Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Ord on Global Consequentialism

Toby Ord kindly sent a copy of his dissertation on global consequentialism ('Beyond Action'), with permission to quote. Let me begin with a striking passage that exemplifies the kind of rhetoric I think needs deflating:
The potential advantages of global consequentialism are many. The addition of new focal points increases the expressivity of consequentialism. It allows consequentialists to directly answer questions about the best motives, the best system of government, or the best way to decide what to do. This also allows consequentialists to bring consequentialism into the strongholds of deontologists and virtue ethicists: it provides an explanation of the importance of character and of rules of conduct, going so far as to show how many acclaimed virtues and rules have systematically led to good consequences, and even daring to suggest ways in which they might be improved.

The striking thing about this passage, to my eye, is that none of the benefits mentioned are distinctive to global consequentialism (GC). They're all benefits of having an axiology, which every consequentialist has. (It's not as though anybody else lacks the theoretical resources to "show how many acclaimed virtues and rules have systematically led to good consequences". Given an axiology, such evaluation comes along for free.)

So we may ask whether GC adds anything beyond the kinds of evaluations that are already open to any consequentialist. Compare: the distinctive addition of Act Consequentialism (AC) is to further claim that the best act is also right, i.e. what we have most reason to do. Some global consequentialists might think that we can similarly make substantive new claims by applying these deontic or "normative" terms to everything, not just actions. Ord calls this view "normative global consequentialism". Others (e.g. Kagan, Parfit) only use the term 'right' in relation to acts, and restrict themselves to evaluative terms (like 'best') when assessing other kinds of things, like climates. Ord calls this view 'semi-normative global consequentialism'.

As far as I can tell, 'semi-normative global consequentialism' is just another name for act consequentialism. It does not even appear to make any different claims. Normative GC appears to make different claims, but this appearance is (I argue) deceiving. My argument for this was given in my post, 'Reasons Deflate Global Consequentialism'. There I suggested that, in calling a disposition (or climate, or other arbitrary evaluand) 'right', there is nothing else that the global consequentialist could plausibly mean, except that it is the best (of those available). So they are not really making a new claim. They are making an old claim, simply using new words.

The case of actions is importantly disanalogous. There are reasons for action, in addition to reasons for desiring that some action be performed. Evaluations concern what is good or desirable, i.e. what we have reason to desire. But beyond evaluating whether we have reason to want that an action be performed, there is a further question to address: whether the agent has reason to act so. The question whether an act is 'right' may thus be taken to address this second substantive question.

There is no such second substantive question when considering arbitrary other evaluands, like the climate. We have reasons to desire that the climate be temperate, say. But the climate does not have reasons to be temperate. Climates are not subject to reasons in this way. That is why there is no substantive question whether a climate is 'right', over and above the evaluative question whether it is best (of those available).

(Motives are, like acts, susceptible to two substantive questions. Aside from the question whether a desire that P is desirable, we can also ask the first-order question whether P is desirable, and hence whether we have reason to desire that P. Similarly with beliefs, we can ask whether we have reason to believe that P, independently of the question whether such a belief-state is desirable. But global consequentialism does not address these substantive questions -- or, if it does then it gives incorrect answers! Not every fortunate belief or desire is reasonable.)

Let's close by considering Ord's argument that [normative] GC is a distinct view from AC:
[I]t is logically consistent to claim that Michael should follow decision procedure Y even though his following decision procedure X would lead to a better outcome. This is closely analogous to the way that deontologists and rule-consequentialists can consistently claim that Michael should do act Y even though his doing act X would lead to a better outcome.[*] Act-consequentialists must be consequentialists about acts, but nothing in the letter of the view stops them being nonconsequentialists about decision procedures.

As my above remarks suggest, this analogy won't work unless one thinks that decision-procedures are, like actions, subject to an autonomous class of reasons. (And it certainly won't carry across to things like climates.) There is room for substantive dispute about whether our reasons for action derive from considerations of desirability (i.e. evaluative facts). This is how we can make sense of being a (non)consequentialist about acts. It's far less clear how to make sense of (non)consequentialism about climates or decision procedures. There does not appear to be logical space for such a dispute. There is no open question here to invite such competing answers.

Ord claims that there is an open question - 'should Michael follow decision procedure Y?' - that is not analytically settled by the evaluative fact that it would be better that Michael follow decision procedure X. I have no idea what he has in mind.

For example, one might be asking whether it would be rational (fitting) for Michael to use decision procedure Y. But then the global consequentialist gives an incorrect answer to the question: the most fortunate decision procedure is not necessarily the most rational. So that cannot be the sense of 'should' that Ord has in mind.

More generally, I think, when we ask the global consequentialist, "Exactly what are you claiming here?", they will either answer with a merely evaluative fact (hence already contained within any consequentialist's axiology), or else they will say something false. If they think they can say something both new and true, I have yet to hear what it is.


  1. It strikes me that an act consequentialist can ask, "Which decision procedure should I follow?" without either asking (a) which decision procedure do I have most reason to want to follow? or (b) which decision procedure would it have the best consequences to make myself follow. Perhaps the way to understand GC is that GC folks think that the decision procedure you have most reason to follow is the one that would have the best consequences. You might think that there are no reasons to follow that aren't reasons to want or reasons to do or "fittingness" reasons, but that's a substantive disagreement with the view I'm sketching. The view I'm describing seems neither clearly false nor merely terminologically disagreeing with act consequentialism.

    For other cases, such as "right dance", it is more plausible that there is no special class of dance-reasons. So it is more plausible in such cases that GC adds nothing.

  2. Richard,

    As you may expect, I have a number of points although I'm not sure I'll be able to fit them all into a single comment.

    Firstly, I want to say that my main claim is that GC is true. I am not claiming that it is difficult or profound, and thus I don't think I mind it being 'trivially true' (although this somewhat depends on what is meant by that term in this case).

    In regard to your first point (that the axiology tells you the best action, motive, charater trait etc.) I think that you are incorrect. In my view, an axiology is a function from states of the world to levels of goodness. That is, it is a primitive assessment of states of the world. We are now asking to assess things that are not states of the world, but are actions, motives, character traits etc. I don't think that an axiology does this, and if you do, then you have a different conception of an axiology to me. One possibility is to assess all of these things in terms of the consequences they would produce. This is a particularly consequentialist way of proceeding (and a global one at that), but I think that there are other options available. For example, I could assess motives in terms of their propensity to be held by Hamlet. In this case, the best motives would be dark and brooding ones. Alternatively, I might think that the best motives were Christian ones or so forth. An axiology alone is neutral between such assessments of things that are not states of the world. If you put the consequentialist test of actions, motives, character traits etc right into the axiology, then you will of course jump straight to a system at least as strong as what I call scalar global consequentialism. I'd be happy to have you on board, but you see that to get there you either need a distinctly consequentialist (and global) definition of an axiology, or an axiology based on states of the world and a distinctly (global) consequentialist principle to assess things in terms of this axiology.

    I'm afraid I don't have time at the moment to fully answer your other concerns, but I can at least say that they rely on an understanding of reasons and a connection between reasons and moral terms which I don't subscribe to. I am indeed somewhat mystified that you cannot have a reason to have the character trait of compassion (ie a reason to be compassionate). I haven't engaged much with the recent dialogue on reasons as I haven't thought it to be very useful in doing moral philosophy (and I hope I'm wrong about that since so much time is being spent on it!). However, from what I know, I think I am a globalist about reasons too. I can see how privileging acts in the discourse on reasons might make it less odd to privilege them when discussing ethics, but (i) you still need to evaluate non-acts as I've mentioned above, and (ii) I don't see why we would privilege acts in regards to reasons.

  3. Hi Toby, thanks for commenting!

    Your point about axiology is interesting, and something I sought to address in my recent post on 'Local Evaluation'. In short, I don't think it is coherent to say that motives X are the best for you to have (all things considered), but that it'd be a bad state of the world for you to have them. See the linked post for more detail.

    To clarify my approach: I understand an axiology as an account of what's desirable. But there's no presumption that the posited reasons must be agent-neutral, nor that they are logically "prior" to reasons for action. So it's open to a deontologist to say that it's desirable (sub Bob) that Bob keep his promise, even though it would be "better" in the agent-neutral sense if he did not. (This latter claim is just to say that the restricted class of agent-neutral reasons for desire favour breaking the promise. But the deontologist may admit this without embarrassment. Who cares about what a mere subset of reasons/values recommend?) So I don't think I'm begging any questions against the deontologist in insisting that local evaluations cohere with global ones. This is a perfectly neutral piece of book-keeping. But it does bring out that GC adds nothing not already contained within AC.

    (The cost, if you consider it such, is that it turns out deontologists and rule consequentialists can't actually share the same "all things considered" axiology as Act Consequentialists. They instead have to give a weird agent-relative account of what's desirable tout court. But this does seem necessary to make their views coherent, as I discuss in 'Reasons and Rule Consequentialism'.)

  4. As for reasons, they have to be followable. We can act (or form intentions) for reasons, believe things for reasons, and want things for reasons. The common factor is that acting (intending), believing, and desiring are all things that we as agents do. They are rational activities, and hence each subject to rational assessment.

    Other things are not rational activities, being instead things that happen to us (or, in case of external events, just plain happen). I've previously discussed the example of bleeding. It makes no sense to say that there are "reasons to bleed" (even if bleeding would have good consequences), since bleeding is not responsive to reasons, or under rational control. There aren't more or less rational ways to bleed, the way there are more and less rational ways to act. You can't bleed for a (normative) reason, the way you can act for reasons. You may have reason to desire this outcome, or to act so as to bring it about, but there's no further sense in which the outcome itself is subject to reasons.

    So, whether we talk of reasons or of rational capacities, there's a deep distinction we need to draw here, that global consequentialists seem to neglect.

    [As Nick suggests, we can argue about the precise details of what should be 'privileged' in this way. I see it as a substantive question of moral psychology, how to individuate or carve up rational capacities. But the details of what to "privilege" in this way aren't essential to my current point. For once you acknowledge that there are normative reasons for belief, desire, action, (maybe one or two other things), but certainly not for bleeding, or for climates, then we've already abandoned the kind of indiscriminacy that motivates global consequentialism.]

  5. But it does bring out that GC adds nothing not already contained within AC.

    This is what someone who wants to cast this in a negative way would say. I think the situation is equally well summarised as:

    So when you think about it, those who support AC are required to support the tenets of semi-global consequentialism.

    What we have at that point is a consequentialism that is global up to the point of making assessments of everything in terms of goodness, betterness and other terms like this. I would call this evaluative, but some don't like this distinction (for example, Parfit would call this normative assessment of everything despite its stopping short of using words like 'right' or 'ought'). In any event, it is global up to those kinds of assessment with no privileging of acts so far.

    I don't know why you count this as a negative thing for global consequentialists. We want to show that the people who accept AC are inexorably led to our view, and at this point we are already half-way there (of course you think the second half is much harder). I think most global consequentialists think that many people who consider themselves act-consequentialists are really pretty much global consequentialists who hadn't yet realised it, so we don't take this as criticism of our approach.

  6. I agree that 'reasons to bleed' sounds silly on the face of it, but you have cherry-picked a silly sounding one and ignored a very sensible sounding one that I challenged you with. Why no 'reasons to be compassionate' or 'reasons to be cheerful'? I also think that I have reasons to be in Oxford at the moment. It sounds just as silly on the face of it to deny these things as it does to support reasons to bleed.

  7. Toby, since I only need a single counterexample, it isn't "cherry-picking" to suggest an especially clear one. Like I said, we can quibble about whether there are one or two additional kinds of reasons. (Though, for the record, I think the examples you give are really just disguised claims about reasons for action and/or desire-like attitudes. "Being compassionate" is obviously more closely bound up with our other rational capacities than is a wholly passive state like bleeding.) The point is that it's crazy to deny that there's some distinction to draw here, even if it's open to dispute exactly where to draw it. (Admittedly, if we do need to redraw it then we may need to move slightly beyond act-consequentialism. That would be a very interesting result. But it still wouldn't be full-blown globalism. And the view might also be implausible. For example, there are reasons for belief, but consequentialism about rational belief is not remotely plausible.)

    Now, supposing I'm right about the 'reasons' stuff, it's a curious meta-philosophical question what should decide whether we call the remaining 'semi-normative GC' a mere restatement of AC (as I claim), or - as you prefer - a distinct "view" to which Act Consequentialists are implicitly committed without "yet realis[ing] it". Let me suggest two possible tests:

    (1) The logical test: Look at whether there is a logically coherent (but, the GC-ist hopes, substantively implausible) non-GC version of AC. If there is not -- if AC is logically equivalent to GC -- then they are merely different names for the same point in logical space. (This was the purpose of my post on 'Local Evaluation'.)

    (2) The sociological test: Look at whether people who affirm the one view are initially reluctant or surprised to grant some claims made by the other. Do they in fact need to be "led" anywhere, or would they have been happy all along to grant that, since they have an axiology, they can use it to evaluate anything?

    Or do you have a different test in mind? Perhaps the difference is merely one of emphasis. But then I think (as I've argued) the old Act Consequentialists had it right. It's no doubt true that, given an axiology, you can evaluate anything. But, incontrovertible as this is, it doesn't seem so philosophically interesting as using these evaluative facts to make substantive new claims about rational choice. (I suspect that this is the heart of the dispute.)

  8. Unfortunately, we don't seem to be making much progress here and I have a number of critical projects that I need to be working on at the moment (indeed I feel guilty for taking so much time away from them for my responses so far). I'll thus try to wrap up our positions.

    (i) You agree with me that the claims of semi-GC are true (setting aside whether there are also true claims of the form 'the right motive...'). You cast the truth of these claims in a negative light, while I cast it in a positive light.

    (ii) You disagree about whether to go all the way to fully blown GC. You think not, because of the way you understand 'reasons' and their connection to ethics. I don't find this persuasive (I haven't been persuaded of anything in ethics by the larger discussion of reasons) and furthermore I also seem to understand reasons in a different way to you.

    I don't think the residual dispute in (i) is worth much of our time. I certainly have many more things I could say about it, and I do think you are wrong about it, but I need to concentrate on other time-critical things right now. The dispute in (ii) is much more important, but unfortunately it is not going to be easily resolved as there is so little common ground in our approaches to it.

  9. I believe I'm pretty close to Ord, but let me come at this from a different direction. I think the Global in GC is worth emphasizing for pragmatic (consequentialist!) reasons: acts are just not where the action is, morally speaking. If I take states of the world as primary, then I care much more about institutions, political and otherwise. Obviously I need to be sure that these institutions are feasible, etc.; the global consequentialist has to care a great deal about how folks do in fact act (/behave--often it's mere behavior that matters!). But deontic language often is most important and useful in settings that aren't really "about" action, and insisting that they be cashed out that way is often a *distraction* rather than a helpful clarification.

    Brad Hooker's comment in your post about reasons & GC, for example, shows that he thinks permissibility et al are important deontic categories. Maybe he's right, maybe not. But what I am sure about, as a believer in GC, is that it's a mistake to insist on the autonomy of the deontic, to think that the proper focus of our moral attention is determined by the conceptual nature of reasons. I think GC helps us see that the right way to assess the importance of permissibility &c. is not conceptual argument but rather by considering how the use of those categories in our individual and collective lives *actually helps* to achieve better things.


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