On the way into work recently, I was listening to the BBC News Hour. The topic was the collapse (failure) of the crypto-currency exchange company FTX. One of the guests brought up the term “consequentialism.” The host did not follow up on that thought, but I made a point to remember it until I could get to a safe spot to look it up.

I found out that the term consequentialism has been used in law, particularly to decide financial and environmental issues. It is an ethical tool. It says that our actions are to be judged right or wrong by their consequences.  For example, consequentialists might find that, in some circumstances, lying is good.

Consequentialism is a word I had never heard before, but even before looking it up, I immediately thought of one of the key points of Chapter 2 of David Levy’s Tools for Critical Thinking: Meta-thoughts for Psychology, a book I have referred to many times in this blog. This chapter deals with the matter of how to evaluate statements of fact, specifically as to whether they are true or not. 

Levy distinguishes a process to decide the truth of facts about physical things and events from a more complicated process that must be used when evaluating what philosophers call constructs. For constructs, our only valid path to know if they are “true” is to see their effects (consequences) on us.

David Levy was not the first person to point out that different types of statements require different methods to evaluate them. Aristotle struggled with this over 2,300 years ago. The great German philosopher Schopenhauer wrote about and defined categories of things that would each have their own appropriate ways of evaluation. But Levy managed to boil his explanation down to a few pages of readily understandable sentences. His key point is that while it’s fairly straightforward to evaluate the truth of a statement about a physical object, such as “This cat has fur” or “This package of cheese weighs 400 grams” or even about events such as “The Yankees game yesterday went 10 innings,” it does not make sense to try to judge such statements as “existentialism is the best philosophy” as absolutely true or false. 

Statements about constructs, including scientific bodies of knowledge as well as financial theories and entities, and philosophical systems (such as existentialism) must be evaluated by the consequences of acting on their teachings. Existentialism might lead some people to harm themselves in despair and lead others to become inspiring figures.  

Check back for more next time.