Answering the Consequentialist Challenge.


(above: Calvin and Hobbes disproving consequentialism in one lesson)

First, let me make one thing clear. Many Anarchists are so on consequentialist grounds. I am not saying that consequentialism leads one to be against Anarchism, quite the contrary. Many people who carefully consider the undesirable consequences of statism and the desirable consequences of Anarchism make the decision to become Anarchists on such grounds. This entry does not apply to them.

Rather, I am talking about the kind of consequentialism used as a rationalization for statism. The rationalization is of the form:
“Coercion/hierarchy is justified if it prevents some greater harm.”

I have even heard Anarchists themselves use such arguments, such as in the example of a parent pulling their little child away from the street, preventing the harm of the child being killed. So let me dismiss this one first, before I address the rationalization itself.

Yes, it is right to pull a little child away from the street if physical harm or death may ensue from the child’s actions, but this is not because of any utilitarian consideration. The parent must do it because it is eir duty as a parent to do so. A bystander will do it as a way to help someone in danger. To get someone out of danger, no matter how old they are, is not coercion. Only if the person has signaled that they intend to take the risk does it become coercive to get them out of it. So consequentialism fails in this instance.

Now, there are four fatal problems with the rationalization. First, even if we accept that some hierarchy prevents some greater harm, this does not at all mean that there is no other way to prevent this greater harm. Even if we assume that the harm generated by jails and prisons is lower than the harm generated by having some murderers roaming the streets (a proposition which seems dubious at best), it is not at all clear that this makes jails and prisons justifiable, especially if we have better ways of dealing with crime (such as exposing and eliminating the motivations and sources of crime).

Second, it is not at all clear that preventing a greater harm is a sufficient justification for things which are clearly evil. To take a historical example, the decision of the Republicans to allow Communist help in the Spanish Civil War can be argued as a decision made to prevent a greater harm, but it eventually led to disaster, as we know. It was a decision based on fending off a greater harm, but it was not a sound decision (I admit that it’s a lot easier to say this in retrospect; after all, hindsight is always 20/20, as they say).

Third, and most importantly, there is no way to make inter-subjective comparisons. I have discussed this before as regards to utilitarianism, but it is a fatal problem to all forms of consequentialism. Consider the concept of “greater harm.” How can we calculate which harm is greater? We cannot compare two individuals’ level of harm, let alone compare the harm caused to millions of people in two entirely different situations. If it’s impossible to do it for two people, then it is all the more impossible to do it for millions of people.

This problem is already dizzyingly insurmountable; now consider that the “greater harm” in question is hypothetical or, in most cases, purely imaginary. In the case of jails, we are asked to calculate and compare the harm that will arise in the future (how long in the future?) from certain criminals (which would have been caught and which won’t?) being free to roam, and the harm that will arise in the future from the continued operation of jails and prisons (how can we predict how the number of people jailed will vary in the future?). To put it mildly, this is an absolutely impossible mathematical quagmire to solve, and anyone who claims to have solved it is an imbecile possessing imbecility in the highest purity possible. Consequentialism doesn’t work and cannot work.

Fourth, there are always cases where the supposed “greater harm” is not in fact greater. For example, suppose someone argues that forcing people to testify in court is justified because it prevents the greater harm of “letting a criminal go free” or “having an innocent person go to jail.” It is very doubtful that in general any single testimony can do this. But beyond that, we can imagine situations where the harm of having to testify will most likely be greater than the potential harm of letting a criminal go free (such as in the case of crimes of passion, where a person is extremely unlikely to recidivate). So, even if the first three objections did not apply, the statement would still be false as an absolute, and could only at best be expressed as a vague generality.

This argument is in fact nothing but a repackaging of what we might call the fear argument: “if there is drastic change, things might turn out terribly, so we should not deviate from the status quo.” This itself is merely a rephrasing of “better the devil you know.” The kind of harm we are exposed to on a daily basis is familiar and therefore easier to deal with in our minds. Harm which remains unknown seems much more important than harm which is known, because we can imagine this unknown harm blowing up to catastrophic proportions if things go wrong, not thinking that this same risk exists in any society and any system that controls human lives.

The correct way to analyze instances of coercion or hierarchies is to look at, and analyze, their driving principles and premises, and compare them to the truth of the matter. No action or system predicated on lies can bring about general welfare or benefit.

Every institution in our society has developed these forms of rationalization in order to justify their existence. You can observe them every time the existence of some institution is put into question, such as the rhetoric which led to the great bank bailout.

I am not saying that all forms of coercion are by definition unjustified. As an Anarchist, I do believe that all hierarchies are by definition unjustified. This should go without saying (but sadly, must still be said). I can think of some rare situation where coercion may be justifiable, although they are all limit cases or outright hypotheticals. Note that I am using “coercion” as being only initiated: if you include self-defense in the concept of coercion, then I agree that there are plenty of instances where coercion is justified. None of these, however, help justify statism, so they are useless for that purpose.

Either way, the burden of proof lies on the person who supports coercion, not on the person who is against coercion. The proposition that we should not harm others is universally understood and forms the bedrock of ethics. Anyone who claims that we must bring harm to others for any reason must, therefore, feel as if ey has said something outrageous, for ey has. It is outrageous to clamor for force. It is noble to destroy sources of force, wherever they are.

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