Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Acts and Meta-Acts

In 'Can Consequentialism Cover Everything?', Bart Streumer claims that according to consequentialism "there is no normatively significant difference between performing an act and bringing it about that an act is performed." This isn't quite right. It would be more accurate to say that the pro tanto reasons for and against φ-ing count equally for or against bringing it about that one φs. But we must leave open the possibility of the latter ("meta") action being influenced by other reasons in addition. After all, this act may have additional consequences besides just the consequences of the downstream act of φ-ing, for there's no guarantee that all else is equal between the two acts in question.

Standard cases of "rational irrationality" illustrate this nicely. If faced with the prospect of blackmail in the near future, I may have reason to cause myself to become utterly nihilistic and indifferent to the welfare of my family, so that the blackmailer has no incentive to threaten them harm. It doesn't follow that my later nihilistic actions are themselves rational. There's a normatively significant (consequential) difference between φ-ing in circumstances C and bringing it about that I will φ in circumstances C.

Newcomb-like problems might provide another instance of this divergence. Prior to the Oracle making her prediction, I have most reason to bring it about that I one-box. (This increases my chances of winning the bonus million dollars.) But once faced with the actual decision, I arguably have most reason to take both boxes (since whatever is in the first box, taking the second in addition will net me an extra $1000).

Finally, for a more pedestrian example, contrast (i) A thief's freely deciding to return a stolen paperclip, versus (ii) The police department's expending resources to bring it about that the thief returns the paperclip. Obviously there's a consequential difference here, namely that the second action involves additional costs. Although it would be good for the thief to return the goods, it may not be worthwhile for anyone else to expend the resources necessary to bring this about.

Similar remarks apply to other evaluands besides acts. The best character to have might be too costly to be worth bringing about. This explains why, contra Streumer, we should not interpret Global Consequentialism as implying that we ought to bring about 'the right X' (whether X stands for acts, characters, climates, or whatever).


  1. Richard,

    I'm not entirely up on this stuff, but a couple of queries.
    1) In the first example, what's the act here? Being nihilistic isn't something one does. On the other hand, acting nihilitistically seems to be something you have equal reason to do or to bring about that you do, since both are just as likely to affect the blackmailer's beliefs in the required manner.
    2) Regardless, isn't there an implicit all-else-being-equal clause in Bart's claim? I think that's all he needs for his more general point, and without it, the claim seems to be subject to more straightforward counter-examples than those you raise: I might pay you to X but not to bring it about that you X, or I might blame you for Xing but not for bringing it about that you X.


  2. Hi Alex,

    #1 The "later nihilistic actions" might include ignoring credible threats to your family's welfare -- or an in extreme case, even triggering a Doomsday device to destroy the world. You don't have reason to destroy the world in the circumstance C of someone threatening your family. But you might well have reason to bring it about that you would so act in C, since the deterrent effect of transparently possessing this disposition might help ensure that circumstance C does not arise. As Parfit argues, being a credible threat-fulfiller may be a useful disposition to have, even if actually fulfilling such threats is disastrous.

    But you might object that the conditional aspect of the disposition is corrupting this case. (Streumer might be understood merely as claiming that actually X-ing is normatively equivalent to bringing it about that you actually X. So conditional acts like 'X-ing if C' may not threaten this more limited thesis.) So the pedestrian examples I give later in the post may be better. (I don't understand how your cases are meant to work. Streumer's view relates X-ing to bringing to about that one Xs; unsuccessfully attempting to bribe someone to X is neither, so doesn't really speak to the thesis in question.)

    #2 There certainly needs to be an "all else equal" clause, but I'm not convinced that Streumer recognizes this, for it makes nonsense of his argument. He claims that:
    (1) I ought to perform this act
    "can be reformulated as:"
    (2) I ought to bring it about that this act is performed.

    He uses this to argue that when global consequentialists say that it ought to be sunny (if that'd be for the best), this should be taken to imply, "I ought to it bring about that it is sunny." And this is objectionable because 'ought implies can', and we can't change the weather.

    This strikes me as a bad argument. The only connection between (1) and (2) is that there's something good about the state of affairs where the "obligation" in (1) is fulfilled, and all else equal we have reason to bring about good states of affairs when we can. But once we note those provisos, Streumer's attempted reductio is rendered clearly invalid. The fact that we can't bring it about that it's sunny is precisely what cancels the implication that we ought to perform or attempt such an action.


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