post by Paul Kelleher
Robin Hanson points us to a forthcoming paper in Economics Letters by Olof Johansson-Stenman that purports to "provide survey-based support for the consequentialist assumption associated with welfare economics." Consequentialism is the normative view that an act or policy is right if and only if it maximizes the good (i.e. the net balance of good over bad). As such, it treats an act's rightness or wrongness as solely a function of outcomes. Modern welfare economics is consequentialist in that it aims to be a science of efficiency focused on welfare-maximization. But then again, plenty of welfare economists insist that what they study is but one sphere of moral investigation, and they would not agree that an interest in efficiency entails a single-minded interest in it.
Johansson-Stenman sent his survey to 2,450 Swedes over the age of 18 in the Spring of 2004. Forty-five percent responded (n=985). Here is the main question asked, together with the respondents' answers (click the image to enlarge it):
According to Johansson-Stenman, "the result is quite consistent with the consequentialist ethics underlying conventional economic welfare theory, since almost two-thirds chose this alternative." But this is an illegitimate interpretation of his results. As noted, consquentialism is the view that rightness and wrongness depends only and exclusively on the outcome. The survey, however, only asks people what they think the badness of an outcome "depends primarily on." So for all we know, the 67% who gave what the author characterizes as "the" consequentialist answer may actually agree with those welfare economists who are not consequentialists at all because they believe that other moral considerations (e.g. individual rights and liberties) matter too.
The survey also makes the fatal mistake of asking its main question in terms of "badness" rather than "rightness" or "wrongness." To see why, consider this passage from a paper (pdf) by Frances Kamm, philosophy's leading non-consequentialist:
I shall distinguish between goodness, fairness and justice. To make one distinction clearer, consider the following case: A doctor must decide whether to stop a big pain in person A or a small pain in person B. She thinks, correctly, that she will do more good if she helps A. But she also remembers that yesterday B suffered a much bigger pain than A will suffer and no one helped B (A suffered nothing in the past). So she thinks it would be unfair to let B suffer again, even though she will do less good if she helps him. If it is overall right to do this, this means she does the morally better thing in helping him and the state of affairs in which B is helped rather than A is morally better than one in which A is helped. But this is not because it produces more good.
Here Kamm claims that sometimes considerations of fairness can conflict with considerations of goodness and badness. But note that someone using Kamm's conceptual scheme might well have given the survey answer that Johansson-Stenman associates with consequentialism. For the survey asks respondents to indicate which considerations they associate with "badness," and the simple (but not simplistic) Kammian answer is that welfare-related considerations are associated with badness, while fairness or equity considerations must be called in alongside welfare considerations to determine which action is "overall right" or "morally better." So it is quite possible that many survey respondents took themselves to be answering a question about only one part of morality, viz. badness, while also holding beliefs about other parts not asked about.
I conclude, therefore, that this survey is useless in helping to answer the question of whether most people are consequentialists. Indeed, since its publication has already led one influential writer (Hanson) to claim that "Most are consequentialist," I fear that it's actually worse than useless.