Saturday, November 22, 2008

World Consequentialism

What is the ultimate locus of value, or 'end in itself'? I see two tempting answers:
(1) Each particular individual.
(2) The world as a whole.  

Utilitarianism is, I think, most naturally developed as a type-2 view. We commonly assume that what's good for persons is good for the world (though for some possible exceptions see my post on 'Welfare and Contributory Value'). But Parfit's Non-Identity Problem really brings out the difference, as does the 'value receptacle' objection (advanced most coherently by G.A. Cohen). Utilitarians -- or 'world consequentialists' more broadly -- ultimately act for the sake of making the world a better place, and this is different from ultimately acting for the sake of Tom, Dick and Harry (or any other particular individuals).

Of course, world-consequentialists are in favour of making life better for individuals, just like utilitarians are in favour of helping your friends. It's pro tanto good. But just as, from a utilitarian perspective, helping your friends is ultimately desirable because your friends are people (and we want to make all people better-off), similarly making all people better-off is good because it makes the world better -- and that's what ultimately matters.

Some will consider this a distastefully 'instrumentalist' moral stance. But in light of my above analogy, I don't think this objection should particularly bother utilitarians. Once you accept impartialism, is the step to impersonalism really such a leap?

[P.S. It's worth emphasizing that utilitarianism doesn't recommend we adopt this perspective in our everyday lives!]

Update: I should note that holistic views (e.g. average utilitarianism) can only be stated in impersonal (type-2) terms. But 'total utilitarianism' could potentially -- if awkwardly -- be cast as a person-affecting (type-1) theory, if we were willing to claim that we harm a merely possible person when we fail to bring them into existence.


  1. But that seems to make the problems of evaluating claims of utilitarian good that much harder. At least with standard hedonic utilitarianism, or preference-satisfaction utilitarianism, there's a story about what it is that's the bearer of value. But what kind of a story is there for what makes for goodness of world independently of goodness for people?

  2. I'm not claiming (here) that the goodness of the world is independent of goodness for people, but merely that the latter is in service to the former. This is entirely compatible with hedonism, for example. I'm simply suggesting that hedonic utilitarianism is itself (best interpreted as) an impersonal view. It claims that what's best for the world is to maximize the quantity of pleasure contained therein.

  3. Hmm. What do you think are the implications of that view? I wouldn't think it has any, if what is best for the world is just what's best for people. And it seems to me that the previous sentence expresses a fair default position, the departure from which requires a special argument, in light of the fact that our only evaluative standards are human-centered.

  4. I'm really just setting up the background framework here. What specific implications it has will depend on how you flesh out the details, i.e. what specific form of world-consequentialism one ends up adopting. But I highlighted two important points in my 'update', namely:

    (1) Some views, e.g. average utilitarianism, can only be stated in world-consequentialist terms.

    (2) Even the remaining views (e.g. 'total utilitarianism') make a whole lot more sense when cast in world-consequentialist terms. (It sounds very odd to say that a merely possible person is harmed by our failure to bring them into existence.)

    Mainly, I want to suggest that utilitarians shouldn't be scared away from the world-consequentialist interpretation of their theory, even though they're sometimes criticized for it (see 'value receptacles').

  5. Richard,

    This stuff is interesting. Don't type-1 views also avoid the non-identity problem by allowing harm to merely possible people?

    Harming possible people does sound odd, I admit, but then, if we're good utilitarians, harming them is just the same thing as failing to benefit them, and failing to benefit merely possible people sounds much less odd.

  6. Alex - I guess that's right. Though even if less odd, it still sounds (at least to my ear) a bit odd to say that we have reason to bring more possible people into existence for their sakes. That seems to misrepresent the nature of the reason.

  7. [P.S. It's worth emphasizing that utilitarianism doesn't recommend we adopt this perspective in our everyday lives!]

    This is what makes motive utilitarianism a genuine alternative. It might be true that the world is better if our attitudes toward our friends is not one of impersonal beneficence, but (at least) something like personal concern. I can't imagine anyone having a friend toward whom their attitude was impersonal. But that personal attitude is, at the same time, costly in terms of utility. You won't consistently maximize at the level of actions. There might be a problem here for world utilitarians. You can have everyone maximizing at the level of actions, and have the world w as good as it could be, given the attitudes and dispositions A that prevail among agents toward one another. Or you could have a better world w' with some non-maximizing actions given an alternative set of A' of attitudes and dispositions of agents toward one another. Can a world utilitarian coherently recommend not maximizing?

  8. Hi Mike, I plan to write more on this soon, but the short answer is 'mu'. We should have the personal motives that would lead to the better world (w'), and we should perform those acts that will bring about better rather than worse worlds (though, given our motivations, we will often fail to do this). These are compatible answers to different questions -- see 'Valoric Consequentialism'.


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