Universal Consequentialism as a Means of Assessing Global Situations
Poverty in developing countries is a significant moral issue. In terms of moral frameworks, a universal form of consequentialism most accurately assesses the (in)justice of such poverty and global situations of a similar scope. Specifically, universal consequentialism with an emphasis on equal consideration — the belief that “benefits to one person matter just as much as similar benefits to any other person” — is most appropriate for global situational assessment (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, 2006).
Consequentialism is a system of morality that judges the rightness or wrongness of an act solely by the consequences of that act. Consequentialism as a concept is the backbone of classic utilitarianism, which holds that an act is morally right if and only if that act maximizes 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. (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, 2006)
Consequentialism is further divided into several sub-categories, to include:
Actual Consequentialism: the rightness or wrongness of an act depends on the actual consequences, versus the perceived or anticipated consequences of that act.
Direct Consequentialism: the morality or immorality of act depends on the consequences of that particular act, versus all acts of a similar nature.
Evaluative Consequentialism: rightness or wrongness is based on the values of the consequences of an act.
Hedonism: an act is right if it results in pleasure, while it is wrong if it results in pain.
Maximizing Consequentialism: an act is right only if it brings about the best possible consequences, as opposed to better or merely satisfactory consequences.
Aggregative Consequentialism: determines best consequences by evaluating consequences in parts.
Total Consequentialism: an act is right or wrong based on the total net benefits or deficits for all persons involved.
Universal Consequentialism: “moral rightness depends on the consequences for all people or sentient beings (as opposed to only the individual agent, present people, or any other limited group).”
Equal Consideration: “in determining moral rightness, benefits to one person matter just as much as similar benefits to any other person (= all who count equally).”
Agent-neutrality: the assessment of consequences depends on the actual good or bad nature of those consequences, independent of the agent’s perception of good or bad (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, 2006).
While several of these sub-categories could be applied to the assessment of global situations, universal consequentialism with an emphasis on equal consideration is the most direct route to fairly assessing the justice or injustice of global situations.
Classic utilitarian philosopher Peter Singer applies these concepts to famine in Bangladesh in his paper “Famine, Affluence and Morality” (1972). Singer begins by putting forth the assumptions that a) death by starvation is bad, and b) if a person or group of persons can prevent something bad from happening without causing something equally bad to happen, they should do what they can to prevent the bad. For example, if a person happens upon a child drowning in a lake, that person ought to swim or wade out to the child and save him. While the person’s clothes will become wet and he might be late for an engagement of some kind, such things are merely unfortunate inconveniences and not at all comparable to the tragedy of a child’s death. Singer goes on to assert that neither distance from the child, nor the number of people in a situation to help the child negate the moral duty of any one person to help. In regards to distance, Singer sites equal consideration, saying:
The fact that a person is physically near to us, so that we have personal contact with him, may make it more likely that we shall assist him, but this does not show that we ought to help him rather than another who happens to be further away. If we accept any principle of impartiality, universalizability, equality, or whatever, we cannot discriminate against someone merely because he is far away from us (or we are far away from him). (Singer, 1972)
In other words, all who count, count equally, be it a neighbor’s drowning child or a starving Bengal refugee. Regarding the number of people in a similar situation to help, Singer says that while “one feels less guilty about doing nothing if one can point to others, similarly placed, who have also done nothing . . . this can make no real difference to our moral obligations” (Singer, 1972).
In classic utilitarian fashion, Singer goes on to assert that it is the moral duty of every affluent individual to give as much as they can to those less fortunate, such as the Bengal refugees, up to the point that to give more would reduce them to a similar state as the people they seek to help, termed as reducing oneself to the state of “marginal utility” (Singer, 1972). This, however, is a severe and — in my opinion — unrealistic expectation that, if put into practice, would have the entire population reduced to near-slum conditions. The problem is that there are simply not enough resources — to include food, clothing, and cold hard cash — to be distributed equally and still allow for anyone to live comfortably. In addition, if everyone gave away their money to starving people in underdeveloped countries, the global economy would slow to such a drastic degree as to place the entire population at risk of starvation. While Singer does not necessarily agree with me, he nonetheless recognizes the distinct possibility of such economic repercussions, saying:
it might be the case that if we gave away, say, 40% of our Gross National Product, we would slow down the economy so much that in absolute terms we would be giving less than if we gave 25% of the much larger GNP that we would have if we limited our contribution to this smaller percentage. (Singer, 1972)
Fortunately, one can still adopt the concepts of universal consequentialism and equal consideration in a more moderate way, such as one that doesn’t require marginal utility reduction. For example, one could say that all people count equally and deserve to live at a certain standard, such as one that provides food, shelter, clothing and education. The United Nations, for example, developed the Millennium Declaration in 2000, the goals of which are based on the assumption that all people have certain inalienable rights, such as the right to freedom from hunger, the right to basic education, and the right to adequate healthcare services The crux of these goals is therefore to reduce poverty and poor healthcare situations while promoting basic education in 190 developing countries, with a goal date of 2015 for global success (The Millennium Development Goals Report, 2008).
Assuming a universal consequentialist approach, the United Nations has enjoyed great success in several areas, while still other areas require an enhancement of efforts. As outlined in the Millennium Goals Report released in 2008:
â€¢ The overarching goal of reducing absolute poverty by half is within reach for the world as a whole;
â€¢ In all but two regions, primary school enrolment is at least 90%;
â€¢ The gender parity index in primary education is 95 per cent or higher in six of the 10 regions, including the most populous ones;
â€¢ Deaths from measles fell from over 750,000 in 2000 to less than 250,000 in 2006, and about 80 per cent of children in developing countries now receive a measles vaccine;
â€¢ The number of deaths from AIDS fell from 2.2 million in 2005 to 2.0 million in 2007, and the number of people newly infected declined from 3.0 million in 2001 to 2.7 million in 2007;
â€¢ Malaria prevention is expanding, with widespread increases in Africa: in 16 out of 20 countries, use has at least tripled since around 2000.
â€¢ The incidence of tuberculosis is expected to be halted and begin to decline before the target date of 2015;
â€¢ Some 1.6 billion people have gained access to safe drinking water since 1990;
â€¢ The use of ozone-depleting substances has been almost eliminated and this has contributed to the effort to reduce global warming;
â€¢ The share of developing countries’ export earnings devoted to servicing external debt fell from 12.5 per cent in 2000 to 6.6 per cent in 2006, allowing them to allocate more resources to reducing poverty;
â€¢ The private sector has increased the availability of some critical essential drugs and rapidly spread mobile phone technology throughout the developing world. (The Millennium Development Goals Report, 2008).
Despite these successes — which are admittedly impressive — there remains much more to be done. For example, an estimated one-fourth of all children in developing countries suffer from malnutrition and remain underweight, while an estimated 500,000 prospective mothers die annually from malnutrition or inadequate healthcare. Meanwhile, an estimated one-third of the population in developing countries live in near slum conditions, yet foreign aid expenditures plummeted for the second year in 2007 (The Millennium Development Goals Report, 2008).
Such figures are evidence that many people are still not doing their part to diminish poverty in developing countries, yet according to Singer, if every affluent individual gave even a small amount, say $7 annually, such poverty levels would significantly decrease in developing countries (Singer, 1972).
That so little is required to lend aid to people in poverty-stricken countries discredits the most popular criticism of universal consequentialism; namely, that it requires too much of people. In a country like the United States, where many people spend more on one meal than what it would take to diminish poverty in developing countries for one year, it can hardly be considered asking too much of people to contribute the cost of one meal every year. In fact, I would even go so far as to suggest that if people knew how little was really required of them, the majority of people would gladly give this minimum amount. The problem is that the culture of many affluent countries promotes a level of ignorance regarding need and the requirements to meet need that in turn discourages people from giving. Another problem is that, while according to universal consequentialism, it is the moral duty of all people to prevent moral evils such starvation from occurring, there will inevitably be some people who will resist this moral duty, resulting in more required of those that assume it.
Nonetheless, the resistance of some to a moral duty does not negate that duty as a whole. Going back to the drowning child scenario, that five people turn a blind eye to the drowning child doesn’t mean that any one person should not swim to save the child. On the contrary, universal consequentialism with an emphasis on equal consideration asserts that all people are equally responsible for promoting the good of all people, be it a neighbor’s drowning child or a an expectant mother in India.
The Millennium Development Goals Report. (2008). United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs (DESA).
Singer, P. (1972). Famine, Affluence, and Morality. Philosophy of Public Affairs, 1(1), 229-243.
Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. (2006). Consequentialism. Retrieved Feb. 5, 2011 from http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/consequentialism/
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