Means and Ends: The Importance of Consequences.

On Christmas Eve 1968, Robert Anthony Williams sexually assaulted and murdered a ten-year-old girl in the bathroom of a YMCA in Des Moines, Iowa. Having wrapped her body in a blanket and placed it in his car, he fled from the scene and disposed of the body in the wilderness. Two days later, Williams contacted an attorney in Davenport, Iowa, indicating his desire to surrender to law enforce- ment. As part of an agreement reached between his attorney and the Davenport police, the officers who would transport him from Davenport back to Des Moines were not to question him. Williams had indicated he would provide details of the offense once in the presence of his attorney in Des Moines. During the subsequent transport, however, one of the police officers accompanying him gave Williams what has come to be known as the “Christian Burial Speech.” Knowing that Williams was a deeply religious man with a history of serious mental illness, the officer (addressing Williams as “Reverend”) stated:

I want to give you something to think about while we’re traveling down the road . . . They are predicting several inches of snow for tonight, and I feel that you yourself are the only person that knows where this little girl’s body is, that you yourself have only been there once, and if you get a snow on top of it you yourself may be unable to find it . . . the parents of this little girl should be entitled to a Christian burial for the little girl who was snatched away from them on Christmas [E]ve and murdered.1

Following the speech, Williams led the officers to the young girl’s body. He was later tried and convicted of murder—a verdict which was upheld on appeal, despite claims that the evidence uncovered during the trip from Davenport to Des Moines should not have been admitted.

Although this case raises important legal questions concerning the admissibility of evidence and Sixth Amendment right to counsel, it also provokes crucial ethical questions about police interrogations, agreements and contracts, and the desirability of employing questionable means to achieve a desired (and desirable) end:

• Was the officer’s appeal to Williams’ conscience simply a case of good police work? • Does it matter that Williams was mentally ill and easily manipulated?

Ethics, Crime, and Criminal Justice, Second Edition, by Christopher R. Williams and Bruce A. Arrigo. Published by Prentice Hall. Copyright © 2012 by Pearson Education, Inc.

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Chapter 8 • Means and Ends: The Importance of Consequences 145

• Does it matter that the officer violated an agreement or promise not to question Williams during the automobile ride?

• Does it make a difference that the behavior of the officer ultimately led to success in finding the girl’s body and, thus, critical evidence?

To answer questions such as these, we need a means of identifying what is ultimately important, and how what we regard as important applies in principle to particular instances. As discussed in Chapter 2, we need to know what we value, and how decisions and actions pro- mote or fail to promote what we regard as valuable. Is there some sense in which finding the young girl’s body should be prioritized over procedural rules? Does our respect for individual rights take priority over what we regard as the best interests of the victim’s family and the community?

When we introduced the ethical importance of good decision-making in Chapter 2, we noted that our decisions and beliefs should be informed by good reasons, and having good reasons is often a matter of identifying and prioritizing key moral values and principles and the ways in which they apply to the issue or situation in question. We also noted that the subfield of ethics known as normative ethics consists of theories or frameworks that attempt to identify and prioritize moral values and, in so doing, provide guidelines for moral decision-making. Different ethical frameworks, however, prioritize different values, thus promoting different principles and pulling us toward different conclusions about moral issues and dilemmas: consequentialist theories focus on the consequences that our decisions or actions bring about; deontological theories focus on conforming our decisions and actions to relevant moral duties and obligations; and virtue ethics encourages us to develop good moral character, seeking to embody virtue while avoiding vice.

Given the importance and usefulness of these three basic ethical frameworks, we explore each of them in greater detail over the next three chapters. We begin in the present chapter with an examination of consequentialist theories—those that have us ask, “What will happen of I do X?” “Who will be affected and how?” and “How might other alternatives produce different outcomes?”

CONSEQUENTIALISM

According to consequentialism, actions are “right” so far as they have beneficial consequences. Thus, actions, laws, policies, etc., are morally right to the degree—and only to the degree—that they produce some good or some useful outcome.2 Actions themselves are neither inherently right nor inherently wrong; rather, moral worth attaches only to what decisions and actions bring about, not directly to the decisions or actions themselves. Some consequentialists, for example, would argue that there is nothing inherently wrong with an act of torture; instead, the moral permissibility of torture should be judged only by the good that it yields (or is expected to yield) relative to all other possible courses of action. In other words, the “means” can be justified by the “end.”

For a particular decision or action to be morally appropriate, then, it must on balance generate better consequences than all other available courses of action. If all available options produce both good and bad consequences, then the morally preferred one is the action that yields more overall good than harm.3 The desirability and permissibility of pretrial release policy, plea bargaining, determinate sentencing, capital punishment, and many other issues and dilemmas within criminal justice can be determined using the basic orientation of consequentialism: if, relative to other reasonable options, the overall benefits of the policy or practice outweigh the overall harm, then it is a “good” policy or practice.

Ethics, Crime, and Criminal Justice, Second Edition, by Christopher R. Williams and Bruce A. Arrigo. Published by Prentice Hall. Copyright © 2012 by Pearson Education, Inc.

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146 Part 3 • Normative Ethics: Theory and Application

While seemingly straightforward and intuitively appealing, several critical questions need to be addressed with respect to the logic and implications of consequentialist moral theory, each of which will be explored over the remainder of the chapter:

• What constitutes a “good” or desirable outcome? • For whom should the outcome be beneficial? • Should we focus on actual consequences? Expected consequences? Intended consequences? • Are consequences really the only thing that matters morally?

GOOD AND DESIRABLE CONSEQUENCES

What if we could substantially decrease the overall amount of physical pain in the world by giving everyone a “universal” vaccination which guards against almost all illnesses and diseases, but has the inescapable side effect of dulling emotions and permanently limiting our experience of joy? Would we willingly give up our experiences of joy for the sake of remaining in good health? What if we could completely eradicate crime in society, but doing so would require each of us to live under constant surveillance? Would we be willing to give up our experience of privacy and freedom for the sake of living without fear of criminal victimization?

To answer either of these questions, of course, we need to know whether we place greater value on health or on joyful emotions, on privacy and freedom or protection from criminal harm. If morality requires that we bring about good consequences through action or policy, we need to first know what things are good—in other words, what we value most. In and of itself, the idea that we should act so as to produce the best overall consequences does not answer this question for us. We need an additional “theory” of the good. We need to determine what matters.

By far the most widely discussed and influential variation of consequentialism is utilitarianism. Originally outlined by Jeremy Bentham (1748–1832) and John Stuart Mill (1806–1873), utilitarianism argues that actions are morally right so far as they maximize good consequences and/or minimize bad consequences; more specifically, however, classical utilitari- anism understands only one thing to be ultimately “good” or valuable—happiness. Every human being desires happiness, and each of us understands happiness to be the greatest possible kind of good. In John Stuart Mill’s words, “The utilitarian doctrine is that happiness is desirable, and the only thing desirable, as an end; all other things being desirable as means to that end.”4 In other words, wealth, status, food, love, knowledge, and many other things commonly understood as “goods” can only be understood as such because they are means by which we attain the more primary end of happiness.

Mill’s quote employs the distinction we made in Chapter 2 between values and goods that are intrinsic, and those that are instrumental. Recall that intrinsic goods are those things that are good in and of themselves or for their own sake; instrumental goods are those things that help us attain intrinsic goods. Thus, money is generally understood to be an instrumental good because its value lies in its ability to help us attain other things that are intrinsically good—by itself, money is of limited worth or utility. Happiness, however, is not a means to anything—we do not use it to get other things that are desirable. Instead, we desire happiness because the state of being happy is, by itself, something we consider to be good. Knowing that happiness is the highest of goods, we are in a better position to determine what constitutes good consequences, as well as what kinds of decisions and actions are morally permissible and desirable.

Whereas happiness is intrinsically valuable, honesty, legal rights, and other moral values and principles must be thought of as valuable only instrumentally—only to the extent that they aid in

Ethics, Crime, and Criminal Justice, Second Edition, by Christopher R. Williams and Bruce A. Arrigo. Published by Prentice Hall. Copyright © 2012 by Pearson Education, Inc.

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Chapter 8 • Means and Ends: The Importance of Consequences 147

realizing the ultimate goal of producing happiness. It may be the case that having legal rights aids in producing a more just society in which people are better able to pursue good lives. In this respect, legal rights may be morally desirable. However, the instrumental nature of legal rights also means that they can be trumped by other considerations in some situations. Rights to privacy, for instance, might be justifiably violated if doing so brings to light information that could potentially save many lives, thereby generating more happiness than unhappiness on the balance.

The Principle of Utility: Seeking the Greatest Happiness

Consider the following: Would it be morally permissible for local law enforcement to infringe upon privacy rights by surreptitiously monitoring the phone conversations of suspected drug dealers? For the U.S. government to do the same of suspected terrorists? In both examples, producing good consequences requires that we also cause harm. How do we resolve moral dilemmas such as these? We need a rational, overriding principle by which to guide our decision. According to utilitarianism, where we have a choice such as that between respecting privacy rights (a moral good) and protecting the community from harm (also a moral good), it is not only morally permissible but perhaps morally obligatory to choose that action or policy which has “the best overall consequences for everyone affected.”5 Because we know that “good” consequences are defined in terms of happiness, we can say that our decisions should be guided by an effort to bring about the “greatest happiness for the greatest number of people.”

The rational, overriding principle promoted by utilitarianism is thus the principle of utility or greatest happiness principle, which holds that:

• Actions are right to the extent that they promote happiness, and wrong to the extent that they produce unhappiness; and

• Because more than one “party” will be affected, the action which is “right” is that which produces the happiness for the greatest number of people (or, conversely, “eliminates pain for the greatest number of people”).

Actions (or laws, policies, practices, etc.) are morally justifiable only if they have a tendency to produce happiness or eliminate pain for the greater number of people relative to other courses of action.6 In some instances, the best overall consequences for everyone involved may include doing what is necessary to protect the well-being of the group, community, or the country, even if that course of action also causes harm in other respects. The goal of utilitarian decision- making is to produce the greatest balance of happiness over unhappiness. Thus, with respect to the questions posed at the beginning of this section, utilitarian logic may support infringing upon people’s privacy rights if, in so doing, we are bringing about a greater good for a greater number of people. Again, “means” such as wire-tapping might be justified by an “end” such as community safety.

Agent Neutrality: Consequences for Whom?

Thus far we have seen, according to the principle of utility or Greatest Happiness Principle, that: (1) actions are to be judged right or wrong only (or at least primarily) with reference to their consequences; (2) in considering consequences, what is important is the amount of happiness or unhappiness that is brought about; and (3) we must take into consideration the happiness and unhappiness experienced by all people affected by the decision. This last point is particularly important and worth emphasizing further, as it separates utilitarianism from another common form of consequentialism—that of ethical egoism (see Box 8.1).

Ethics, Crime, and Criminal Justice, Second Edition, by Christopher R. Williams and Bruce A. Arrigo. Published by Prentice Hall. Copyright © 2012 by Pearson Education, Inc.

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148 Part 3 • Normative Ethics: Theory and Application

BOX 8.1

The Rationale for Ethical Egoism

Ethical egoism suggests that self-interest is not a psychological motivation but a moral principle. We act rightly whenever we act out of consideration for our own interests, and wrongly whenever we do not. On its face, ethical egoism seems objectionable. Thus, on what basis or by what reasons might we legitimately support such a principle? The most common justifica- tions for ethical egoism are as follows:

• We know what is in our own interests, while we can know the needs and interests of other people only imperfectly. If we attempt to look after the needs and interests of others, we may well do more harm than good. If we limit our concern to ourselves, we are more likely to “get it right.”

• Looking out for other people’s interests is akin to invading their privacy. We should “mind our own business.”

• Aiding or assisting others is degrading to them— it is an assault to their dignity and self-respect. In a way, it suggests that others are incapable of meeting their own needs and caring for their own interests. In taking care of others, we may even be fostering a cycle of passivity and dependence, discouraging them from being or becoming self-reliant.

• Each of us has one—and as far as we know only one—life to live. Thus, we have a single oppor- tunity to find success, fulfillment, or happiness. Altruism would have us sacrifice that opportunity (or parts of it) for the sake of other people or the common good. Consequently, altruistic obliga- tions inhibit the development of outstanding individuals and, because great societies are achieved through the work and insight of great individuals, we should allow space for outstanding individuals to flourish.

As an example, consider cases such as mandated drug treatment or involuntary mental health intervention. These paternalistic practices involved are premised upon the notion that educated and trained professionals are in a position to understand the interests of others and assist them in overcoming their maladies. As we have

seen, however, ethical egoism questions whether we can ever know the needs and interests of others. Consequently, not only might paternalistic practices be misguided and unfruitful, they may also be construed as invasions of privacy and affronts to the dignity of those whom we are attempting to aid. Ethical egoism might raise the following concerns:

• Treatment services are not based on the patient’s expressed wants, needs, or desires, but on the professional’s “expert” knowledge of what the patient needs. In effect, experts presume to know patients’ needs and interests better than the patients themselves do. Are these assumptions accurate, or might they do more harm than good?

• Some have argued that patients who are treated against their will eventually come to appreciate the services they have received. The argument is that persons who are mentally ill or drug dependent are not—because of their illness—in a position to know what is in their best interests. Because of this, they may initially resist treatment. Once they are “better,” how- ever, they come to realize that treatment was in their best interest and are grateful for the inter- vention. Would you agree that persons who are drug dependent or suffering from a mental disorder such as major depression or schizo- phrenia are incapable of knowing their own interests because of their “illness?” Do you agree that many people who are treated without consent might eventually be thankful for the intervention?

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