Thursday, September 24, 2009

Reasons and Rule Consequentialism

It can be useful to formulate moral theories in terms of their implications for normative reasons, since this brings into view their substantive commitments. For example, I recently argued that this methodology allows us to deflate global consequentialism into mere act consequentialism. I now want to see what it can tell us about rule consequentialism.

As with any consequentialism, we begin with some theory of the good (equivalently - if we accept a 'fitting attitudes' analysis of value - what's desirable). The distinctive thesis of rule consequentialism (RC) is then to derive our reasons for action from the recommendations of the best rules, rather than just straightforwardly recommending the best action. RC thus implies that the act we ought to perform may not be the most desirable act. It may be that we should keep a promise, while hoping that we won't (and immediately regretting that we did). This seems odd, and perhaps even incoherent.

Alternatively, the Rule Consequentialist could hold that the fact that the best rules recommend φ-ing makes the action not just actionable ("right"), but also desirable. At this point we may question whether the view is still recognizably consequentialist in nature. It seems to be treating reasons for action ('the right') as prior to reasons for desire ('the good'), which one might reasonably take to be diagnostic of deontology. What the rule consequentialist now treats as fundamental is not value generally, but merely a component of value: welfare, say. Their more general value theory also accords intrinsic value to acting according to the welfare-maximizing code. This also seems odd.

The Rule Consequentialist might respond by restricting the fitting attitudes analysis of value. Much as some theorists restrict 'value' to objects that provide us with agent neutral reasons for desire (even though they think we may have agent-relative reasons to desire other things in addition), the rule consequentialist might analyze 'value' in terms of fundamental reasons for desire, i.e. reasons that are not derived from reasons for action. They could then maintain that only welfare is valuable, and hence that their code is selected on the basis of value generally, compatibly with maintaining that it's desirable to perform disvaluable acts that are in accordance with the valuable code. Perhaps this is a better-sounding way for them to word it. But whatever words we use to gloss the view, it is the fundamental claims about normative reasons that we need to evaluate for their plausibility.

Which option is more plausible? Should rule consequentialists take themselves to be advising undesirable actions? Or would they have us revise our preference ordering over possible worlds, in such a way that their 'ideal code' is selected not on the basis of all-things-considered desirability, but only on the basis of a restricted set of our reasons for preferring some outcomes to others? Neither option seems especially appealing...


  1. Should rule consequentialists take themselves to be advising undesirable actions?

    I'm not sure desirability enters into the equation in the act stage. Per Rawls, the act rule consequentialist proposes that a certain practice/rule produces better consequences than other possible / available rules. The very notion of a practice/rule defines acts falling under them to be right/wrong.

    For example, under the practice of private property, taxation is right, but theft is wrong, because they are so defined under its practice. The rule consequentialist question is consequentialist because it asks ought we to institute the practice of private property. The question of whether any particular forcible wealth transfer is right or wrong is entirely and only dependent on whether it is taxation or theft as defined by the practice.

    The fact that one particular act of theft may in fact be desirable does not have any bearing on the right-making properties of the action.

    Although, the rule consequentialist can allow incomplete practices. i.e. practices which do not cover every situation. In such cases, the rule consequentialist would have to evaluate the act like an act consequentialist.

    Rawls draws an analogy to baseball where there is a rule about three strikes and you're out. The question of whether an act is right or wrong is dependent on whether or not it falls under the rules of the game, not on whether or not that rule could be better. i.e. the question of whether or not the referee should give you a chance and not let you go out is not dependant on whether baseball would be a better sport if it were three strikes and you're out.

    This of course makes the fact about the rightness or the wrongness of an action very trivial. i.e. what is its status as defined by the best rule?

  2. Hi Murali, I'm afraid you've missed my point. It's true that Rule Consequentialists don't appeal directly to the desirability of an action in determining whether or not it ought to be done. But we can still ask whether the state of affairs in which you act according to the rules is more or less desirable than some alternative. As a complete moral theory, Rule Consequentialists must offer some answer to this question. Hence the dilemma noted in my post.

  3. Doesn't every moral theory except agent-neutral act-consequentialism (and global consequentialism, if that is a different theory) hold that doing what morality requires *can*, at least sometimes, fail to produce the most agent-neutral good, or best history of the world, impartially considered? Keeping an important promise, telling an important truth, indeed even avoiding killing an innocent person can in some circumstances result in less impartial value than some alternative would, and foreseeably would. We might crystalize this point by saying that only act-consequentialism makes the right *necessarily* coincide with maximum possible good. Every other moral theory holds that doing what is morally required *can* conflict with maximizing the good.

    Now, if Bill Bloggs says "that agent complied with the best moral code but what the agent did was undesirable, on balance", what are the most natural interpretations of this remark?

    One natural interpretation would be that Bloggs is expressing the observation that the agent's complying with the best moral code was undesirable in terms of agent-neutral value, or, we might say, undesirable considered impartially.

    Another natural interpretation would be that Bloggs is expressing the observation that the agent's complying with the best code was undesirable in terms of its effects on Bloggs (i.e., the speaker), or at least on people or projects especially connected to Bloggs. Note that this interpretation is not that Bloggs meant the agent's action was undesirable in terms of its effects either on the agent or on people and projects especially connected to the agent. The most natural interpretations of "undesirable" are "undesirable in terms of agent-neutral value" and "undesirable in terms of speaker-relative value".

    A remark such as Bloggs's isn't particularly surprising — and certainly not paradoxical — on either of these two natural interpretations.

    If a fitting-attitudes (buck-passing) analysis of goodness is correct, then some complications to the above statements may be required. But I suspect that such an analysis cannot *convincingly* undermine any particular normative moral theory. And thus my hunch is that such an analysis should not take sides in substantive debates between rival moral theories.

  4. Hi Brad, thanks for commenting! I should stress that I'm interested here in whether the right action could be undesirable tout court: whether decisive reasons for desire can conflict with decisive reasons for action. (You're certainly right that there's no puzzle in holding that a right act is merely undesirable in some respect, or "in terms of" one kind of reason for desire, when there are other normative reasons being artificially excluded from consideration.)

    Deontologists and others face a similar dilemma. But perhaps it's easier for them to embrace the second horn, and simply say that outcomes in which the agent acts as they ought to are thereby better outcomes -- outcomes the [current temporal slice of the] agent should prefer, or hope for. (N.B. While the implied account of value will be agent- and time-relative, it needn't be limited to agent-relative considerations.)

    You could also go this route (I would be interested to hear if you think this is the way to go, or if you think it better to say that our reasons for action and desire diverge here). It seems a bit more awkward for self-identified consequentialists, for the reasons set out in the main post (the structure of the theory starts to look a bit odd -- just in theoretical terms). But it's certainly not a decisive objection or anything.

  5. Richard, your comment here seems very reasonable to me. Tout court undesirability is something about which I need to think more. It isn't a concept that seems to me to play a major role in common practical thought. But maybe I'm mistaken about this.


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