In his famous ‘Integrity Objection’, Bernard Williams condemns utilitarianism for requiring us to regard our projects as dispensable, and thus precluding us from being properly committed to them. In this paper, I argue against commitment as Williams defines it, drawing upon insights from the socialist tradition as well as mainstream analytic moral philosophy. I show that given the mutual interdependence of individuals (a phenomenon emphasised by socialists) several appealing non-utilitarian moral principles also require us to regard our projects as dispensable. (...) This means that those who endorse those principles cannot appeal to Williams’s argument against utilitarianism. It also puts pressure on his thought that moral theories ought to permit commitment – in fact, it suggests that they ought not. Regarding one’s projects as dispensable may be alienating, and this may motivate us to hang onto commitment and reject these non-utilitarian principles along with utilitarianism. However, commitment also threatens a kind of alienation – from other people. Drawing upon the socialist tradition again, I argue that avoiding this form of alienation is necessary for proper engagement with our projects, and thereby with ourselves. (shrink)
This book develops an original version of act-consequentialism. It argues that act-consequentialists should adopt a subjective criterion of rightness. The book develops new arguments which strongly suggest that, according to the best version of act-consequentialism, the rightness of actions depends on expected rather than actual value. Its findings go beyond the debate about consequentialism and touch on important debates in normative ethics and metaethics. The distinction between criterion of rightness and decision procedures addresses how, why, and in which sense moral (...) theories must be implemented by ordinary persons. The discussion of the rationales of "ought" implies "can" leads to the discovery of a hitherto overlooked moral principle, "ought" implies "evidence", which can be used to show that most prominent moral theories are false. Finally, in the context of discussing cases that are supposed to reveal intuitions that favour either objective or subjective consequentialism, the book argues that which cases are relevant for the discussion of objectivism and subjectivism depends on the type of moral theory we are concerned with (consequentialism, Kantianism, virtue ethics, etc.). From Value to Rightness will be of interest to scholars and advanced students working in normative ethics and metaethics. (shrink)
Pamphilus’ introductory letter opens contradictory ways of reading Hume’s Dialogues. The first, suggested by Pamphilus' claim to be “mere auditor” to the dialogues, which were “deeply imprinted in [his] memory,” is the empiricist reading. This traditional reading could, and has, gone several ways, including to such conclusions as Philo forces upon Cleanthes, shocking Demea; e.g., that the design of the mosquito and other “curious artifices of nature,” which inflict pain and suffering on all, bespeaks an utterly careless and insensate, if (...) not malign creator. Pamphilus' preface also opens a more philosophical reading implied in his consideration of the ancient literary form of dialogue. This second interpretive path suspects more design in writing, and more revealed in it, than the simple empiricist reading(s) allow. Dialogically elucidating the Dialogues confronts us with the limits of empiricism in moral and religious philosophy. Hume's last work, if read philosophically, exhibits the vacancy of empiricism. (shrink)
A compelling requirement on normative theories is that they should be satisfiable, that is, in every possible choice situation with a finite number of alternatives, there should be at least one performable act such that, if one were to perform that act, one would comply with the theory. In this paper, I argue that, given some standard assumptions about free will and counterfactuals, Objective Act Consequentialism violates this requirement.
Elinor Mason draws on ethics and responsibility theory to present a pluralistic view of both wrongness and blameworthiness. Mason argues that our moral concepts, rightness and wrongness, must be connected to our responsibility concepts. But the connection is not simple. She identifies three different ways to be blameworthy, corresponding to different ways of acting wrongly. The paradigmatic way to be blameworthy is to act subjectively wrongly. Mason argues for an account of subjective obligation that is connected to the notion of (...) trying - to act rightly is try to do well by morality, to act wrongly (and to be blameworthy) is to fail to try hard enough. Trying involves understanding morality, those who do not grasp morality are in a different category. So agents might also be blameworthy for being oriented away from what really matters. In that case, agents are blameworthy in a different sense, the detached sense. Finally, we can become blameworthy by taking responsibility in cases where our agency is ambiguous. In the final section, Mason gives us an account of taking responsibility and agues that that is an important art of our responsibility practices. (shrink)
This paper argues that objective consequentialism is incompatible with the rationales of ‘ “ought” implies “can” ’ – with the considerations, that is, that explain or justify this principle. Objective consequentialism is the moral doctrine that an act is right if and only if there is no alternative with a better outcome, and wrong otherwise. An act is obligatory if and only if it is wrong not to perform it. According to ‘ “ought” implies “can” ’, a person is morally (...) obligated to φ only if the person can φ. The rationales of ‘ “ought” implies “can” ’ include considerations related to intuitive plausibility, action-guidance, blameworthiness and fairness, and the nature of practical reasons. (shrink)
When probability discounting (or probability weighting), one multiplies the value of an outcome by one's subjective probability that the outcome will obtain in decision-making. The broader import of defending probability discounting is to help justify cost-benefit analyses in contexts such as climate change. This chapter defends probability discounting under risk both negatively, from arguments by Simon Caney (2008, 2009), and with a new positive argument. First, in responding to Caney, I argue that small costs and benefits need to be evaluated, (...) and that viewing practices at the social level is too coarse-grained. Second, I argue for probability discounting using a distinction between causal responsibility and moral responsibility. Moral responsibility can be cashed out in terms of blameworthiness and praiseworthiness, while causal responsibility obtains in full for any effect which is part of a causal chain linked to one's act. With this distinction in hand, unlike causal responsibility, moral responsibility can be seen as coming in degrees. My argument is, given that we can limit our deliberation and consideration to that which we are morally responsible for and that our moral responsibility for outcomes is limited by our subjective probabilities, our subjective probabilities can ground probability discounting. (shrink)
Decisions, whether moral or prudential, should be guided at least in part by considerations of the consequences that would result from the various available actions. For any given action, however, the majority of its consequences are unpredictable at the time of decision. Many have worried that this leaves us, in some important sense, clueless. In this paper, I distinguish between ‘simple’ and ‘complex’ possible sources of cluelessness. In terms of this taxonomy, the majority of the existing literature on cluelessness focusses (...) on the simple sources. I argue, contra James Lenman in particular, that these would-be sources of cluelessness are unproblematic, on the grounds that indifference-based reasoning is far less problematic than Lenman (along with many others) supposes. However, there does seem to be a genuine phenomenon of cluelessness associated with the ‘complex’ sources; here, indifference-based reasoning is inapplicable by anyone’s lights. This ‘complex problem of cluelessness’ is vivid and pressing, in particular, in the context of Effective Altruism. This motivates a more thorough examination of the precise nature of cluelessness, and the precise source of the associated phenomenology of discomfort in forced-choice situations. The latter parts of the paper make some initial explorations in those directions. (shrink)
Consequentialists maintain that an act is morally right just in case it produces the best consequences of any available alternative. Because agents are ignorant about some of their acts’ consequences, they cannot be certain about which alternative is best. Kagan contends that it is reasonable to assume that unforeseen good and bad consequences roughly balance out and can be largely disregarded. A statistical argument demonstrates that Kagan’s assumption is almost always false. An act’s foreseeable consequences are an extremely poor indicator (...) of the goodness of its overall consequences. Acting based on foreseeable consequences is barely more reliably good than acting completely at random. (shrink)
In an influential paper, James Lenman argues that consequentialism can provide no basis for ethical guidance, because we are irredeemably ignorant of most of the consequences of our actions. If our ignorance of distant consequences is great, he says, we can have little reason to recommend one action over another on consequentialist grounds. In this article, I show that for reasons to do with statistical theory, the cluelessness objection is too pessimistic. We have good reason to believe that certain patterns (...) of action will tend to have better consequences, and we have good reason to recommend acting in accordance with strategies based on those advantageous patterns. I close by saying something about the strategies that this argument should lead us to favour. (shrink)
Some moral theories, such as objective forms of consequentialism, seem to fail to be practically useful: they are of little to no help in trying to decide what to do. Even if we do not think this constitutes a fatal flaw in such theories, we may nonetheless agree that being practically useful does make a moral theory a better theory, or so some have suggested. In this paper, I assess whether the uncontroversial respect in which a moral theory can be (...) claimed to be better if it is practically useful can provide a ground worth taking into account for believing one theory rather than another. I argue that this is not the case. The upshot is that if there is a sound objection to theories such as objective consequentialism that is based on considerations of practical usefulness, the objection requires that it is established that the truth about what we morally ought to do cannot be epistemically inaccessible to us. The value of practical usefulness has no bearing on the issue. (shrink)
Frank Jackson has put forward a famous thought experiment of a physician who has to decide on the correct treatment for her patient. Subjective consequentialism tells the physician to do what intuitively seems to be the right action, whereas objective consequentialism fails to guide the physician’s action. I suppose that objective consequentialists want to supplement their theory so that it guides the physician’s action towards what intuitively seems to be the right treatment. Since this treatment is wrong according to objective (...) consequentialism, objective consequentialists have to license it without calling it right. I consider eight strategies to spell out the idea of licensing the intuitively right treatment and argue that objective consequentialism is on the horns of what I call the licensing dilemma : Either the physician’s action is not guided towards the intuitively right treatment. Or the guidance towards the intuitively right treatment is ad hoc in some respect or the other. (shrink)
Lenman's ‘argument from cluelessness’ against consequentialism is that a significant percentage of the consequences of our actions are wholly unknowable, so that when it comes to assessing the moral quality of our actions, we are without a clue. I distinguish the argument from cluelessness from traditional epistemic objections to consequentialism. The argument from cluelessness should be no more problematic for consequentialism than the argument from epistemological scepticism should be for metaphysical realism. This puts those who would reject consequentialism on the (...) ground of cluelessness in an awkward philosophical position. (shrink)
Act-utilitarianism and other theories in normative ethics confront the implementability problem: normal human agents, with normal human epistemic abilities, lack the information needed to use those theories directly for the selection of actions. Two Level Theories have been offered in reply. The theoretical level component states alleged necessary and sufficient conditions for moral rightness. That component is supposed to be true, but is not intended for practical use. It gives an account of objective obligation. The practical level component is offered (...) as an implementable system for the choice of actions by agents lacking some relevant information. It gives an account of subjective obligation. Several different ways of developing Two Levelism are explained and criticized. Five conditions that must be satisfied if the practical level principle is to be a good match for a given theoretical level principle are stated. A better form of Two Levelism is presented. (shrink)
Ought Implies Kant defends Kantianism via a critical examination of consequentialism. The latter is shown to be untenable on epistemic grounds; meanwhile, the charge that Kantianism is really consequentialism in disguise is refuted. The book also presents a novel interpretation of Kantianism as according direct duties owed to other animals.
“Perhaps the most common objection to consequentialism is this: it is impossible to know the future…This means that you will never be absolutely certain as to what all the consequences of your act will be…there may be long term bad effects from your act, side effects that were unforeseen and indeed unforeseeable…So how can we tell which act will lead to the best results overall – counting all the results? This seems to mean that consequentialism will be unusable as a (...) moral guide to action. All the evidence available at the time of acting may have pointed to the conclusion that a given act was the right act to perform – and yet it may still turn out that what you did had horrible results, and so in fact was morally wrong. Indeed, if will never be possible to say for sure that any given act was right or wrong, since any event can continue to have further unseen effects down through history. Yet if it is impossible to tell whether any act is morally right or wrong, how can consequentialism possibly be a correct moral theory?”. (shrink)
Utilitarians are attracted to the idea that an act is morally right iff it leads to the best outcome. But critics have pointed out that in many cases we cannot determine which of our alternatives in fact would lead to the best outcome. So we can’t use the classic principle to determine what we should do. It’s not “practical”; it’s not “action-guiding”. Some take this to be a serious objection to utilitarianism, since they think a moral theory ought to be (...) practical and action-guiding. In response, some utilitarians propose to modify utilitarianism by replacing talk of actual utility with talk of expected utility. Others propose to leave the original utilitarian principle in place, but to combine it with a decision procedure involving expected utility. What all these philosophers have in common is this: they move toward expected utility in order to defend utilitarianism against the impracticality objection. My aim in this paper is to cast doubt on this way of replying to the objection. My central claim is that if utilitarians are worried about the impracticality objection, they should not turn to expected utility utilitarianism. That theory does not provide the basis for a cogent reply to the objection. (shrink)
A powerful objection to impersonal moral theories states that they cannot accommodate the good of friendship. This paper focuses on the problem as it applies to consequentialism and addresses the recent criticism that even the most sophisticated forms of consequentialism are incompatible with genuine friendship. I argue that this objection fails since those who pose this challenge either seriously oversimplify consequentialism's theory of value, misunderstand its theory of practical reason, or put too much weight on the good of friendship itself. (...) I conclude by assessing a contemporary consequentialist response in order to suggest a workable conception of consequentialist friendship. (shrink)
James Lenman argues that consequentialism fails as a moral theory because it is impossible to predict the long-term consequences of our actions. I agree that it is impossible to predict the long-term consequences of actions, but argue that this does not count as a strike against consequentialism. I focus on the principle of indifference, which tells us to treat unforeseeable consequences as cancelling each other out, and hence value-neutral. I argue that though we cannot defend this principle independently, we cannot (...) do without it in practical rationality. Thus abandoning the principle of indifference would involve abandoning all of rationality, not just consequentialist reasoning. I suggest that we should understand the principle as P. F. Strawson understands inductive reasoning – as being part of rationality. Correspondence:c1 [email protected]. (shrink)
In 'Axiological Actualism' Josh Parsons argues that 'axiological actualism', which is 'the doctrine that ethical theory should refrain from assigning levels of welfare, or preference orderings, or anything of the sort to merely possible people', lends plausibility to 'the converse intuition'. This is the proposition that 'the welfare a person would have, were they actual, can give us a reason not to bring that person into existence'. I show that Parsons's argument delivers less than he promises. It could be convincing (...) only to actualists who hold certain views about normative ethics, and could at most convince them to heed the converse intuition only under certain circumstances. (shrink)
After critiquing some earlier attempts (including those of Marcus Singer and Frances Howard–Snyder) to ground objections to actual–consequence act utilitarianism (ACAU) on human cognitive limitations, I present two new objections with this same foundation. Both start with the observation that, because human cognitive abilities are not up to the task of reliably recognizing utility–maximizing actions, any agents who are recognizably human – including the best possible humans, morally speaking – are certain to perform many actions every day that ACAU says (...) are immoral, and to perform some actions over the course of their lives that it says are highly immoral. The first objection is that, if Mill's analysis of what it means to call an action wrong is accurate, then ACAU entails a conclusion that no one will accept, viz., that the morally–best humans possible ought to undergo constant punishment. The second objection is that ACAU entails that even the morally–best humans possible are bad moral agents in some respect. This conclusion, while unpalatable, is not so obviously unacceptable as the first. However, I do briefly consider some ways in which it might be possible to demonstrate that it is false and thereby complete a reductio of ACAU. (shrink)
I argue against the standard view that it is possible to describe extensionally different consequentialist theories by describing different evaluative focal points. I argue that for consequentialist purposes, the important sense of the word act must include all motives and side effects, and thus these things cannot be separated.
An option range is a set of alternative actions available to an agent at a given time. I ask how a moral theory’s account of option ranges relates to its recommendations about deliberative procedure (DP) and criterion of rightness (CR). I apply this question to Act Consequentialism (AC), which tells us, at any time, to perform the action with the best consequences in our option range then. If anyone can employ this command as a DP, or assess (direct or indirect) (...) compliance with it as a CR, someone must be able to tell which actions fit this description. Since the denseness of possibilia entails that any option range is indefinitely large, no one can do this. So no one can know that any option has ever emerged from any range as the best option in that range. However we come to know that a given option is right, we never come to know it in AC’s way. It is often observed that AC cannot give us a DP. AC cannot give us a CR either, unless we are omniscient. So Act Consequentialism is useless. (shrink)
Utilitarian (U.) theories must be capable of being applied in practical reasoning, or they would have no value as a guide to rational conduct. However, I show that epistemic extensions to U. theories produce logical confusion. Basic questions about what one needs to know in order to apply a U. analysis embroil one in an infinite regress. And attempts to incrementally apply U. either are no help at all (leaving one entirely 'in the dark'), or in general constitute arbitrary gambles (...) which no practical reasoner could defend taking. These problems are serious enough to completely discredit U. theories as having any relevance to practical reasoning. (shrink)
Objective consequentialism is often criticized because it is impossible to know which of our actions will have the best consequences. Why exactly does this undermine objective consequentialism? I offer a new link between the claim that our knowledge of the future is limited and the rejection of objective consequentialism: that ‘ought’ implies ‘can’ and we cannot produce the best consequences available to us. I support this apparently paradoxical contention by way of an analogy. I cannot beat Karpov at chess in (...) spite of the fact that I can make each of many series of moves, at least one of which would beat him. I then respond to a series of objections. In the process I develop an account of the ‘can’ of ability. I conclude with some remarks about the bearing this attack has on subjective consequentialism. (shrink)
You face two buttons. Pushing one will destroy Greensboro. Pushing the other will save it. There is no way for you to know which button saves and which destroys. What ought you to do? Answer: You ought to make the correct guess and push the button that saves Greensboro. Second question: Do you have an obligation to push the correct button?
A standard objection to act utilitarian theories is that they are not helpful in deciding what it is morally permissible for us to do when we actually have to make a choice between alternatives. That is, such theories are worthless as decision procedures. A standard reply to this objection is that act utilitarian theories can be evaluated solely as theories about right-making characteristics and, when so evaluated, their inadequacy as decision procedures is irrelevant. Even if somewhat unappealing, this is an (...) effective reply to the standard objection. (shrink)
Consequentialism ought not to make an impact, explicit or implicit, on every decision. All it ought generally to enjoy is what I describe as a virtual presence in the deliberation that produces decisions. [...] The argument that we have conducted suggests that the virtuous agent ought in general to remain faithful to his or her instincts and ingrained habits, only occasionally breaking with them in the name of promoting the best consequences.
If consequentialism is understood as claiming, at least, that the moral character of an action depends only on the consequences of the action, it might be thought that the difficulty of knowing what all the consequences of any action will be poses a problem for consequentialism. J. J. C. Smart writes that in most cases..