Sunday, May 17, 2009

Internalized Contingent Norms

People sometimes seem to have 'absolutist' deontological intuitions. For example, they may object to consequentialism on the grounds that there are possible circumstances in which it would mandate murdering innocent civilians (if this would in fact serve the greater good). A standard consequentialist response is to say, "I'm glad you're so strongly opposed to murdering innocent people. I am too. This is a good (utility-promoting) attitude for people in our world to have, and I suspect it is really this 'local' (contingent) moral fact that your intuition is latching on to. So that's no reason to doubt the consequentialist's claim that there are other possible worlds, wildly different from ours, in which this norm would no longer apply." Is this a legitimate response?

There seems something a bit suspicious about reinterpreting someone else's intuitions for them. (Anne: "You're not really intuiting that murder is necessarily wrong." Bill: "Eh? Since when did you become a mind-reader?") Each individual is, of course, the final authority when it comes to their own intuitions. Still, there's nothing wrong with highlighting the differences between two easily conflated claims, and so encourage others to carefully re-assess whether their intuition is really of the one or the other. I think that the sorts of scenarios discussed in my post 'The Contingent Right to Life' should convince most people that the ordinary norms they've internalized only hold contingently, just as indirect utilitarians claim.

(There might be the odd absolutist holdout, but you can never convince everyone. The important thing, I take it, is to explain how consequentialism needn't be at odds with ordinary intuitions, which I think mostly just concern what moral norms apply in ordinary circumstances.)


  1. I'm of the view (sort of MacIntyre-esque) that an important part of the support underlying a disputed claim is to give a reasonable diagnosis of how people could fail to hold it, so I think this is not only legitimate, it's necessary. (On its own I don't think it's a complete response; it presupposes that the other person is actually the one making the mistake, and just answers the question, "When it seems to me that X, how could I possibly be making a mistake?" That in itself doesn't meet the criticism head-on; but it does show that the criticism is not conclusive unless certain alternative explanations are taken off the table.) So I think the example you give, that it's an understandable mistake (to think our deontological intuitions eliminate any case where the norm wouldn't apply) because a utilitarian analysis would itself show that the circumstances where it wouldn't are so extraordinarily bizarre that they can be dismissed for virtually any practical purposes, is a reasonable one, if it can be backed up by actual details.

    I don't find the Badland case particularly convincing myself, but I agree that there are probably lots of scenarios of the same general sort that could be raised to show that our ordinary intuitions on subjects like these are often practical approximations rather than precisely delineated fundamentals. That still leaves open the possibility that there might be independent reasons for thinking the intuitions on this or that point are getting very close to some real absolutist principle; but that's just to say that the playing field between the utilitarian and the deontologist is actually much more level than the deontologist was originally suggesting.

  2. I suspect So that's no reason to doubt the consequentialist's claim that there are other possible worlds, wildly different from ours, in which this norm would no longer applyFrom memory, absolutist deontologists would not necessarily disagree with this. Alan Donagan is an obvious example, a absolutist Kantian, Donagan argued that purported counter examples to absolutes had to be such that they could happen in the actual world, he suggested that the rules of his system were not designed for possible worlds which differ radically from the actual world.

    I wonder if there is a confaltion between a rule being necessarily true and absolutly true in a possible world, or series of close possible worlds.

  3. Matt - yeah, that's an important distinction. Though if the deontologist acknowledges that their rules are merely contingent, it seems they'll need to turn to some other theory (e.g. consequentialism) to settle the fundamental moral question of (what criteria determine) which rules apply to which worlds.

    In any case, I guess one might press the consequentialist on whether their theory gives "proper weight" to the rules that apply to our circumstances. A rule consequentialist will obviously have no problem here. But act or 'global' consequentialists seem to understand the rules as merely having the status of rules of thumb, which might seem too weak.

    I'm not sure that ordinary people have such theoretical intuitions. I think the ordinary intuition in this vicinity is just that one ought not to be disposed to cavalierly discard moral rules whenever one thinks one has a better way to maximize happiness. But even the global/act utilitarian agrees with this. (We should do what we can to inculcate a deeper respect for the rules, since in practice this will tend to have better consequences.) Whether the correct moral theory must itself accord inherent normative significance to the rules is a rather more esoteric question that I'm not sure ordinary intuitions really speak to.


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