Tuesday, May 05, 2015

Wronging for Utilitarians

Mark Nelson's 'What the Utilitarian Cannot Think' (forthcoming in ETMP) argues that utilitarianism cannot account for person-directed wronging: "According to utilitarianism, moral offenses are offenses against global utility, right reason or the totality of sentient beings, but never against individual victims, yet this aspect of the action – that it is an offense against a particular person –is highlighted when we say that this action wronged that woman." (p.1)

I naturally disagree.  Nelson here commits the common mistake of assuming that utilitarianism entails a "token-monistic" conception of the good, according to which there is just one thing that matters, viz. the aggregate utility.  But, as I argue in my 'Value Receptacles' paper, a much more attractive utilitarian view is token-pluralistic in form, holding that each person's welfare is a distinct intrinsic good.  And that makes it easy to see how particular persons can be wronged, for the token-pluralistic utilitarian: an agent may fail to give adequate weight to their interests in particular, and so act in a way that harms them unjustifiably.  In such a case, the wrongness of one's action (its failure to maximize utility) is partly explained by the action's wronging (unduly harming) this individual.

Nelson considers a response along these lines (on p.4), but rejects it on the grounds that it over-generalizes: we do not want to say that everyone unduly made worse off (i.e., even indirectly) by an action is thereby "wronged" in the same way as the immediate target of the harmful act.  But any difference here is plausibly explained on psychological grounds.  Plausibly, the agent is less aware of the indirect effects of their action (and who is thereby affected), whereas the direct victim is extremely salient and so their harmful action implies an especially egregious lack of concern for her in particular.  But that is, of course, contingent.  If Agent is aware that Claire will be unduly seriously harmed as an indirect effect of Agent's unduly harming Bob, then Agent plausibly wrongs both Bob and Claire.

Let me suggest an alternative way to make my point.  Nelson treats Rossian pluralism, with its plethora of prima facie duties, as a view that is well capable of accommodating person-directed wrongness.  (You might violate a prima facie duty of non-maleficence to Bob when you harm him, for example.)  But now note the following: Utilitarianism can be understood in terms of a Rossian structure, just with the deontological prima facie duties (of fidelity, gratitude, etc.) cut out.  What remains are the prima facie duties of beneficence and of non-maleficence, and if we give these equal weight then we are basically left with utilitarianism.  So unless you want to insist on a case that involves a distinctively deontological form of wrongdoing (in which case you're obviously begging the question) the utilitarian can account for person-directed wronging in the same way that the Rossian could, i.e. by appealing to violations of our prima facie duties of beneficence and non-maleficence towards other individuals.

I thus conclude that utilitarians have no trouble accounting for person-directed wronging.  We can think that Agent wronged Bob, in particular, after all.

1 comment:

  1. See also my old post on General and Particular Moral Explanations, for related discussion. People often assume that consequentialism's general right-making feature (i.e. maximizing aggregate value) is somehow incompatible with its ascribing significance to particular right- or wrong-making features (e.g. harming Bob). Nobody makes such a mistake when it comes to other views, e.g. claiming that for Rossian deontologists all that matters is "the balance of prima facie duties" and not the particular prima facie duties that you violate.


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