some key points, the leak officially lasted 110 days – though probably began well before it was reported  spewing up to 1,300 metric tonnes of methane into the atmosphere per day. In total, upwards of 96,000 metric tonnes are predicted to have been emitted between October 23rd and February 11th. Is that a lot? Most definitely. Whilst methane escapes the atmosphere faster than CO2, the damage it causes to the climate in the meantime is, for it’s first two decades at least, 84 times more calamitous. Comparatively speaking, the amount of methane released equates to roughly 8,000,000 metric tonnes of CO2, or the burning of 900,000,000 gallons of gasoline).

Subsequently the BBC expanded their story, stating that activists held the leak to be comparable, in terms of environmental damage, to the Deepwater Horizon oil spill of 2010.  

At the time I took this rather personally. I felt slightly disenchanted. It wasn’t the lack of calculated journalism that peeved me the most. Instead, I found myself somewhat insulted by this notion of activism, but I couldn’t quite figure out why. Was I an activist?

Having mulled over it for some considerable time here’s what I have come to believe: Activism is heavily weighted down with negative connotations. It has an image problem. When imagining the stereotypical activist one pictures an eccentric, badly-dressed hippy-like character with contentious and overbearing social qualities. A vegan, clad in hand-me-downs. A militant idealist. An inconvenience on daily living. Big wow. Tell me something I don’t know.

But, and maybe only subconsciously, most people don’t want to be affiliated with that image. Affiliations with activists or persons with alternative ideals tend to impede upon our aspirations. That’s because the truths that they reveal can be extremely threatening and touch the core of how we understand and navigate the world. Moreover, affiliations can mould the way in which the world understands us. You see, opportunities are gained as a consequence of the impressions we inspire. Creating good impressions generates opportunities. The converse diminishes them. 

So, ultimately, I was insulted because of an unnecessary fear. I was subconsciously afraid of affiliation. That fear caused me to hold an unconscious bias. A prejudice, I believe, no sufficiently moral person ought to have.

There may appear to be a simple cure for this unwanted affiliation: Stop campaigning. Stop promoting ideals. Or, in my case, stop attempting to inform people on the full extent of damages caused by the SoCalGas leak and other such issues. Ultimately, stop being an activist. But no one should ever let their fear of unwanted affiliation negate their moral beliefs. For that’s all activism is. In its purest form, activism just is acting to promote a world consistent with ones moral beliefs. So if you fail to champion your morals through fear of being affiliated with those associated with a stereotype which conflicts with your ulterior desires, whom at the same time share your moral beliefs, you are a hypocrite unto yourself. You favour your ulterior desires over your morals. Your life is, by your own account of right and wrong, immoral.

Hence, we ought not to avoid activism simply because of the stereotypes it carries. Activism comes in many forms. It’s performed by all types of people. The stereotypes are just that – stereotypes. We ought to make activism what we want it to be. Give it the image we want it to have. Dare to challenge the stereotype. And don’t let unwanted affiliations deter us from promoting what’s right.

Am I an activist? I suppose I am. But shame on those who aren’t.

A.C. Stark

 

 

Why Ethics Should Centralise Around Nature

Call me a misanthrope, but there isn’t one ethics that is universally valid. The Golden Rule, in all its forms, has proven time and time again to be problematic. Even the principles laid down by Kant are tenuously justified, as he puts the cart before the horses at the earliest stages of his Groundworks in order to give personhood centre stage. A similar error is made by Mill when he prescribes welfare as the primary subject of any truly ethical endeavour. The problem is, in order to discover an ethics you need something to deduce it from. And that something is invariably described as intrinsically valuable, worthy of eternal pursuit. But, I dare to say, it’s never sufficiently justified as being so. Why? Well, precisely because nothing is, nor can anything be intrinsically valuable. Not personhood, not consciousness, not welfare, not happiness. So far as the universe is concerned, everything just is. Nothing is more significant than anything else. Value is allocated, not discovered. This is why no ethics is universally valid.

So, the story of ethics is different to how we’ve been led to believe. No subject of an ethics, nor any ethics itself is intrinsically valuable. They are, for all intents and purposes, valuable only instrumentally. They are valuable for the sake of a concept. In the case of knowledge, intellect, consciousness, that concept is personhood. In the case of happiness, that concept is well-being. This is why contending ethical principles are inherently contradictory. From differing ambitions arise conflict. So maybe we’re asking the wrong questions. Indeed, searching for a universal ethics seems entirely futile.

Maybe what we ought to ask is whether anything is fundamental to the essence of all conceivable ethical paradigms. Is it possible that we might discover something which is valuable for the sake of ethics itself? Well I believe some such thing exists. Where is it? What is it? It’s glaring us all in the face. Just how ethicists and philosophers over the past few millennia have managed to miss it bemuses me. Nature. It’s nature! Surely nature is the ground from which the groundworks of any ethics ought to start.What is essential to performing an ethics? What is essential to personhood, to well-being? Nature. The existence of ethical agents, subjects and concepts themselves require it. Well-being and happiness do too. Nature, in its fragile contingent state, provides the conditions necessary for them to subsist. So nature must be the fundamental foundation to all ethics.

It is plain to see, for me at least, that the existence of all ethical paradigms, however valid or invalid, are attributable only to nature. Nature allows them to exist. The principles and paradigms that have been discovered are attributable to the specific natural conditions of this world from which their manufacturers were born. To uphold the values of any ethics we must enable the continued existence of those specific natural conditions. Far from being a universal ethics itself, that is just a fact. The delicate equilibrium of nature’s properties preserve us; they’re integral to our being. As Derek Parfit and many other contemporaries would undoubtedly agree, any ethics which is self-defeating is repugnant. So, any ethics which contradicts this fact is repugnant also.

Whatever your perspective on life, however you see the world – left-wing, right-wing, theist, atheist, optimist, pessimist, whatever! – in order to realise an ethics,  in order to do ethics, you must first embrace nature. The catalogue of reasons to pay reverence to nature has a new member. Nature gave ethics. It’s time to give ethics nature.

A.C. Stark