Consequentialism, Containers, Channels and Contrary-To-Fact Equal Human Value

Consequentialism, Containers, Channels and Contrary-To-Fact Equal Human Value

Consequentialism, Containers, Channels and Contrary-to-Fact Equal Human Value


Fundamental to both Eastern and Western culture is the belief that human beings have a special and equal dignity, worth or value. One finds this belief early in Christian teaching and a bit later in Islamic texts, but the earliest records of it are found further East, in Hindu and Buddhist scriptures, and especially in reports of Kung Tzu’s thinking, in form of the superior ethical principle of Jen – love for Man, or mankind. The belief is so generally accepted that it has been included in, for instance, the UN and EU declarations of human rights, and it is a part of what children all over the world are taught at school.

This belief has at least six different facets that are not always separated:

F1. Human life has value in itself.

F2. Only human life, of all forms of life, has value in itself.

F3. Human individuals have value in themselves.

F4. All human individuals have value in themselves.

F5. All human individuals have equal value in themselves.

F6. The value that human life and/or human individuals have is absolute, or inviolable.

Whereas F1 and F2 regard us as a collective, or species, and can plausibly be taken to refer to the typical human life, F3, F4 and F5 are about us as individuals and cover what is also called ’the dignity of the person.’ F6 seems to indicate the status of the other principles, namely that the value of human life and/or of human individuals is unconditional in some sense. (Perhaps a further clause should be added, that these values have an objective validity.) There has been an intense discussion the last decades about the value of human life compared to that of other forms of life. I shall not continue it here, but instead focus the value of human individuals. The so far rather imprecise thought that all human beings have an unconditional value that is equal among them I shall call the principle of equal human value.

This principle makes a strong claim, so strong that it appears contrary to the facts of actual morality. We do take others to having different value depending on what they mean to us, why people could be said to have unequal personal value. And even if constitutions of states hail the principle of equal human value, it is clear that the same states value their citizens differently from non-citizens. Further, we value people differently due to what we take to be their varying economic, social, cultural, aesthetic, or other contributions. Hence, the principle of equal human value does not hold if by ’equal value’ one means the same, total value or importance, or if one thinks of any of the various differential values mentioned above. It must therefore be about a special kind of value of individuals, the possession of which should be compatible with people varying in their possession of other values. According to our moral traditions it would be a basic ethical value, regarding us merely as human beings. Though most of us are prepared to recognize this, we keep thinking of people as good or bad, better or worse, and many would be revolted by the idea that murderers, thieves and crooks in a basic ethical respect are the equals of decent, nice and helpful people. This ambiguity reveals a lack of clarity and justification for the principle of equal human value.

I shall here defend the principle of equal human value in the above, imprecise form, but defend it only indirectly[1], by attacking a major stronghold for resistance to it, namely the utilitarian or, more generally, consequentialist tradition (hereafter I mainly use the wider term), with influential philosophers like Jeremy Bentham, John Stuart Mill, Henry Sidgwick, G. E. Moore, J. J. C. Smart, Richard M. Hare, Peter Singer, and Philip Pettit. In Marxist theory there is a version of consequentialism also. Launching the attack, I will engage these very philosophers for my cause; I shall mainly give them a helping hand, making explicit what is mainly implicit in the core of their ethical arsenal.

This consequentialist stronghold of resistance is connected with an approach to ethics that can be characterized as state-driven, since its focus is on attaining an optimal state with regard to the desirable end(s) of action. Consequentialism in its purest and simplest form is, according to Samuel Scheffler, “a moral doctrine which says that the right act in any given situation is the one that will produce the best overall outcome, as judged from an impersonal standpoint which gives equal weight to the interests of everyone” (Scheffler 1988, p. 1). The ultimate principle of utilitarianism J. S. Mill called the “Greatest happiness principle,” which while generalizing benevolence towards human beings is compatible with a non-egalitarian position in respect of the treatment and valuing of people. That approach stands in contrast with one that is object-driven[2], focusing the optimal state of the very objects of ethical concern. Paradigmatically, this thought is backed by the principle of equal human value, illustrated by Kantian ethics with the (human) person as its fore. Yet, I want to argue that, against appearance, one can find the principle of equal human value underneath major forms of consequentialism also, which then would turn out to be state-driven after all.

In state-driven consequentialism the finely discriminating act-judging pattern irresistibly spills over to a like individual-judging pattern. Hence, it is commonly – by both adherents and opponents – and problematically taken to host what has been called the “container view” or the “receptacle view” of people, roughly the idea that people only have ethical value through, and in proportion to, certain gradable ethically relevant qualities of their lives. John Rawls, for instance, described the consequentialist conception of people as “that of a container-person: persons are thought of as places where intrinsically valuable experiences occur […] Persons are, so to speak, holders for such experiences” (Rawls 1974, p. 17). This description, however, cannot be wholly accurate, as shown by the accusation that consequentialism entails a kind of instrumentalist view of people, such that people only would have ethical value through, and in proportion to, the ethically relevant effects that they produce by their acts. Bernard Williams, for one, says of consequentialism that it views people as channels for the realization of valuable states (Williams 1988, p. 49), and people obviously are more or less good as such channels. A proponent of this view could be J. J. C. Smart, in his description of the good and the bad agent (Smart 1973, p. 48). This has a parallel in how Karl Marx values collective and individual agents depending on how they hinder or further the coming of communism.

Let me separate the above views by naming them the finalistic and instrumentalistic versions of a so-to-say vehicle view of people. They have in common to regard the ethical value of individuals as a function of the balance of ethical value for which their lives forms a center, either from the perspective of consumption or from the perspective of production of final (or intrinsic) value. To continue the terminological affair, let me say that on the first version people would be seen as containers for final ethical value, and on the second version they would be seen as channels effectuating such value. One could of course combine these in various ways. But on neither version, evidently, would people have an equal ethical value. An implication of this is that they without moral problem can be treated differently, be given unequal rights and even have elementary rights set aside, when the best balance of final ethical value so demands; there is nothing here that stops us from sacrificing some people in view of attaining, say, the Greatest Happiness-sum.

Both the container and the channel view are striking appearances on the surface of consequentialism, opening it for much forceful opposition. But there is a way to avoid this critique, I shall maintain, since in the depths of consequentialism one finds an assumption of equal human value. The solution would be to recognize this, explain and spell out the normative implications it is due to have. Such move would not only reshape consequentialism to be an object-driven ethic, but would also add it to the supporting forces for equal human value as the major intercultural, foundational principle of ethics.


The assumption of equal human value in consequentialism becomes discernible in its axiology – how people’s interests (in a wide sense) are considered when the final ethical value of outcomes of action is counted. There are two major versions of it; the first and traditional one – the Egality View – is explicitly egalitarian in a certain way. The second, more recent one – the Priority View – is only implicitly egalitarian (in a certain way). I start with the former view.

The Egality View is apparent in Samuel Scheffler’s characterization of consequentialism at its “purest and simplest” (see quote in sec. 1). Its classic formulation is Jeremy Bentham’s dictum “Everybody to count for one, nobody for more than one.”[3] J. S. Mill echoed this in his defense of the utilitarian principle, for instance, when he referred to the ideal utilitarian “society between equals,” which, he wrote, can exist only “on the understanding that the interests of all are to be regarded equally” (Mill 1863/1961, p. 218). Later, J. J. C. Smart, in the footsteps of David Hume, declared that equal consideration of interests is expressive of a universal benevolence behind consequentialism, the core of which is “the agent counting himself neither more nor less than any other person” (Smart 1973, p. 32). The opposite view, that “you and yours are inferior to me and mine,” a leading contemporary consequentialist, Philip Pettit, takes to be an abominable view (Pettit 1997, p. 142). Peter Railton claims that “the root conception” of consequentialism indeed embraces a stance which is roughly equivalent to the deontologist principle of respect for persons, namely that “the good of every person has an equal claim upon us” (Railton 1988, p. 124). Peter Singer, for his part, declares that the principle of equal consideration of interests “may be a defensible form of the principle that all humans are equal” (Singer 1993, p. 22).

The authors mentioned step insouciantly between valuing interests and valuing people, as if those things are seamlessly interwoven. But strictly speaking, how interests – “yours” and “mine,” “the good” or “welfare” of people – are to be weighed is one thing and how the bearers of interests – “you” and “me” – are to be weighed is another. A principle for the latter does not follow from a principle for the former, so equal consideration of interests is compatible with a denial of both the container and the channel view of people. Still, there is an essential connection, I shall argue, namely that the principle of equal human value is a superior, foundational principle that justifies, among other things, the axiological principle of equal consideration of interests.

Equal consideration of interests is usually understood to be equal consideration of (relevantly) like interests. That like interests shall be counted equally for everyone is not obvious, which can be illustrated by a parallel to an issue at Bentham’s time, namely why the preference of every person should count in political elections, and if so, why they should count equally, without regard to the person’s income, desert or education. It is easy to imagine an unequal attribution of political weight to people’s like preferences, due to differences in respects such as those mentioned, just as one can imagine an unequal attribution of ethical weight to people’s (relevantly) like interests depending on people’s differences in certain respects. If equal weighing is chosen, there must in both the political and the ethical case be a strong reason for it. What would that be in the case of ethics? Is there perhaps, despite the above imaginings, a necessary connection between ethical final value and equal consideration?

Granted, there is a blending in language of the two things. Interests of all kinds that are consequentialist candidates for final ethical value – pleasure, happiness, satisfaction of preference, freedom, etc. – are often lumped together under the category of benefits. Already ‘interest’ but more so ‘benefit’ has a clear evaluative ring to it, even to the effect of suggesting one unit of satisfied interest/benefit also be, supervene on or something like that, one unit of final value. Here equal consideration of like interest would appear intrinsic to the very nature of interests/benefits. But that does not suffice to claim that it is in the nature of one unit of, say, pleasure or satisfaction of preference to be one unit of final value also; the latter is a metaphysical claim.

Analytically, the axiological works is plausibly rendered by three kinds of principles, the first stating what things, or rather, states are finally valuable, the second giving a scale for a descriptive measure of these, and the third attributing evaluative weight to various units of benefits. On the first kind of principles things like pleasures, or satisfactions of preference, would be identified as finally valuable. On the second kind those things would be graded in natural units. On the third kind the degrees that the beneficial things come in connect with degrees of final value, which may or may not result in certain degrees of benefit connecting with one degree of final value while others connect with less than one degree and still others connect with more than one degree of it.

Both the Egality and the Priority View articulate a principle of the third kind. To maintain, when faced with the Priority View, that the Egality View offers the valid bond of degrees of value with natural states because it holds in virtue of a metaphysical necessary connection beyond the scope of human intervention, is rather question begging. New, independent reasons would be needed to show that. Robust realists think that there are such reasons, and that they are hot on their trail. But this is a hope. If they are right, the world would be a most strange place, but so far nothing convincing has come forth. Already the widespread presence of the alternative, Priority View indicates that the presumption of an intrinsic, necessary connection of the egalitarian type is dubious. Note, the prioritarian version of the third principle meets a requirement of universality[4] as much as the egalitarian one, meaning that universality does not point particularly to the principle of equal consideration of interests, which some philosophers seem inclined to think (see, e.g., Smart and Pettit in the quotes on p. 9).

On the Egality View, a low degree of benefit for a bad off or a deserving person weighs less than a high degree of benefit for a well off or non-deserving person. This is a certain, limited assumption of equality, namely the negative one that it does not matter who benefits become to – if it is the pope or some beggar, a perpetrator or his victim, or even an individual that cannot talk and reason. Another way to put this is that the bearers of interests ethically have equal standing, in that there is nothing in their individual qualities that affects the weighing of their interests. Now, such equal standing of bearers of interests is satisfied either by them all having zero value, or by them all having a positive value that is equal among them. There is no third alternative.

Do consequentialists really think that the bearers of interests have zero value? I think not. First, a look at the broadness of scope. Formally, the Egality View and, by implication, the principle of negative equal standing go beyond the human realm, as also Bentham and in particular Singer have noted. Yet, there is a standard prerogative for human beings in the consequentialist tradition. This can be illustrated by the defense that even Singer invokes, in that he appeals to Henry Sidgwick’s formulation of two rational but abstract intuitions he believes us to have (Singer 1993, p. 334). The crucial one is that “the good of any one individual is of no more importance, from the point of view (if I may say so) of the Universe, than the good of any other” (Sidgwick [1907] 1981, p. 382). The form into which these abstract intuitions tends to pass in the context of human action, according to Sidgwick, is utilitarianism. He points out that in order ”to make this transition logically complete” we require to interpret ‘Universal Good’ as ‘Universal Happiness’ (p. 388). Later, it becomes clear that the resulting consequentialist system would be characterized by ”impartial concern for human happiness” (p. 484; italics mine).

The underlying reason is that for Sidgwick, like most humanist ethicists, ethical principles express the standpoint of “the party of humankind,” as Hume called it (Hume [1777]/1966, p. 114). This would emanate from a rational intuition, or perhaps from the reactions of an ideal observer, but there are also contractualist theories to the same effect. Smart, to be on safe grounds, hints at all three kinds of support, when he considers equal consideration of interests to be commended by “a scientific, and hence universalistic, frame of mind,” described to reason like this: “If you count in my calculations why should I not count in your calculations? And why should I pay more attention to my calculations than to yours?” (Smart 1973, p. 32). Pettit derives his defense of equal consideration of interests from a requirement of universalizability of judgments of rightness. Yet, according to Pettit, a rejection of this, which amounts to the position that “you and yours are inferior to me and mine,” is intolerable because it would flout the presumptive constraint that for an option to be right is for it to be capable of being justified in a certain way to others (Pettit 1997, p. 142).