The Challenges of Outcomes over Intentions

The challenges of consequentialist ethics and what it means for antiracism

The Challenges of Outcomes over Intentions
Photo by Thomas Kelley / Unsplash

Like many, I eagerly consumed Ibram X Kendi’s How to be an Antiracist last year, and I found it to be excellent in the way that it struck the balance between vulnerable memoir and didactic how-to book. Kendi is a consequentialist, choosing to evaluate if a policy, action, or behavior is racist not on its intent, but on its outcome. He argues that when we examine intention, we’re focusing on the perpetrator, not the victim. Better, he notes, to center those impacted by racism than those who perpetuate it. I like this approach because it places the spotlight where it needs to be: on those impacted and on the outcomes themselves. After all, it’s a fool’s errand to ascertain one’s intent, and our zeal for uncovering intent keeps us from more productive conversations on how to change outcomes. But this consequentialist approach has a few challenges in practice that are worth exploring:

  • Ambiguity: Consequentialist ethics is predicated on the idea that we are capable of determining the consequences of an action. But it’s far more difficult to accurately evaluate consequences when there are so many variables. Cutting funding to police departments might reduce police brutality but might increase crime, and perhaps it’s not exactly clear if that policy decision reduced or exacerbated racial inequities. Consequentialism requires clarity about cause and effect when our messy reality often doesn’t provide those clear-cut answers.
  • Time horizons: Evaluating the consequences of something changes as the timeframe changes. You might have heard of the Chinese proverb about the farmer who refrains from making a value-judgement when bad things happen by saying “We’ll see.” In The Coddling of the American Mind, authors Jonathan Haidt and Greg Lukianoff examine how protective parenting approaches can have positive consequences in the short-term by keeping little kids safe but negative consequences in the long-term by rendering children ill-equipped to be independent thinkers who embody resilience in the face of setbacks.
  • Emotional approaches: When we move away from intent and towards consequences, we let those impacted define the consequences of an action or behavior. But what happens when their determination of the consequences is misguided or driven by fleeting feelings and hot emotions? In Adrienne Maree Brown’s outstanding book We Will Not Cancel Us, she points out that not all conflict rises to the standard of “trauma” and our conflation of the two is counterproductive for those working to build power in the movement to advance racial justice. The Coddling of the American Mind cautions that the currently popular belief of “always trust your feelings” has led us to cancel ideas and people simply because we find them to be unsavory or offensive. Consequentialism as an ethical framework makes sense only when we don’t make mistakes when judging consequences.

As we shift from measuring intent to measuring outcomes and consequences, we need to hold ourselves to high standards: in terms of the sophisticated tools we use to measure impact, the intellectual humility to recognize when we can’t prove causality, and in the ways we guard against getting hijacked by our aversion to short-term negative consequences. To use the thick/thin language of Tressie Cottom, there is risk in the consequentialist approach leading to the thinning of thick, necessary, and uncomfortable conversations that have unpleasant consequences in the short-term but have edifying, constructive consequences in the long-term.