Wednesday, October 07, 2009

Are Sophisticated Consequentialists Irrational?

The Railtonian 'sophisticated consequentialist' (SC) acquires, maintains, and acts upon whatever first-order desire set would be (expectably) best. So, if a bias towards one's own family is a fortunate disposition to have, SC will possess this and hence be biased towards his own family, rather than impartial like a direct utilitarian. My question: is SC rational?

The mere fact that a disposition is expectably fortunate (hence rational to acquire and maintain) does not entail that the disposition is rational (in the sense of manifesting 'sensitivity to reasons' or 'an orientation towards the good') or that it disposes you towards rational actions. As seen in Parfit's case of transparent "threat-fulfillers" and "threat-ignorers", it can be rational to make ourselves irrational. So, we may wonder, is SC like Parfit's threat-ignorer: someone who is now rationally impaired - aiming at the 'wrong' things, or unresponsive to certain reasons - though their past self did the right thing in bringing about this impairment (given its fortunate consequences)?

Perhaps so. The main reason to conclude that SC is irrational is that his dispositions are desirable for reasons other than the actions they produce. (Otherwise there would be no need for such 'sophistication' -- he could just be a straightforward act consequentialist with 'rationality-enhancing' dispositions, as described here.) And the possession of dispositions whose value depends on their external (non-act) effects is, we may think, the sign of fortunate irrationality. In this respect, SC is like the pure threat-ignorer.

But there are two notable differences:

(1) 'Rational irrationality' typically requires self-manipulation (e.g. by pill or brainwashing), whereas the 'sophisticated' psychology is meant to be acquirable by "natural" psychological processes. Railton gives the example of a competitive tennis player who learns that he would play better if he were less focused on winning, and more focused on enjoying the game for its own sake. It seems that his aim of winning can guide the development of this new intrinsic (but contingent) desire. This may in part be due to the fact that the content of the new desire (viz. to play and appreciate the game) is consonant with the overarching aim of winning the game. If the player had to acquire a desire to lose in order to better win, that does not seem possible without external manipulation.

So, there are at least important constraints on the Sophisticated Consequentialist psychology. SC cannot acquire just any old fortunate dispositions: even if a malicious desire would somehow prove fortunate, the cognitive dissonance would be too great to maintain this in virtue of its fortunate character. (He could take a pill to make himself just plain malicious, but that is to make himself no longer a consequentialist, just like the threat-ignorer.) But so long as SC only acquires the sorts of motivations that can be naturally maintained consistently with his overarching consequentialist aim -- so, perhaps, special motivations to attend particularly to certain goods, such as the welfare of his friends and family -- then we may think that he is at least free of any gross irrationality. It's not like he ever aims at the bad. At worst, he fails to aim at every good to the precise degree that is warranted. But this is a fairly modest rational failing, and one that needn't require any kind of self-deception (again, unlike the threat-ignorer).

(2) The second, and much more straightforward difference, is that SC continues to regulate his dispositions in a way that the threat-ignorer (TI) does not. In a world where dispositions are transparent, threat-ignoring initially has high expected utility, since the threat-fulfillers should realize there's no point in even trying to threaten the ignorers. TI can expect to remain safe. But now consider what happens when a threat-fulfiller slips up and stupidly threatens to blow up the world unless TI shines his shoes. At this point, the expected value of TI's disposition is extremely low. Since he maintains his disposition unconditionally, he ignores the threat, and -- predictably enough -- the world blows up. Disaster.

The Sophisticated Consequentialist would never bring about disaster in this way. He acts on the dispositions that are (expectably) best to have. But if circumstances change, then so do his dispositions. In this sense, SC as an agent remains rational (responsive to reasons), even if his particular actions aren't so much.

(Of course, his being rational in this way leaves him vulnerable to extreme threats in a way that the grossly irrational agent is not. But that's fine: I'm not claiming that it's always best to be a sophisticated consequentialist -- it may not be. My aim is just to clarify in what respects such an agent exemplifies rationality.)


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