Narrow and Broad Consequentialism – the Case of HoboJacket

December 8, 2012 at 15:00 (Philosophy)

People sometimes ask me if I’m a utilitarian. I balk; I don’t want to be pinned to a theory of how to measure utility or what we are supposed to be maximizing or why the goal of maximizing it functions as a reason for action. I fall back instead to saying that I try to take a “broadly consequentialist” view of things. What does that mean? Well, ok, what does it mean aside from signaling that, in person at least, I’m a confrontation-shy agreement-seeker who’ll bury any substantive position I stake out in qualifications and concessions?

Jonny Pugh’s recent post at Practical Ethics (the joint blog of Oxford’s ethics silos) provides a case and an argument that I think are very apt to fleshing out what I’m saying when I talk about broad consequentialism. HoboJacket – An Ethical Analysis sees Jonny rehearsing the details of the flap over the still-warm story of a widely condemned website, working through some of the arguments in the consequentialism-versus-deontology clash it occasioned, and offering his own reason for leaning consequentialist on this case. I don’t mean for this post to be either a thorough treatment of the HoboJacket issue or an expression of total disagreement with Jonny’s treatment of it, so I’ll only run through the details quickly on the way to the point I am making.

What happened originally is that an MIT student created a website that facilitated buying and donating jackets to the homeless, except that the jackets were collegiate apparel from the user’s rival school, the purpose of the whole exercise being ridicule (“X institution’s jackets will be seen on homeless folks and everyone will think degrees from there are worthless, hardy-har-har”). Gross. Wrong? Jonny voices agreement with critics who have pointed out the many ways in which HoboJacket was problematic and offensive. But he’s not so sure that taking the website down “is the best outcome for the homeless, all things considered.” The gist of his argument is that, strictly as between two alternatives, namely taking the website down or leaving it up as is, the former restricts the options of the homeless “in the name of their dignity”; he objects that a) this might be coercive in a way, b) it relies on a rationale that, if followed consistently, would lead to absurd results, and c) is anyhow a losing proposition from a consequentialist point of view. I think he thinks that c) is true even taking into account that the whole operation is a demeaning and “an affront to [the homeless’] dignity.”

What I really want to focus on is that final reason Jonny offers, especially in light of the fact that he wants to move beyond oversimplified “Manichean characterisation[s]” of the rule-worshiping Kantian and the crude utilitarian. I think he does so to a certain extent, but misses an opportunity to go a lot farther – one I would have taken precisely because of the “broad” in broad consequentialism. (N.B. – I don’t mean for my novel terminology to suggest that I think I have come up with a new idea in ethical theory. I am quite sure plenty of people have articulated the same idea, and better than I have. I just hadn’t found a term for what I’m talking about, and the narrow / broad language works intuitively.) What more could Jonny have done to reconcile the competing moral theories here? After all, he seems to be taking a good first step (or that’s how I’m reading him) in noting that the demeaning and dignity-corroding nature of the HoboJacket site is a bad thing that the consequential benefits need to outweigh.

That makes his ethical analysis a lot better than that of the tiresome philosophical functionary who would dismiss the moral motivations in this case as insubstantial and insist that all that matters between the two options is the body count (some people freeze to death if you take the website down who would not freeze to death if you were to leave it up). And both views are leagues better than that of the commenter on his post who is actively hostile to the notion that HoboJacket is offensive and suggests we all avail ourselves of a sense of humor; I’ll spare you my treatment of that attitude since my contempt for it is so caustic it’d dissolve the rest of my post. I digress: the point is that Jonny takes what might be called the strictly utility-irrelevant or characteristically deontological objections to HoboJacket as substantial, but ultimately not enough to defeat the concern that at the end of the freezing Massachusetts December day, some folk on the streets will not live to see the next morning unless we swallow the bitter pill of indignity and let the site transmute some nincompoop’s sophomoric trivialization of poverty into an unlikely bulwark against hypothermia.

It’s an elegantly effective way to frame the issue, isn’t it? It lets us caricature anyone who still objects as basically saying, “look, I hear you, saving lives is important and all, but but but my precious principles!” But you can probably tell that I’m not convinced. I think we can go a lot farther toward reconciling the perspectives of the competing moral theories here by using characteristically non-consequentialist intuitions – moral sentiments about autonomy, dignity, virtue, et cetera – as a kind of hooks-and-pulleys apparatus to better situate consequentialist reasoning. (Tortured mixed metaphors incoming here.) I think the ultimate shortcoming of Jonny’s argument is that it’s too zoomed-in, that it misses the forest of broader societal consequences for the trees of immediate benefit and harm. What I’m calling hook-and-pulley intuitions can function to lift the perspective up above the trees, allowing for a more zoomed-out perspective – a broad view. And things look quite a bit different from up there, with sufficient breadth to the consequentialist analysis.

The broad consequentialist view of the HoboJacket dilemma is sensitive to issues like the role of sociocultural attitudes in creating and perpetuating the moral disaster of homelessness. Our scruples about dignity start to look less like nebulous pangs of misguided sentimentality and more like important heuristic clues as to the power of tacit dehumanization to render us indifferent to some pretty unbelievable levels of disutility. The mentality that gives rise to HoboJacket-style exploitation of the homeless both creates and is created by implicit attitudes that strangle off our ability to feel empathy for the homeless: it falls right in place alongside “ew, they’re unkempt and smell bad” and “tough for them, they’re obviously lazy and deserve to suffer.” All of this stigma and othering and victim-blaming then serves as fertilizer for the soil of political and personal indifference in which dysfunctional mental health systems and unaddressed poverty crises take root and grow. It’s a vicious circle that moves from the psychological to the political and back again. The unchallenged existence of phenomena like HoboJacket papers over our complicity in failing to take action to break that circle.

My worry is that the set of people who are most inclined to be consequentialists overlaps heavily with the set of people who are inclined to think, “well, that all sounds very nice, but it’s all a bunch of Tumblr-social-justice-brigade claptrap, very moral-intuitionist, and I’m automatically skeptical. Can’t we just shut up and multiply?” If that overlap exists, it’s a damn shame, because their refusal to heed their inner Kant or Aristotle is causing them to miss the fact that HoboJacket functions in furtherance of an ideological disorder that kills people. It costs more lives than the faux-charitable operation itself could ever hope to save, and binds a permanent underclass into an existence of crushing despair and deprivation to boot. HoboJacket is a consequentialist loser par excellence: corroding people’s dignity has inevitable consequences in perfectly utilitarian terms. Every person whose cretinous inclination to exploit the poor as the butt of a joke is cemented by HoboJacket is a person made appreciably less likely to care about addressing the underlying problem, and more likely to circle the wagons and defend the status quo when others try to address it.

I used to agree with Ruth Macklin that dignity is a useless concept; lately, I think the opposite – even on my most skeptical days, I see it as a useful fiction. So useful, really, that it’s often worth forgetting about the fiction part.

Whoa, did I just say that? Am I not the same guy who can’t shut up about how unreliable our moral intuitions are, how they’re heuristics with concrete evolutionary and cultural histories that often render them inapplicable to the context of contemporary ethical problems, rah-rah-Jonathan-Haidt-Josh-Greene, so on, so forth? Well, yes, sure. Am I now stuck having to argue, on pain of inconsistency, that human cloning or cognitive enhancement or physician-assisted suicide must have something intrinsically wrong about them because they raise intuitive hackles about naturalness and authenticity and dignity? No, not at all. All I have tried to illustrate is that moral intuitions aren’t automatically invalid for being intuitions. That doesn’t make them automatically valid. Not for nothing am I so inclined to use the term “heuristic” for these kinds of sentiments: heuristics are neither ironclad laws of inference nor worthless cognitive errors. They’re . . . heuristics. The wisest response is to trust, but verify. Yes, it’s important for your moral beliefs pay rent like all the rest of your beliefs, but before you evict them, at least double-check whether they’ve actually paid up or not. You may be surprised. The narrow consequentialist dismisses characteristically deontological moral intuitions as unfounded; the broad consequentialist meets them with a bear-hug.

One other meta-comment of sorts: although I appreciate what Jonny is trying to do in constraining the ethics analysis of the moral-philosophical issues raised by HoboJacket to just two options (take the site down or leave it as is), I worry that the inclination to limit the possibility space in that way can bleed over into our reasoning about the actual case, with problematic consequences. We need to be very careful to avoid lapses in moral imagination here by centering the fact that the best outcome of all would be for the site’s creator to see reason and transform the project into an actual charity that helps solve the underlying problem instead of exacerbating it. To his credit, Jonny makes a good-faith nod toward the idea that it would be preferable to have non-degrading survival options out there for the homeless. I just hope that we don’t give up on this as an actual possibility too easily.

This probably all makes it clearer what I’m gesturing at with “broad consequentialism,” and why I’m partial to it. It’s a capacious approach to moral reasoning that has patience for the perspectives of all the major philosophical schools of thought but also cashes them out into a reasonably common currency, and it helps translate the language of critical-humanities-style perspectives on moral problems into propositions that square much more neatly with the kind of parsimonious ethics-as-engineering rationalism that characterizes the Oxford groups’ school of thought.

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3 Comments

  1. Tim said,

    Good stuff, Roland! I’m glad to see you putting this line of thinking in writing.

    I think that the practical maxim of “what gets measured gets done” says a lot here about rationalist/utilitarian responses to arguments from social justice, dignity, and so forth. That is, estimating lives saved is (relatively) easy, or at least methodologically straightforward. When it comes to calculating ‘broad consequentialist’ impact, your error bars get a whole lot bigger! So while I’ll buy that the harms of HoboJacket probably outweigh the benefits, it’s not as if we’ve sat down and done a cost-benefit analysis in a ‘reasonably common currency’. If broad consequentialism is still, y’know, consequentialism, the corollary to this case is that HoboJacket would be okay if it was sufficiently effective relative to its indignities–maybe if yuppies in Yaletown and old money in Point Grey started donating spare condos to the homeless to disparage each others’ neighborhoods.

    Bottom line: I agree in principle, especially with your call to pay attention to a fuller spectrum of moral emotions–but if broad consequentialism is going to mean more than “consequentialism, unless it feels really icky” we need tractable decision rules for weighing the broad impacts against the tangible ones.

  2. Roland Nadler said,

    Thanks for the thoughts, Tim! I think you’re quite correct that this stuff gets empirically murky once you zoom out too fast. But I think the most interesting question that arises there is – how much uncertainty should good consequentialists tolerate? I feel like in the HoboJacket case the answer is “more than they might be inclined to.” The decision might be caricatured as “well, we could take a chance at dismantling the entire system of cultural pathologies that leaves hundreds of thousands of people in misery and moral peril . . . or we could definitely save twenty lives.” Obviously it’s less of a sure thing than that, but I guess part of my point is to highlight that too strong an inclination to tunnel-vision on the concretely measurable might actually work to unwittingly suppress opportunities for more fundamental large-scale positive change.

    And yeah, your Yaletown condo version of this is a really thought-provoking variation. I think I might be more friendly to it.

  3. Roland Nadler said,

    BTW, here’s a great other-side-of-the-coin example of the concept of dignity failing (spectacularly) to point us anywhere useful: http://blog.practicalethics.ox.ac.uk/2008/04/the-dignity-of-the-carrot/

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