Sunday, February 14, 2010

Co-operation vs. Benevolence

It's worth distinguishing two superficially similar but fundamentally different answers to the traditional question 'why be moral?'. They are superficially similar in that both support benevolent behaviour in ordinary circumstances. And both involve some revision to traditional conceptions of rationality. But the precise nature of the called-for revision differs significantly between the two approaches, in a way that may also lead to significant practical differences in certain (neglected) cases.

(1) What we might call the 'contractarian' route takes for granted one's ultimate ends (however selfish they might be), and justifies moral behaviour on fundamentally instrumental grounds. This typically involves some appeal to the mutual benefits of cooperation in Prisoner's Dilemmas and the like. It is revisionary conception of instrumental rationality in that it prescribes reasoning in a collective rather than individual manner -- e.g. reasoning as if the other will decide as you do, no matter that in fact the other agent's decision procedure is (by stipulation) completely independent of your own.

(2) Alternatively, the axiological route calls for a revision of our ultimate ends. On this view, the purely self-interested agent values the wrong things: he ought to value others' welfare as well as his own. This is revisionary in that it requires us to go beyond merely instrumental rationality, by also treating ultimate ends as rationally evaluable. [We may further sub-divide this approach depending on whether the irrationality of certain ends is just a brute, self-contained, substantive normative fact; or whether it instead derives from some more formal or procedural considerations, such as incoherence within one's larger desire set.]

Note that typical cases of conflict between self-interest and altruistic co-operation have the unfortunate effect of masking the differences between the two views. To really see the difference, we need to consider a case where benevolence and co-operation come apart. See, for example, Eliezer's True Prisoner's Dilemma, where you're in conflict with an alien 'paperclip maximizer' about whether to save sentient lives or paperclips. If you both co-operate, the result will be that more lives and more paperclips are saved than if both of you defect. But taken individually -- whatever the paperclip maximizer happens to choose -- your choice to "co-operate" rather than "defect" would gain a paltry two paperclips at the cost of a billion lives. Assuming that the other agent's decision truly is independent of yours, then, the benevolent thing to do in this case is surely to defect.

We can then ask: which choice -- the co-operative one, or the benevolent one -- is the morally right choice to make in such a case of conflict?

[Update: replaced the label 'contractualist' with 'contractarian' to better match standard usage and avoid misunderstandings.]


  1. Richard, I think you have a false dichotomy going on here. Particularly, its not that having a contractualist approach precludes the axiological route. Also, it kind of mischaracterises contractualism as using some kind of means ends reasoning.

    Its more the case that contractualism is a kind of framework (the only or the best or possibly just one of the essential ones) from which to evaluate general categorical claims. Axiological claims, according to buck passing accounts, are categorical claims.

    i.e. if the axiological route is one where you can criticise various final ends and argue that certain axiological claims are more reasonable than others, it seems that the contractualist framework is precisely one of the ways in which this criticism of axiological claims may be carried out. As a contractualist, I would say that the contractualist framework is indispensable in the analysis of general axiological claims. And all the deontologist has to say is that there are true categorical claims that are not parasitic on axiological claims

  2. Hi Murali, you seem to have misread my post. My use of the word 'contractualism' here is stipulative. It's merely a label for the instrumental, Hobbesian view that I go on to describe. If you don't like the label, feel free to mentally replace it with another. (I'm certainly not referring to Scanlonian contractualism here!)

  3. It's merely a label for the instrumental, Hobbesian view that I go on to describe.

    OK, so I should probably go and (in my head at least) find/replace all instances of contractualism with contractarianism.

    The thing that was bothering me is that because morality refers to principles that apply to everyone (and not just Murali and Richard) that the moral rightness of a principle pertains to the desirability/objectionableness of everyone acting (or desiring) according to said principle. On the face of it, this too seems like "reasoning as if the other will decide as you do, no matter that in fact the other agent's decision procedure is (by stipulation) completely independent of your own."

  4. Oh, right, one could combine the two views and so be revisionary both in prescribing certain ultimate ends and in one's instrumental reasoning about how to achieve those ends. (I think that'd be a bad idea though. It could be disastrous -- i.e. bad -- to act in ways that, if only everyone were to follow suit, would be good. Counterfactual benefits are no justification for actual harms.)

  5. Richard, what you described was rule utilitarianism, which is kind of odd. What I'm proposing is different.

    Lets take act consequentialism: Act so as to maximise utility/welfare/desire satisfaction/value. We will call this principle A.

    With (what I call) a contractualist framework, we should ask whether it is desirable that everybody act on principle A, or whether anyone can reasonably object to acting on principle A. maybe some things will have be further specified and defended, but the purpose of the contractualist approach is to test out particular principles to see whether they are self defeating in particular important ways.


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