Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Lessons from my Dissertation

Nobody ever reads dissertations, and while I hope to publish each of my chapters as stand-alone articles (the first has already been accepted by Phil Quarterly, and the second received an R&R from Nous before being rejected for idiosyncratic reasons), I figure that a convenient blog-post summary might help some of the key ideas to gain greater circulation. So, here goes...

Chapter One: 'Fittingness: The Sole Normative Primitive'

* Global Consequentialism's "parity thesis" is mistaken: There's an important difference in normative structure between rationally evaluable acts and "mere evaluands" like eye colours.

* We -- including consequentialists -- should take fittingness (or fitting reasons), rather than value, as our primitive normative concept for normative theorizing. This unifies and illuminates the scope of normative theorizing, or the range of substantive questions that are available to ask, as it tells us that there's a distinct class of normative assessments for each kind of "rational output" (i.e., beliefs, desires, and choices/actions). By relating value (what's fit to desire) to the distinct property of fitting choice, the fittingness framework allows the Consequentialist criterion of rightness to be a substantive (rather than analytic or otherwise empty) truth.

* Rule Consequentialism is structurally very weird, and in an important sense 'deontological', i.e. giving a certain kind of priority to 'the right' (fitting choice) over 'the good' (fitting desire).

Chapter Two: 'The Fitting and the Fortunate'

* Introduces the central distinction of my dissertation, i.e. between Fitting and Fortunate agents, and how to charitably interpret "character-based" objections to consequentialism in terms of the former.

* How to distinguish genuinely anti-consequentialist intuitions from mere axiological refinements.

* Why the "Separateness of Persons" objection is fundamentally confused. (If people never listen to another word that I say, I hope that they at least take note of this!)

Chapter Three: 'What's Fit for the Fallible'

* How to construct a "self-effacingness objection" that's worth taking seriously.

* What a Consequentialist Decision Procedure would actually look like. (And why this neither involves constantly calculating expected utilites, nor just any old extrinsically desirable dispositions.)

Chapter Four: 'Virtue and Salience'

* By adopting a "quality of will" account of blameworthiness and character evaluation, we can offer a plausible account of why letting a child drown in Singer's pond reveals you to be a worse person than does failing to save lives by donating to effective charities, even though the latter type of act is no less important, or worth choosing, than the former.

* Alleged "virtues of ignorance" (e.g. modesty) are better understood as "virtues of salience". The modest agent, for example, need not have any false beliefs about her own qualities; she just isn't disposed to attend to them or consider them especially important.

Any objections?


  1. This looks interesting Richard. Just one comment:

    "By relating value (what's fit to desire) to the distinct property of fitting choice, the fittingness framework allows the Consequentialist criterion of rightness to be a substantive (rather than analytic or otherwise empty) truth."

    Why think that it's fit to desire the good rather than the right? Imagine a case where the good and the right diverge: wouldn't it be more appropriate to want to do the right thing than the good thing? If this is correct, the claim that it's fitting to desire the good doesn't merely allow us to formulate consequentialism, but rather presupposes that consequentialism is true, by presupposing that the right and the good always coincide.

    For what it's worth, I have a paper forthcoming in APQ on the guise of the good, in which I argue (roughly) that desires at aim what we have reason to do rather than at the good. You can take a look here, if you like: http://alsnotepad.com/files/Guise%20of%20Reasons.pdf


    1. Hi Alex, in section 5 there I suggest that non-consequentialism amounts to the claim that the right is prior to the good, which is compatible with the two always coinciding (due to, say, the influence of the "right" reshaping what qualifies as genuinely "good" to an agent).

      Alternatively, one could identify the 'good' with just what's antecedently fitting to desire (i.e. before considerations of rightness do any reshaping). Perhaps that better matches the ordinary meaning of 'good'. But I'm not too concerned about that terminological question. The important point is that consequentialists take fitting desires to settle what it's fitting to choose, whereas deontologists at least partly reverse this order of explanation.

    2. Hi Richard,

      I think I'm missing something here. Perhaps you are correct to say that *some* non-consequentialists think that the right is prior to the good but nonetheless coincides with it. But other non-consequentialists will not want to say this, and what you say about desire presupposes that they are mistaken.

      I don't quite follow your second paragraph (it might be that you give "antecedently fitting" some special meaning that I don't know about.)

      To make this slightly more concrete: If I've promised to phi, some deontologists might think that it would be right for me to phi even if there's nothing good about doing so. I would think that such deontologists would also think it fitting for me to desire to phi. But what you say about desire directly entails that such a view is mistaken, so I find it hard to see how what you say about desire could be used as a neutral claim that can be used to formulate the disagreement between deontologists and consequentialists.

    3. Well, if 'good' just means 'desirable' then such deontologists are committed to seeing phi-ing as good after all. They think, as you say, that it's fitting to desire it, and that's all it is to call something 'good' on my view.

      But this is compatible with there being nothing antecedently or "pre-morally good" about it. The good might be entirely moral in nature, i.e. nothing more than the desirability of doing what you ought (on independent grounds) to do. It is (unlike, say, happiness) not a good that can be identified as such prior to determining what our obligations are.

  2. I'm not sure how much progress we're making here, but another try: Is the claim that 'good' means 'desirable' meant to be a purely stipulative claim about how you use the word 'good'?

    If so, I can't see how appeal to goodness, in this sense, will be helpful for formulating disagreements between consequentialists and deontologists.

    If not, then the first sentence of your most recent comment simply reasserts that deontologists of the kind I am talking about are mistaken when they claim that some actions are fittingly desired but not good. (Of course, I agree that such people might be mistaken. But it can't be a good idea to frame the debate between C's and D's in a way that presupposes that many D's are mistaken.)

    1. Yes, it's just stipulative. As I said above, one could instead use 'good' to refer to what's antecedentally or non-morally desirable, and I'm happy to rephrase my claims in those terms; nothing hangs on how we use this word. What really matters are the claims we make about the normative primitives, which on my view are just fittingness claims. I argue that disagreements between Cs and Ds are about which of fitting desire or fitting choice is explanatorily prior to the other. (In my earlier comment I referred to these as the 'good' and the 'right', respectively, since these are more familiar terms, and highlight the continuity between my account and traditional characterizations of the C/D distinction. But I see now that this might have given a mistaken impression about the role those familiar terms play in my account, which is in fact minimal.)


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