Thursday, February 06, 2020

When is Inefficacy Objectionable?

There's something I find puzzling about the dialectic on this issue.  Many philosophers suggest that there is an "inefficacy problem" or objection to consequentialism. But we need to take care to correctly diagnose what is supposed to be problematic.  If we truly are incapable of securing some good outcome, after all, it would hardly seem fair to fault a theory that (correctly) tells us that we needn't bother.  Our practical inefficacy per se cannot sensibly be held against a theory; it may just be a sad fact of life.

Really the issue here concerns a kind of mismatch between individual and collective verdicts that appears to result from collective action problems (voting, polluting, etc.) in which we combine (apparent) individual inefficacy with (apparent) collective efficacy.  But even here, care must be taken in our identification of the relevant group or 'collective'.  Suppose that everyone else is determined to bring about the collectively harmful outcome, and are certain to do so no matter what I do.  Then there's no point in delusional attempts to "cooperate" that are guaranteed to fall on deaf ears.  Permitting laxity in the face of such inefficacy is not a "problem", it's sensible -- the plainly correct verdict in this case.  The fault here clearly lies with the bad actors, not with our moral theory.

So we further need to specify that we're concerned with collective harms that could result from those who are successfully following the target moral theory.  (This clarifies why the previous scenario was not objectionable: the one follower of consequentialism did not, as a "group" of one, actually do any harm.)  More generally, the key structural feature is to generate a kind of "each/we dilemma" in which each person acts rightly in bringing about a situation that they collectively abhor.  The agents' shared moral theory would then be a failure by its own lights, in a tolerably clear and important sense: it would be (as Parfit showed common-sense morality to be) collectively self-defeating.

Curiously, the recent literature on the inefficacy objection largely focuses on arguments which, even if successful (in establishing inefficacy), would not establish collective self-defeat.  The strongest arguments for thinking that individual consequentialists shouldn't bother Φ-ing are, I think, equally reasons for thinking that consequentialists collectively shouldn't Φ.  So there is then no real mismatch between the individual and collective moral verdicts.

Consider the arguments mentioned (from Nefsky's recent survey piece) in my previous post:

(A) Budolfson's buffers: How many "cooperators" (individuals changing their behaviour relative to the status quo ante) would it take to breach the expected "buffers" in the supply chain and likely cross the next causal threshold?  Call this value B.  How many potential cooperators (people who would be willing to "cooperate" if morality required it) exist in the population?  Call this value C.  If  B>C then the population of moral cooperators is collectively (not just individually) inefficacious, so there's no mismatch.  Whereas if C >= B then there's no basis for disproportionate confidence that the buffers will hold, or that one more individual contribution won't make a threshold-crossing difference.  Once we focus on the relevant group of agents, their collective efficacy also seems to establish their (expectable) individual efficacy.  So again: no mismatch.

(B) Lomasky & Brennan's electoral evaluative skepticism: If you can't be sure which electoral outcome would actually be better, then you've no more reason to want everyone to vote for X than to yourself vote for X.  So: no mismatch.

(C) Benefitting the Harmless Torturers: Nefsky asks us to imagine that each torturer, in applying a near-imperceptible increase in pain to their shared victim, receives a clearly perceptible benefit for themselves.  So ask: does the value of this benefit truly outweigh the marginal disvalue of each pain increment?  If so, consequentialism plainly endorses the collective result of repeating this worthwhile trade-off: no mismatch.  If not (as I previously suggested is more intuitively plausible), then it doesn't endorse the individual increments.  Either way, there's no mismatch.

I think it's pretty remarkable that none of these arguments appear to have any potential to establish that consequentialism is collectively self-defeating.  They're complete non-starters.  If I'm right about this, then the current literature on this topic would appear to be deeply confused.

[Some of the cases could be retrofitted to a new argument schema: instead of alleging self-defeat, just allege that consequentialism yields verdicts that "conflict with common-sense", or some such.  But that result isn't quite so powerful, or so news-worthy.  And even that objection can, I think, be significantly defanged by highlighting the dubiousness of some of the stipulations required to establish the intuitively-worthy acts to be actually not worthwhile (even collectively).]


  1. Replies
    1. Thanks! (Hopefully the related paper I'm working on will eventually get published...)


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