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December 14, 2006


Andrew McGuinness

The consequentialist approach seems most reasonable, but the symbolic is not entirely without merit. The limit to consequentialist reasoning is the limit of how far we can confidently predict consequences. As our confidence diminishes, it becomes more reasonable to say "I don't know what action of mine would have the best consequences for group X, but I know if I take action A that at least they aren't being actively harmed through my action. If the expected benefits of my intervention are positive but small and with a high variance, there is a case for being cautious.

In this case, even the question of whether buying or boycotting is the "active" course action is open to question, but the principle "if in doubt, don't be active" has useful application in other areas.

It also means that it might be rational for you to buy, and for van der Zee not to, simply because van der Zee is rationally modest about his or her understanding of economic consequences.


Well the problem is that people don't impose (generally) their musical tastes on others. Minimum wage laws and child labour laws are required to be followed, so you can't just shrug your shoulders and say it's just a matter of taste if you think that these laws will have bad consequences, you have to oppose them using consequential grounds.


No, I think you're right about the symbolism thing. Moreover, this need for symbolic action is really a post-materialist value. Once the food on the table is assured, then people start worrying where it came from and how it was made. Take this, for example:

"There is an odd moment when shopping, with which most readers will probably be familiar. It's that second when you're standing in Tesco/Primark/Asda fingering (for example) a £20 sequinned top, and into your head pops the image of an exhausted woman, head bent, sewing on each of those sequins. The glitter of the top dims a little."

Readers of the Guardian might have this experience, I wouldn't know. But most people in that situation 'fingering the sequinned top' feel bad only because they can't afford anything better.

james higham

...FWIW, I side with the classical liberals here...

Good to read this.

...But is this just an aesthetic judgment, as subjective and fallible as my liking of this lot?..

Subjective does not mean fallible. All power to your liking of "this lot".

Marcin Tustin

I don't think that there is a conflict of rationalities, because even if one wishes to signal that one is against low wages or poverty, the signal is all the more powerful if the signal is actually efficacious to eliminate what one opposes. By contrast, if it is not, it is mere signage, and it calls the opposition into question, as the revealed preference is to allow the problem to continue.

Eric H


I just had a similar disagreement with my wife over a recent court decision to alter money for the benefit of the blind. My first impulse was to wonder about the cost and whether there weren't less expensive ways of dealing with the problem, for example by giving them all debit cards and doing away with cash altogether. Her first impulse was to think that this was a good decision no matter how much because it would probably get overturned but in the process it had started a dialog on the subject which might eventually lead to the solution.

In other words, I started weighing utility and consequences, whereas she was in favor of the symbolism. It continues to bother me that I look at these issues through utilitarian lenses even though I don't consider myself to be a utilitarian. Maybe I'm a self-loathing utilitarian?


There's a difference of purpose, a difference of who is intended to benefit. The liberals want to improve the position of the poor workers, the poseurs want to wear their hearts on their sleeves and thereby improve their own lot by signalling that they are memebers of a club. I don't see how it's fruitul to call those different rationalities: they are both based on a rational calculation of how to benefit someone, but a different someone, that's all. "Different rationales" might do.

David Gillies

Arnold Kling has drawn the distinction between the two rationalities in what he calls C-type (consequence) and M-type (motivation) arguments. Classical liberals tend to C-type stances; progressives tend to favour M-type. As a classical liberal in the Hayek mould, I naturally believe that the effects of one's acts should be given more weight than the purity of intention that went into informing them (the road to Hell and all that). It's true to say that in certain circumstances it is hard to predict the outcome of one's actions, but normally we don't do things in an ahistorical vacuum, and therefore the consequentialist perspective is post hoc. The trick is in identifying which of our past actions had positive outcomes, and using that as a model on which to base future actions. That sounds obvious, but human nature being what it is, such clear-headed empiricism is all too easily dismissed as heartlessness.

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