Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Local Evaluation

Any form of consequentialism begins with an axiology, which tells us the values of things, and it derives from this an account of what we ought to do. Act consequentialism (AC), for example, tells us to perform whatever action would be best. Global consequentialists want to make further claims like, "The best character to have, of those available, is the one such that your having it brings about the best outcome." This sounds to me like a tautology, hence my skepticism about whether Global Consequentialism really adds anything to AC. In this post, I want to explore the (seemingly dim) prospects for making global consequentialism (GC) a substantive view, with coherent "local" AC competitors.

Local - or, we might say, 'hegemonic' - AC is the view that non-act evaluands (such as rules and dispositions) are to be evaluated in terms of their propensity to produce goodness through actions. Harms and benefits effected by the disposition through other means (e.g. evil demons reacting directly to your dispositional state) are not relevant.

The problem is that our shared axiology already settled questions about the values of things (what things are best, etc.), or what we have reason to desire. It only left open the question of what we have reason to do. Since AC and GC agree on this latter question, it's hard to see what there is left for them to disagree about.

Hegemonic AC sounds like it is simply contradicting the presupposed axiology: claiming that a rule is 'best' when in fact it isn't (it's only best in respect of the acts produced; but it isn't best all things considered). If that's so, then we don't have a coherent competitor to GC here.

But perhaps I am building too much into the shared axiology. We might think that consequentialists merely begin with an axiology that provides them with a preference ordering over whole possible worlds. The "global" values are thus given, but there is room for dispute over more "localized" evaluations. In particular, it may seem coherent to desire ice-cream (say) without desiring that the nearest possible world in which you eat ice-cream obtains. Similarly, the hegemonic Act Consequentialist might think that the most desirable dispositions are those that conduce to desirable actions, compatibly with the shared axiological fact that some other disposition would bring about a better outcome.

This would be a bizarre and unmotivated view, of course, but our question is whether it is coherent. (It's okay if GC turns out to be obviously superior to its competitors. The worry is that it might be trivial, and so not have any coherent competitors at all.)

In fact, I do not think this view is even coherent. The ice-cream example is misleading, because it begins with a merely 'pro tanto', some-things-considered desire. Ice-cream may be appealing in respect of its taste, for example, but all things considered you would prefer not to eat it because of the consequences for your health. Hegemonic AC is not making such innocent claims as these. After all, any consequentialist will agree that a disposition to produce good actions is good in that respect. (That is surely entailed by our shared axiology.) The dispute is over whether it is good, or desirable, all things considered (and not just in respect of its intrinsic properties, or in any other limited respect). And it does not seem coherent to say both that something is desirable all things considered, and yet that it would be bad (undesirable) were it to obtain. Just as to believe is to 'believe true', so to desire (all things considered) is to 'desire that it be the case'.

So I conclude that there is not any coherent 'local' or hegemonic version of AC that is a competitor to GC. So GC adds nothing substantive to AC.


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