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Get Happy: A Defense of Act Utilitarianism An Essay Presented by Dylan Robert Matthews to The Committee on Degrees in Social Studies in partial fulfillment of the requirements for a degree with honors of Bachelor of Arts Harvard College March 2012
CONTENTS INTRODUCTION 1. FACTS AND REASONS I. MONISM AND PLURALISM ABOUT REASONS II. COMMENSURABLE PLURALISM III. INCOMMENSURABILITY IV. WHAT SORT OF MONISM IS CORRECT? V. WHOSE FACTS GIVE REASONS? 2. MAKING DECISIONS I. FOUR BRANDS OF CONSEQUENTIALISM II. MOTIVES AND DECISION PROCEDURES III. RULE AND INDIRECT ACT CONSEQUENTIALISM IV. INDIRECT ACT CONSEQUENTIALISM’S DEMANDINGNESS V. DIRTY HANDS VI. DECIDING ON A DECISION PROCEDURE CONCLUSION: WHY A THEORY? ACKNOWLEDGMENTS BIBLIOGRAPHY 3 14 16 19 30 43 48 53 62 65 71 74 80 81 83
INTRODUCTION People should have reasons for doing the things they do. This essay is about such reasons. It is my aim to give an account of which facts–be they about the outside world, one’s personal desires, etc.–give one valid reasons to take one action or another, which facts do not, and how these truths about reasons should guide peoples’ practical decisionmaking. Such an account could be described as an “ethical theory.” However, it is a special type of ethical theory. There are three broad kinds of theories to which the term “ethical” might fairly be applied. The first variety, following Bernard Williams’ distinction between “ethics” and “morality”1, one might refer to as “moral theories.” Such theories detail what actions are prohibited or required by persons’ obligations to each other. These theories admit that some things may be ethically required or permitted for reasons that are outside the given theory’s scope. For example, one may have reasons to avoid inflicting pain on animals, but a moral theory concerned only with persons’ obligations to each other need not explain such reasons.2 The second variety of ethical theory one might call “narrow ethical theories,” which detail which actions are ethically prohibited or required, regardless of whether these prohibitions or requirements arise due to our obligations to each other. Narrow 1 See Williams 1985, 174-197. Williams draws a distinction between ethics, which is concerned broadly with questions of how one should live, and morality, the subset of ethics particularly concerned with our obligations to each other. In this essay I will generally use the terms “moral” and “ethical” and “morality” and “ethics” interchangeably, for the sake of linguistic variety. 2 See, for example, Scanlon 1999, 181. Scanlon’s contractualism seeks only to explain “our moral relations with other humans,” and while Scanlon argues that we have reason to avoid inflicting pain on animals, these reasons are outside the theoretical scope of contractualism. 3
ethical theories should thus detail which prohibitions or requirements, if any, arise due to our obligations to each other, and as such a given narrow ethical theory should be able to function as a moral theory as well. However, narrow ethical theories do not seek to answer the more general question of what persons have most reason to do. They may accept that there are non-ethical reasons, such as prudential or aesthetic reasons, for doing one thing rather than another, but place such reasons outside the scope of an ethical theory. Many deontological theories, I believe, qualify as narrow ethical theories. Consider, for example, this particular formulation of the Kantian categorical imperative:
Mean/ends maxim: One should never treat another person merely as a means rather than an end.
This answers the question of which actions are ethically impermissible (those which involve treating a person merely as a means), but cannot be taken as a general theory of what actions people have most reason to do. There may be many actions through which one can treat others as ends rather than as means, and there may be reasons to prefer one such action to another. The means/ends maxim does not provide an account of such reasons. The third variety of ethical theory I will call “comprehensive ethical theories,” which seek to answer the broad question of what actions one has most reason to do. If they exist, ethical requirements or prohibitions of the kind detailed in narrow ethical theories count as reasons to do or not do one thing or another, and thus a comprehensive ethical theory will have to give an account of them. A comprehensive ethical theory
should thus be able to perform all the functions of a narrow ethical theory and, by extension, a moral theory. Many consequentialist theories qualify as comprehensive ethical theories. For example:
Act consequentialism: One should always take that action that makes things go best.
This provides an answer in each case to the question of what one has most reason to do: one has most reason to take the action that makes things go best. By extension, it also answers the question of which actions are ethically prohibited (those which do not make things go best) and required (those which make things go best). These theories are not distinguished by which question they are intended to answer. An act consequentialist, for example, could have arrived at his theory by seeking to determine which actions are ethically required or prohibited (that is, by seeking to arrive at a narrow ethical theory) only to find that the theory that best answers that question also answers the question of what actions one has most reason to take. The distinction, instead, is based on what questions the theories do answer. Moral theories answer the question of what we owe to each other. Narrow ethical theories answer the question of what actions are ethically prohibited or required. Comprehensive ethical theories answer the question of what actions we have most reason to take. This essay will elaborate and defend a comprehensive ethical theory and, in so doing, seek to answer the question of what actions we have most reason to take. To answer this question adequately, one must give accounts of a number of subsidiary
issues. First, one must give an account of what kinds of facts give us reasons to act, and which do not. Some believe that only one kind of fact in the world provides valid reasons to act. For example, a hedonist, like Sidgwick, would say that the fact that an action produces pleasure provides valid reason to take that action, and that all other valid reasons for action reduce to reasons deriving from facts about pleasure.3 The general version of this view, that there is one kind of fact that provides reasons to act, I will refer to as “reason monism” or “monism about reasons.” By contrast, others would argue that there are multiple or even many kinds of facts about the world that give one reason to act. For example, one could accept that facts about pleasure provide reasons to act, but argue that facts about whether one is free and autonomous or not, or how equal one is to one’s peers, also provide such reasons. This general view I will refer to as “reason pluralism” or “pluralism about reasons.” I am a monist about reasons. I believe that facts about what actions produce mental states of affairs that we have an unreflective desire to continue or cease are the only kinds of facts that give ultimate, non-derivative reasons to act. This view I will, echoing Derek Parfit, describe as preference hedonism.4 Defending a specific monist position, such as this one, requires one to defend not only monism, but also the particular single source of reasons used in one’s brand of monism. There are many monists about reasons who do not accept that preference hedonic wellbeing is the one source of reasons. Notably, pure preferentists, such as R.M. Hare5, argue that facts about peoples’ preferences are the only source of reasons for action. It is thus necessary, to defend a 3 Sidgwick 1907, book I, chapter IX, section 4. 4 Parfit 1984, 493. 5 Hare 1981, 103. 6
preference hedonist variant of monism, to argue not just for monism but for the role of desirable mental states of affairs as the sole source of reasons as opposed to some alternative source. If the hedonistic view of reasons is correct, then one must also give an account of whose hedonistic wellbeing is reason-giving for which actors. One could be an impartialist, and think that every person’s preference hedonic wellbeing is equally reason-giving for every other person. This is the position I take. But it is possible to be a preference hedonist about reasons and not endorse impartiality in this case. One could be an egoist, and think that only one’s own preference hedonic wellbeing is reason-giving, and that no one else’s preference hedonic wellbeing gives reasons for action. Less extremely, one could endorse what Roger Crisp has dubbed the “dual source view”, in which both one’s own wellbeing and that of others is reason-giving, but one’s own is more reason-giving.6 One could also be a prioritarian and believe that the preference hedonic wellbeing of those who are worst off in society is more reason-giving than that of those who are better off. Defending impartialism entails explaining why egoism, the dual source view, and prioritarianism fail. If preference hedonism about reasons and impartialism about reasons are both correct, then one has most reason to perform that action which maximizes all preference hedonic wellbeing in the world. The comprehensive ethical theory this view of reasons implies, then, is a form of utilitarianism. However, it is worth investigating further which specific kind of utilitarianism is implied by this view. It does not follow from the propositions that only facts about preference hedonic wellbeing give us reasons to act that actors should in every case determine the net effect on theirs and others’ mental states of 6 Crisp 2006, 131-139. 7
every possible action they could take, and then take the action that maximizes good mental states and minimizes bad ones. Indeed, it seems likely that this is not the best way for actors to decide between actions. As Brad Hooker notes, actors frequently lack the information necessary to determine and evaluate the consequences of their actions, acquiring such information would take too much time, and have natural biases that hamper their ability to evaluate consequences impartially. Thus, it is preferable that actors follow "tried and true rules" like “don’t harm others,” “tell the truth,” and so forth, rather than calculate the consequences of each individual action.7 The set of such rules that a given consequentialist theory would advocate in a given context, I will, following Hooker, call a “decision procedure.” Given that the rules whose adoption would make things go best are likely to vary between time periods, cultures, and so forth, one should be able to derive a number of different action procedures from a single consequentialist theory, each appropriate for a particular moment in history, region of the world, etc. The disjuncture between decision procedures and the theories from which they are derived raises the question of how one should evaluate the rightness and wrongness of actions. Of course, if one rejects the notion that there is such a disjuncture, and believes that one should in each case evaluate the hedonic effects of every possible action one could take and then choose the most beneficial course of action, then this problem does not arise. Hooker professes to know of no consequentialist who believes that people should reason this way in daily life, and I know of none either.8 Such direct act consequentialism can thus be dismissed out of hand. The true argument is between “rule consequentialists,” like Hooker, who argue that the rightness or wrongness of an action is 7 Hooker 2003, 142-43. 8 Ibid., 142. 8
determined by whether it is in accord with the correct decision procedure9, and “indirect act consequentialists,” like J.J.C Smart, who posit that the rightness or wrongness of an action is determined by whether it is in accord with the correct ethical theory, not the decision procedure derived from that theory.10 Hooker argues that judging the rightness or wrongness of actions based on its actual consequences is unduly demanding, and requires huge sacrifices from individuals for the sake of the overall good. In doing so, indirect act consequentialism rejects the notion that there are such things as acts of supererogatory altruism, which are ethically good but not required, a position that Hooker finds excessively counterintuitive.11 I do not find this a sufficiently compelling reason to reject the indirect act consequentialist view, which follows more directly from the core consequentialist idea that people should act in ways that make things go best. Act consequentialism does, as Hooker suggests, deny the existence of supererogatory altruism, but precisely because it is sufficiently demanding to render no person ethically blameless, it turns ethical evaluation into a matter of gradients rather than a binary between right and wrong. I think this, upon reflection, is actually a more intuitively plausible view of ethics than the one rule consequentialists like Hooker advocate. Any consequentialist theory that incorporates a decision procedure, regardless of whether that procedure is also used as a criterion of rightness, must deal with the question of who should formulate these decision procedures, and how much others should know about their formulation. Henry Sidgwick held an infamously elitist view of this question, arguing that it was the proper role of educated and beneficent elites to disseminate 9 Hooker 2003, 145. 10 Smart, 1972. 11 Hooker 2003, 152. 9
decision procedures derived from a general ethical theory to which the public should not itself be privy, writing, “A Utilitarian may reasonably desire, on Utilitarian principles, that some of his conclusions should be rejected by mankind generally, or even that the vulgar should keep aloof from his system as a whole, in so far as the inevitable indefiniteness and complexity of its calculations render it likely to lead to bad results in their hands.”12 Bernard Williams called this position “Government House Utilitarianism,” and considered it indefensible. Sidgwick’s view, Williams asserts, “is unlikely, at least in any very overt form, to commend itself today.”13 I believe that Williams is right in his conclusion but Sidgwick is right in his reasoning. There is nothing objectionable at the level of ethical theory about a theory implying that it itself should be kept obscure. Empirically, however, the argument for such a view is implausible. This essay will proceed to defend, in turn, each of these components of the indirect act utilitarian theory I advocate. Chapter one will defend the view that only good mental states give one ultimate reason to act. The first three sections of the chapter will defend monism about reasons generally, by arguing that the only form of pluralism that does not collapse into monism is a pluralism which asserts that some reasons and values are incommensurable, and then demonstrating that the arguments for the existence of incommensurable reasons and values fail. The fourth section of the chapter will defend hedonistic monism about reasons against other forms of monism, notably the preferentist view of wellbeing, arguing that the former view is more parsimonious and intuitively plausible. The fifth section of the chapter will argue that facts about everyone’s desires regarding mental states of affairs are equally reason-giving, and that views in which one’s 12 Sidgwick 1907, 490. 13 Williams 1995, 166. 10
own hedonistic wellbeing, or that of the worst off in society, is given preference are implausible. Chapter two will outline how best to derive decision procedures from the form of utilitarianism this account of reasons implies. The first sections of the chapter will defend indirect act consequentialism against rule consequentialism by explaining why the former’s demandingness and denial of the existence of supererogatory altruism are more intuitively plausible positions than Hooker contends, and apply indirect act consequentialism to the problem of “dirty hands” in political ethics. The proceeding sections of the chapter will argue that the empirical possibility that rule-utilizing consequentialism (be it rule or indirect act consequentialism) could recommend its own obscurity does not disqualify it as a theory, though such a reality is not particularly likely. The conclusion will defend the kind of ethical theorizing that this thesis engages in against recent arguments that the entire project of ethical theory is reductive and alien to how ethical decisions are actually made in practice. Before the essay begins in earnest, a word on methodology is in order. This essay is not about meta-ethics. I take no stand on the meaning of ethical statements, the reality or non-reality of moral facts, and so forth. However, insofar as I am attempting to ascertain what is true and false about ethics, I am, through engaging in the types of philosophical argumentation I engage in here, implicitly taking a stand on certain issues about moral epistemology, specifically those about how one should go about justifying moral statements. This essay is, in large measure, an exercise in reflective equilibrium.14 I will pit prospective views about ethics against commonly accepted principles and commonly held intuitions about specific cases, with the goal of arriving at a set of general 14 Rawls 1971, 18-19. 11
views and principles and specific judgments that fit together coherently. One can understand this as a kind of coherentist method of moral justification, in which moral statements are justified by being placed into a coherent system of principles and judgments. This is T.M. Scanlon’s interpretation of the concept of reflective equilibrium, and it is the view to which I am most sympathetic.15 One need not be a coherentist to use moral intuitions the way I do, however. One could, like Jeff McMahan, argue that the process of weighing moral intuitions and principles is a method of accessing deeper foundational facts about morality. This, as McMahan notes, has precisely the same methodological implications as the coherentist view, and so also supports the kind of argumentation in this essay.16 Of course, many deny that one can use intuitions in this way at all. R.M. Hare and Richard Brandt17, two philosophers with whom I share far more substantive moral beliefs than McMahan, Scanlon, or Rawls, are among the more noted critics of this approach. Simply because a set of intuitions and principles hang together, these critics argue, does not make them valid. “The ‘equilibrium’ they have reached is one between forces which might have been generated by prejudice, and that no amount of reflection can make that a solid basis for morality,” Hare writes.18 It is outside the scope of this essay to issue a full reply to these objections. It will have to suffice to say that, whatever the true nature of moral facts, reflective equilibrium strikes me as the best, and perhaps only, viable method for accessing them. Perhaps at some later date we will have devised a superior method. Until then, moral intuitions are essential to the project of ethical theory. 15 Scanlon 2002. 16 McMahan 2000, 104. 17 Brandt 1979, 20. 18 Hare 1981, 12. 12
CHAPTER ONE: FACTS AND REASONS
I. Monism and pluralism about reasons
What sorts of facts give us reasons to act in one way or another? There are, broadly speaking, two classes of answers one could give to this question. The first is that only one type of facts gives us reasons to act. One could be a hedonist, and believe that only facts about mental experiences provide reasons, or one could be a preferentist, and believe that only facts about what people would prefer provide reasons. Hedonism and preferentism are forms of what I will call monism about reasons, because in each, all reasons reduce to reasons deriving from a single type of facts. I am a monist about reasons, and more precisely what Derek Parfit has called a “preference hedonist”.19 I believe that we have reasons to promote mental states of affairs that we have an immediate, unreflective preference to continue having when they are occurring, and reasons to minimize mental states of affairs that we have an immediate, unreflective preference to cease having when they are occurring. But many people reject monism. They think that many type of facts provide reasons. The fact that an action would lead to a more equal society could provide a reason for taking that action and the fact that another action would maximize good states of affairs could provide a reason for that alternative action, etc., with each of these facts serving as the ultimate source of the reasons they provide. That is, the fact that an action would promote freedom provides a reason not because freedom is conducive to happiness or preference satisfaction but 19 Parfit 1984, 493. 14
because the fact that an action promotes freedom is, in and of itself, reason-giving. This view, that multiple kinds of facts provide ultimate, non-derivative reasons, I will call pluralism about reasons. There exist two further broad positions one could take if one accepts pluralism about reasons. One could think that multiple kinds of facts provide reasons for action, and all of these actions are commensurable. That is, facts about freedom and happiness could both be reason-giving, but the reasons they provide can always be compared. A fact about freedom could give one reason, and a fact about happiness could give another reason, and these two reasons will either be equal in force or one will trump the other. This position I will call commensurable pluralism. W.D. Ross’s intuitionist ethical theory, for example, holds that several “prima facie duties”, such as fidelity, justice, beneficence, etc., are reason-giving. Ross also maintains that in each case these duties can be compared, and the action that best accommodates all of them can be found. “We are only bound to do that act whose prima facie obligatoriness in those respects in which it is prima facie obligatory most outweighs its prima facie disobligatoriness in those respects in which it is prima facie disobligatory," he writes.20 That is, an act can be right even if violates some duties, because those duties can be weighed against each other. But some pluralists do not accept that reasons are in each case commensurable. These pluralists insist that some reasons cannot be meaningfully compared, that there can exist two reasons such that neither is stronger in force than the other, nor are they of equal force. Some reasons are
20 Ross 1939, 85. 15
simply incommensurable. I will call this position, most prominently defended by Joseph Raz, incommensurable pluralism.21
II. Commensurable pluralism
If commensurable pluralism is true, then it is always the case that a given pair of reasons will be of equal force, or one will be stronger than the other. If this were not the case, then incommensurable reasons would exist and commensurable pluralism would be false. But what does it mean, in commensurable pluralism, for a reason to be stronger than another reason? One possibility is that there is some objective metric for comparing the strength of various reasons. But what would such a metric look like? One could compare reasons by measuring the degree to which it promotes a particular type of value, such as happiness (or happiness minus pain), or satisfied preferences. But if the objective metric is of that nature, then commensurable pluralism simply collapses into monism, with the only kind of reason-giving fact being the one used as a metric. This kind of yardstick approach, then, appears to collapse commensurable pluralism into a form of monism. If a yardstick approach simply collapses into monism, how then could reasons deriving from multiple kinds of facts be meaningfully compared with one another? One possibility is that comparisons must be made on a case-by-case, intuitional basis. A fact about an act’s effect on freedom could provide one reason in a particular case, and a fact about that act’s effect on happiness could provide another reason in each case, and there 21 Raz 1986, Raz 1999. 16
is no formal procedure by which to determine the reasons’ relative strength. One must instead, in each such individual case, determine which reason appears stronger. But this approach, I believe, also reduces to a form of monism. What, after all, does it mean for a reason to “appear” stronger? This could be about a reason’s motivational force. A reason could appear stronger than another reason if it is more persuasive, more motivating of action. But if this is so, then the case-by-case, intuitional method of reason comparison is simply another form of yardstick comparison, where reasons are evaluated for the degree to which they motivate the actor. Like any other yardstick approach, this ultimately is a form of monism, in which the sole ultimately source of reasons is the degree to which a certain fact motivates the actor to act. An actor, in this monism, has reason to act if there are certain facts that motivate him to act. A reason that does not provide this degree of motivation cannot be a true, valid, reason. This view is not only a form of monism, but a particularly unpersuasive form. One does not want to be committed to the view that the suffering a sociopath would inflict if he were to murder a child only provides a reason not to murder the child if this suffering motivates the sociopath. One could object here that the account of motivation here appears to rule out weakness of will or akrasia. Surely it is possible, one might insist, to acknowledge that a reason is stronger than another reason without being more motivated by the stronger of the two reasons. I could have stronger reasons to clean my room than to watch television but still be more motivated to watch television. This much seems clear enough, but it worth asking further what we mean when we say we have stronger reasons without motivation in such cases. If we do not have a clear, objective yardstick – like hedonic wellbeing or preference satisfaction – then the ultimate determinant of reasons’ strength
is the intuitive judgment of the actor. This judgment may not be exactly aligned with that actor’s motivations, especially in cases of akrasia, but it is still wholly internal to the actor and makes no reference to objective facts outside him. So it is still possible to imagine an actor with truly outlandish intuitive judgments of reasons. Suppose that I am a commensurable pluralist who believes that increasing hedonic wellbeing and ensuring equality in hedonic wellbeing across society are both worthwhile and reason-giving, and that one must judge the force of the reasons these two pursuit provide in an intuitionist manner. It is possible to imagine an actor who intuitively judges equality of hedonic wellbeing to be sufficiently important that he thinks it worth causing huge decreases in overall wellbeing – such as by killing large numbers of people – in order to ensure equality. Most, including those who accept the two values at the heart of this brand of commensurable pluralism, would reject this intuitive weighting of the two values as preposterous and dangerous. But how would an intuitionist back up this judgment? In this case, we are strongly tempted to insist that there simply are some reasons that are objectively stronger than others, and that this strength must derive from something other than the individual actor’s judgment. To give the actor’s judgment that role is to make morality a slave to the potentially disastrous intuitions of individual actors. The intuitional view is thus, I believe, worth rejecting even if judgments about reasons are not simply statements about motivation. If the intuitional form of commensurable pluralism should be rejected, then we are left with the yardstick view, which in turns collapses into a form of monism. Thus, all forms of commensurable pluralism are either false or collapse into monism. If reasons are commensurable, in other words, monism must be correct.
This conclusion explains why most opponents of monism are not commensurable pluralists but incommensurable pluralists. Incommensurable pluralism not only fails to reduce to monism but requires a rejection of the entire concept of rational action upon which monism is premised. If there is only one source of reasons, and the relative strength of those reasons can always be determined, then one is drawn to the model of rational action that Raz dubs the “rational view”, in which the rational action is that which is supported by a preponderance of reasons.22 But if one accepts incommensurable pluralism, accepting the rational view as well is plainly impossible. If certain reasons are neither of equal or differential force, then the action that is supported by the preponderance of reasons cannot be determined. If action A is supported by reason A1 and only reason A1 and action B is supported by reason B1 and only reason B1, and reasons A1 and B1 cannot be compared, then determining whether action A or action B is supported by the preponderance of reasons is impossible. Thus, Raz proposes as an alternative to the rationalist view of rational action the “classical” view of rational action, in which a rational action is not that which is supported by the preponderance of reasons but instead that supported by a sufficient reasons23. Since the relative strength of reasons cannot always be determined, further comparisons of actions based on the strength of the reasons for them are pointless. Instead of comparing reasons’ strength, then, one must simply determine which have sufficient reasons supporting them, and then decide to take one of those sufficiently supported actions. 22 Raz 1999, 47. 23 Ibid. 19
But what does it mean for two reasons to be incommensurable? Raz proposes that for values or reasons to be incommensurable it must be that case that (a) one is not stronger or more valuable than the other (b) the two are not equal in terms of value or strength.24 If all comparisons of a pair of reasons can be answered by saying that the two are of equal strength, or one is stronger than the other, then incommensurability does not exist. One possible argument against incommensurability, then, would be to assert that all cases that Raz and other incommensurable pluralists point to are in fact cases of rough equality. This answers a major appeal of incommensurability, that it can explain comparisons between reasons where it is not immediately clear which is stronger. If two reasons are incommensurable, comparing them is bound to be difficult, but if they are equal in force, determining which is stronger is also a difficult project. However, Raz argues, even if rough equality makes sense of the difficulty of certain choices, it does not explain why we have reason to care about which option we choose in those cases. First, he phrases the rough equality argument as follows: “(1) Two options are roughly equal if and only if it does not matter which one is chosen, if it is right to be indifferent between them. (2) What rightly makes one care about which option to choose is that one is better supported by reason than the other. (3) There is no reason to prefer either of two incommensurable options. Therefore, all incommensurables are of roughly equal value.”25 Raz proceeds to deny the second premise. We frequently care, he asserts, about difficult choices between options, the kind of choices whose difficulty could arise either due to incommensurability or due to rough equality. A college senior choosing between a career as an attorney and one as a professional clarinetist still cares deeply about which he 24 Raz 1986, 322. 25 Raz 1986, 331. 20
chooses.26 This is inexplicable if the two options have roughly equal reasons backing them. In that case, Raz believes, the senior should simply choose one option, content in the knowledge that it does not matter which career he chooses. He has no reason to care which he chooses (I think this conclusion is wrong, for reasons I will elaborate later in this section, but will accept it for the moment for the sake of argument). But it is explicable if the senior’s reasons for becoming an attorney cannot be compared with his reasons for becoming a clarinetist. Thus, Raz concludes, we need incommensurability to explain the importance of difficult decisions to the people making them. It is possible, however, to explain why difficult decisions are important to the people making them without reference to incommensurability. For one thing, decisions such as the college senior’s are frequently wracked with uncertainty. Suppose the senior has been accepted to a law school and a conservatory and must decide which to attend. The senior has only a small fraction of the totality of relevant information about each choice. She may have spoken to other clarinetists, both those who are glad they chose a career in music and those who regret it. She may have a rough idea of how likely she is to have a career she is very happy with – say, a successful tenure at a good symphony orchestra, or as a renowned soloist – and how likely she is to have one she wishes were better, with frequent unemployment, forced moves to find work, and so forth. But there is still so much more she does not know. She does not know, ultimately, which result will befall her. Perhaps she will graduate conservatory during a recession when orchestras are cutting back and finding work as a young clarinetist is all but impossible. Perhaps she will catch a big break and have a great career ahead of her. There is no way of knowing. 26 Raz 1986, 332. 21
Even if she could predict such things, there is a whole class of other relevant facts that are truly impossible to predict. Perhaps she will get a cushy orchestra job but hate her conductor, and have a miserable time in the position. Perhaps she will be forced to move away from her significant other if she is to become first chair in the New York Philharmonic, and her personal life will suffer as a result. Decisions as momentous as what career to pursue are inevitably wracked with uncertainty. It is this uncertainty, I believe, that explains a large part of why the senior should care about which career she pursues. Even Raz would admit that one has reason to care about decisions where one option has clearly stronger reasons supporting it than the other option. It seems very likely that this is the case for the senior. It is quite possible, indeed probable, that either being an attorney or being a clarinetist has stronger reasons supporting it. The problem is that the senior has no idea which choice has stronger reasons. She cares precisely because she senses that there is a right choice, that being a clarinetist or being an attorney would really be better. If going to law school entails a thankless career doing dull work at a large, impersonal firm, and going to conservatory would allow her to become the next Artie Shaw, she should obviously go to the conservatory. If going to law school would lead to a successful, fulfilling career working cases she cares about, and going to conservatory would consign her to poverty, she should obviously go to law school. This uncertainty also explains why the senior cares more about this choice than about the choice between, say, being a clarinetist and being an accountant. She has no interest in being an accountant, actively detests the work that career involves, and knows that she will prefer the worst possible career as a clarinetist to the best possible one as an
accountant. She obviously cares about the choice, because she knows there is a right answer and that which she chooses will matter tremendously for her life, but she is not anxious about the choice the way she is about the choice between the clarinet and the law. The uncertainty itself adds significance to the choice. The knowledge that one could very well choose wrongly, when there is likely a right choice, provides reason to care and worry about the choice that is not present when one is secure in the knowledge that she will choose rightly. Uncertainty, then, explains why people can care about difficult decisions without there existing incommensurable values. Not all apparent cases of incommensurability are cases of rough equality, but all, I believe, can be explained in terms of either rough equality or uncertainty. A Razian could respond by insisting that even in the absence of uncertainty, one would still care deeply about such significant choices. The college senior could know exactly what her career in music and her career in law would look like, and still care strongly about which one she chooses. She would know her lifetime salaries, how happy she would be in each position, how each would affect her personal relationships, what she would accomplish in each field, and she is still unsure which to choose. Suppose she knows, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that she will either go to a top law school in New York or a top conservatory in New York, that she will either become a career clarinetist in a great New York orchestra or a partner in a prestigious New York law firm, and will marry the same people and have the same friends in each case. This scenario is somewhat fanciful, but it still seems the case, the Razian could insist, that she would have reason to care about the choice, and that the choice is still difficult. Incommensurability explains why she cares in spite of the difficulty of the choice. If the reasons for a career in law and
a career in music are incommensurable, then she can clearly care which she chooses. It does not seem immediately evident, however, that uncertainty can explain why she cares. She is certain of all relevant facts concerning each choice, and can determine, under the anti-incommensurability view, which choice she has more reason to pick, or whether the two are roughly equal in terms of reasons. If one choice has stronger reasons supporting it, then the choice cannot, according to Raz, be difficult. If the two sets of reasons are equal, then she has no reason to care about the choice, difficult as an analytical matter though it may be. Only incommensurability, the Razian could argue, explains both the difficulty and the fact that the senior cares. It seems possible, however, that a different kind of uncertainty could account both for the difficulty of the choice and the fact that the senior cares. It could be that the senior is not uncertain about the relevant facts but about the kinds of reasons those facts give, either now or in the future. Suppose the senior is a preference hedonist, and agrees with me that only facts about desirable or undesirable mental states of affairs are ultimately reason-giving. It could be that she just is not sure whether she desires the mental states of affairs she experiences when playing the clarinet, or taking clarinet lessons, more in that moment than she desires the mental states of affairs she experiences when studying an interesting legal case, or volunteering at a legal clinic, in that moment. It could be that there are more intensely desirable and more intensely undesirable mental experiences when playing clarinet (the pleasure one feels at the accomplishment of playing a great recital, the embarrassment of being called out by a conductor, etc.) than when studying the law, which is more mildly but uniformly positive as an experience, and the senior
does not know how to compare the extreme swings of music to the steady experience of law. More likely still, she could know which experiences she prefers now but be radically unsure which she will desire in the future. It could be that, come age 40, she has a strong desire to have none of the mental experiences that come with a career in music and simply wants the calm pleasures of the law. Or she could find she needs the excitement of music and finds the law stultifying. There is no way, at 22, for her to predict these swings in experience preference, but she knows some will likely occur. This uncertainty means that, even if one knows all the relevant facts about a case, one does not know how one will respond to those facts in the future, and thus which of the facts are reason-giving, how strongly reason-giving they are, and so forth. Thus, there is likely one choice that is better than the other, and one does not know which is which. If at 40, the senior hates the law and loves music, she should pick music at 22, and vice versa. This knowledge that there is a right answer, as in simpler cases of uncertainty, can explain both the difficulty of the choice and why the senior cares so deeply, without admitting the existence of incommensurability. A Razian’s insistence that we need incommensurability to account for caring in such cases is thus, I believe, incorrect. A believer in incommensurability could still insist that, even if uncertainty and rough equality can explain the difficulty of such choices, and why the chooser cares so deeply about them, that incommensurability provides a better explanation. Incommensurability can be said to take seriously the difficulty of such choices, by asserting they are inherently difficult, and not simply difficult because the decider has incomplete information, or because the two are in fact equal in terms of reasons. For the
sake of illustration, imagine that a wealthy philanthropist has been planning to donate $50 million to a vaccination campaign in a developing country, but discovers that Guernica has been stolen and the thief plans to burn it if he does not receive $50 million ransom. For those who value both human life and fine art, this appears to be a very difficult choice. Incommensurable pluralists have a very easy time explaining why. Preserving great art gives one reason to act, most would agree, and saving human lives also gives one reason to act, but if these reasons are incommensurable, then a direct choice between the two is of necessity difficult. Monists appear, at first pass, to have a harder time explaining the difficulty. A preference hedonist, for example, might argue that this is a case of rough equality, that the desirable mental states of affairs produced by a masterpiece like Guernica – and the undesirable mental states of affairs that would be caused by its destruction – over the course of human history makes preserving it as reason-giving, in hedonic terms, as donating to the vaccination campaign. But this reading seems tortured and callous. I think the difficulty is actually due to our uncertainty of the consequences, in terms of desirable and undesirable mental states of affairs, of letting Guernica burn, which makes comparing those consequences to the consequences of not saving lives through a $50 million donation to a vaccination campaign rather hard. I think this provides a more compelling reading than the assertion that preserving Guernica is as valuable, in preference hedonic terms, as saving thousands if not millions of lives. But even my reading fails to take seriously the intuition that fine art and human life possess fundamentally different sorts of value. Incommensurability, by contrast, grounds itself on that intuition.
To answer this appeal of incommensurability, let us return again to premise 2 of the rough equality argument Raz sets up as an opponent: “What rightly makes one care about which option to choose is that one is better supported by reason than the other.” While Raz targets this premise, he does so only mildly. Raz appears to believe that what rightly makes one care about which option to choose is that one is better supported by reason than the other or that the two are incommensurable. Raz seems to rule out the possibility that one could care about a choice between two commensurable sets of reasons where we know one set is just as strong than the other, and he certainly rules out the possibility that such a choice could be difficult. Suppose, he writes, that the senior knows that neither pursuing the law nor pursuing the clarinet is better than the other. “It hardly needs arguing that in that case they are incommensurable. The suggestion that they are of exactly the same value cannot be entertained seriously,” he asserts. “One would still be greatly and rightly concerned about the choice.”27 Allow me, then, to seriously entertain the suggestion Raz dismisses so briskly. It seems to me that we care deeply about a whole range of choices where one option is not better than the other, not because of incommensurability but because each option is supported by its own set of strong, weighty reasons. Our caring is not fundamentally comparative, as Raz appears to assume it. Suppose I win a sweepstakes and am offered either $1 million in cash or a house valued at $1 million. Suppose further that when all the calculations are in, and after taxes, interest from saving the cash and costs of maintaining and/or renting out the house are taken into consideration, the two are of equivalent monetary value to me. The house has no sentimental value to me; it is simply 27 Raz 1986, 332. 27
of interest to me from a monetary perspective. All relevant factors appear to be commensurable. Do I then have reason to care which I choose? It seems obvious that I do. I have strong reasons to want $1 million in cash and equally strong reasons to want a $1 million house. The degree to which I care grows with each of those sets of reasons’ strengths, not with the differential between the strength of the sets. Similarly, imagine a mad surgeon forces me to choose whether I want my eyes or my cochleae removed. I would care strongly, I think, which I choose, and not just because I would rather be blind than deaf, or vice versa, or am uncertain as to which I would prefer. I would care strongly simply because I have strong reasons to dislike each option, and the strength of these reasons alone, quite apart from any comparison between them, is cause enough to care. We particularly care about choices that are quite different from each other. I do not care if I receive $1 million in the form of a check or have it deposited directly into my checking account, but I do care if I receive it in the form of a house or in cash. I do not much care if I am shot in my right or left leg, but I do care whether I lose my sense of sight or my sense of hearing. A Razian could assert that this fact supports the importance of incommensurability, as it appears to suggest that how much one cares about a given choice has something to do with the differential between the strength of the sets of reasons supporting each option. My reasons for not wanting to be shot in my right leg are very strong, and my reasons for not wanting to be shot in my left leg are as well, but because the reasons are equally strong, I do not care. Thus, the Razian could conclude, what really matters is the differential, not that each has strong reasons supporting it. I do not find this counterargument satisfying. For one thing, there exist cases where the sets of reasons are exactly as strong, and the choices are very similar, but
where one still cares deeply about the choice. Suppose that a mother’s twin sons, who she loves and values equally, are taken hostage and the sadistic kidnapper forces her to choose which of them will be paralyzed from the waist down. The boys are twins, in equivalent shape, and would be hurt equally. It is clear that the mother has equally strong reasons for wanting each son to not be paralyzed. But it is absurd to assert that this equality of reasons entails that she must not care about the choice. It would be monstrous for her not to care. So caring is not inextricably bound up in the size of the differential between sets of reasons. But if this is so, what explains why the mother should care in this case, but she likely would not care if forced to choose whether she wants to be shot in her left or her right leg? These are both cases in which one is confronted with equal sets of reason, but in the twin case one cares deeply and in the leg case one is indifferent. Here, again, I believe uncertainty can explain the difference in concern. She knows, as a matter of fact, that being shot in her left leg will hurt her no more or less than being shot in her right leg. But simply because she is a separate person, she cannot know as confidently that the two boys will respond equally to being paralyzed. It could be that one of the twins would have grown up to be a champion runner absent paralysis, and the other would not have, and that it thus is preferable to paralyze the non-future runner. What’s more, the twin case involves three different peoples’ experiences, whereas the leg shooting case only involves the experiences of one. The mother could be certain of the effects of paralyzing one of her two sons on her own wellbeing, and indeed could be as certain of these effects as she is of the effects of being shot in one or the other leg. But because her sons are separate people, again, there is inherent uncertainty, from the mother’s point of view, as
to the effects of paralysis on them. While both of these cases involve choosing from very similar options, I believe the kind of uncertainty found in the twin case can help explain why we tend to care more about choices between very different options than we do about choices between similar ones. The differential in concern does not arise because the differential between the sets of reasons for each is greater, but because the level of uncertainty involved is. Thus, I find that Raz’s arguments for the existence of incommensurable values and reasons fail. If there are no such incommensurable reasons, and I am correct that commensurable pluralism collapses in each case into a form of monism, then the only option left is monism. One must conclude, then, that monism is correct.
IV. What form of monism is correct?
There are, however, many different forms that monism could take. It is impossible to deal adequately with all possible iterations, but the following forms have been prominently defended and are worthy of at least some consideration: Preferentism – the only facts that give people reasons to act are facts about what persons or other rational agent prefer.28
Perfectionism – there is an ideal form of life for a human being that is internal to being a human being, and only facts about that form of life and what brings one closer to it give people reasons to act in one way or another.29 28 Defended in, among others, Brandt 1979, Hare 1981, and Singer 1993, 94. 30
Hedonism – the only facts that give people reasons to act are facts about pleasure and pain (however those concepts are conceived).30
These summaries fail to capture the full diversity of views associated with each label. As Fred Feldman has explained, the term “hedonism” alone encompasses a wide range of views about what pleasure is, how it is to be measured, and so forth.31 Some proponents of the views listed above may even deny the description of their views as monistic; an Aristotelian perfectionist, for example, could insist that his theory is pluralistic, in that there are many different types of facts about human beings as a natural category that give persons reasons to act in various ways. But insofar as these reasons are commensurable, at most such a theory would be an instance of commensurable pluralism and, as previously argued, collapse into monism. Furthermore, there are some views excluded from this taxonomy, most notably those accounts described by Parfit as “objective list” theories.32 These theories assert, “certain things are good or bad for people, whether or not these people would want to have the good things, or to avoid the bad things.”33 While here phrased as a theory of wellbeing, it is possible to think of objective list theories as describing the origins of reasons: one has a reason to commit an action if it promotes things that are good for oneself or other people, and one has a reason to avoid an action if it promotes things that 29 Originated in Aristotle 1980, defended in Hurka 1993. 30 Recently defended in Feldman 2004 and Crisp 2006. 31 See Feldman 2004. 32 Parfit 1984, 499. Parfit identifies Moore 1903 and Ross 1939 as proponents of objective list theories, a categorization that seems fair to me. 33 Ibid. 31
are bad for oneself or other people. Phrased this way, it becomes clear that objective list theories are forms of pluralism, be it commensurable (as in Ross) or incommensurable. If there are multiple things that are bad or good for people, there must either be a yardstick against which these good or bad things can be judged against each other – collapsing the objective list theory into a monist theory – or one must accept incommensurability. If one accepts the arguments in this essay against the existence of incommensurable reasons, the latter possibility can be ruled out. The former case would entail the objective list theories using some kind of yardstick as the ultimate judge of the goodness or badness of the good or bad things identified by the theories. The most obvious possible yardsticks of this type are hedonist, preferentist, or perfectionist in nature and as such the following discussion of those forms of monism will be relevant for judging objective list theories that use each kind of yardstick. Thus, for our purposes here, these three classes will suffice. I, as previously stated, am a hedonist, and more precisely a preference hedonist. I believe that only facts about pleasure and pain give reasons, and I believe that pleasure is best conceived of as a mental state of affairs that one has an immediate, unreflective desire to continue experiencing, and that pain is best conceived of as a mental state of affairs that one has an immediate, unreflective desire to cease experiencing. I believe that the other forms of monism are irredeemably flawed and that the arguments levied against hedonism fail. Let us, then, consider each view in turn. There exist at least three problems with preferentism: the problem of absurd preferences, the problem of reasons for preferences, and the problem of trivial preferences. The problem of absurd preferences occurs when actors whose preferences,
under preferentist, are said to be reason-giving are preferences that it would be bizarre to honor. As Derek Parfit notes, we have a reason to want to avoid all future states of agony.34 Preferentism implies we have no such reason if one prefers to be in a state of agony, either now or at some point in the future. Note that preference hedonism does not commit one to the preferentist conclusion in this case. What makes agony agony, according to preference hedonism, is that in the moment that one experiences it, one has an unreflective desire for it to cease. Parfit invokes JP Griffin’s example of Sigmund Freud, who toward the end of his life refused painkillers, judging that he preferred to think clearly while in an immense amount of physical gain to being confused but euphoric.35 A preference hedonist is committed to the conclusion that Freud has more reason to refuse the painkillers than to take them if his desire to continue his unmedicated state was stronger than his desire to continue his medicated state, or that his desire to cease his unmedicated state was weaker than his desire to cease his medicated state. But a preference hedonist is not committed to the view that even if, in the moments he experiences them, Freud reflexively prefers having his physical pain eliminated, he still has more reason to refuse the painkillers if he convinces himself that he would really rather stay lucid, and concludes that this is his true preference. It is this view to which a true preferentist commits herself. John Rawls’ example of a man who decides his purpose in life is to count blades of grass provides another illustration of this difference.36 If when this person is counting blades of grass he reflexively wants that experience to continue more than he wants any other experience 34 Parfit 2011, 76. Parfit invokes this example as a counterargument against subjectivism about reasons, but I believe it applies with the same force against preferentism. 35 Parfit 1984, 494. 36 Rawls 1971, 379-380. 33
he’s ever had to continue, then I concede, as a preference hedonist, that he has strong reason to spend his life counting the blades of grass. But this seems wildly implausible. More likely is that the person in question, when counting blades of grass, truly wishes he could stop, but has convinced himself he must count the blades of grass, and so continues to do so and concludes this is his preference. A preferentist is committed to taking this preference seriously. A preference hedonist is not. Preferentists, as one might expect, anticipate this objection. They typically accommodate it by adding a proviso that preferences must be, in some sense, rational. R.M. Hare insists that only those preferences that persist when the person in question is exposed to all relevant facts and is thinking logically should count. “The rational action will be what is preferred when our present preferences have been exposed to facts and logic,” he writes.37 Brandt’s view is similar, and phrased even more bluntly. What makes a preference rational, for Brandt, is that it would survive a successful round of "cognitive psychotherapy."38 It is treated as obvious why it should be important for agents to be well informed, logical, and mentally healthy when determining their preferences. But why is it important? It is important, in both Hare and Brandt’s terminology, in determining that they are rational. But to be rational is to be able to respond appropriately to reasons. Hare and Brandt are thus arguing that it is important for agents to be able to sort through the reasons for various preferences. Implicit in this argument is a significant concession, that there exist reasons that can support or undermine preferences. This brings me to the second problem with preferentism: the problem of reasons for preferences. Some preferences come without reasons attached. The kind of 37 Hare 1981, 104-105. 38 Brandt 1979, 12. 34
preferences that preference hedonism values, for example, do not have further reasons grounding them. If I eat a candy bar and want the feeling that ensues to continue, I do not have a reason for wanting his particular feeling to continue.39 I just like the feeling, and this liking cannot be rational or irrational. But it is commonly understood that there exist higher-order preferences that can be rational or irrational. Suppose we think Rawls’ grass-counter’s preference is irrational, that, as Hare would say, he does not have all the relevant facts or has not sorted through them logically or that, as Brandt would say, he needs some cognitive psychotherapy. It is unclear what this means if it does not mean that there exist reasons for the grass-counter to not have this preference. But if there exist such reasons, as Hare and Brandt appear to believe is the case, then surely these reasons are the ultimate reasons the grass-counter has for acting in one way or another. His preferences are simply an interpretation of these more fundamental reasons. If these preference-justifying reasons exist, then facts about preferences cannot be the only sorts of facts that provide reasons for action; the facts that provide the reasons that support those preferences provide reasons for action as well, or even instead. In any case, if this is true, preferentism is false. The only way out of this conclusion is to avoid Hare and Brandt’s path, bite the bullet, and say that even if the grass-counter is in agony all his days, his preference for grass-counting carries weight, as much weight as if it were a preference for an activity that he truly enjoyed, and that the fact that he would be far happier not counting the grass carries no weight whatsoever. I do not imagine most preferentists, or indeed most people, would be willing to accept that conclusion.
39 For further discussion of this point, see Parfit 2011, 52-56. 35
Finally, preferentism fails to account adequately for the existence of trivial preferences. This is particularly clear when it is phrased as a theory of individual wellbeing as well as a theory of reasons. Shelly Kagan provides the example of a person who is fond of prime numbers, and thus wishes that the number of atoms there are in the universe be prime. He thus has a preference that the number of atoms in the universe be prime. Suppose that it is determined that the number of atoms is not, in fact prime. A preferentist about wellbeing is forced to conclude that the prime fanatic is worse-off as a result of this discovery, due to his preference. This is, as Kagan rightly concludes, completely absurd.40 Even if one is merely a preferentist about reasons, this conclusion is troublesome. Suppose it were possible for physicists to create new atoms. The prime fanatic’s preference would then give those physicists a reason, however small, to create enough atoms such that the total count is prime. Not just that, but the physicists would have such a reason even if the prime fanatic were never to learn that the total count had become prime. We should reject out of hand the idea that such an experience-independent reason could possibly exist. The problem of trivial preferences is especially troublesome when one is faced with the question of how to weight preferences. The answer, for preferentists, is not clear. Suppose a man wants to murder his neighbor. That is, the would-be murderer has a preference that the neighbor dies, and the neighbor has a preference that he continues to live. Should these preferences count equally, under preferentism? Perhaps such a conclusion is not so implausible. Presumably the neighbor has loved ones who prefer that he continue to live as well. Even if the neighbor’s own preference does not outweigh the 40 Kagan 1998, 37. 36
killer’s, him and his loved ones’ preferences together outweigh the killer’s preference. But suppose the neighbor in question is a true recluse, with no friends or family to speak of. Then do the preferences cancel each other out, rendering the action, from an impartial point of view, ethically neutral? Call it the Eleanor Rigby problem – should we countenance the murder of all the lonely people?41 Surely any sensible person would resist this conclusion. But how would a preferentist do so? They could insist that the intensity of the preference matters. But this is not much consolation. It is possible to imagine a killer with such an intense preference that another die that it matches or even outweighs the potential victim’s preference to live. Suppose that the potential victim is depressed to a point that his preference to continue living is rather mild, but still existent, and the would-be killer is determined enough that his preference to kill the victim is very strong. Then do the killer’s preferences trump the victim’s, even if the victim would, all things considered, like to continue his life? It is hard to see how a preferentist denies this. Preference hedonism, again, performs better. It is much harder to imagine a person who really does take such joy from murder that that pleasure outweighs the victim’s loss of all future pleasure than it is to imagine a murderer and victim whose preferences are of roughly equal intensity. The problems of absurd preferences, reasons for preferences, and trivial preferences, thus, provide good cause for rejecting preferentism. Let us now turn to perfectionism, the second form of monism noted above. Perfectionism is the view that there are certain traits that make human beings the beings that they are, and that it is this general human nature that provides reasons for action. 41 Credit for this label goes to Matthew Zeitlin, who coined it in a conversation with the author. 37
“Certain properties, [perfectionism] says, constitute human nature or are definitive of humanity—they make humans humans,” writes Thomas Hurka, the theory’s most notable contemporary exponent. “The good life, it then says, develops these properties to a high degree or realizes what is central to human nature.”42 What matters is not that these properties be peculiar to humans but that they are essential. That is, a relevant property need not be absent in all other living species, but it must be present in every single human to be ethically relevant. “That a property is essential to humans is a fact only about humans; it involves no other species,” Hurka explains. “Moreover, it seems a fact of just the right kind. A kind's essential properties fix its boundaries or extension; they determine what is and is not a member.”43 The most immediate problem with this view is that it appears to give undue weight to ethically irrelevant factors about human beings as a category. Suppose that it were the case that all humans are delicious to sharks. There exists not a single human being that a shark would not love to eat. Obviously, there is plenty of other food that sharks can eat, but as Hurka notes, it is only relevant that deliciousness-to-sharks is an essential part of being human, not that it is a distinctive part. Do humans then have reason to want to be eaten by sharks? Of course not. No one who is living an enjoyable life has a reason to want to be eaten by a shark.44 I think this intuition alone is sufficient cause to reject the idea that the essential properties of being human are the sole source of reasons, and thus to reject perfectionism. We are thus left with hedonism. As previously stated and argued, I believe the most persuasive form of hedonism is preference hedonism, in which pleasure and pain 42 Hurka 1993, 3. 43 Ibid., 9. 44 This example is inspired by the critique of perfectionism in Feldman 2004, 19. 38
are defined in terms of the mental states of affairs we have immediate, unreflective desires to continue or cease, respectively. However there exist a number of critiques of hedonism, both as a general doctrine and in its preference hedonist variant. Perhaps the most influential of these is Robert Nozick’s “experience machine” thought experiment. Nozick asks the reader to imagine she has an option to plug herself into a machine that can create any mental experiences she desires. Her life would then, presumably, be going better on hedonic terms than it would in the real world. Considering only her own hedonic wellbeing as reason-giving, should she plug herself into the machine? Would her life go better if she did? To Nozick the answer is obviously no, which implies that something other than hedonic wellbeing must matter, and be reason-giving. “We learn that something matters to us in addition to experience by imagining an experience machine and then realizing that we would not use it,” he writes.45 The thought experiment intends to show that we want at least three things besides hedonic wellbeing. We want real agency. In Nozick’s words, “we want to do certain things, and not just have the experience of doing them.”46 We want to have a real identity. “We want to be a certain way, to be a certain sort of person,” Nozick argues, but “plugging into the machine is a kind of suicide.”47 Finally, we want to experience a real external world: “Plugging into an experience machine limits us to a man-made reality, to a world no deeper or more important than that which people can construct.”48 The simplest way to refute the experiment, then, is to show that these things we want can be understood in experientialist terms. I believe all three can be understood this way. As 45 Nozick 1974, 44. 46 Ibid., 43. 47 Ibid. 48 Ibid. 39
Roger Crisp notes, much of the value of real agency comes from a sense of accomplishment, an enjoyment of the sense of having really done something himself. “Accomplishment involves many experiences, and they are often experiences people tend to enjoy,” Crisp writes.49 This strikes me as entirely correct. When we insist on the value of agency, we are really insisting on the pain involved in experiencing its denial, or realizing it has been denied. Imagine a man, call him Benjamin Jerry, is going to buy an ice cream cone, but a chip has been implanted in his head such that if he is tempted to refrain from buying an ice cream cone, a chemical will be released that will alter his brain chemistry and force him to buy it. He goes to buy the ice cream, is never tempted to not buy it, and the chip is never used. In this case, he lacks agency. He could not have refused to buy the ice cream cone. But is he worse off than if he had voluntarily bought ice cream without the non-interfering chip in his brain? The idea strikes me as absurd. The only way he could be worse off is if he were to discover the chip and experience a sense of disappointment and betrayal. But these are bad mental states of affairs and easily explainable in hedonic terms. The value of being a real person and having contact with an external world is less immediately understandable in hedonic terms, but I think it is actually rather difficult to articulate what it could mean for those to be valuable without that value manifesting itself through experience. Nozick writes that to be a certain sort of person means being capable of being “courageous, kind, intelligent, witty, loving,” and that being in the experience machine denies one the ability to be any of these.50 So let us imagine a person, Jean, who really is a certain sort of person. She is courageous, going to great risks to aid those close 49 Crisp 2006, 119. 50 Nozick 1974, 43. 40
to her, unfailingly kind to all, and displays a wicked wit. But imagine that she knows none of this. She has no self-reflective capacity, and simply acts in these ways without thinking anything of it. If she were cowardly, cruel, and humorless, her everyday mental experience would be no different. It appears to be a stretch to say that being a person of certain qualities is better for her, then, when being a person of certain qualities does not entail a unique set of experiences for her. Nozick also insists that having real access to an external world is valuable for non-experiential reasons. So imagine that Karen is a woman like any other, with real access to the external world, who is nonetheless convinced that her life is an illusion. She would have the exact same experiences were she correct and her life really were an illusion. Does having real access to the external world make her better off, even she never knows it and her mental state is the same as it would be if her life really were an illusion? Intuitions may differ on this point, but I am inclined to say no, that whatever value there may be in her life not being an illusion in this case is not value to her. The non-experiential things Nozick insists we want, then, do not appear to be things we want at all when they are not experienced. One could object here, as Derek Parfit has, that it could be the case that something must both confer positive mental experiences and some other form of value to be valuable.51 If this were true, then one could accept my arguments against Nozick but insist that, even if nothing can be good for a person without providing her with positive mental experiences, some of what makes things valuable has nothing to do with experience. But this does not appear to be the case. Imagine that John falls asleep and has been given a drug that gives him the most pleasurable dream imaginable. He immediately 51 Parfit 1984, 502. 41
forgets the dream when he wakes up and it fails to affect the rest of his life at all. Is he really no better off than if he had had a mediocre, quotidian dream instead? There is nothing of value to the dream other than its pleasurable quality, surely, but the bare fact that it was pleasurable makes John better off. Non-hedonic value, or at least the kinds Nozick suggest, does not appear to exist in the absence of hedonic value, but hedonic value appears to exist without non-hedonic value. This asymmetry suggests, to me, that we are best off classifying what appears to be non-hedonic value as simply a poorly understood form of hedonic value. It is hedonic value that is fundamental. There may still be some kinds of non-hedonic value, however, that one could insist exist even in the absence of any hedonic value. Imagine a truly dysfunctional family relationship, perhaps between a father and a son, which confers significant pain to both parties. Both would lead less painful lives if the other were to be cut out of their life. But they both insist that they want to stay in contact, even if it makes their lives more painful, because the relationship itself is of value apart from the hedonic effects it has on those in it. I have two responses to this critique. One is that preference hedonism is less vulnerable to this kind of challenge than other forms of hedonism. It could be that ceasing the relationship is more immediately, unreflectively undesirable to both parties than continuing it is. Both could be highly undesirable, but if ceasing the relationship is worse, then both parties are acting in their preference hedonic self-interest in continuing it. But suppose that this is not the case, that breaking off the relationship really is less undesirable than continuing it is to both parties. In that case, my conclusion is that the father and son are each being self-destructive. They should break off their relationship, assuming doing so does not hurt third parties more than it helps the father and son. The
conclusion that some special relationships between people are, overall, destructive and not worthwhile is a sad and difficult one, but I do not think it all too implausible.
V. Whose facts are reason-giving?
Preference hedonism, then, I believe survives the objections most frequently leveled against it, and provides a better guide to reasons than prefentism and perfectionism. But it does not, on its own, answer the question of whose preference hedonic wellbeing should be reason-giving for whom. There exist four broad possibilities: Egoism – only the individual actor’s own preference hedonic wellbeing gives her reasons to act in one way or another. Impartialism – each person’s preference hedonic wellbeing gives each other person equal reason to act in one way or another. Dual source view – both the individual actor’s own preference hedonic wellbeing and that of other persons gives her reasons to act in one way or another, but the actor’s own wellbeing gives strong reasons. Prioritarianism – each person’s preference hedonic wellbeing gives each other person a reason to act in one way or another, but the wellbeing of those in society who are worst off in terms of hedonic wellbeing gives stronger reasons. Egoism is easy to reject. Suppose that I could press a button that ended famine forever but did not improve my own wellbeing at all. Not pressing the button does not affect anyone’s wellbeing. Egoism implies I have no reason to prefer pressing the button to not pressing it. This is self-evidently absurd. The choice between impartialism, the dual source view, and prioritarianism is more difficult. Let us first consider the choice between impartialism and the dual source
view. Crisp, a supporter of the dual source view, asks us to consider whether we have equivalent reason to send a painful shock to a stranger and spare ourselves as we do to spare the stranger and shock ourselves. Crisp acknowledges that “we are close to intuitional bedrock at this point,” but insists that we have more reason to spare ourselves.52 I fear my intuition differs, in that I view this as a case where one has equivalent reasons. As Crisp admits, to say that one has more reason to spare oneself is to render altruism in this case irrational. There are clearly cases where self-sacrifice is irrational, but surely this is not one of them. This appears to be a situation where just about any tiebreaker (err on the side of self-interest, err on the side of altruism, flip a coin, etc.) is acceptable. More to the point, it seems absolutely clear to me that if the choice were between a mild shock to oneself and an intense one to a stranger, one would absolutely have more reason to spare the stranger. So there is thus some point at which a stranger’s wellbeing provides stronger reasons than one’s own, and it at least seems plausible that this divergence occurs as soon as the stranger’s wellbeing is more threatened than one’s own. Given this, impartiality seems to be a fair assumption. This leaves the choice between prioritarianism and impartiality. Prioritarianism encompasses a wide variety of views, which Crisp condenses into three, phrased as folllows: Absolute Priority View – When benefiting others, the worst off individual (or individuals) is (or are) to be given absolute priority over the better off. Weighted Priority View – Benefiting people matters more the worse off those people are, the more of those people there are, and the greater the benefits in question.
52 Crisp 2006, 133. 44
Number-Weighted Priority View – Benefiting people matters more the worse off those people are, the more of those people there are, and the larger the benefits in question. But the number of beneficiaries matter less the better off they are.53 What these views have in common is an insistence that the total amount a person is benefited is not the only issue of normative significance. What matters too, priority views posit, is how badly off a person would be if not benefited at all. If faced with a tradeoff between benefiting a very well-off (in wellbeing terms) person a large amount and benefiting a very badly off person a small amount, prioritarianism argues, the poor condition of worse-off person should matter, and perhaps even trump the greater size of the potential benefit to the well-off person. The question, then, is which, if any, of the priority views best captures this intuition about concern for the worst off. The Absolute Priority View is easy to reject, as it is far too sensitive to changes in benefits for the very worst off. Imagine a worst off person has a wellbeing level of 10 and a mid-level person has a wellbeing level of 100, and one is considering an action that would result in the poor person having a wellbeing level of 9 and the middle-class person having a wellbeing level of 10 million. The Absolute Priority View rules out this action. This strikes me as wildly implausible. But as Crisp shows, the two weighted variants of the priority view have their own problems. The Weighted Priority View allows a sufficiently large group of the rich to receive a small benefit instead of a small group of the worst off receiving a large benefit, because it weights according to the number of people affected.54 Straightforward impartiality, which also weights for the number of people affected, produces this result as 53 Ibid., 153-156. 54 Ibid., 156. 45
well, meaning the Weighted Priority View does not succeed in providing an alternative to impartiality that provides more concern for the worst off. If one is not troubled by this kind of aggregation, one is better off adopting the more parsimonious impartiality view. The Number-Weighted Priority View corrects for this apparent problem, but runs into what Crisp rightly identifies as the core problem with prioritarianism generally. The Number-Weighted Priority View, and its rival priority views, requires one to give preference to the worst off even when the worst off is very well off. If one is choosing whether to give a luxury car to someone worth $10 million and someone worth $15 million, and the car confers as much hedonic wellbeing on each, it makes little sense to give priority to the one with merely $10 million, even if he has less wellbeing to start with than the one with $15 million. When the worst off is well off, priority has little intuitive appeal.55 Despite criticizing the priority view, Crisp still insists that some form of priority for the worst off is called for if they fall below some objective threshold, which he formulates in the following principle: The Sufficiency Principle – Special concern for any being B is appropriate up to the point at which B has a level of wellbeing such that B can live a life which is sufficiently good.56 The appeal of this principle, and to some degree prioritarianism as well, I believe rests in an analogy between hedonic wellbeing and material wellbeing. We want to say that giving $10 to a famine victim in a destitute nation is better than giving $10 to a rich person in a rich country. But this can easily be explained by the fact that what $10 buys a 55 Ibid., 157. 56 Ibid., 160. 46
famine victim provides him with far greater wellbeing than what $10 buys a rich person provides that person. Money exhibits diminishing marginal utility. Straightforward impartiality, then, already shows special concern for the materially worst off even as it does not show such concern for the worst off in terms of wellbeing. We may, to borrow Crisp’s phrase, be hitting intuitional bedrock here, but once this empirical reality is accounted for, the appeal of the Sufficiency Principle evaporates, at least for me. In any case, the Sufficiency Principle diverges only slightly from pure impartiality, and would serve in practice mostly to provide a motive in addition to the fact of diminishing marginal utility for increasing aid to the absolutely worst off. We are thus left with the view that people have most reason to take those actions that maximize the preference hedonic wellbeing of all people. This position includes the view that the good is hedonic wellbeing, and that the right action is to maximize the good. The latter view is usually called consequentialism. This combination of hedonism about the good and consequentialism about the right is traditionally dubbed utilitarianism, which is a label I accept. But there are many variants of consequentialism. In the next chapter, I will consider them and argue that indirect act consequentialism is the most plausible option.
CHAPTER TWO: MAKING DECISIONS
I. Four brands of consequentialism
The previous chapter argued we have most reason to act to promote the preference hedonic wellbeing of all people. This conception of ethics as involving the maximization of the good (here defined as preference hedonic wellbeing) is conventionally termed consequentialism. However, this definition of consequentialism by itself does not give an obvious answer to two subsidiary questions: Q1: How should people go about trying to act in ways that maximize the good? Q2: Are all actions that fail to maximize the good “wrong”?
Four forms of consequentialism provide accounts of these questions: Direct act consequentialism: Q1: In deciding on what action to take, one should in each case determine the action that maximizes the good, and take it.
Q2: Any action that fails to maximize the good is wrong.
Indirect act consequentialism:57 Q1: One should follow the correct decision procedure – a simple set of rules (“don’t kill”, “don’t steal”, etc.) which if followed would maximize the good relative to any alternative set of rules – and in each case take that action which the decision procedure recommends.58
Q2: Any action that fails to maximize the good is wrong.59
Rule consequentialism:60 Q1: One should follow the correct decision procedure – a simple set of rules (“don’t kill”, “don’t steal”, etc.) which if followed would maximize the good relative to any alternative set of rules – and in each case take that action which the decision procedure recommends.
Q2: Any action that violates the right decision procedure is wrong.61
Motive consequentialism:62 57 Defended in, among others, Smart, 1972. 58 “It is true that we may choose to habituate ourselves to behave in accordance with certain rules, such as to keep promises, in the belief that behaving in accordance with these rules is generally optimific.” (Smart 1972, 42) 59 “The rightness or wrongness of an action is to be judged by the consequences, good or bad, of the action itself.” (Smart 1972, 9) 60 Defended in Hooker 2003, among many others. 61 “An act is wrong if and only if it is forbidden by the code of rules whose internalization by the overwhelming majority of everyone everywhere in each new generation has maximum expected value in terms of well‐being.” (Hooker 2003, 32) 62 Defended in its utilitarian form in Adams 1976 and hinted at by Mill 1833. 49
Q1: One should internalize general motives (empathy, love, etc.) which, if adopted, will maximize the good relative to an alternative set of motives.
Q2: An act is wrong if doing it would be opposed by those motives which maximize the good relative to any alternative set of motives, or if the person committing it holds motives other than the optimal motives.63
There are, then, three possible answers to Q1: that of direct act consequentialism, the decision procedure view of rule and indirect act consequentialism, and the motives approach in motive consequentialism. Brad Hooker notes that almost no consequentialists seriously argue for direct act consequentialism.64 This is because direct act consequentialism depends on empirical assumptions that are very implausible. Direct act consequentialism is premised on the idea that good consequences would be maximized if people, in each case, consciously acted with an eye toward maximizing good consequences. But it is not clear that this mindset actually produces the best consequences. People routinely make decisions in situations where the information available to them is limited and the cost of obtaining more information is high. What’s more, humans have natural biases – toward their own 63 Adams writes that acts are wrong if they are “opposed by the most useful sort of conscience." (Adams 1976, 479) But he also posits that the “right or wrongness of [a person’s] action” depends “partly on the goodness or badness of his motive, and not solely on the utility of the act,” (Adams 1976, 474), and insists that "if I tried to have the right motive, but nonetheless had the wrong one…then I did not live as well as I would have lived if I had had the right motive." (Adams 1976, 475) Thus I conclude that both conforming with and actually having the right motives is important for determining rightness and wrongness under motive consequentialism. 64 Hooker 2003, 144. 50
and their loved ones’ utility, toward utility to be experienced soon as opposed to in the future – that can lead them, should they adopt direct act consequentialism, to take actions that do not in fact maximize good consequences. The devising of a decision procedure is meant to produce better consequences by correcting for these errors. The direct act consequentialist answer to Q1, by contrast, allows these errors to affect moral decisionmaking, meaning that direct act consequentialists are more prone to act in ways that do not maximize good consequences. If they were not, then the decision procedure recommended by indirect act consequentialism would just be the direct act consequentialist answer to Q1: “one should in each case determine the action that maximizes the good, and take it.” Direct act consequentialism also ignores consequences of behavior that cannot be ascribed to individual actions. If an individual follows a general decision procedure, or adopts a general set of motives, his actions are likely to be more predictable than if he adopts direct act consequentialism. This predictability can itself produce good consequences, such as greater social trust, or bad consequences, such as the public hopelessness produced if, say, all police officers followed a decision procedure that allowed them to take bribes. Adams writes that “the consequences of any acts one is...led to perform are not always the only utility-bearing consequences of being influenced, to a given degree, by a motive.”65 I would expand that to say that (a) the consequences of the acts a decision procedure leads one to undertake are not the only utility-bearing consequences of adopting such a decision procedure and, most importantly, (b) the
65 Adams 1976. 51
consequences of the acts that direct act consequentialism leads one to undertake are not the only consequences of adopting direct act consequentialism. For example, consider Judith Jarvis Thomson’s thought experiment concerning a transplant surgeon who has the opportunity to kill a healthy, innocent person and use his organs to save the lives of five other patients.66 A direct act consequentialist, being only capable of considering the consequences of discrete actions, would be forced to conclude that the surgeon should kill the healthy person in order to save the five other patients. A indirect act, rule, or motive utilitarian, however, could note that many doctors will likely find themselves in this situation, and thus would-be patients will learn that if they go to hospitals, they might be killed and harvested for their organs. The end result would be that fewer people would go to hospitals, public health would suffer dramatically, and the overall consequences would be much worse than if all doctors obeyed a “do not kill patients for their organs” rule. This decline in public health is a consequence of the widespread adoption of direct act consequentialism, but it is not a consequence of the acts recommended by direct act consequentialism. If one takes consequentialism to be, or contain, the view that consequences – all consequences, and only consequences – are what is of ultimate ethical significance, then a theory like direct act consequentialism that ignores a large category of consequences entirely should be unacceptable to consequentialists. Undertaking an act also, as Mill notes, affects one’s general character in a way that has its own consequences:
66 Thomson 1985, 1396. 52
…any act whatever has a tendency to fix and perpetuate the state or character of mind in which itself has originated. And if that important element in the moral relations of the action be not taken into account by the moralist as a cause, neither probably will it be taken into account as a consequence.67 To return to the surgeon example, it is likely that a surgeon who becomes habituated to killing strangers and harvesting their organs would grow more comfortable with violence in general. This could manifest itself outside his surgical practice in ways that are obviously utility reducing, and could even lead others to react by accepting greater brutality from doctors, to the detriment of the general welfare. These might be considered, in some sense, direct consequences of the action, as they would not have arisen absent doctors actually taking the action in question, but even so they are difficult consequences to foresee, especially when operating without the aid of a decision procedure. The point, again, is that following any ethical imperative – direct act consequentialism, a decision procedure, a beneficient set of motives – has consequences outside those directly produced by the actions this imperative recommends, or consequences produced by those actions but which are difficult or impossible to foresee, and the correct approach will take these further consequences into account. Direct act consequentialism does not, and thus fails.
II. Motives and decision procedures
I have thus far treated motive and decision procedure consequentialism (encompassing both rule consequentialism and indirect act consequentialism) as 67 Mill 1833. 53
interchangeable. It is worth pausing to consider how they differ, and how fundamental a distinction this is. There are two possible ways to conceptualize the divergence. The first possibility is that motive consequentialism is simply decision procedure consequentialism with an added psychological assumption: that to follow a rule adequately, one must internalize it to an extent that it becomes a motive. Under this view, the distinction between motive consequentialism and decision procedure consequentialism is simply empirical, and hinges on what account of human psychology is actually correct. If it is fact true that a decision procedure must first be internalized as a motive to be followed adequately, then under this account motive consequentialism is true; if not, decision procedure consequentialism suffices. But a second possibility is that there is actually a deep divergence in how motive consequentialism and decision procedure consequentialism answer Q2 (“Are all actions that fail to maximize the good ‘wrong’?”). There is clearly a divergence between the answers of indirect act consequentialism (“Any action that fails to maximize the good is wrong”) and of motive consequentialism (“An act is wrong if doing it would be opposed by those motives which maximize the good relative to any alternative set of motives, or if the person committing it holds motives other than the optimal motives.”), in that the second privileges motives over the actual consequences the motives are in place to achieve. But the distinction between the answer of motive consequentialism and that of rule consequentialism (“Any action that violates the right decision procedure is wrong.”) is more subtle, especially if one conceptualizes the set of motives recommended by motive consequentialism as just one particular kind of decision procedure.
The difference between the wrongness standard employed in motive consequentialism and that employed in rule consequentialism is, however, not the distinction that Adams singles out. Conventional consequentialism, according to Adams, is about either a principle (direct act consequentialism) or set of rules (decision procedure consequentialism) that one should try to inculcate in oneself. Motive consequentialism, by contrast, judges agents based upon the motives those agents actually have. "Motive utilitarianism is not about what motives one ought to foster and promote, or try to have, but about what motives one ought to have.”68 In motive consequentialism, there is no try. The problem is that no actual rule consequentialists appear to believe what Adams thinks non-motive consequentialists believe about trying. Hooker, for one, appears to believe that one is in the wrong simply if one violates “the code of rules whose internalization by the overwhelming majority of everyone everywhere in each new generation has maximum expected value in terms of well‐being.”69 That is, Hooker’s consequentialism is concerned with what rules actually are internalized, not those that one tries to internalize or foster in one’s self. Derek Parfit’s formulation of rule consequentialism, similarly, states: “everyone ought to follow the principles whose universal acceptance would make things go best.”70 Granted, both these authors are writing well after Adams proposed motive consequentialism initially, and so this change might represent an innovation within rule consequentialist theory. But in any case it does not appear useful to frame the contrast between motive and rule consequentialism the way that Adams does. 68 Adams 1973, 474. 69 Hooker 2003, 32. 70 Parfit 2011, 375. 55
The actual contrast is that rule consequentialism refuses to judge as wrong actions that conform to the utility-maximizing ethical code which are undertaken for the wrong reasons, and motive consequentialism refuses to judge as wrong actions that do not conform to such a code but which are undertaken for the right reasons. Two real-world examples may be useful here. By most accounts, China has undergone a humanitarian miracle since the early 1980s. Households have grown dramatically more prosperous, and the standard of living has improved as a consequence. What’s more, this is commonly ascribed to a change in policy on behalf of the Chinese government, which in the late 1970s rejected Maoist socialism in favor of market reforms.71 The reasons behind this shift are complex, but it is safe to say that general benevolence on the part of Chinese leaders was not the sole motivator. The leaders surely wanted to be more prosperous themselves, to cultivate ties with other countries that economic growth could enable, to secure their government by making sure the Chinese citizenry was happy with the state of the economy, etc. Let’s suppose that these motives are not the ones that generally produce the best consequences. They may have produced good consequences when held by Deng Xiaoping and other members of the Chinese politburo, but if held by the vast majority of other people, they translate into selfish actions that do not maximize the good. Motive consequentialism would thus say that an action based on these motives is wrong, regardless of those actions’ consequences. Motive consequentialism’s wrongness standard makes reference to the actual motives held by actors. "The rightness or wrongness of [a person's] action...depend[s] partly on the goodness or badness of his
71 Lin 2010. 56
motive, and not solely on the utility of the act," Adams writes.72 Let’s also suppose that none of the Chinese leaders’ actions are actually barred by the decision procedure that maximizes the good. It may be the case that this decision procedure includes the rule “political leaders should take the action that maximizes the economic well-being of their citizens,” and that China’s leaders actually did not violate this rule. If this were the case, rule consequentialism would say that China’s leaders acted rightly, regardless of their motives. It seems to me the rule consequentialists get the better of this example. The Chinese leaders’ actions lead to a marked increase in human wellbeing. Judging that to be wrong, as motive consequentialism would, seems incorrect. But motive consequentialists have a compelling intuitive case. Most of us would view a person who achieved what the Chinese leaders achieved out of the goodness of her heart in greater esteem than we would someone (such as the leaders, for the sake of this example) who acted out of selfinterest. It appears to follow that ethically laudatory behavior has something to do with acting out of ethically laudatory motives. But I think this is the wrong reading of this impulse, and wrong because it mistakes rightness and wrongness for praiseworthiness and blameworthiness. It may be the case that it is better to praise, celebrate, and promote people who act out of the goodness of their own heart, because encouraging such motivation maximizes the good. But it could simultaneously be the case that the motivation is only instrumentally good, and what makes the action ultimately good or bad has nothing to do with the motivation behind it.
72 Adams 1976, 474. See also footnote 57. 57
This disconnect is somewhat counterintuitive. Hooker, for one, rejects it. “Most of us believe that moral blameworthiness is very closely linked to moral wrongness,” he writes. “We might even be tempted to say that the acts of fully responsible agents are morally blameworthy if and only if morally wrong.”73 John Stuart Mill went even further, arguing that for an action to be wrong just is for it to be blameworthy, or more precisely, for it to produce good consequences to condemn it. “We do not call anything wrong, unless we mean to imply that a person ought to be punished in some way or other for doing it,” Mill writes. “If not by law, by the opinion of his fellow creatures; if not by opinion, by the reproaches of his own conscience.”74 The idea is that something can only be wrong if it is good to declare it wrong. And, indeed, it seems strange to believe that something is wrong but that one should not say that it is. But upon reflection, I do not believe it to be strange at all. This sort of discretion in condemnation is actually commonplace in everyday life. Suppose one is holding a dinner party and one guest chews loudly enough to enervate and disgust the other guests. It would be better, I think, for this guest to be more considerate and chew more quietly. The consequences would be better, in terms of the happiness of the other party guests. The guest is thus doing something wrong. But it hardly seems obvious that the guest should be condemned for the action. It seems likely that the distress and embarrassment this would cause to the guest more than outweighs the increased comfort of the other guests, should the condemnation lead the offending guest to stop. This example is trivial, but it illustrates the point that people are perfectly capable of acknowledging an action as wrong without believing it good to condemn it. Under my 73 Hooker 2003, 73. 74 Mill 1991, 184. 58
view, blaming and/or condemning is just one action among many, and whether one engages in it is to be determined, like all actions, by whether the decision procedure/motives that one should adopt recommend it. The fact that in an objective sense75 an action is right or wrong is certainly relevant to the question of whether or not one should praise or condemn those who engage in it, but it is not determinative. The Chinese leaders example is one case where, I think, it is not determinative. What the Chinese leaders did was right. It produced great consequences. It may well be the case that the leaders should not be lauded as much as people with humanitarian motives, but this does not bear on the rightness of the leaders’ actions. A motive consequentialist may object, however, to this whole line of reasoning. The rightness of actions, they could insist, just does have something to do with the motives behind those actions. But how could this work? Motive consequentialism, like all consequentialisms, accepts that the ultimate ethical end is the promotion of good consequences. So if the rightness of actions has something to do with having the right motives, this has to be in virtue of the good consequences of those motives, or those motives themselves being good consequences. The latter view appears implausible, given Adams’ definition of motive utilitarianism as the view that actions are wrong if they are “opposed by the most useful sort of conscience."76 In Adams’ formulation, the good in motive consequentialism is something (such as utility, or happiness, or preference satisfaction, etc.) other than the motives themselves. This leaves the possibility that the 75 What I am describing here is similar to Thomson’s idea of the “objective ought”. Thomson 1986, 177-180. Thomson contrasts what one ought to do objectively from what one ought to do given the information available to them, whereas here the contract is between what one ought to do objectively and what society ought to admonish. 76 Adams 1976, 479. 59
rightness of actions is tied to the rightness of motives because of the good consequences of having the right motives. But in this case, there is no need to involve the rightness of motives at all. If the rightness of actions is about the rightness of motives because right motives produce the right consequences, then the rightness of actions is, transitively, tied to producing the right consequences. But if the rightness of actions rests, ultimately, solely on right consequences, then it cannot be that having the right motives just does have something to do with the rightness of actions. And if it is not the case that having the right motives just does have something to do with the rightness of actions, then examples like the Chinese reform case cannot be easily waved away by motive consequentialists. The only way out, it seems to me, is for the motive consequentialist to argue that good motives matter regardless of their consequences, but to argue this is to reject consequentialism, or at least impose significant side constraints upon it. In this case, motive consequentialism fails to be the most compelling expression of consequentialism primarily because it ceases to be a form of consequentialism at all. A second real-world example can further illustrate this flaw in the motive consequentialist and wrongness standard. As David Rieff has reported, in the mid-1990s relief workers in Congolese refugee camps ended up, in many cases inadvertently, housing and supporting fleeing génocidaires from Rwanda. They were, after all, refugees, and the relief agencies were in no position to distinguish carefully between them, and in many cases the fighters were armed, so the agencies could not turn them down even if they tried.77 The motives of the relief workers were undoubtedly the right ones; it seems fair to say that being motivated by a desire to save the lives of strangers is, in aggregate, a 77 Rieff 2002, 181-184. 60
motive that promotes good consequences. And it also seems plausible that blaming those who worked in the refugee camps for working there does not promote the good. But one should be able to say that, all else being equal, giving aid and comfort to a genocidal army is bad. Rieff quotes an engineer for the International Rescue Committee bemoaning the fact that he was “busting [his] butt for a bunch of ax murderers!”78 Motive consequentialism seems incapable of explaining this reaction. The motive consequentialist must say that the relief workers acted rightly, as they acted upon the motives that produce the best consequences overall, even if they did not produce the best consequences in this case, and motive consequentialism insists that the actual motives behind actions matter when determining wrongness. But the relief workers themselves want to acknowledge that they did something wrong – not blameworthy, and perhaps not subjectively wrong given the limited information available to them at the time, but still wrong in an objective sense. All else being equal, the aid workers wish they hadn’t run the camps for the génocidaires, and had not let their benevolent motives (motives which, plausibly, motive consequentialism would commend to us all) lead them to that action. This impulse is perhaps more understandable if one modifies the example to assume that no non-génocidaires were helped, and that the aid was not coerced by the génocidaires but given freely because the aid workers were acting out of benevolence. In that case, the action involved is clearly wrong, even if correctly motivated. Motive consequentialism, in this case, seems quite counterintuitive. Just as it failed to judge right good actions taken out of bad motives in the China leader case, it here fails to judge wrong bad actions taken out of good motives in the Rwanda case. Both of these judgments are errors, and 78 Ibid., 184. 61
give us good reason to reject motive consequentialism as a doctrine. However, if the motive followed by the aid workers in this case were phrased as a rule (“when running a charitable enterprise, do not turn suffering people away”) then the wrongness of the aid workers’ actions is also nonsensical to rule consequentialists. Only act consequentialism allows a straightforward account of the actions’ wrongness. The next section will deal with this contrast.
III. Rule and indirect act consequentialism
Having rejected motive and direct act consequentialism, then, we are left with indirect act consequentialism and rule consequentialism as the last possibilities. The main distinction between the two has to do with cases where rule compliance would be suboptimal – that is, cases where following a decision procedure produces worse consequences than some alternative option. For example, suppose the optimal decision procedure includes a rule against stealing. Most of the time, following this rule produces better consequences than not following it, and following the rule overall produces better consequences than would be produced if each person tried to calculate the utility effects of a potential theft in every individual case. There will still be cases in which breaking this rule and stealing produces better consequences than following the rule. Suppose that a mother works for minimal wages at a bakery, wages that are not sufficient to feed her children. Suppose further that she could steal bread from the bakery without getting caught, going to jail, and causing seriously bad consequences for her family. The bad consequences from the theft of the bread to the bakery would be minimal compared to the
good consequences of being able to feed the children. Stealing the bread, then, would produce the best consequences in this case. Indirect act consequentialism would say that, in general, people should follow the anti-stealing rule, but that in this case, following the rule is wrong, and stealing is right. Rule consequentialism would say that stealing is wrong because it violates the anti-stealing rule in the decision procedure, full stop. That rule consequentialism judges wrong an action that produces the best consequences should, I think, be seen as problematic for the theory. The issue is not rule consequentialism’s recommendation. If it is really the case that compliance with an antistealing rule that allows case-by-case exceptions produces worse consequences than compliance with an anti-stealing rule that does not, then an indirect act consequentialist should comply with the anti-stealing rule as a guard against their own biases and errors in judgment. But we should still be able to identify actions that produce suboptimal consequences as wrong and ones that produce optimal consequences as right, even if it does not follow that we should recommend the latter and not recommend the former. That rule consequentialism does not allow this identification is a weakness of the theory. A special version of this weakness can be seen in the collective nature of rule consequentialism. Recall once more Hooker’s definition of the theory: one is in the wrong simply if one violates “the code of rules whose internalization by the overwhelming majority of everyone everywhere in each new generation has maximum expected value in terms of well‐being.”79 Derek Parfit’s formulation, similarly, states, “everyone ought to follow the principles whose universal acceptance would make things
79 Hooker 2003, 32. 63
go best.”80 (Emphases mine) The correct decision procedure, under most forms of rule consequentialism, is not the procedure that, if adopted by more people now, would produce the best consequences. It is the decision procedure that if universally adopted would produce the best consequences. Parfit defends this by arguing that collective consequentialism of this kind is less demanding than alternatives. Conventional consequentialism would say that if giving away a large portion of one’s income to the poor maximizes the good, one should do it. “Collective consequentialism is much less demanding,” Parfit writes. “It does not tell me to give the amount that would in fact make the outcome best. It tells me to give the amount which is such that if we all gave this amount, the outcome would be best.” (Parfit 1984, 31) I will return to the issue of demandingness later in this chapter, but for now it is worth noting two flaws in collective consequentialism, and thus rule consequentialism. The first is that, as Parfit admits, it recommends many actions that would not in fact produce the best consequences. This in and of itself should be troublesome in a consequentialist theory. But the second and perhaps more serious defect is that collective consequentialism can actually be excessively and implausibly demanding in its own way. There are a number of actions that it would make total sense to take if one assumed all other people would act the same way, but it would be nonsensical to take if a smaller number of people acted the same way. Suppose that two of the rules that would produce the best consequences if everyone adopted them are to: (a) always give a no-interest loan when asked for one and (b) always pay back loans in a timely fashion. 80 Parfit 2011, 375. 64
I do not know if these rules would be truly optimal, but they do not seem that implausible either. If everyone adopted both, the results would be quite nice. Loans would be easy to access and essentially risk-free. But if a smaller number of people adopt these rules, the results would be disastrous. Those adopting them would be suckered repeatedly. They would loan indiscriminately to people who, not adopting these rules, were not committed to paying them back. The collective consequentialist could respond by arguing that this just shows that the actually optimal version of rule (a) is: (a1) always give a no-interest loan when asked for one by someone who accepts rule (b). This would be equivalent to rule (a) if it and (b) are universally adopted, but would prevent suckering absent universal adoption. But if the two rules are equivalent when universally adopted, what reason does rule consequentialism have to prefer (a1) to (a)? If the test of a rule is its optimality upon universal adoption, then (a1) and (a) are of equal value. But they are not of equal value. That rule consequentialism cannot distinguish between them is, I think, a major flaw in the theory.
IV. Indirect act consequentialism’s demandingness
We are thus left with indirect act consequentialism. I find it to be the most compelling answer to both Q1 (“How should people go about trying to act in ways that maximize the good?”) and Q2 (“Are all actions that fail to maximize the good ‘wrong’?”). There are two possible objections that rule, motive, or direct act consequentialists could pose to indirect act consequentialism. The first is that indirect act
consequentialism in some cases recommends one commit an action that indirect act consequentialism itself judges to be wrong. All other consequentialisms maintain a close connection between their answers to Q1 and Q2, avoiding this problem, but there will undoubtedly be cases in which the correct decision procedure recommends actions that do not produce the best consequences, and are thus objectively wrong from an indirect act consequentialist perspective. However, if one were to keep the wrongness standard of indirect act consequentialism and seek to amend it such that it never recommends wrong actions, one would be left simply with direct act consequentialism. After all, if it were possible to in every case act in the way that produces the best consequences, then indirect act cosnequentialism would tell us to do so and devolve into direct act consequentialism. But indirect act consequentialism is premised on the empirical supposition that such perfect ethical rectitude is impossible and that, in the face of such impossibility, it is best to act in the way that maximizes right action and minimizes wrong action. It follows from this that one should accept not an ethical theory that leads to no wrong actions, but an ethical theory that leads to fewer wrong actions than any alternative theory. As trying to follow indirect act consequentialism produces fewer wrong actions than trying to follow direct act consequentialism, or else collapses into direct consequentialism, its recommendation of wrong actions is not a flaw. The second potential objection to indirect act consequentialism, articulated by Brad Hooker in his defense of rule consequentialism, is that it is an especially demanding ethical theory. In particular, Hooker alleges: 1) “Act consequentialism requires huge sacrifices from you.
2) Act consequentialism requires you to sacrifice your own good even when the aggregate good will be only slightly increased by your sacrifice.”81 But it is worth interrogating what it meant by “required” here. Act consequentialism certainly is of the view that it would be better for individuals to offer huge sacrifices, and to sacrifice one’s own good even when the aggregate good is only slightly increased by that sacrifice. But in this phrasing, the position does not seem intuitively objectionable. Hooker provides the following thought experiment to illustrate the alleged strangeness of act consequentialism’s demandingness: “Consider, for example, the corner office in our building. Offices are allotted on the basis of seniority. Suppose you are the most senior person who might want this corner office. But if you do not take it, it will go to an acquaintance who spends ten per cent more time in her office than you do in yours. Suppose we therefore reasonably guess that she would benefit a bit more from moving into this office than you would. This is not a life-and-death matter. Nor will she be so depressed by not getting the corner office that her work or domestic life will be seriously compromised. Nevertheless, she would get a bit more enjoyment out of the better office than you would. But, having the required seniority, you still take it for yourself. No one would think you unreasonable or immoral for doing so. Morality does not, we think, really require you to sacrifice your own good for the sake of only slightly larger gains to others (except in special circumstances)."82 I certainly agree with Hooker that it feels strange to condemn, socially ostracize, or otherwise reprimand someone who takes the corner office for himself. But this position is perfectly compatible with indirect act consequentialism. The question of whether an action is objectively wrong is different from the question of whether that action should be subject to social approbation. It seems plausible that the social disharmony sown by judging harshly those who engage in minor selfish acts does not produce the consequences.
81 Hooker 2003, 152. 82 Ibid., 151-152. 67
But it also seems plausible to say that, in an objective sense, it would be better to give the corner office to a colleague who would use it more. Hooker, indeed, would agree with this, but say that doing this is an instance of supererogatory altruism rather than complying with one’s ethical duties. Act consequentialism, as he notes, denies the distinction between the two.83 This denial is not, I think, a real practical problem. If indirect act consequentialism has a view of duty, it is a view that what one is required to do will invariably overwhelm what one is capable of doing. One will never, then, meet one’s duties, and should always be doing better. This seems a plausible, and not especially demanding, view. Most people think they could be better than they are currently; the indirect act consequentialist view respects this intuition. When one phrases this as a “requirement” that one always do better, it seems unduly onerous. However, I suspect that this reaction draws from the fact that “requirement” conjures up an image of some authority demanding one action or another. But as previously discussed, the question of whether an action is objectively “required” or “prohibited” is very different from whether that action should be condemned or compelled by an authority, or one’s peers, or some other actor. All that these requirements mean in practice is that, in some objective sense, we all could be acting better than we are. This seems not only acceptable but also obviously correct to me. James Lenman proposes another way in which indirect act consequentialism – and, indeed, all consequentialisms – could be excessively demanding. Lenman argues that we in practice do not only have little clue, but actually no clue what the consequences of a given action are going to be. A bandit rampaging through Germany a 83 Ibid., 152. 68
millennium ago could be doing wrong by not murdering Adolf Hitler’s distant ancestor, but there is no way he could know this.84 This, if true, is a problem for all consequentialisms. For a direct act consequentialist, the inability to predict the consequences of one’s actions makes it all but impossible to make every choice on the basis on which action produces the best consequences. For rule and motive consequentialists, the inability to predict the consequences of adopt a particular decision procedure, or set of motives, makes it all but impossible to determine the ideal program of action, both as a guide to action and as a criterion of rightness. But indirect act consequentialism suffers both from the difficulty that this epistemic problem poses to determining the consequences of particular actions, for the purposes of determining wrongness, and the difficulty it poses in determining the correct decision procedure. In its strongest version, Lenman’s view amounts to the view that it is actually impossible to predict the consequences of actions. This strong epistemic challenge, if correct, threatens not just consequentialism but any ethical theory in which the consequences of actions is so much as a relevant factor in determining how one should act. The objection is most damaging against pure consequentialist theories, of course, but other theories suffer to a lesser degree. If one holds both that the consequences of actions are impossible to predict and that those consequences are relevant to determining the morality of actions, then there is no way to purposefully act more or less morally. If one person acts better morally than another, it is due to pure luck in happening to take actions that happened to have better consequences, and not due to any virtue of their own. This conclusion is highly counterintuitive and turns the moral life into a farce, something upon 84 Leman 2000, 344-345. 69
which one stumbles rather than something toward which one strives. The temptation to avoid it, either by rejecting the role of consequences in determining actions’ morality or by rejecting the strongest version of the epistemic challenge, is thus very strong. Doing the strong epistemic challenge justice requires an epistemological discussion beyond the scope of an essay, such as this one, on ethics. For now it will suffice to say that if humans actually believed that the consequences of actions are impossible to predict, humans behavior would be radically different than it is today. But there is another version of Lenman’s claim, which we can call the weak epistemic challenge. The weak epistemic challenge simply states that it is very difficult to know the consequences of actions. It seems to follow from it being very difficult, but not impossible, to know the consequences of actions that one can get better at determining those consequences. Thus, an indirect act consequentialist could accept the weak epistemic challenge and simply reaffirm the indirect act consequentialist view that no one is capable of meeting their ethical duties but we are all capable of doing better at meeting them. The weak epistemic challenge simply implies that we should be doing much, much better at gathering the information necessary to better meet our ethical duties. But if we are all currently very bad at this, condemning each other for this failure hardly seems likely to produce good consequences. The demandingness of the weak ethical challenge, then, seems to me to not be a problem for the same reason the demandingness identified by Hooker is not a problem. If one accepts the distinction between objective wrongness and wrongness worthy of approbation, then this demandingness once again leads simply to the view that we could all do better at meeting our ethical obligations. This, again, seems both acceptable and clearly correct.
V. “Dirty Hands” To clarify how indirect act utilitarianism could work in practice, consider the problem that political theorists have taken to calling the “problem of dirty hands”. The problem, first introduced by Michael Walzer and named after a play by Sartre, is the possibility that a political leader will be forced to choose between performing the morally right action and the action that would produce the greatest good for his constituents or the world despite being morally wrong. For a direct act consequentialist, this problem does not arise, as the morally best action just is the one that produces the greatest good. Indeed, Walzer’s own definition of the problem is premised on a rejection of utilitarianism. The problem of dirty hands, he writes, is the problem that it is impossible for most to govern innocently. "This does not mean that it isn't possible to do the right thing while governing," he writes. "It means that a particular act of government (in a political party or in the state) may be exactly the right thing to do in utilitarian terms and yet leave the man who does it guilty of a moral wrong."85 At first glance, then, the utilitarian ethical theory defended in this essay would seem to avoid the problem of dirty hands just as direct act utilitarianism does. After all, indirect act utilitarianism is committed to the view that to be guilty of a moral wrong is to choose an action other than the one that maximizes wellbeing. Thus, doing the right thing in utilitarian terms cannot leave the man who does it guilty of a moral wrong. However, the role of decision procedures leaves open the possibility that the indirect act utilitarianism will recommend an action other than the best one in utilitarian terms. For example, consider the case of Winston Churchill and Coventry. In this most 85 Walzer 1973, 161. 71
likely apocryphal story, Churchill, at the time Prime Minister of the United Kingdom and conducting World War II, knew that the German air force was planning on bombing the city of Coventry. But because this knowledge came as a result of the British having cracked the German Enigma code system, Churchill did nothing to prevent the attack for fear that the Germans would learn their cipher had been compromised.86 Let us set aside the dubious historical veracity of the case, and assume that Churchill was in fact faced with this choice, and was reasonably sure that preventing the bombing would, by compromising German code breaking, cost more British lives than were lost by allowing the bombing to go through. Suppose, further, that Churchill was an indirect act utilitarian who obeyed a decision procedure under which “if you can stop innocent people from being bombed, do so” was a rule. It would follow that he should follow this decision procedure and stop the bombing, thus blowing the code breaking operation’s cover, and committing what is, according to indirect act utilitarianism, a significant moral wrong. Indirect act utilitarianism is thus posed with, in some sense, the inverse of the dirty hands problem: it appears to urge politicians to commit the choice that renders them morally guilty. I do not, however, think that indirect act utilitarianism entails this. Recall the justification for decision procedures in indirect act utilitarianism. Unlike in rule utilitarianism, decision procedures are not a foundational part of the theory and hold no weight in determining the rightness or wrongness of actions. They simply exist as useful rules of thumbs to enable and encourage moral actions in cases where it is too costly – in terms of time, money, or some other valuable resource – to act like a direct act utilitarian 86 McIver 2011. 72
and calculate the utility effects of every available choice and choose the optimal one. It is easy to imagine cases where such rules of thumbs will be very useful, including for national leaders who, as part of their duties, must make hundreds of decisions every day under immense time and informational constraints. But it is also possible to imagine cases that are of sufficient complexity and gravity that no rule that a decision procedure could reasonably include could do them justice. In these cases, moral rules of thumbs may do more harm than good, and actually sorting through the consequences of the specific at hand – that is, acting like a direct act utilitarian – may be preferable. I believe cases like Coventry, and “dirty hands” cases more generally, are of this type. It is slightly ludicrous to imagine Churchill referring back to a simple rule like “if you can stop innocent people from being bombed, do so” and issuing his decision in the Coventry case based on that rule alone rather than sorting through the relevant facts of that particular case. Indirect act utilitarianism, then, enables “two-level” moral reasoning of the kind R.M. Hare has endorsed. On an every day level (what Hare calls the “intuitive” level), it encourages following simple, utility-promoting rules, but in rare moments, a “critical” level of moral thinking is called for, in which the consequences of actions can be weighed more rigorously.87 “In difficult situations one’s intuitions, reinforced by the dispositions that go with them, pull one in different directions, and critical thinking, perhaps, in another,” Hare explains. “A person with any deep experienced of such situations will have acquired some methodological prima facie principles which tell him when to launch
87 Hare 1981, 25-8. 73
into critical thinking and when not.”88 As a matter of methodology, then, “dirty hands” cases like Coventry are ones where critical thinking, of a direct act utilitarian variety, is worthwhile, even if intuitional thinking normally suffices. Once one allows for these two levels of moral thinking and action, the dirty hands problem for indirect act utilitarianism becomes less troublesome. If, as in the Coventry case, the decision procedure one adopts recommends an action that one knows to be morally wrong, then this may be an indication that one should be using critical rather than every day moral reasoning, and step outside the decision procedure.
VI. Deciding on a Decision Procedure
If, as I have argued, indirect act consequentialism is correct, then the decision procedure that it recommends people follow must be determined by some method. The same is the case if rule consequentialism, which is similarly reliant upon decision procedures, is correct. There are two broad approaches to how a decision procedure could be devised: Cool hour view: In calm moments of reflection, individual agents, perhaps in consultation with each other, determine their own decision procedure based on their own calculations of what actions maximize good consequences. Authority view: Agents should adopt the decision procedure recommended by moral experts, whose calculations of what actions maximize good consequences are considered worth trusting. The cool hour view has the advantage of decentralization and accessibility. Critical ethical reasoning is the province of all people, under this view, and no class has special 88 Ibid., 52. 74
access to ethical truth. The authority view, most infamously propounded by Henry Sidgwick89, by contrast appears elitist and even imperialistic. Bernard Williams famously denounced this view as “Government House Utilitarianism” and asserted that it is “unlikely, at least in any overt form, to commend itself” in a post-imperialist age.90 But why is the authority view objectionable? We accept authorities readily in most fields of life other than ethics. We accept doctors as authorities on our health. We accept attorneys as authorities on the law. What do these authorities have that makes them worth trusting that a hypothetical ethical authority lacks? The account of authority laid out by Joseph Raz in The Morality of Freedom may be helpful here. Raz argues that one should follow an authorities if obeying its recommendations results in one better complying with whatever reasons for action one has in a given situation than that person, relative to how well one would comply with those reasons absent the authority. “A person has authority over another person,” Raz writes, if “the alleged subject is likely better to comply with reasons which apply to him…if he accepts the directives of the alleged authority as authoritative and tries to follow them, rather than by trying to follow the reasons which apply to him directly.”91 This is clearly the kind of authority that a doctor or attorney has. I go to a doctor because I know that there are certain medical facts about myself that give me reasons to act in certain ways (so as to counteract or prevent disease, for example) but I trust that a doctor will be better at figuring out how I could best comply with these reasons than I would be. I go to a lawyer if I am involved in a civil case because I know that the facts about the case give me reasons to take it to trial 89 Sidgwick 1907, 480-490. 90 Williams 1995, 166. 91 Raz 1986, 53. 75
or not take it to trial, to settle it or not settle it, but I trust that the lawyer will be better at weighing these reasons against each other than I will be. Acting ethically is similarly about responding to reasons. We should perform one action than another because we have more reason to do the first action. Thus, it seems possible that the reason-parsing role of authority seen in medicine and the law could also be applied to ethics. Indeed, one can think of many non-ethical authorities that could serve as authorities on some ethical issues. Take the argument of Peter Singer and Peter Unger that residents of Western countries should give large sums to poorer countries.92 Suppose one accepts this argument and is trying to decide what charity to donate toward. One would presumably want to donate to the charity that sends the largest percentage of its donations to actual poor people. The donor likely does not know this information directly, and does not have the time to acquire and interpret it either. He could thus defer to an expert on charities, such as an academic who studies philanthropy or a watchdog group that publishes reports on various charities, to determine what charity most deserves his check. Similarly, many participants in debates about abortion think it matters greatly when a fetus becomes sentient, or rational, or both. A neuroscientist who studies fetal cognition would presumably be better placed to pinpoint these developments than philosophers or politicians debating the issue. But the kind of ethical authority that would formulate the correct decision procedure is of a different sort than the charity expert or the neuroscientist. While their conclusions bear on normative disputes, the conclusions are not themselves normative. Whatever the facts about charities or fetal cognition are, most would agree that they are 92 Singer 1972, Unger 1996. 76
facts, and that there are correct and incorrect things to be said about them. There is no similar consensus about the nature of normative judgments. This, I think, accounts to some degree for our feeling of uneasiness about ethical authorities. There is also the issue that ethical authority seems to go all the way down. When one goes to a doctor or lawyer, one arrives with specific goals. She could say to the lawyer, “Given that I want to minimize bad publicity, should I settle this case?” or “Given that I want the maximum payout possible, should I settle this case?” and the lawyer would then be expected to respond to the reasons (minimizing bad publicity, maximizing payout) the client supplies, without commenting on whether or not these reasons are good or valid. When one goes to a hypothetical ethical authority, however, one would in essence ask, “Given that I am a human being with agency, how should I decide what to do?” One is not asking the authority how best to respond to one’s own reasons; one is asking the authority what reasons to respond to in the first place, and how. This may appear to be putting oneself too much at the mercy of the authority. But why would this be objectionable? I suspect the intuition here comes from an understanding that authorities with this much power tend to be corrupt and malign influences. A century of experience with totalitarian regimes has led to an understandable wariness of vesting too much authority in one person or institution without countervailing forces to place it in check. The objection, then, is essentially that such an ethical authority would not in fact be an authority in the Razian sense. It would not know better how to respond to the right reasons that people on their own would, on account of its inherent corruption. Following its dictates would not maximize good consequences. This is a consequentialist objection, and it’s empirically dependent. If a Razian ethical authority is
not in fact possible, and deferring to an ethical authority does not maximize good consequences, then it follows that the authority view should be rejected. But I suspect that if a true Razian ethical authority existed, one whose dictates are worth following, our anti-ethical authority intuition would dissipate. The good consequences produced by following the authority would lead people to trust and respect it, and our initial repulsion at the very idea of such an authority would fade away. Another objection is particular to Sidgwick’s particularly elitist version of the authority view, in which people are not only expected to defer to an ethical elite, but that elite is permitted and in fact required to keep its reasoning secret from the general public. Sidgwick writes: It may be desirable that Common Sense should repudiate the doctrines which it is expedient to confine to an enlightened few. And thus a Utilitarian may reasonably desire, on Utilitarian principles, that some of his conclusions should be rejected by mankind generally, or even that the vulgar should keep aloof from his system as a whole, in so far as the inevitable indefiniteness and complexity of its calculations render it likely to lead to bad results in their hands93 Williams treats this view as so obviously repugnant – and imperial – as to barely require rebuttal. “This outlook accords well enough with the important colonial origins of Utilitarianism,” Williams writes.94 And, indeed, it appears repugnant. But again, I think the empirical objection provides the best account of its repugnance. We find the idea of a secret authority telling us all what to do objectionable because we assume such an authority will be evil and corrupt, or at least prone to evil and corruption. The idea of a secret ethical authority that is not defective in these ways is too absurd to contemplate.
93 Sidgwick 1907, 490. 94 Williams 1995, 166. 78
An extreme authority view, in which each individual blindly obeys an authority that perhaps even keeps its reasoning a secret, thus seems unacceptable to consequentialists because the existence of an authority of that kind whose advice actually produced the best consequences appears empirically impossible. But there are choices between an extreme authority view and an extreme cool hour view, in which each person on his carefully works out a decision procedure. A more decentralized deliberation, in which people draw upon non-ethical authorities and each other’s ethical arguments to build their own decision procedures, is more appealing than either extreme approach, and indeed seems the likeliest to result in the decision procedures that maximize good consequences.
CONCLUSION: WHY A THEORY? This essay defended a comprehensive ethical theory which combines monism, preference hedonism, and impartialism about reasons and an indirect act approach to decision-making, resulting in an indirect act variant of utilitarianism. Most aspects of the theory are matters of significant controversy within normative ethics, but one source of particular controversy, especially of late, is that it is a theory at all. Some both within and outside academic philosophy reject the idea that theory is at all worthwhile for ethical practice. Philip Kitcher, in a negative review of Derek Parfit’s On What Matters, decried the practice of ethical theory as “fundamentally misguided” and called for “a return to the tradition of attempts to understand and improve everyday judgment, and to provide resources for people and policymakers everywhere. In the end, that is what matters.”95 And, indeed, that is what matters. But it is unclear how the practice of ethical theory that Kitcher decries and in which this essay is engaged is not itself part of this tradition, and is not itself an attempt to improve our everyday moral decision making and provide resources for moral decision makers. If there is, if I have argued, a simple overriding ethical principle that should guide our action, that principle is a tremendous resource. What’s more, the project of ethical theory, as engaged in here and in the work of others, is in extensive dialogue with our everyday judgments, arguing over which should be preserved, which are contradictory, and so forth. The idea that the kind of rigorous interrogation of such judgments that ethical theory represents is somehow hopelessly removed from everyday ethical practice must be resisted. If we are to think critically and consistently about moral problems, we need theory. 95 Kitcher 2011. 80
ACKNOWLEDGMENTS Thanks must go first and foremost to my advisor Tim Scanlon. I had never studied analytic philosophy until his Equality and Democracy course sophomore spring, and within a week I knew I had found what I should have been studying all along. If he had not urged me to write a full-throated defense of my ethical beliefs, rather than a more specific thesis on normative ethics, this essay would be a far more boring document. His contribution, to this essay and to my academic life, is incalculable, and throughout it all he demonstrated a fundamental kindness and decency befitting a good ethicist. Eric Nelson and Katie Gallagher were consistent sources of support, both in my classes with them and since. My supervision with Hallvard Lillehammer deeply influenced the section on Sidgwick and authority. Bonnie Talbert and Eylem Özaltun provided essential sanity checks. My high school teacher Steve Hackman, and my priest Sarah Horton, deserve credit for steering me down this path. My boss and friend Ezra Klein kept me grounded and assured me there is life after thesis. Travers Rhodes, Taylor Poor, and Adrian Veres’ Thursday night thesis parties in Eliot M-22 involved little thesis writing but it turns out regular champagne is an excellent way to keep oneself sane at times of great stress. My friends, especially Michaela Ross, Daniel Villafaña, Joe Hodgkin, Matt Aucoin, Lucy Caplan, Madeleine Schwartz, Clare Sachsse, Nick O’Leary and Andrew Klein provided much-needed emotional support throughout. Ian Kumekawa deserves special mention for his unerring patience, and for always being handy with a glass of bourbon when life attacked. Lastly, thanks is due to my parents, Jim and Marjorie Matthews, who always stressed that figuring out how to lead a good life, while often difficult, is the most important work one can do.
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