Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Moral Theories and Fittingness Implications

A very common initial response to my interest in character/"fittingness"-based objections to consequentialism is to question whether consequentialism has any implications for fitting attitudes or character at all (and if not, then a fortiori it doesn't have any troublesome implications). For example, I typically introduce "fittingness" talk in terms of what’s rationally warranted from the “point of view” of a moral theory, but you might well wonder whether moral theories are really the sorts of things that can have points of view.

I have two broad replies to this line of concern.  My first (and more ambitious) response is to try to make the case that moral theories do have positive fittingness implications.  But I also have a more conciliatory backup option in case this fails.

What is the “perspective” of a moral theory?  It’s just an abstraction from the perspective of a rational agent who has fully internalized the theory, and hence whose psychology reflects, in isomorphism, the dictums of the theory—being attuned to just the considerations that the theory identifies as normatively significant.

I find it plausible that any normative claim has some corresponding specification in the psychology of the fitting agent (and defended fittingness' claim to being the "sole normative primitive" in my PQ paper).  It may even be (though I don’t need this stronger claim) that these implications for the fitting psychology are what ultimately give content to our various normative concepts and the claims that we make with them.  For example, given the conceptual link between goodness and desirability, to claim that the happiness of sentient beings is good straightforwardly implies that it is fitting to desire that sentient beings be happy.  Anyone who failed to have such a desire would clearly not count as having properly internalized the thesis that happiness is good.  That's the minimal claim.  More controversially: it may be that the appropriateness of desiring/pursuing an object is what gives content to the claim that it's good.  This link to fitting agential responses is what makes the normative claim significant to us as agents: it has implications for how we should be.

Insofar as consequentialism presupposes a theory of the good (which it then tells us to maximize, or whatever), it thus has implications for the fittingness of the corresponding desires, at least.  But if other sorts of normative claims are practically significant at all, they too must presumably have some sort of agential (fittingness) implications.  Presumably right actions, for example, are those that it’s fitting for us to choose (or to intend).  If a theory marks certain kinds of acts—lying, say—as inherently and absolutely wrong, this would be reflected in a fitting psychology by refusing to even entertain such acts as options. (Compare Anscombian worries about the consequentialist’s willingness to consider anything as betraying a “corrupt mind”.) Any genuine moral considerations should presumably find some traction in the psychology of the fitting agent, whereas bad reasons (or non-reasons) shouldn’t.

If I’m right about all that, then any moral theory will have fittingness implications, even if they aren’t explicit in canonical statements of the theory.  So long as we can identify which attitudes and habits of thought inevitably follow from the proper internalization of a moral view, then we have a grasp on what the “fitting agent”, according to that theory, looks like.  And we can then assess whether this agent plausibly is genuinely morally fitting.

But suppose I’m wrong about all that.  Suppose we can’t, strictly speaking, infer any fittingness claims (besides perhaps the value – desirability link) from the core tenants of a moral theory.  And suppose one were to endorse a conceptually “sparse” form of consequentialism which made no explicit claims about value, either, but just directly specified that agents morally ought to maximize happiness (or whatever).  And that’s all it said.  Would such a sparse view still be subject to fittingness objections?

I think it would. This is because we could still raise questions about whether these basic deontic claims are compatible with plausible claims about fittingness. Even if the theory has no positive fittingness implications, it surely has negative implications, as there are constraints on what fittingness claims can coherently be combined with various deontic claims. For example, the deontic claim that we ought always to maximize happiness is clearly in tension with claims that it’s fitting to value or desire things other than happiness, or that a fitting agent would never even think of lying, or that it’s fitting to prefer to save your child’s life over that of two strangers. So there remains a real challenge here. Even the most conceptually sparse consequentialist must either argue that these fittingness claims are incorrect—that they misdescribe what attitudes and patterns of thought are truly warranted or morally fitting—or else argue that their sparse consequentialism can be supplemented or developed in such a way as to coherently combine these (or other plausible) fittingness claims with their original deontic claim.



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