Saturday, January 17, 2009

Only Action is Practical

'Which action, of those available to me, would be best?' -- or, in other words, what ought I to do? -- may be considered the basic question of practical moral deliberation. There are of course other questions we may ask -- e.g. 'what sequence of actions, across my remaining lifetime, would be best?' -- but it's important to note that these are different questions and may fail to 'integrate' in any simple way. (In my SaintOrSinner case, for example, one is obliged to reject a divine deal, even though the ideal sequence of actions would begin by accepting the deal.) In this post I want to argue that my above 'basic question' (i.e. concerning an action) is central to practical morality in a way that the other questions (e.g. concerning sequences of acts) are not.

To begin, note that the standard question 'What ought I to do?' is a question about an individual act. For example, "Should I accept the divine deal or not?" is an important moral question that someone might deliberate over. If they reason correctly, they will reach the conclusion "no, reject it". Morality is action-guiding, and this is the guidance it offers in this case.

What about the other questions, and their divergent answers? In particular, what are we to make of the question "what sequence of actions would be best?" and its answer "taking the deal, then doing P, Q, R..."? Doesn't this suggest we should take the deal? Simply, no. We've already answered - negatively - the question whether to take the deal. Now we're considering a different question, and the answer to it is completely irrelevant to our earlier practical question. We are only tempted to think otherwise because we are tempted to expect, erroneously, that the questions 'integrate', i.e. that that the desirability of {X, P, Q, R, ...} implies the desirability of X, simpliciter. But it doesn't -- that's simply a fallacy, as proven previously. So, while it may be of theoretical interest to learn that taking the deal is part of the best lifetime sequence of acts available to you, this has no practical implications. In particular, it does not imply that you should take the deal.

The above discussion suffices to convey my key point. But it may be helpful to go in to a bit more depth. So I now want to explain why the 'best sequence' question is a matter of theoretical rather than practical reason.

Practical reasoning concludes in action (or, to put it more neutrally, let's say implementation) . We can reason about how to act, and then do so. But while we can think about what the best sequence of acts would be, we can't implement this as the conclusion of our reasoning -- at most, we can implement but a part of it. (If we could implement it "all in one go", so to speak, then it would count as a single act - perhaps with many parts - rather than a sequence of distinct acts. This is a telling point, which I'll return to below.) The reasoning instead concludes in mere belief, and so is really theoretical reasoning, albeit about a topic of moral interest.

You might respond: "no, once I realize that the best sequence of acts would be {X, P, Q, R...}, I can immediately begin to implement it, by doing X." But again, 'do X' was not your conclusion. It's something distinct. So it must be the conclusion of a separate piece of (bad!) practical reasoning from your new belief to the doing of X. So forget this fallacious follow-up and return to the (good) reasoning that concluded in the desirability of the whole X-sequence. Now, because what you've actually implemented here is something distinct from what your reasoning licensed, it remains to be seen whether you've actually done as you should, i.e. whether there exists a chain of good practical reasoning for you that concludes in doing X (simpliciter).

Note that the performing of X is the performing of an action, so what it answers to (normatively speaking) is not the question 'is this part of the best sequence of actions', but the basic practical question: 'how should I act?'. And we've already seen that it's a fallacy to move from the one to the other. It may be that you ought not to do X (or take the deal) -- that it would be morally wrong, the wrong action, the wrong thing to do, however you want to say it. Being part of a good possible sequence doesn't change any of this. It doesn't preclude the action's being inadvisable.

Morality is supposed to be action-guiding, not action-sequence-guiding. There's a reason for this: we can only implement actions, not whole sequences thereof. This isn't really a substantive claim -- actions may be effectively defined as implementations of agency, or that which we can 'do'. So it's a truism that only action is practical (in contrast to the other evaluative questions I've mentioned). Still, it can help to remind ourselves of truisms, if only to refocus our attention. The substantive question in this vicinity is 'what counts as an action', or more precisely, what can an agent directly implement as a conclusion of practical reasoning?

"An individual action" is a true, but trivial answer. The fact that it's true explains why 'what should I do?' is, as I said, the basic question of practical moral deliberation, and why the best-sequence question isn't really 'practical' at all. On the other hand, the fact that it's trivial suggests that, philosophically, we would do better to refocus on the question, 'what can I do?'


  1. I think that:

    'How should I decide what to do?'


    'How should I be motivated?'

    are also very important questions, and ones that most consequentialists don't give enough time to. We are rightly criticized by deontologists and virtue ethicists for this.

    In particular, after seeing that the appropriate consequentialist answer to the first of these is something like 'by whichever decision procedure leads to the best consequences', we can see that when we deliberate, it shouldn't be in terms of trying to work out which act is right, and thus the question 'What should I do?' is perhaps best to never be asked. This somewhat deflates its practical importance (at least when the question is interpreted in the standard consequentialist way in terms of producing optimal outcomes, rather than the following of the optimal decision procedure).

    I'm looking at such things in my thesis.

  2. I should add that I agree with your comments about sequences of actions being of relatively little importance. This is why I'm an actualist rather than a possibilist. In fact, we seem to agree on most ethical points, the major divergence being axiology where I find a form of aggregative hedonistic view most plausible -- I'm following your holistic view with interest though.


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