Consequential Ethics

Karamazov Woodcut“Tell me honestly, I challenge you – answer me: imagine that you are charged with building the ediface of human destiny, the ultimate aim of which is to bring people happiness, to give them peace and contentment at last, but that in order to achieve this it is essential and unavoidable to torture just one little speck of creation, that same little child beating her chest with her little fists, and imagine that this edifice, has to be erected on her unexpiated tears. Would you agree to be the architect under those conditions? Tell me honestly!”
(Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Brothers Karamazov)

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2 thoughts on “Consequential Ethics

  1. I have been thinking about how to respond to this for days now. It has been plaguing me. Fyodor at his best!

    The question that comes out is really 'what is the alternative?' But whichever way you look at it – it is wrong. Good outcomes do not make an evil action good. But then when evil is unavoidable I suppose we should choose the lesser of two evils. The problem of course is that after the event the other possibilities fade into past and you are left with the horrible fact of what you have done.

    The place of the child is interesting. Would it be any easier to choose if the child was willing and understood? What if it was you who had to suffer?
    It's a great quote.

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  2. I'm interested in the fact that we can't escape the intuition that torturing the child is wrong. A properly consequentialist account wouldn't analyse the situation in terms of 'the lesser of two evils'. On a consequentialist account, if torturing the child really did secure the edifice of human destiny there doesn't seem to be any way to avoid calling it a positive good. Who wants to go there?

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