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'.]


  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?

    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.

  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?

    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.

    2. Holy sh... This is almost exactly what I figured you were getting at (in my response to a few of the others here). As I said in the other comment, there does seem to be a very close connection (that I called "correlational") between actively - during ethical deliberation - respecting the separateness of persons and the psychological state you might have in response to doing so. But unfortunately, it seems few here picked up on this. They think you're getting on about psychological states in some irrelevant fashion, when you are actually noticing a close connection between these states and whether or not one is respecting the separateness of persons. At any rate, again, I figured this, and I do get where you are going with all of this. To me, it's a very on-point analysis of the situation.

      One problem I've noticed is this though: Do you think it's possible to respect the separateness of persons and yet to feel indifferent about it? For instance, suppose I do actually take into account the deep value of each person affected by my decision (to pull a lever or something) and yet rationally feel indifferent as to whether or not person A or B is sacrificed, given it's merely a rational calculation? In other words, does ambivalence have to be tied up with respecting persons, while indifference is tied up with not respecting persons, or can a person both respect persons and yet in a very rational manner not really care? Like, can a person rationally respect persons and yet rationally show no actual human interest in exactly who is sacrificed, even if they do lament the general fact that people must be sacrificed at all? Doctors seem to do this all the time. They try to control their emotions and remain independently detached from their patients, all-the-while caring that their patients are generally improved and in good health.

      What do you think?

    3. Interesting question. I'd certainly agree that one can control their emotions, and so not outwardly or unconstrainedly feel torn whilst nonetheless rationally recognizing and respecting the separateness of persons. I guess the question is what this "recognition" amounts to. I would be tempted to say that it still involves having separate desires for each person's good (and hence still a kind of ambivalence); it's just that these desires are "controlled" or "cool" desires rather than "hot" ones, if that makes any sense.

    4. Agreed. I'm more tempted to think that, despite generally containing these emotional responses, there is likely still a sort of caring (or desire for a person's good) that is related to the fact that welfare is valued/respected. It would seem there is a distinction here between *how* one goes about respecting the separateness of persons. One may do so in a manner that is more controlled and contained (but still, in principle, far from indifferent) or much less controlled and restrained, such that (at extreme levels) you don't merely have a case of ambivalence, but an outright sort of cognitive dissonance.

      This seems more or less correct. It'd be interesting though, if there were others with some really odd intuitions here as to how to make sense of this. Perhaps I should think more about this and try to play devil's advocate, in a way. I can imagine trying to defend the intuition that one can actually recognize the separateness of persons while remaining nearly completely indifferent. Hmm. lol -- I'll respond if I can think of anything, because, as you said, this is a very interesting question.

    5. Thanks, I certainly welcome your thoughts!

  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.

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

  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.

    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.

    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".

    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.)

  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.

    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.

    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.

    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.

    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.

    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?

    6. I think screwplato's question here is completely confused. (Mostly, it seems to far too rooted in the typical "consequentialism vs. non-consequentialism" dichotomy. But I think a really well-rounded ethical theorist realizes that ethics is much more complex than these silly categories make it seem. In other words, consequentialism isn't merely "about outcomes" and non-consequentialism isn't merely about "intrinsic values" and "attitudes". This is highly oversimplified ethical thinking. Instead, these two schools of ethical thought are merely two generally different broad preferences. But there is no "essential" feature to either of these two schools that prevents one from sharing some of the concerns or characteristics of the other. There are many hybrid moral theories that in fact incorporate aspects of both. They can have overlapping features.)

      So, the notion that recognizing and respecting the value of persons is just "feeling bad", while viewing all people and objects as mere "instruments" (like Connie) is "true consequentialism", is absurd. And screwplato, as well as philosophersully and walto, all seem to make this gross assumption. At any rate, as far as I can make sense of this matter, the issue here isn't between attitudes and outcomes; the issue here is to what extent critics of consequentialism are correct (or incorrect) in asserting that consequentialism necessarily results in a disregard of some form for the separateness of persons. And in terms of the latter subject, I think Richard was (correctly) articulating the idea that consequentialism (contrary to very popular and oversimplified misconceptions) does not necessarily reduce to this kind of violation. And the reason why is that not all consequentialists necessarily disregard the intrinsic (or non-instrumental) worth of persons in the manner Connie above does. (In fact, Connie is a very nasty exaggeration of any typical consequentialist.)

    7. As Richard said, consequentialism is much more plausible - and I would say esteemed - when the overall good is not viewed as some cold, extrinsic, instrumental matter of impersonally going with actions that increase utility, but instead when the overall good is instead viewed as an overall abstraction of many different types of intrinsic goods (most particularly the value of human life/interest/welfare, etc.). And there is absolutely no reason to believe consequentialists are precluded from holding such a view, merely because they happen to prefer an "outcomes" based approach to ethics. Even with a broad outcomes based preference, a consequentialist can view the idea of the aggregate good from a much more esteemed, sophisticated perspective that does take a bit from the non-consequentialist camp. Again, consequentialism is not defined as "only outcomes, no intrinsic values". This is merely a broad preference that can be viewed in many different ways. And this is the bigger issue here - not outcomes vs. attitudes. The big issue here (that Richard seems to understand) is that there is a theoretical matter in dispute, and this matter has to do with how consequentialists deal with the idea of distinct persons. And the most obvious idea here is that some consequentialists will prefer outcomes so much, or view the aggregate good from such an instrumental perspective, or see outcomes specifically in terms of extrinsic values, that they will have a problem with the idea of distinct persons (like Connie above); yet many other consequentialists might instead (and there is nothing wrong with this) prefer to understand the notion of "outcomes" as having importance from a much less instrumental, much less extrinsic basis, such that the outcomes that best promote certain intrinsic values are to be sought after. (Certainly this kind of consequentialism is less "pure" and does share features with deontology, but there is no reason why it shouldn't, as again, it does seem much more plausible when a consequentialist views the aggregate good as the overall sum of many different intrinsic values - not just "many receptacles of instrumental value".

      Hence, Richard is not - as far as I'm aware - suggesting that there are two radically different kinds of consequentialism that lead to different outcomes and have many different overall impacts in ethics. To think this is (well, to not only be incredibly confused) but to also completely miss the point of Richard's entry, here. Richard is merely noting that consequentialism does not necessarily have to reduce to a violation of the separateness of persons (as critics suggest), since not all consequentialists must hold a view of the aggregate good (or a conception of outcomes altogether) that regards the value and distinctness of persons as "morally irrelevant". And the reason why, again, is that some consequentialists may radically (or ingeniously) see the aggregate good as the sum of many different intrinsic (and extrinsic) goods - not merely as the sum of instrumental value. Again, utility itself does not necessarily have to be understood or defined in terms of instrumental value.

    8. Thus, it is not a matter of having a different consequentialist approach that leads to different outcomes (like the difference between action and rule utilitarianism, for instance). This is the wrong idea. It is instead merely a matter of how different consequentialists conceive of basic consequentialist ideas such as "aggregate good", "outcomes" or "utility". And as Richard thinks, as well as me, there seems to be no reason to suppose these ideas must be seen in the same old instrumental light as always. They can instead be understood from a much less instrumental (and more intrinsic) basis. The point of consequentialism is outcomes - but these outcomes do not have to revolve solely around instrumental considerations; one can still be a consequentialist so long as they do not presuppose that the right/wrong action is a matter removed from outcomes, even if they believe the best outcomes are those which protect and benefit humans in terms of certain instrinsic values. Again, not all forms of consequentialism must be completely unlike forms of non-consequentialism. They can have overlapping features. The point is that consequentialists must value outcomes to some degree to be a member of this ethical category. But again, there are many hybrid theories out there, and both outcomes and principles can be valued at the same time, even. Again, ethics is much more complex than this dichotomy makes it seem.

      Just imagine a consequentialist system that says "usually, outcomes will matter, but in very special cases, principles can override them, in which case such principles matter more". I see nothing wrong with this sort of system. It's just a matter of explaining why and when outcomes or principles matter more. But such a contextual system could be plausible. Our precious dichotomy breaks down.

      So even if these two different consequentialist perspectives might lead to different views of what is right/wrong (and I don't even care to think about whether or not they do, because frankly, I think that question is completely unrelated to what Richard is really getting at here), who cares? The point here is the extent to which (a) critics are correct in supposing consequentialism necessarily stands in conflict with the separateness of persons and (b) the different ways consequentialists may conceive of the manner in which outcomes and the aggregate good matter.

    9. So again, it's not about "feeling bad" or "attitudes" or different consequentialist systems. Connie is not wrong to the extent that she isn't "feeling bad" about her actions. In fact, none of this has anything to do with emotional mental states of the actor. The point is simply that Connie's consequentialist approach to a moral dilemma probably does stand in conflict with the idea of the separateness of persons (as there is absolutely no inherent weight given to the distinct persons on her approach), whereas other consequentialists can - in principle - give lots of weight to the value of persons, even if they end up with the same overall conclusion that Connie herself finds. Again, it's not about "feeling bad" about making sacrifices; it's about *how exactly the actor in question deliberated and what they rationally considered and included in their moral calculation while making certain sacrifices*. And these are two very different things.

      Again, someone like Kant might fear that consequentialism results in actions that do not properly respect people. And with someone like Connie, this might be true. (It's not that she's not "feeling bad" about the results of her actions; it's that she is - in principle - not taking much into account at all the very value of the persons she is effecting with her actions.) And I think Richard here, as well as I, realize that this Kantian criticism is mistaken in that not all consequentialists must approach ethical dilemmas with Connie's ethical mindset. Instead, a consequentialist can value persons and go to great lengths to weigh such value to the value of other persons and things while making certain deliberative ethical conclusions. And this can all be done in terms of the consequences of action - that is, the extent to which certain actions will impact certain intrinsic goods. And so, if a consequentialist approaches ethics as Richard and I, the critics no longer have a point, as taking into account the value of persons while still seeking the greatest benefit to all involved avoids the charge of disregarding the separateness of persons, as separate persons are valued and weighed equally with respect to one another (rather than seen as mere items of interest in a very cold and impersonal calculation).

    10. So, hopefully my point is clear by now. (It's fairly subtle and difficult to "get". But with some effort, I don't think it's impossible to grasp.) These problems with outcomes vs. intrinsic value and how ambivalence and indifference are irrelevant to ethics are all actually irrelevant to the issue at hand. To speak of these problems is to miss the essential point in this entry. Richard may lose some of you here by using terms like "ambivalence" and "indifference", as they seem to speak of psychological states; but what he's really trying to say is simply that some consequentialist approaches actually respect the separateness of persons and so some really do not. And that the critics aren't correct in presuming all consequentialists make this mistake. If the terms "ambivalence" and "indifference" threw some of you off, that's unfortunate. But it's really just this simple. It's just a matter of noting the extent to which the critics are incorrect. And if your approach is actually considerate of persons and their value, such that your decisions render you ambivalent as opposed to indifferent, then surely this is relevant to whether or not you respect the separateness of persons. It doesn't mean that being indifferent is inherently bad, while ambivalence is inherently good. It just means that those who are indifferent tend to violate the separateness of persons, while those who are ambivalent probably do not (as the manner in which you perceive a situation surely relates to the way in which you deliberate over it).

      And so, if you don't care about one person over another (as if they are just two different rocks), surely your ethical reasoning fails to properly enough respect persons as distinct entities. But, on the other hand, if you regrettably sacrifice one person over another and go to great lengths to determine which to sacrifice, and on some level become ambivalent about the matter, surely your ethical reasoning is much more in line with the idea of respecting persons. Respecting persons does loosely correlate with ambivalence rather than indifference (as, since we are human beings, we will tend to psychologically respond to certain scenarios in certain ways).

      (Also, the idea here isn't that Connie is inherently "wrong". It's just that Connie is a consequentialist who seems guilty of what the critics suggest, whereas an ambivalent consequentialist probably isn't. So it's not about right and wrong; it's about guilty or not guilty with respect to the critics. Keep that in mind.)

    11. So, it's just a correlational thing. Some attitudes tend to go along with certain approaches. Some will not respect persons well enough in their ethical reasoning and won't really care one way or another (since the "greater good" is so supreme), while others will respect persons so strongly that they become incredibly bothered by the fact that they must choose between one person and another, to begin with. And these psychological reactions somewhat relate to different ways of working through such ethical dilemmas. That's all.

      But in reality, what matters here is *how one reaches certain conclusions* - not how one psychologically relates to the persons involved in certain dilemmas about which they must make crucial decisions. Perhaps Richard could've avoided all this confusion by making that a bit more clear (and maybe by avoiding the indifference/ambivalence approach altogether). But oh well. I personally understood what Richard was doing and did highly enjoy the indifference/ambivalence distinction. It just makes sense, to me.

  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.

    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".

    2. philosophersully: refer to my response to "screwplato". I'm not so sure you understood what Richard was getting at in this entry. I fear you've missed the point.

  7. Sorry to be going back to this thread after so long--I'm sure you've moved on! But my own (pro-consequentialist) approach to this complaint is to just let the goods pile up as they may, independently of "who" or "how many." So, I'm OK with ignoring the "separateness of persons." I think Bentham and Mill cheated when they pushed for the best for the MOST, and I'd just let it go. What this means In the case of Connie, I think, is that she must make the best estimate she can (which will, of course, be very rough and bad) of how many more goods (say, fulfillment of desires of a certain type) will ensue from the saving of this or that person. E.g., how old is each? How big are their families? How charitable are they? On this view, it's better to let one die than the other, it's just that Connie can have only the vaguest idea which is the right act. She is forced to wing it, as are we all, in most difficult moral situations. It's not the philosophical issues that are the problem, IMO, is that our utility estimates are almost always bound to be terrible. That's life.



  8. I see nothing wrong with this analysis, Richard. It does seem that many regrettably conflate the notion of indifference and ambivalence when assessing the merits or demerits of consequentialism. The difference is, like many closely related words and concepts in the English language, very subtle. So it's no real surprise that this sort of mistake is often made. But alas, it seems to be a giant straw man, at the end of the day.

    At any rate, I have held utilitarian intuitions for years. Impartiality and a seeking of the greater benefit has ruled my moral thought. And it does seem that few can easily grasp the (to me) basic idea that sacrificing one person's welfare/interest (often for another) does not amount to outright disregarding that person's worth, autonomy, or personhood. It is merely a matter of impartial reasoning - not moral indifference or callous disregard for personhood.

    Interestingly, I have in the past few years attempted to work out a kind of marriage between Kantian intuitions and utilitarian ones. One of the first steps in doing this was to note the very point you have made in this entry - that is, that a thinker like Kant is wrong to suppose that the sacrificing of one person in a moral dilemma/context is akin to disrespecting such a person in a regular, everyday context (like, for instance, lying to someone for personal gain on average afternoon). While it is clearly wrong to disrespect a person's autonomy in such a normal context, it is not equally wrong in a serious moral context in which the value of persons is in conflict. In the latter context, to sacrifice one person's value for another (after serious consideration) is actually the morally appropriate thing to do (assuming there are good reasons to suppose such a sacrifice creates the best possible outcome).

    So, while some who misunderstand consequentialism might think that sacrificing persons is inherently immoral (or a grave disregard for the value of persons), I have understood that such actions can instead be the most morally appropriate way of respecting the value of persons, in the context of moral dilemmas, as you have clearly articulated here.

    In this way, it is best to see persons has inherently worthy of value, but that this value can also be weighed relatively.

    So while a thinker like Kant might insist that we respect people, I would say sure. It is a basic intuition to respect the value of persons. But at the same time, respecting this value does not necessarily entail that we become morally inflexible, as there are times when we must choose between competing persons.

  9. Moreover, I think we may also be in agreement when it comes to how utilitiarianism/consequentalism should be understood. You seem to suggest that the aggregate is a abstract culmination of many different distinct intrinsic goods. To me, this seems to steer in the direction of a conception of utilitiarianism such as G.E. Moore's ideal utilitarianism, where there are many different instrinsic goods that can be weighed against one another - where happiness (or some other value) is not the single good. Instead, friendship, love, self-improvement - many values such as these are essentials that a well-rounded utilitiarian takes into account when calculating the rightness or wrongness of certain actions. (In fact, many people seem to think that utilitiarianism is merely about happiness to such an extent that letting a few people die for the sake of more iPhones is actually morally acceptable under a utilitarianism scheme... But it clearly is not acceptable, as the inherent worth of persons clearly far outweighs whatever amount of happiness some ridiculous production of iPhones would create...) So, in this way, I would take it that you are not a value monist, but instead - like myself and G.E. Moore - a pluralistic utilitarian? If so, you're definitely in good company.

    In the past few years, I have learned both that to sacrifice for moral reasons is not necessarily to morally disrespect (but that it can be the effect of respecting humans most appropriately) and that there certainly must be more than one moral good under any consequentialist moral evaluation - as many different aspects of life matter to many different people at different times. So, morality must be a very complex calculation involving many different human values, where we weigh different interests and values in terms of their overall utility (where utility is something much broader than mere "happiness"). It is instead an overall benefit or gain in terms of human value. Where more is gained or protected, the right action is sure to be found. And this cannot mean a disregard for life for the sake of a mere "instrumental" gain (as you seem to suggest).

    An example would be Hiroshima and Nagasaki: destroying innocents for the sake of political convenience cannot be moral - as innocent life certainly matters more than an earlier ending to an ending war. Surely some have argued that dropping these bombs created the most "utility". But they fail to see that utility is not some cold conception removed away from the many values humans hold (as Connie above seems to believe). Utility is not about more money, convenience, or improved economic prospects. Utility is, morally, best understood as the extent to which an action creates the best possible scenario for general human interests - whether that involves money, time, convenience, economic interests, friendships, family, education, knowledge, mastery, self-improvement, security, or any number of other countless values and conditions humans hold and find themselves in. And these values can have more or less weight depending on each situation. Morality is certainly contextual (as Aristotle held), but universal from one similar context to another (as Chomsky believes).

    Hopefully you find my thinking as similar as I find yours. We seem to be on very similar wavelengths, morally. Let me know what you think! And again, great entry. It was a great read. I've been thinking I'm the only the person with these kinds of consequentialist intuitions/thoughts. But it just seems to make logical sense. Peace.


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