Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Consequentialists in the Classroom

Apologies for slacking.  Been busy.

This semester, I have been taking a political philosophy class taught by Dr. Kimberly Shankman, the College Dean.  Although the professor is a devotee of natural law, some of her students are not, resulting in some disturbing responses to moral dilemmas proposed in class.

During a lecture, Dr. Shankman described an actual case of cannibalism at sea.  Three British sailors were adrift in a lifeboat on the open ocean, without water and dying of thirst.  One of the three was near death and his comrades killed him and drank his blood.  The two survivors were later rescued and charged with murder.  The reluctant cannibals were sentenced to prison instead of death due to the extraordinary circumstances of their crime.  The response of some of my classmates to this nautical horror story was almost as distressing as the act of cannibalism.

When asked to render judgement on the sailors, several students said that the cannibals did nothing immoral and that they would do the same in a similar situation.  It is important to note that the moral culpability of the murderers is mitigated by their circumstances.  The man they killed was probably going to die anyway and the two sailors would have likely died themselves had they not killed and cannibalized their shipmate.  However, the act of murder itself is intrinsically evil, it is always wrong no matter the circumstance.  I found my classmates endorsement of murder repulsive, but I thought that one student's response was oddly amusing.  A girl said that she was horrified not by the murder, but by the cannibalism.  She seemed to think that it was more immoral to eat someone than it was to kill them.  As for me, I wouldn't mind terribly if starving people eat my body after I'm dead but I would very much mind if someone were trying to kill me.  Fortunately, the pro-cannibalism crowd in the class was a minority, though I made sure to note who they were and to avoid being stuck in an elevator with them.

In another scenario proposed by Dr. Shankman, the class was supposed to imagine that they were a shopper who noticed an error at checkout that would give them a large amount of free money but would probably cost the store clerk his job.  Everyone agreed that they should bring the error to the clerk's attention.  Dr. Shankman then told the class that they had a sick sibling who will die without an expensive medical treatment.  The class was polled again and this time half the students said that they would take off with the money.  Their change of heart was a perfect example of consequentialist thinking.  These students decided that it would be acceptable to do something that they had condemned as immoral only moments before because the consequent changed.  Granted, the hypothetical thief is in a difficult situation for which he has my hypothetical sympathy.  However, the act of theft is still immoral.  It is unfortunate that some students were willing to sanction theft for a good cause.  Their surrender to utilitarianism has more dire implications than their response to the cannibalism scenario.  My classmates will probably never be tempted to kill and eat someone but it is quite possible that they might stand to gain a reward for their unjust silence.  Hopefully, the current opinions of my pro-theft classmates are not anticipatory of their future choices.

Overall, I think that my observations in class are cause for optimism.  At a state college I imagine that the teachers and most of the class would be consequentialists.  Here at BC, Dr. Shankman was on the right side of both scenarios, along with at least half the class.  Even so, the judgements made by a portion of the class are unfortunate.  In the classroom, the hospital, or the legislature, one consequentialist is one too many.


  1. And there are more out there than we think or know, probably because they don't see themselves as holding erroneous positions.

  2. Hey Pat, good article. I just have to ask you a few questions though: have you ever been in a situation where one of your siblings is sick and might die? If not, how can you accurately say what you would do in that situation? Also, have you ever considered what it's like to be so sick at a young age that you're on your deathbed, or have you ever had a family member in that situation? If not, then you have no right to judge some of your classmates for what their answer to the money question was. It's an incredibly hard situation to be in. Believe me, I know. So please, have some compassion and wisdom to realize that there is probably some very good reasoning to why people would say they'd take the money.

  3. Anon:
    "You have no right to judge some of your classmates."

    Actually, I have no right to judge anyone, but I can judge their actions. There are certain circumstances under which theft is acceptable, this is not one of them. I do not think that I would take the money, but if I did, I would be wrong. Just as in the case of the cannibals, circumstances mitigate the guilt of the wrongdoer but not the immorality of the act itself.

  4. Anon: Upon further consideration, I toned down some of what I wrote. I don't really sympathize more with the cannibals than the thief, so I changed that part. I think that someone who steals to save their sibling is committing are much lesser sin than someone who steals for their own benefit. That being said, the action is still wrong.

  5. As someone who has worked in retail, I can honestly say that I would NEVER keep the money.
    Also, you do not know the circumstances of the cashier. He or she could be the sole support of a family & this their entire livelihood. & even if it was a single person, you are still doing harm to that person.

    Anonymous: I'm sorry but I have heard that don't judge line used way too many times to silence people & keep them from calling certain actions wrong &/or sin. 1 of the sprirtual works of mercy is to admonish the sinner. & that requires you to call sin sin.