And so on. It’s not inconceivable that, in 20 or 30 years, you and your friend might look back on this exam as a key moment in your lives – one that led (in the best of circumstances) to further academic and thereby vocational success, or (perish the thought) to academic failure and a lifetime of mediocre and unsatisfying jobs. The difficulty is: consequentialists and utilitarians do not appear to have a satisfying justification for telling us where in time to draw the line – the point after which we no longer need worry about the outcomes of our choices. But depending on where we draw this line can make all the difference in our calculations.
As this last point suggests, there’s a second difficulty wrapped into the problem of how far into the future we must attempt to consider: the further into the future we seek to predict, the less reliable our predictions can be. And yet, some of those future consequences may be some of the most important for us in our lives. Worst case: the chances of realizing what may potentially be the most decisive consequences of our acts become increasingly (perhaps vanishingly) small the further into the future we seek to predict those consequences. (In my experience, much of the anguish we face in ethical decisions turns on our effort to approach them in a consequentialist fashion – only to realize that we cannot be very certain at all about some of the most important possible outcomes of our actions.)
(c)For whom are the consequences that we must consider? The pizza and beer example takes into account only a small number of people. Bentham and Mill, by contrast, argued that consequentialism would work for whole societies. Up to a point, at least, this is plausible. In wartime, for example, generals and political leaders think in clearly consequentialist terms. Choosing to drop the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, for instance, were relatively easy decisions for the Allied commanders. Dropping these bombs immediately cost something like 200,000 Japanese deaths – but, as hoped, it put an end to the war. A conventional land invasion was estimated to result in around 500,000 Allied soldiers’ deaths (and at least as many Japanese soldiers). At a simple assignment of one positive util per life:
to use atomic weapons: 500,000 + / 200,000 – = 300,000 + utils
not to use atomic weapons: 200,000 + / 500,000 – = 300,000 – utils
But what about the impact of using these weapons on those who continued to live (and die) in areas contaminated by radioactive fallout? What about the impact of using these weapons on the larger ecosystem? On future generations?