Friday, June 28, 2019

The Aim(s) of Practical Deliberation

My new paper on 'Deontic Pluralism' argues for "a maximizing account of the ought of most reason, a satisficing account of obligation, and a scalar account of the weight of reasons."  One question that emerges towards the end of the paper is whether we really need all of this.  Can we identify a sense of 'ought' that has primacy in virtue of its special relevance to first-personal deliberation—i.e., as the sense of ‘ought’ that a conscientious agent has in mind when they ask themselves, “What ought I to do?”

I've previously cast doubt on the idea that the deliberative question has a suitably fixed and determinate meaning. But even just focusing on the choice between the ought of most reason and the ought of minimal decency (or blamelessness), we aren’t obviously forced in either direction here, e.g. by the constitutive norms of agential deliberation. Some agents in some contexts are particularly concerned to at least meet the standards for minimal decency, whereas others are more morally ambitious. We can certainly say that it’s better for agents to do better. But it isn’t clear that there’s much more we can say beyond this trivial evaluative observation. In particular, I see no clear basis for insisting that there is just one proper aim of deliberation.

On the contrary, I think we can make good sense of why both standards have a limited place in our normative lives. The ought of most reason is perhaps the most obviously significant. It picks out the best choice for us to make, the option which is most well-justified, providing an ideal standard to which it makes sense to aspire. (Of course, whether it is practically useful or advisable to aspire to it in any given situation is a further, empirical question. Some may just be disheartened were they to try. But I don’t take such practical concerns to undermine the in-principle aptness of the aspiration, which is what I’m concerned with here.)

The practical relevance of the ought of minimal decency may be supported in two ways. First, it arguably has more third-personal significance. We properly hold others to account when their actions fall below the baseline of minimal decency and into the realm of the blameworthy. Although it’s nice when they do better than the minimum required, we typically don’t feel that it’s our place to probe too deeply into such matters, or to evaluate them too closely. (“How much exactly did you give to charity last year?”)

Secondly, the baseline of minimal decency may have first-personal significance given our nature as flawed agents who regularly (perhaps even inevitably) do less than the absolute best. Given that we must, practically speaking, make our peace with often failing to meet the ideal standard, it would seem helpful to have a “backup” standard below which we feel we must not fall. The ought of minimal decency seems a natural fit for this role. (Again, I don’t mean that it is necessarily the empirically most useful guide for us to follow, but just that it makes theoretical sense as a principled basis for ruling out some options as “unacceptably bad” without committing ourselves to acting perfectly.)

All three components of our deontic-pluralist consequentialist package thus strike me as important for an apt moral outlook. It makes sense to aspire to do the best, while recognizing and accepting the reality that, as flawed agents, we will typically fall short. And it makes sense to have a firmer commitment to maintaining a level of at least minimal decency, rather than being willing to plummet to any moral depths without limit. Then, between these two principled standards lies a continuous scale of more-or-less demanding standards that we might choose to target. To help guide us in this choice, we can appreciate that the more good we achieve, the better. But beyond that, there is no authoritative meta-standard out there to tell us how high to aim. This observation may be taken to reinforce the scalar “core” of the pluralist view I’ve defended.

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