Thursday, August 27, 2015

Rossian Utilitarianism?

In The Right and the Good, Ross posits seven distinct kinds of prima facie duties (fidelity, reparation, gratitude, justice, beneficence, self-improvement and non-maleficence). But suppose we reject the distinctively "deontological" ones of these, retaining just the prima facie duties of beneficence (promoting the good) and of non-maleficence (refraining from harm).  And suppose we further discard Ross' claim that the latter kind of duty is more stringent, and instead treat both on a par, so that a prima facie duty to avoid a particular harm could be perfectly balanced by an equally stringent prima facie duty to bring about an equally sized benefit.

The resulting view -- call it Rossian Utilitarianism -- is clearly a fairly radical departure in content from Ross' original deontological view. Nonetheless, it retains the basic Rossian structure: there are a plurality of prima facie duties to which moral agents should be responsive, and what one ought to do in any particular case is determined by the balance of one's prima facie duties. If Ross' original deontological view allows us to wrong particular individuals (say by neglecting a prima facie duty of non-maleficence that we have towards them), then so does this Rossian Utilitarianism. If Rossian deontology allows us to care not just about abstractly balancing our prima facie duties, but more directly about the persons to whom these duties are owed, then so does Rossian Utilitarianism. And if it is the particular contents of our prima facie duties that provide the right- and wrong-making features for Rossian deontology (rather than abstract facts about their balancing), then so it is for Rossian Utilitarianism.

Of course, Rossian Utilitarianism just is utilitarianism. The criteria of maximizing utility and of satisfying the weighted balance of one's prima facie duties of beneficence and non-maleficence (when neither type is treated as inherently more stringent than the other) are clearly equivalent. So utilitarians too can claim all the above salutary theoretical features, simply by recasting their view into a Rossian structure -- should anyone still insist that that's necessary. Of course, once we see that this is possible, we may naturally doubt that the particular Rossian structure is essential after all. And our previously introduced distinction between criterial and ground-level explanations can provide the theoretical underpinnings to support this doubt.

9 comments:

  1. Am I misremembering or are beneficence and nonmaleficence entirely other-directed? If so, you might need to include self-improvement (perhaps breaking it in two?) to include the agent's own good and harm. But that adjustment, of course, would not change the argument in any way.

    I confess I've never entirely understand why Ross talks about balancing prima facie duties; prima facie norms of any kind don't seem to be even the kind of things that can actually be balanced. Once you start talking about balancing, then it seems that the difference between Ross's view and ideal utilitarianism rests almost entirely on the argument that other people stand in many different relations to the agent.

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    1. Yeah, I wasn't sure about that, but as you say the adjustment (if needed) is straightforward enough.

      I think Ross' view makes a lot of sense if "prima facie duties" are instead read as pro tanto reasons. They're certainly the sort of thing that can be balanced. But yeah, the striking (and helpful!) thing for my purposes is that he is effectively just adding a few extra types of reasons on top of what the utilitarian posits, without really adopting a radically new structure.

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  2. Two central features of the Rossian approach are pluralism (of principles) and self-evidence (of each principle). I'm not sure what you think of self-evidence. But by discarding the superior stringency of non-maleficence (over beneficence), can you retain the pluralism? Maybe on the Rossian Utilitarianism you sketch, *principle* pluralism should be replaced by *token* (i.e. beneficiary) pluralism?

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    1. Even if equally stringent, beneficence and non-maleficence are still distinct principles, right? Or is the thought that Rossian deontology involves an *irreducible* pluralism of principles, whereas Rossian Utilitarianism happens to be presented using two distinct principles, but these could easily be combined into a single principle of maximizing value? That's true enough. But is there any reason to think that this is a difference that makes a difference for the issues I'm concerned with here (whether the theory can explain how individuals are wronged, etc.)? It really seems that token-pluralism is sufficient for all those good features.

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    2. Yes, my thought was that Rossian deontology involves and irreducible pluralism of principles. I was thinking of this passage (The Right and the Good, ch. 2):

      "In fact the theory of ‘ideal utilitarianism’…seems to simplify unduly our relations to our fellows. It says, in effect, that the only morally significant relation in which my neighbours stand to me is that of being possible beneficiaries by my action. They do stand in this relation to me, and this relation is morally significant. But they may also stand to me in the relation of promisee to promiser, of creditor to debtor, of wife to husband, of child to parent, of friend to friend, of fellow countryman to fellow countryman, and the like; and each of these relations is the foundation of a prima facie duty, which is more or less incumbent on me according to the circumstances of the case."

      Whether this makes a difference for the issues you're concerned with, I don't know. One question I have is whether acting contrary to a *prima facie* duty against harming another is enough, on Ross's view, to have *wronged* the harmed person. I think you're assuming it is. But I'm not sure that's what a Rossian would say. The act certainly has a wrong-making *property*, but it isn’t necessarily the *wrong thing* to have done, and so perhaps we should also say it doesn’t necessarily *wrong* the person harmed. In other words, perhaps a Rossian would/should say that whether a person is wronged depends on (1) whether they've been the victim of an act that is contrary to a *prima facie* duty, and (2) whether that act is *ultima facie* wrong. I don’t know.

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    3. Right, I take it the Rossian thinks you wrong a person when you violate a prima facie duty towards them that is not outweighed by any more important prima facie duties. E.g., in a case where non-maleficence is the only relevant consideration, you wrong someone when you (here gratuitously) harm them. Rossian Utilitarianism and Rossian Deontology will say exactly the same thing about that particular act, in that particular situation, or so it seems to me.

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  3. I see that I was perhaps mistakenly reading you as affirming the antecedent when you wrote "If Ross' original deontological view allows us to wrong particular individuals (say by neglecting a prima facie duty of non-maleficence that we have towards them), then so does this Rossian Utilitarianism." In my previous comment I wondering whether Ross's original view would ever allow that us to wrong particular individuals. I grant that it allows us to violate prima facie duties. But if doing so is justified in a specific case by more weighty prima facie duties, then I question whether Ross's view would classify that as an instance of wronging a person.

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    1. Ah, thanks for the clarification. I'm personally pretty comfortable with the idea that Rossianism allows for wronging individuals in at least some cases. (I agree that violating a prima facie duty towards someone isn't sufficient for wronging them, because the act might be all-things-considered justified, and we presumably don't wrong anyone when we act rightly. The claim is just that violating a prima facie duty towards someone might explain how it is that we wronged them, given the right background conditions -- i.e. that there weren't any relevant countervailing reasons to justify the violation.) But if someone were to extend a general skepticism about the possibility of "wronging" to cover even Rossianism, then I think that concern would probably just end up being beyond the scope of my argument here. For it's no longer an objection to consequentialism in particular.

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