Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Imperfectly Right

Maximizing consequentialists claim that the right action is that which maximizes the good (e.g. aggregate human welfare). So it's impermissible - morally wrong - to do anything less than what's perfectly optimal. Probably, then, everything that everyone has ever done was immoral. That seems bizarre. Railton puts it nicely in his 'How Thinking about Character and Utilitarianism Might Lead to Rethinking the Character of Utilitarianism' (Midwest Studies 1988):
Now it seems inconsistent with anything like our ordinary understanding of 'morally right' to say that the boundary separating the right from the wrong is to be sharply drawn infinitesimally below the very best action possible. 'Wrong' does mark a kind of discontinuity in moral evaluation, but one associated with with unacceptability. For this reason 'right', though not itself a matter of degree, covers actions that are entirely acceptable given reasonable expectations as well as those that are optimal. 'Wrong' comes into clear application only when we reach actions far enough below normal expectations to warrant real criticism or censure. (p.407)

So I've always preferred satisficing consequentialism: an action is right if it is good enough. This view has its own problems, though. Start with any action that is good enough. If we modify it, such as to increase the net benefits, the result is better and so (a fortiori) also good enough. So suppose I modify my initial action by, in addition, gratuitously murdering one person but saving two others (by giving to OXFAM, say). Surely I have not then on balance acted rightly!

But can we really say that this was all one act? On a more fine-grained individuation, we can say that my initial act and the charitable giving were both right acts (good enough), whereas the murder plainly wasn't. So there are responses available to the satisficer. But I'm not too sure how to assess them.

In any case, I'm skeptical that obligations and the like are fundamental to moral theory. At the base, there are only relations of value: better and worse states of affairs. From there we can ask about what 'practical morality' (dispositions of character, etc.) would tend to best promote the good. Moral obligation is constructed at this level: it is that minimal baseline against which individuals are properly subject to blame and social censure if they fall short. In this sense I see deontic assessments ('right' and 'wrong') as akin to rights talk. An important part of our moral practice, perhaps, but not so deep in theory.

That's a rough outline, anyway. Which parts of this picture do you think stand most in need of further attention?


  1. If I recall correctly, scalar consequentialists are those who believe that terms like "right"/"wrong" have no fundamental significance. They instead claim that, fundamentally, all we can say is that one action is better or worse than another.

    I tend to think that this view is true, though it doesn't make much difference for pragmatic purposes, nor, as far as I can see, for much of the rest of moral philosophy.

  2. you seem to be trying to apply a non utilitarian tool to a utilitarian framework.
    I suggest just dumping the idea of having "lines" and "musts" as if there is some set level of goodness to achive to get salvation.

    I guess the other forms of philosophy own the language unfortunatly.

  3. I think the individuation of actions is a pretty fundamental question here. I wonder if we'd fine that intuitions on what counts as a single moral action correspond to intuitions as to what would count as a single wish from a genie. I'm suspicious that in both cases the intuitions might reveal themselves rather "soft" and presentation dependant.

  4. I think the part that stands in need of the most attention is what it means to say that an action is good enough. Is this a context dependent property, or is this an amount of utility?

    There are many philosophers of language who think that without some context determined object, sentences like "steel is not strong enough" do not express any proposition. Strong enough for what? And for you, good enough for what?

  5. Mightn't there be a new problem? Namely, we could accuse someone not of being morally bad but of being morally lazy; at which point we'd be requiring some sort of minimal effort that may or may not correspond to an obligatory action (i.e. "tell the truth).

  6. > Surely I have not then on balance acted rightly!

    I think your conclusions, in such an analysis (even if not in real life), should take their lead from your philosophy. So if your philosophy says you have acted rightly then you have regardless of any 'surely' based argument.

    You can then decide if that makes you unhappy enough to want to ditch your basic asumptions if how you feel about such things determines what you believe.

    What your intuition might be saying is that society doesnt want to give out free passes for evil acts, even to otherwise good people. That would seem to be anti-social for the colective so any new bad act needs to be punished for the basic discouragement.

  7. Interesting comments! I'll just add to a couple:

    Jack - A context-dependent baseline sounds more promising to me, though I remain unclear on the details.

    But I'm tempted to move beyond any directly consequentialist criterion of right action. Given my deflationary understanding of "right" and "wrong", some kind of virtue- or rule-based account might better fill this role.

    Jared - well, we could say that it is a vicious character that cares nothing for improving the world. I worry about calls for "effort" though, since in practice they often seem to amount to empty grandstanding and self-expression. What matters is achieving good results, not symbolism or superficial displays to show how much we care. (Such self-righteous nonsense being what many people hate most about the political left.)


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