Saturday, November 15, 2008

What's wrong with self-effacing moral theories?

Utilitarianism is sometimes criticized on the grounds that it may be self-effacing: supposing that things would be worse if belief in the theory were widespread (say because people would incompetently misapply it), the theory recommends against bringing about such widespread belief.

I find this objection puzzling. Surely any sane moral theory is at least possibly self-effacing. This is because any sane moral theory includes a disaster-avoidance override, if the stakes are high enough. So suppose an evil demon will impose eternal torture on us all, unless we forget the true moral theory (whatever it is) and come to believe in (say) Kantianism instead. The appropriate response is, "Yikes, let's learn us some moral falsehoods," right? It sure beats torture.

So the mere possibility of self-effacement is no objection. And utilitarianism isn't necessarily self-effacing. So the only objection left seems to be that it happens to be self-effacing in our actual circumstances. I'm not sure that's true -- but if it is, that's a problem with our circumstances, not with the theory. (Otherwise, this objection would seem to imply that it's a contingent, empirical matter which moral theory is true. That can't be right for reasons explained here.)

Or have I misunderstood the objection?


  1. As usual, utilitarians get the blame simply because they are clear about the implications of the theory they endorse, and because they endorse a theory with clear implications. By contrast, deontologists tend to bury the disaster-avoidance overrides you mention somewhere in a forgotten footnote, which is not supposed to disrupt the high-sounding prose of inviolable rights and individual liberty. (A question for the thoughtful reader: how many of the standard objections to utilitarianism are not raised against deontology because it's unclear whether they apply rather than because it is clear that they don’t?)

  2. It is, of course, the ultimate irony that while utilitarianism is widely known to be a self-effacing theory and widely criticized for being unique in this regard, only a chosen few are aware that deontology has those same implications.

  3. I think the idea is supposed to be that there is something troublesome about the idea that taking a moral theory seriously, even if the moral theory is right, could make you worse morally.

    Certainly a great many people, including a great many utilitarians, seem to to take it seriously, enough to discuss it at length. I agree, though, that self-effacement is not a good objection to utilitarianism; one might as well dismiss sport science on the basis that if I am continually thinking about muscle movement in a big game rather than the game itself, I'll do badly.

  4. Good post, especially the point about the contingency of effacingness.

    I wonder if something could be salvaged from the effacingness objection by reconstructing it to say utilitarianism is wrong because it doesn't *care* whether it's self-effacing. Utilitarianism doesn't put any direct value on being publicly acknowledged, so it will happily take whichever path maximizes utility. Whereas other theories may put some inherent value on publicness (probably related to a commitment to honesty). So even in the case of the evil demon, the deontologist would at least *regret* having to adopt a false moral theory, whereas the utilitarian would say "cool, this will maximize utility given the constraints of the situation."

  5. Pablo - too true.

    Brandon - yeah, I like that analogy.

    Stentor - a preference utilitarian can "regret" having to adopt a false moral theory (given that most people would - all else equal - prefer truth/publicness), just as it's regrettable that Jim must kill one person in order to save twenty. You might instead follow Williams in claiming that utilitarianism makes such tradeoffs "too easy", when really we should feel all torn up inside. But note that:

    (i) This objection is no longer distinctively about self-effacement. Any distasteful outcome would do.

    (ii) Utilitarianism doesn't imply that we shouldn't "care", feel torn, etc. (To think otherwise is to confuse criteria of rightness and decision procedures.) Maybe we should, if such non-utilitarian character traits would lead to better consequences!


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