Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Valoric Consequentialism

Rather than focusing on the deontic categories of 'right' and 'wrong' action, Railton* suggests that an evaluative theory - what he calls "valoric utilitarianism" - better captures "the guiding utilitarian idea that no sort of act or motive or institution has intrinsic moral value and that whatever value it has from a moral point of view depends in the final reckoning upon how it affects human well-being." (p.409) Assessments of what is more or less morally fortunate (i.e. better or worse) form the core of the valoric consequentialist's theory, which may be applied quite generally to acts, motives, rules, and so on.

The binary distinction between right and wrong has no fundamental significance, and we are free to construct this component of our moral theory in a much more "indirect and intricate" manner (p.411). Railton thus suggests:
a valoric utilitarian account of rightness might deem an action right if it would conform to normative practices - comprising rules, motivations, dispositions, etc. - that would be morally fortunate. (p.412)

Note, however, that in any given case the most morally fortunate act may conflict with what would be permitted by morally fortunate normative practices, or what someone with a morally fortunate character would do. Railton explains:
This may seem puzzling. "What am I to do," an agent seeking moral advice in such circumstances may ask, "that which is most fortunate or that which is right?" Shouldn't there be a definite answer as to which evaluation to follow? There are definite answers, but there is no one question. If the agent wants to know which acts, of those available to him, are most highly valued from a moral point of view, he receives one answer. If he wants to know which acts are right or wrong, he receives another...

Perhaps, however, the agent is asking a different question still. He may want to know whether he has more reason to do what is morally fortunate or that which is morally right. This, however, is not a question to refer to moral standards or even to the moral point of view. For it is the office of practical reason to answer questions about the place of morally fortunate -- or morally right -- action in a rational life. (p.412)

Is this an adequate response? Shouldn't a moral theory at least be able to tell us what we have most moral reason to do? Abstracting away from the other domains and demands of a rational life, what reasons are given to us simply from a moral perspective?

A better answer, I think, would hark back to the "guiding utilitarian idea" that obtaining better consequences is fundamentally what matters. This suggests a simple formula: we have most reason to do what is best. Hence:

Q. What motives should I have?
A. Whatever would do the most good, i.e. the most morally fortunate motives.
Q. What act should I do?
A. The most morally fortunate act.
Q. What decision procedure should I employ in deciding how to act?
A. The most morally fortunate decision procedure.
Q. But I can't aim at all of these at once!?
A. Who ever said that you should? You should have whatever aims would be most morally fortunate!

* All references are to Railton's (1988) 'How Thinking about Character and Utilitarianism Might Lead to Rethinking the Character of Utilitarianism' Midwest Studies in Philosophy, XIII.

1 comment:

  1. I think that initial motives are logically prior to agency, so "what motives should I have" should be replaced by "what motives do I have". From the assumption of a set of motives, we can ask "what motives should I acquire in order to best fulfill my current preferences". We can also ask "if I am currently motivated to do the most morally fortunate thing, what should I do", the answer to which is "follow the most morally fortunate decision procedure".


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