The last suit/dress: A thought experiment on consequentialism

Imagine you are in a store and there is a suit, or dress, that you absolutely love. It’s the best suit/dress you’ve ever seen.

It is the last one on the rack. You approach the checkout and the staff member informs you that this suit/dress was made by extremely cruel slave labour, so cruel every person who contributed to making it died in the process.

There is a person right behind you that overhears this and tells you that they will buy the suit if you don’t want to, even though it was made through such cruelty. So, this suit/dress will be purchased today regardless of your choice.

The question I ask from this thought experiment is: Would you buy the suit/dress?

I would think most of us would answer no. Even though the consequences would be the same. Since the other person would buy the suit/dress, this would result in ordering more of that product (it was the last one). Therefore, if looking only at the consequences of your actions, there seems to be no difference between buying the suit/dress and not buying it.

This thought experiment raises a problem for the ethical theory of consequentialism. Consequentialism says we are morally obligated to act in a way that produces the best consequences. If an act does not cause harm or there are no alternative actions that can produce better consequences, then that act is morally permissible. If the act does create a harm, or there are alternatives that produce better consequences, then the act is morally impermissible.

Therefore, consequentialism would say that buying the suit dress would be morally permissible, since it would not cause any additional harm as opposed to not buying it. And there seems to be no obvious alternative that would produce better consequences. I could tackle the other person to the ground and prevent them from buying the suit/dress as well, but I think we would all agree that the judge hearing my defence for assaulting a stranger would not view this as an excuse.

There may be ways a consequentialist could rationalise a way we could not buy the suit/dress and produce better consequences. However, if someone refused to buy the suit/dress and gave the reason “It is just wrong” or “it would cost me my integrity” or “I refuse on principle” most of us would see this as enough of a reason, regardless of any potential consequences. On the other side of coin, if the other person gave the reason “someone will eventually buy it, so it is of no consequence if I buy it and enjoy wearing it” most of us would not accept that as a good reason. We would see them as being flippant, selfish, or cruelly disinterested.

So, I argue that this thought experiment demonstrates that morality goes beyond merely the consequences of our actions. It would be a mistake to read this as saying that the consequences of our actions are irrelevant to morality. However, there is more to our moral lives than just consequences alone.

If you are interested in political philosophy, I have recently published a book on Identity Politics called “Contrasting Identities”. The Amazon link is below:

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Andrew Tulloch

I have a Bachelor of Arts majoring in Philosophy and Sociology, with a Political Science minor. I also have an honours degree in Philosophy. I am currently studying for my PhD in Philosophy.

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