Sunday, June 02, 2013

Satisficing by Effort [draft]

I'm currently revising my paper, 'Satisficing by Effort: From Scalar to Satisficing Consequentialism', for the upcoming RoME conference.  It's due in a couple of weeks, so I thought I'd throw it out there in case any readers have suggestions to improve it...

Traditional forms of Satisficing Consequentialism risk condoning the gratuitous prevention of goodness above the baseline of what qualifies as "good enough". I propose a new, effort-based version of the view that avoids this problem, and that better fits with the motivation of avoiding an excessively demanding conception of morality. I further argue that the resulting view can be motivated even starting from the sparse starting point of Scalar Consequentialism, so long as we're willing to supplement our consequentialism with independent norms of blameworthiness. Effort-based Satisficing Consequentialism is thus shown to be both extensionally plausible and theoretically well-motivated.

[link to full pdf]

Comments welcome -- posted here or emailed!


  1. The only thought I had was that effort can be seen is a cost, and so I presume some or all of the usual discussion points about cost-benefit analysis will come up. Social norms or intrinsic (?) individual preferences are setting the weights for the costs. In your Robin Hood example, one could presumably carry out the experiment to work out the relative emotional costs eg 10% self-tithed versus 20% taxed might be
    regarded as equally acceptable.

    And, is this at a societal level, or at the ndividual? Is the society ethically homogenous?

  2. Interesting paper. I’ll be one of your students this Fall so I should introduce myself. Hi, I’m Ryan. That said, I have a question regarding your definition of ‘effort’ on pg. 12:

    “It's important to clarify that I take effort of will, rather than physical effort, to be the kind of effort" relevant to EBSC. That is, the kind of effort required to stop procrastinating and go to the gym, not the kind of effort required to lift the weights once you're there”.

    My question is: does this mean that reasonable effort is relative to the agent’s psychological make-up? For example, if motivating myself to go to the gym requires significantly more effort than average—due to, say, self-image problems—does this mean I am exempt from this requirement (given that it is a demand of morality)?

    While you distinguish between cases where the additional effort is due to a lack of (adequate) moral concern, it seems to me that it is quite possible for someone to have the appropriate amount of moral concern and still be “lazy”. I certainly don’t have a problem with this if the perceived laziness is due to a DSMable condition but what about minor social anxieties? I might be really concerned about helping others but my nervousness around strangers keep me from going to the soup kitchen? If most people with my (presumably adequate) level of moral concern do volunteer, have I failed to act permissibly? Of course, it might just be that I should find another way to help (e.g. donate) or face being blameworthy, so I might just be worried about nothing (and it does seem like a good way to get consequentialists into the conversation).

    1. Hi Ryan! Yes, I'm inclined to think that what's required can differ across people, depending on how psychologically difficult for them the act in question would be. For example, schmoozing at a charity fundraiser (say) might be more easily required of an extrovert to whom it comes naturally, than of someone with social anxiety. (Though if the extra psychological burden is minor enough, and the benefits are great enough, it might still be required nonetheless.) Does that seem plausible to you?

      "Of course, it might just be that I should find another way to help (e.g. donate)"

      Yes, in practice I think this is a very important point -- there's such a wide range of possibilities for doing good in the world that, unless someone is severely incapacitated (whether by internal or external circumstances), there seems sure to be a way of helping that they can easily enough contribute to.

      But, real world aside, maybe we can construct a trouble case somewhere in this vicinity? I'd have to think about it more...

  3. Sorry for the delayed response I've had some family issues to resolve of late. I sent a brief email in response but if you didn't receive it; definitely plausible.

    My initial thoughts on constructing a problem case are that, for it really be a problem, the agent must not have any alternative options for discharging their moral requirement (e.g. donate in=stead of volunteer). While I still think various social anxieties might be a solid approach another that I've recently been considering is along the lines of conscientious objection.

    Now, I may be overly influenced by my military background but it seems conceivable that at least some wars need to be fought (say, to combat genocide or the Nazis). Further, I’d argue that the motivation necessary to take life is going to go beyond the baseline for acceptable cognitive effort for a great many. Thus, an agent could very well find themselves in the situation where their moral duty requires an act (taking life) that is psychologically impossible. Of course, the Army does allow for discharges in the case of conscientious objection (good luck selling them on this) so it may be better to construct the case such that the agent is not actually a conscientious objector and simply joined the press corps of some other non-combat specialization and was thrust unexpectedly into battle. I never saw actual combat but have wondered if I could have and if it would be right or wrong.


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