Monday, April 02, 2012

Guest Post: Nebel on Parfit's Rule Consequentialism

[The following is a guest post by Jake Nebel...]

I’m very grateful to Richard for letting me write a guest post, which I am shamelessly using to solicit feedback on a paper. I’ve summarized the central argument below. I’d greatly appreciate any comments on this blog or via email.

Parfit argues that the most plausible versions of Kantianism and contractualism coincide with the following consequentialist principle:
(UARC) Everyone ought to follow the principles whose universal acceptance would make things go best.

Moral principles, according to Parfit, are intended to state facts. We accept a principle just when we believe that it is true. We follow a principle when we succeed in doing what it requires. This distinction allows that we might not follow or want to follow all or any of the principles that we accept. The principles whose universal acceptance would make things go best are UA-optimific.

On Parfit’s view, the fundamental normative truths are true in all possible worlds. But UARC is false in at least one world.
Consider a world in which no one’s moral beliefs have any motivating force at all. In this Indifference World, no one cares about the moral facts, even those of which they are aware. Indifference World might contain people who act (by our standards) morally, but not because they believe their acts to be right: perhaps they fear retribution or believe that kindness is in their own interests. In Indifference World, the consequences of accepting one set of principles would be no different than the consequences of accepting any other set of principles, because no one’s motivations would change as a result of changed moral beliefs.

UARC is false in Indifference World. In this world, the universal acceptance of any one set of principles would have no better outcome than the universal acceptance of any alternatives. We could say one of two things about this result. On the one hand, we might say that there are no UA-optimfic principles, so there are no principles (including UARC) that everyone ought to follow in Indifference World. On the other hand, we might say that every principle is UA-optimific, since they all make things go equal-best. But it is unlikely that everyone ought to rape, murder, and torture each other, and it is implausible that everyone ought to follow contradictory principles. It can’t be the case that everyone both ought to and ought not to rape, murder, and torture each other.
The easiest response is to claim that Indifference World is not metaphysically possible, and therefore not a counterexample to UARC: accepting a moral principle might require some corresponding motivation. But this response is not available to Parfit, and for very important reasons. In defending his convergence thesis, Parfit revises Kant’s moral belief formula into what later becomes UARC. He claims that belief implies acceptance:
“When people believe that some kind of act is morally permitted, they accept some principle that permits such acts.” (341)
If belief were not a sufficient condition for acceptance, Parfit wouldn’t have the crucial link between Kant’s moral belief formula and UARC. Parfit’s convergence argument therefore requires that belief is a sufficient condition for acceptance. And in Part Six, Parfit makes the following concession: if moral beliefs were necessarily motivating, then the Humean Argument for noncognitivism would be sound (Vol. II, 382-83). I think Parfit is right about that. So, on his view, moral beliefs are not necessarily motivating, so Indifference World is metaphysically possible.
I suggest that we go for a compliance version of rule consequentialism, instead of UARC. More specifically,
UFRC: Everyone ought to follow the principles of which it is true that, if they were universally followed, things would go best. (405)
The principles that have this property are UF-optimific. Indifference World is not a counterexample to UFRC. I think UFRC has other advantages, which I discuss in the paper.
  • UFRC is closer to act consequentialism because, when asking which principles are UF-optimific, we can ignore mistakes, self-deception, and akrasia. This makes it easier to evaluate the effects of various principles. I also believe that act consequentialism is UF-optimific, so UFRC may have a better chance of achieving convergence within consequentialism.
  • UFRC avoids Rosen’s “evil gremlins” objection. Unless there is nothing that anyone can do to stop the gremlin from destroying the world, there will be some UF-optimific principle. Rosen’s objection could only succeed if the gremlin’s wrath becomes inevitable, so it does not matter what anyone does. So his objection becomes trivial.
Questions: Can Parfit escape the Indifference World objection? Is UARC independently more plausible than UFRC? Is act consequentialism UF-optimific? Might there be other UF-optimific principles? Does UFRC escape Rosen’s objection to UARC?


  1. I don't see why UARC is false at indifference worlds. It still seems true that even indifferent people really ought to follow the principles whose universal acceptance would make things go best. It just so happens that here we have a big tie for bestness, since people act the same no matter what principles they accept. But that doesn't change the fact that they (along with everyone else) ought to accept the best ones.

  2. I might reply again later when I have access to my copy of the book, but just one small thing: If indifference worlds are possible, then so, presumably, are inversion worlds, in which everyone is always motivated to do the reverse of what they think they ought to do. These would constitute a more clear-cut counterexample to UARC.

    For what it's worth, I don't think that either world is possible. Note that even if moral judgements don't necessarily motivate, they might still have some tendency to do so, or still do so most of the time. So I wonder if it's misleading to suggest that to reject the argument one has to support full blown internalism.

  3. Unknown - UARC doesn't claim that we ought to accept the UA-optimific principles, it says that we ought to comply with them. Since all principles in indifference world are equally UA-optimific, it would seem to follow that every action -- including highly harmful actions such as rape, murder, etc. -- is such that we "ought", according to UARC, to do it.

  4. Alex:

    Good point about inversion worlds. I mention that kind of world in my paper, in response to Parfit's reply. The reason I went with indifference rather than inversion for the main counterexample is that, if you get the result that no one ought to follow any principles, then it's not the case the case that everyone ought to follow UARC, so it can't be the supreme principle of morality.

    You suggest that moral judgments might have some tendency to motivate. But, in order to rule out Indifference World, your claim would have to be that they have this tendency in all possible worlds, and that there is no possible world in which this tendency is never realized. While it may seem that moral beliefs have this tendency in our world, I'm not sure why this tendency is a necessary one. Interesting reference: in “Internalists Beware—We Might All Be Amoralists,” Gunnar Björnsson and Ragnar Francén Olinder raise the cynical hypothesis that our world is Indifference World. They concede (rightly, I think) that this hypothesis is unlikely but not conceptually impossible.

    I think the stronger objection along these lines is that an amoralist community (e.g., Indifference World) may be impossible even if individuals can be amoralists, as Jon Tresan notes in “The Challenge of Communal Internalism.” I don't have much to say about this objection that hasn't been said in the literature, but I think it's worth noting.

  5. Thanks for the reply Jake. Could you possibly expand on the first point? I'm not sure that I follow. Doesn't UARC entail that the true moral principle in inversion worlds is "Do whatever makes things go worst"? That would be the principle that, when universally accepted, would make things go best.

    You also write: "While it may seem that moral beliefs have this tendency in our world, I'm not sure why this tendency is a necessary one". But this is just to ask why we should be internalists, of this more modest variety. The answer is going to be that a belief doesn't count as a moral belief unless it has this motivational potential: the concept of a moral belief is in part the concept of a mental state that can play a particular role in motivation. Such a view captures much of what internalists want without entailing the stronger more implausible claims traditionally associated with internalism.

    I'll have to think about whether moral beliefs might genuinely have this tendency but it never be realised - this seems like a very odd possibility but I can't quite place my finger on why it should be impossible.

    (I'll have to take a look at the Björnsson and Olinder paper - though a glance at the abstract makes me think that this is one of those times where it seems to me to be distorting to think of internalism as a claim about moral beliefs rather than about normative beliefs more generally. But this may be me being idiosyncratic.)

  6. Alex,

    I was agreeing with you that inversion is also a counterexample. I was just saying that indifference may result in something like a contradiction for UARC: according to UARC, it's not the case that everyone ought to follow UARC. UARC is also clearly false in the kind of world you describe, but it's still at least consistent.

    Let me know if you come up with a reason why the motivating potential or tendency must (sometimes) be realized.

    Can't the Björnsson and Olinder argument still work if you apply everything to normative beliefs in general? Probably makes the cynical hypothesis even less likely, but I don't think it pushes it to inconceivability.

  7. Ah, I'm with you on the first point now, sorry for being slow! Yes, that seems like a good point. Now another very small point springs to mind: even in indifference worlds, the acceptance of different principles might have different effects. For example, some principles might be more intellectually taxing than others to accept. So there might yet be some principles that do better than others by UARC, even in indifference worlds. (I can't remember if Parfit has anything to say about this.)

    On Björnsson and Olinder: the cynical hypothesis is that people act morally only because they think it will be in their own interests. People acting like this, it seems to me, are doing what they think they have most reason to do. I can't conceive of any analogous cynical hypothesis according to which no-one has ever done anything because they thought they had most reason to. But again, this may be me being idiosyncratic, and anyway is off topic, so I should stop hijacking.


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