Friday, February 03, 2012

The Separateness of Persons: Commensurability without Fungibility

It seems to me that the famed "separateness of persons" objection to consequentialism rests on the confused assumption that commensurable values (ones that can be compared and traded off against each other) are thereby fungible values (such that a loss to one is not merely outweighed, but actually cancelled, by a greater gain to another). I'll explain in a moment why this is a mistake. But first, let's motivate the objection with a simple case:
Connie has just enough anti-venom to save one of the two poison victims before her. Now, faced with their pleading faces, but realizing it makes no difference to the total welfare, Connie finds herself totally uninterested in the question of who to save. It strikes her as no more normatively significant than the choice between a $20 bill or two tens.

To many -- myself included -- such indifference seems inappropriate. We think that which person survives is a matter of normative significance, so that Connie is (in her thoughts) making a kind of moral mistake.

I take this scenario to exemplify the worry that consequentialists see people instrumentally, as mere "receptacles" of value, or that they neglect the separateness of persons. Critics are assuming, in effect, that consequentialists must follow Connie in treating the welfare of distinct persons as a mere number, free-floating and fungible.

But once we realize that the fitting consequentialist agent would desire each good (separately), we can see the mistake in this way of thinking. The problem with Connie is that she doesn't appreciate that each individual's welfare is a distinct intrinsic good. She, in effect, only sees a single token good -- the aggregate welfare -- whereas a more plausible consequentialist view holds that the aggregate is merely an abstraction from a great plurality of distinct intrinsic goods (namely: each distinct person's welfare).

Since the fitting consequentialist will have distinct intrinsic desires for each person's welfare, they will not react with indifference, but rather ambivalence, when faced with tradeoffs like Connie's. They will be pulled in both directions, torn by the distinct importance of the two lives (only one of which can be saved), and whichever one they do save, they will still see something regrettable about the loss of the other.

In this way, the consequentialist can fully appreciate the separateness of persons. They make tradeoffs between lives, seeing that a greater benefit to one outweighs a lesser cost to another, but that does not entail seeing the two as fungible like money. For the benefit to one does not cancel the loss to another, which is instead seen as a unique and irreplaceable source of regret. But it is not as regrettable as it would have been to forsake the greater (and also unique) benefit to another.

In short: We can make tradeoffs between distinct intrinsic values, recognizing that some may be more important than others, without thereby turning them into merely instrumental values (fungible means to some further end of "aggregate" value). This is demonstrated by the distinction between indifference and ambivalence -- or, more generally, between tradeoffs where the cost is cancelled by the gain, vs. those where the cost remains distinctly regrettable, and is merely outweighed by the gain.

[For a more developed version of this argument, see my paper, 'Value Receptacles'.]

18 comments:

  1. Thanks Richard - I've had vague thoughts along these lines before, but I'd never been able to articulate them as clearly as this.

    Perhaps the way to understand the standard reasoning is this: two values are commensurable if they can each be converted into some common measure. And once you convert them into a common measure, gains in one do indeed cancel losses in another. So commensurability entails fungibility.

    Where does this reasoning go wrong? My guess is that we should think that commensurability involves correlation with, rather than conversion into, a common measure. Is that what you had in mind?

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    1. Yes, that sounds right. Commensurable values can be compared along a common measure, but it's a further step to (as you put it) "convert" them to a common measure, for that step loses the crucial information of whether we're comparing distinct or fungible values.

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  2. Richard,

    There might be two "separateness of persons" objections to consequentialism. According to the first, the actions that consequentialism prescribes fail to respect the separateness of persons by, e.g., recommending that we distribute healthy person's organs. (I take this to be the standard separateness objection.) According to the second, the psychology of those agents who embody consequentialism fails to respect the separateness of persons. I have never seen the second objection in print, to be honest, but I can see how one might object to consequentialism on these grounds. Your reply is meant to address the second, I take it. What about the first?

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    1. I think the two are closely connected. If a fitting agent, who respects the separateness of persons, could nevertheless make trade-offs such as killing one to save five, then that would seem to entail that killing one to save five is not in itself a failure to respect the separateness of persons.

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  3. Hi - for whatever it's worth, I make a very similar distinction between two different kinds of value pluralism in a forthcoming paper in Res Publica: anti-monism is the view that many different things have non-fungible value; anti-rationalism is the view that no rational decisions can be made about clashes between those different valuable things. But I hadn't thought of your nice application of the distinction to the separateness of persons objection.

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    1. Thanks, I'll have to keep an eye out for your paper!

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  4. the aggregate is merely an abstraction from a great plurality of distinct intrinsic goods

    Well, it's "merely an abstraction" that actually does all the work, isn't it? ie. the "mere" abstraction is still the truthmaker for claims about rightness, is it not? If so, it's hard to see what the qualifier "merely" is doing there.

    In any case, I'm a little concerned about the example: make *yourself* one of the poison victims, and you'll match the traditional objection a little more closely (see: Williams in the Smart volume). Then, there does seem to be something a little implausible about indifference, doesn't there?

    Finally, there is another way in which consequentialism traditionally is said to ignore the seperateness of persons, and that is as regards their status as distinct agents. Claudia Card's example will do: I am in a lifeboat, and I have the choice between saving an ordinary drowning man and saving a drowning man with one amputated leg. She claims, plausibly, that the consequentialist cannot make sense of the difference between (1) saving the amputee, and (2) saving the two-legged man and then sawing his leg off in the boat. Details may be quibbled over, but the point, I think, is made.

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    1. Not really. If I rightly help Tom at a lesser cost to Harry, the "right-maker" for this action is the concrete gain to Tom's welfare, and the fact that it outweighs the separate concrete loss to Harry's welfare. This all correlates in obvious ways with facts about changes in the abstract aggregate, but it's just a mistake (on my view) to see the aggregate as what "does all the work". Changes in the aggregate are merely a symptom of more concrete changes to individuals' welfare, and it's those concrete changes that really "do the work".

      Not sure I follow your second paragraph. I argue that, indeed, "indifference" is the wrong response. Ambivalence is the correct response. Imagining myself in the place of one of the victims doesn't change my judgment about this.

      My arguments here also extend straightforwardly to Card's case. If it makes a difference (not to the aggregate value, but to which concrete values are realized in the world) which of two people you save, then a fortiori it makes a difference whether you save an amputee or save someone else and then make them an amputee. (In addition, of course, gratuitously sawing off someone's leg is going to be a wrong action.)

      These aren't "quibbles". Rather, it's to suggest that the critics are entirely misguided in how they conceive of consequentialism and what it entails.

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    2. Imagining myself in the place of one of the victims doesn't change my judgment about this.

      The suggestion, I think, is that if this is your judgment, then you're not really imagining yourself in the place of one of the victims. But, of course, this phenomenological point cannot really be demonstrated, so, fair enough. I certainly do not think I would be particularly ambivalent.

      As for Card's example, I think the point is that it makes no aggregate or concrete difference. In both possible worlds you have an amputee and a dead person. Now, as I suggested, the consequentialist can quibble over the psychological discomfort that I will experience from sawing the person's leg off, but that is a contingent fact and as such this response misses the point: that *I* am going to be the one with the hacksaw appears to be the major factor in this case, yet, it is precisely this fact that cannot be included in the consequentialist calculus. Hence, my seperate identity is being ignored by the theory.

      "of course, gratuitously sawing off someone's leg is going to be a wrong action."

      Of course it is. The question is whether it is distinguishable, on consequentialist grounds, from dragging the amputee into the boat and letting the two-legged man drown. I'm sure you've got a response to this difficulty, I just wanted to point out that it is *this* problem which is sometimes taken to express the general problem of "seperateness".

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    3. "I certainly do not think I would be particularly ambivalent."

      Hang on -- is the question whether as a victim you would yourself be ambivalent about who's helped, or whether you would think it appropriate for a third party to be ambivalent? I meant the latter. (Obviously people are self-interested and so care more about themselves than other possible victims with competing interests, but that doesn't seem particularly relevant here.) What's your proposed alternative -- that they should favour one victim over another?

      "As for Card's example, I think the point is that it makes no aggregate or concrete difference."

      If they're different people who survive, then that is a concrete difference: distinct (albeit equally weighty) intrinsic values are at stake.

      "that *I* am going to be the one with the hacksaw appears to be the major factor in this case, yet, it is precisely this fact that cannot be included in the consequentialist calculus"

      Here it sounds like you're making the Williams "integrity" objection. I take that to be distinct from the separateness of persons objection, which concerns how we (morally) are to regard tradeoffs between others, rather than whether we get to privilege ourselves. At any rate, that's what I'm concerned with here. (I agree that I haven't here addressed objections concerning whether we should be able to privilege ourselves.)

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  5. I don't understand. What's the distinction between your kind of "commensurable consequentialism" and the bad, mistaken "fungible consequentialism"? Are they identical in terms of the courses of action they take, but commensurable consequentialism insists that you feel bad about certain things, and good about certain things, and that if you don't, you are making a moral mistake?

    If that is not the only difference between the two then please provide an example of where a commensurable consequentialist would take a different course of action from a fungible one).

    Assuming that is the only difference, then I will take fungible consequentialism any day. Your argument of "you ought to feel this way or it would be improper" seems rooted in the same mistake that beginners make when encountering consequentialism, where they imprint a standard morals system "over and above" the consequentialist one. So e.g. someone who tends to do actions that lead to bad consequences (say a serial killer) is now a "bad person" in the sense that them suffering is a morally good thing.

    Here you're trying to work in this idea that, sure, there's this consequentialist philosophy where there is intrinsic good and bad and we ought to try to maximize aggregate welfare; but maximizing aggregate welfare is not enough, you also need to make sure you have a good attitude when you go about doing it.

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    1. Distinguish the fitting and the fortunate. Consequentialists mostly care about the latter (bringing about good outcomes), and in this sense there is no "need" to have a "good attitude". But still, there's a theoretically interesting question of what the good (fitting) attitude would be, if consequentialism were true. It's this question which I'm addressing.

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    2. There's no content to saying that there's a difference between "fungible" and "commensurable" if the two theories always recommend the exact same course of action.

      What is the support for these strange assertions about it being fitting to 'desire' various inherent goods?

      The way you use "desire" seems confused. How would you define it? If you mean "desire" the way it is commonly used then it is not something people have much control over and so there's no use talking about what it is 'fitting' for someone to desire.

      If you mean "what you desire" as being what you consider to be inherently good, bad, and so on - then it's not really relevant to the Connie example since clearly Connie desired that both of them live in that sense of 'desire'. In this second sense of desire there is no emotion included in the definition so it doesn't make sense to say that Connie would feel distressed simply because she desires that both of the victims survive.

      How do you go from talking about what the consequentialist agent believes is good, bad, etc., into talking about what they feel? You can't just mumble something about "well we're talking about what's fitting, not about what is actually important" and use that as a justification for making strange normative claims about how Connie ought to feel.

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    3. (1) There's a contentful difference between instrumental and non-instrumental desires, and hence between desiring two things both as a means to a single further end, vs. having distinct non-instrumental desires for each of the two. This is further demonstrated by the (obviously contentful) distinction between the attitudes of indifference and ambivalence. (Really, you'd have to be some kind of radical behaviourist to think that there could be no content to a distinction if it didn't correspond to a difference in action. There's more to moral agency than just the behavioural outputs.)

      (2) It's analytic that what's good is desirable, i.e. fitting to desire.

      (3) I'm thinking of desires as judgment-sensitive (but non-voluntary) attitudes, much like belief. One's recognition that it's rational to have judgment-sensitive attitude A towards P places rational pressure on one to have A towards P. So we can sensibly talk about rationally fitting desires, just as we can with beliefs.

      (4) See here for discussion of how we can rationally criticize emotions.

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    4. "(1) There's a contentful difference between instrumental and non-instrumental desires, and hence between desiring two things both as a means to a single further end, vs. having distinct non-instrumental desires for each of the two. This is further demonstrated by the (obviously contentful) distinction between the attitudes of indifference and ambivalence. (Really, you'd have to be some kind of radical behaviourist to think that there could be no content to a distinction if it didn't correspond to a difference in action. There's more to moral agency than just the behavioural outputs.)"

      The question is whether there's an ethical distinction between fungibility and commensurability. Ambivalence occurs when a loss is involved—this being an early result of behavioral psychology. Recall, the theory of conflict: approach-approach, approach-avoidance, and avoidance-avoidance. The first represents "indifference"; the second and third, two forms of ambivalence—the second, the more prototypical.

      Lack of fungibility means we always experience certain choices as involving losses. This produces ambivalence. But what does this have to do with ethics? If you're a consequentialist, the ethically relevant distinctions pertain to prescribed conduct. Ambivalence versus indifference are themselves ethically indifferent for a consequentialist. Would you disapprove ethically of Connie? You call her attitude "inappropriate" rather than malevolent, and I think for good reason. We would diagnose Connie as perhaps schizoid; we wouldn't condemn her ethically.

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    5. I do think it makes sense to (mildly) ethically disapprove of Connie. She's certainly not as bad as a malevolent person, but nor is she merely "weird", she's actually failing to respond to the value of individual persons in the way that they merit. So I think, for example, that the people she treats as fungible could reasonably resent her for that: she's failing to recognize that they are ends in themselves, and not mere instruments for the promotion of aggregate value. Wouldn't you be (at least mildly) peeved if someone saw you as a mere instrument?

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  6. I have an epistemological problem with this discussion. The distinction of persons objection to consequentialism, and the following response, both rely upon the assumption that the feelings of the actor actually matter, when the reality is quite the opposite. Just because the actor is ambivalent rather than indifference, it does not mean that the conflicting values are not fungible. One needs to first explain why the difference between ambivalence and indifference is morally relevant in consequentialist systems, because it seems fundamentally deontological (dare I even say Kantian) to say that the recognition of intrinsic goods and values actually has an impact.

    In a consequentialist world, things are good because of their consequences, and pure consequentialism would reject the notion of intrinsic value altogether. Therefore, to defend consequentialism through a sort of re-calibration to suit intrinsic values is self-defeating. If I were a consequentialist, I would simply say the distinction of persons argument doesn't matter.

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    1. Here I'm using "intrinsic" as mere shorthand for "non-instrumental". And if there's any value at all, some of it must be non-instrumental.

      On why this matters: see my above response to "screwplato".

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