My friend S., who turned me on to Complex Adaptive Systems theory, is presently bringing to a close her magnum opus and dissertation in one last pageheavy burst of scribbling. Although I know she will never read these words – S. has better things to do than look at the sad evidences of my graphomania – still, I dedicate this post to her.
In the last post, LI laid out the problems, as we see them, with consequences, and consequently with consequentialism. If you will remember, we wrote that the problem, as we saw it, started with counting over the consequences of actions. This is the robust, quantitative approach to the problem, approved of by all analytic philosophers. We further said that the problem had a superficial aspect – that of giving good reasons for containing consequences – and a deeper, structural aspect – that of giving an account of actions such that consequences are considered a necessary effect of actions.
The example we gave, here, to illustrate what we meant by the containment problem derives from Morehead’s book on the Gallipoli campaign. In that book, we are told that Churchill, on August 3, 1914, decided to impound two Turkish battleships that were being built in British shipyards. We traced a plausible chain of consequences from this action to the events of October, 1914, when the Allies delivered an ultimatum to the Turks, which was refused. That refusal effectively aligned the Turks with the Germans.
Our chain included some peculiar items. For instance, the Germans supplied the Turks with two ships and crews immediately after Churchill announced his decision. Was this really a consequence of Churchill’s decision? Isn’t it possible that the Germans would have acted in the same way even if Churchill hadn’t made this decision? And finally, a question that always pops up in these kinds of discussions, how could Churchill know that the Germans would act as they did once he had acted as he did?
I’m afraid we haven’t done with the superficial problem of containment. As is hinted at by my last question, we like to divide consequences into intended and unintended. This division implies that there exists some rough means that justifies attaching the two labels to consequences of, at times, the same act.
I am not going to claim that the label has no usefulness in certain situations. But there is a limit to its meaningfulness. Take, for instance, our second question. The Germans “saw” what Churchill did. Social action is rarely such that it occurs only between a Crusoe agent and some indigenous Friday singelton. Rather, the social matrix within which actions occur is such that the consequences of the action, insofar as those consequences are attendant upon the perception of the action, can ramify rapidly. The social agent knows this – in fact, we often consider that, in certain situations, part of his responsibility is communicative. Every lovers quarrel eventually hinges on such things. In Churchill’s case, he certainly knew that the Germans were perceiving his act. Their subsequent actions in response to that act, then, must be prefigured in the motives for the act, to some degree. That prefiguring is, largely, guesswork. The intention that an act have a certain consequence, which seems so clear, gets muddier as we seek to embed the action in the social matrix. The edge between intention and the unintended is not, really, a clear and distinct thing at all times. And, in principle, this lack of clarity is possible for any act. Intentions can always be argued about. Although there “must have been a mistake,” Joseph K. can be arrested at any time, because no Joseph K. can ever give an account of his actions such that we know precisely the limits of his intention.
The moral fact that the containment of consequences is indeterminable forms the basis for one of the principle themes of the mystic. When Blake says that the hot needle that pokes out the eye of the songbird darkens the stars, he is merely alluding to the infinite ramification of consequences that, in a drier tone, is considered by Donald Davidson in the Essays on Actions and Events. When Jesus of Nazareth claims that God knows even the fall of the smallest sparrow, he is saying either: a, that all events in one unified throb surge up against the divine, or, b., that all events are distributed to their place and function by the infinitely fine consciousness of our Heavenly Father.
Counting consequences, a dry topic for analytic philosophers to rattle about in their small journals, is also the cry of the messiahs and the lyric poets. LI might be a dry rattler, but at least this topic puts us in good company.
Next post – or some post next week – we will return to the deeper structural problems, and try to show how the original, petty stimulus for this wildly expanding topic – Hitchens supposition that he can strip consequences from acts as he goes backwards to make pronouncements about the moral/political errors of Michael Moore – shows that Hitchens has abandoned one view of history, that of struggle, associated with Marxism, for a very vulgar Whig view. And, in so showing, points out certain questions about democracy itself. Fun, fun, fun.