Thursday, September 24, 2009

Rule Consequentialism and Changing Circumstances

Suppose an evil demon rules over a world for the first of two epochs. In this first epoch, he tortures anyone who fails to internalize a stringent rule requiring them (unconditionally) to greet others by punching them in the guts. (To be clear, the demon doesn't mind if by some psychological fluke this disposition fails to manifest in action. He just wants to make sure that everyone has the wicked disposition.) In the second epoch, the demon leaves the people to their own devices. Then, at the end of the second epoch, the world will end. These facts are common knowledge. What should the people do?

The best outcome is presumably for everyone to (i) initially internalize the gut-punching rule, (ii) hopefully fail to act on it (whenever possible without undermining the disposition), and (iii) change their internalized rules once the demon goes away.

Rule-consequentialism clearly agrees with (i). It also implies, contra (ii), that agents ought to act according to this rule, i.e. they ought to punch each other in the guts, even though no good comes from this. But what does it imply about changing circumstances? Once in the second epoch, does the society get to rewrite the rules, so that what was previously obligatory is now forbidden? Does it make any difference whether the demon had also incentivized our internalizing a rule according to which we should never question or revise his rules? (Though initially beneficial, the changing circumstances would mean this rule, too, no longer has high expected value in the second epoch.)

Suppose that the people can predict that they will end up changing the rules in these (forbidden but) beneficial ways. Can their current moral code still condemn those future actions as "impermissible"? Or do contemporaneous codes trump? (Compare my old 'Reflecting on Relativism'.)


  1. It is not clear to me that rule consequentialism says agents ought to act on this rule, though perhaps this is because I'm skeptical of all these different varieties of consequentialism anyway. Still, sticking with rule consequentialism as best I understand it, I'm not sure why the demon's rule gets to be straightforwardly turned into an RC rule, instead of, say, a consequence of something else, perhaps an RC rule that says you should internalize demon-commanded rules when demons are active.

    Perhaps you think that there's only one way to internalize rules, so that rule consequentialism must mean "follow any internalized rules" and merely give you advice about which rules to internalize? If so, then I guess that's where my skepticism about distinguishing consequentialisms comes in; it seems to me that consequentialism is always about finding the best strategies, which could be complicated or simple, require internalized rules or not, require simple structures of internalized rules or complex ones, or whatever, depending on circumstances. No need to invent different varieties of consequentialism just because sometimes different strategies are appropriate; consequentialism should already be interpreted to say you should be using the appropriate strategies.

  2. I'm inclined to agree with Aaron here; there are a number of different ways rules can be generated, and what, precisely, the rule is might possibly make a significant difference.

    As a matter of curiosity (I'm not sure it would make any difference), by 'internalizing' here do we mean 'developing a disposition to comply with the rule' (presumably knowingly, but not necessarily accepting it) or 'developing a disposition to accept it as a rule generally to be applied'? I'm thinking something broadly along the lines of the distinction Brad Hooker makes between compliance and acceptance, although I'm not sure I fully grasp all the features of his particular distinction.

  3. Let's go with Brad Hooker's view. ["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 (with some priority for the worst off). The calculation of a code's expected value includes all costs of getting the code internalized. If in terms of expected value two or more codes are better than the rest but equal to one another, the one closest to conventional morality determines what acts are wrong."]

    The first thing to note is that it's surely possible that the expected value of a code for generations A-Z might differ from the expected value of a code for the final generation Z alone. So there's a question how Hooker can coherently accommodate such changes. As stated, it looks like whether future act φ (performed by a member of generation Z) is wrong is a time-relative truth. As assessed from the time of generation A, the future act is wrong. But by the time it actually takes place, it may be right, since a different code is now expectably best. This seems incoherent; hence my suggestion of letting the contemporaneous code trump. Then it would be timelessly true (i.e. admissible even by generation A) that the token act of a Z-person's φ-ing was right.

    Now, in response to Aaron's concerns, we should be able to ensure that the demon's rule becomes a straightforward RC rule by tweaking the details of the case so that the demon's rule itself has to be internalized in order to avoid disastrous consequences. Note that it's not enough to internalize a rule "that says you should internalize demon-commanded rules when demons are active." You can teach this rule to the kids and they'll still get tortured, until they furthermore (follow it and) internalize the demon-commanded rule itself. Since this latter step is also necessary, it follows that the demon-commanded rule is part of the "ideal code" or moral conscience that it would be best for people to have. It's not enough to internalize a formula for obtaining a more fortunate conscience. We've got to assess what the best conscience to actually possess is.

    There may be different ways to internalize rules. That is, different rules may occupy different places in the structure of a total moral code. RC simply appeals to the overall code or moral conscience that would be best. So again, we can always tweak the setup to get my desired result. Say the demon will torture unless you internalize his rule in a certain way, etc. (If you're not persuaded by my above deflation of the indirect proposal, we could even opt for the heavy-handed option of getting the demon to also torture anyone who internalizes such indirect rules.)

    P.S. There are genuine differences between Act Consequentialism and other sorts, due to the basic fact of Evaluative Non-Integration: the best code, or character or whatnot, will not always recommend the best acts. Hence views that determine how you ought to act by appealing to some other evaluand, like the best code, or character or whatnot, yield different results from straightforward act consequentialism. (As we see in the very case discussed here.)

  4. Thanks, Richard, that's very nice and helpful, and brings out clearly several points in your original argument.

  5. I obviously don't wish to defend Hooker's specific account (as should already be clear from what I said). As for your more general point, I don't think it's logically possible for the demon to create a situation where the best thing to do is internalize rules which it is not the best thing to do to internalize (for obvious reasons). Now, I imagine that for any attempt to specify exact principles, it's possible to invent a demon who can exploit those principles to produce perverse results, but conversely for any demon there's going to be a patch to the principles which will circumvent that particular demon's annoying meddling. I don't see that anything very exciting follows from all this, except that it's one more small reason not to try to specify all possible principles in advance.

    On your P.S., well, if you have perfect rationality and perfect information, that'd be one of the circumstances where you don't need any strategy other than maximize good consequences. That is another one of the reasons I'm not a fan of any rule consequentialism which is presented as an alternative to rather than an elaboration of strategy for act consequentialism; that's a circumstance where it seems obvious to me that pure act consequentialism is right. All the strategies only justify their existence because reality is never like that. I see no need to let the strategies take on a life of their own, as they seem to have done with Hooker; I agree that this will always create the potential for unacceptable results, and in fact, the world being the complicated place that it is, I find it likely that any highly specific one size fits all strategy will actually encounter real world problem cases.

    I suppose I should be clear on why I think following a strategy need not be different from being an act consequentialist; consider the case (I don't remember who first came up with this example) where you're trying to get into a vault with a lock that responds to a numeric code, and do so as quickly as possible. In one sense the best act is just typing in a certain sequence of numbers. But since you don't know what that sequence is, that's completely beside the point; something like finding someone who knows the code, or finding some explosives, or something of the sort, will be the best act for achieving your goal in any relevant sense, even though it will take more time and perhaps have other costs. Similarly, following strategies of some kind is going to be the best way to maximize good consequences in any relevant sense in any real world case.

  6. Aaron -- of course, I agree that Act Consequentialists can follow strategies. (That was a major point of my recent post on rationality-enhancing dispositions.) That's not in dispute between AC and RC. The point about non-integration obtains even when formulated in subjective terms (concerning what's rational, rather than what's objectively best). This is because, as my linked post explains -- and the present case demonstrates -- not all desirable dispositions are rationality-enhancing. They may have value for reasons other than their propensity to get us to act in desirable (or expectably utility-maximizing) ways. So it can be rational to (act so as to) acquire a disposition, without thereby being rational to act on it.

    We're getting a bit off-topic though. What I'm really interested in is what a (Brad Hooker style) Rule Consequentialist could say in response to the objections I've raised here.

  7. Does it make any difference whether the demon had also incentivized our internalizing a rule according to which we should never question or revise his rules? (Though initially beneficial, the changing circumstances would mean this rule, too, no longer has high expected value in the second epoch.)

    At least on this part of the issue, I can comment. if my reading of Hooker is correct, this additional rule will impose additional costs when it comes to adopting a new rule. So, if the cost related to punching a person exceeds the internalisation costs for the new rule, we internalise the new rule. Otherwise we dont.

    Re the relativism charge, Rule consequentialists either have to bite the bullet, or deny that the epoch dependant rules are really relativistic in the relevant sense.

    I'm not particularly enamoured with the second option, but biting the bullet is not entirely counterintuitive.

    e.g. the kind of rules regarding property rights that would have yielded the best consequences during our hunter gatherer days is different from the property rights that are best for us now.

  8. There is a problem for rule-consequentialism in the fact that one code might be best during generations A-Y and different code best during generation Z. Richard Arneson zeroes in on this (and other problems) in his article in *Philosophical Issues*, 2005.

    If the evil demon makes internalization of a gut-punching disposition (massively) optimific and the population thus internalizes it, then gut-punching is, though hardly optimific, nevertheless required? Well, if people comply with the rules/dispositions that a theory tells them to have, then presumably they don't behave in a way that is blameworthy when they act on these rules/dispositions.

    Not clear that rule-consequentialism can survive evil demon counterexamples. Like many other theories, rule-consequentialism might need to be limited to worlds without malign all-powerful entities.


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