Tuesday, December 07, 2021

Consequentialism's Central Concept

Ethical theories are typically formulated as centrally concerning the concept of right action.  Introductory ethics classes may define competing theories as offering different completions of the sentence: "An act is right iff...".  And that probably works well enough for deontological theories, which are centrally concerned with delineating the boundaries of permissibility and obligation.  But I think it's very misleading to treat consequentialist theories as seeking to answer this question.  (And I expect virtue ethicists would have similar complaints.)

If forced into a deontic mould, it's natural to default to maximizing consequentialism: An act is right iff it maximizes value (or, more precisely, produces no less value than any alternative option).  But the concept of rightness has connotations that fit poorly with consequentialism, as many (from Railton to Norcross) have pointed out.  For example:

(1) It's natural to assume that knowing failures to act rightly (absent some special excuse) are blameworthy.  But no maximizing consequentialist that I'm aware of has ever held that people are blameworthy for doing slightly less than absolute moral perfection (as we all do literally all the time).  As I suggest in my paper 'Deontic Pluralism and the Right Amount of Good', maximizers are best understood as invoking what we might call "the ought of most reason", or what ideally ought to be done, not what is obligatory in any ordinary sense.  (This helps to bring out that the view cannot possibly be "too demanding", for it makes no demands at all.)

(2) It's natural to assume that the boundary between 'right' and 'wrong' must mark some significant moral discontinuity.  But at least for pure consequentialists, there would seem no basis for this, as the difference in value between a permissible act and a marginally impermissible one might be utterly trivial.  (But see my 'Deontic Pluralism' paper for ways that hybrid consequentialists might be able to construct a significant boundary, e.g. by appeal to independent theories of blameworthiness.)

(3) It's natural to assume that it's especially important to avoid acting wrongly.  But, even supposing that we're obliged to donate 10% of our income to charity, no utilitarian would think that it's inherently more important to increase your giving from 9% to 10% than from 11% to 12%.

So I think Consequentialism is best formulated, at least in its "core" or central form, without invoking deontic threshold concepts such as right (/wrong) or permissible (/impermissible).

What's the alternative?  Rather than asking about the criteria for rightness, I think a more neutral starting point would ask: What does the moral theory hold to be most important?  On this approach, importance becomes the central concept of normative ethics, about which different theories may disagree. The standard answers then follow: Deontologists assign primary importance to acting in accordance with duty (with specific theories offering competing accounts of how those obligations are to be specified), virtue ethicists maybe something about acquiring and exemplifying virtues (?), and consequentialists hold that what matters is promoting value, or the realization of better outcomes.

I think it's important to start moral inquiry with the right question, because what you ask may have a biasing effect on what answers you reach.  If you work with the ordinary concept of rightness, I expect this would have at least some tendency to push you towards deontological accounts.  (We've already seen that consequentialism fits poorly with the ordinary understanding of rightness, and I think both consequentialist and virtue-ethical criteria for rightness tend to look pretty off-track by ordinary standards.)  But if rightness isn't actually the central concept of normative ethics (properly understood), then this apparent failure needn't be any sort of count against deontology's competitors.

By contrast, if we begin with the question of importance front and center, then I think consequentialism (and especially utilitarianism) starts to look a lot more compelling.  Indeed, I've suggested elsewhere that reflecting on what fundamentally matters constitutes the best positive argument for utilitarianism.

Reflecting on what's important may also help to illuminate the flaws of consequentialism's competitors. For example, the Parfitian possibility of "virtuous[ly acquired] viciousness" seems to undermine any suggestion that virtue is the most important thing in the world. And the importance of conformity to duty may be undermined by both my moral stunting objection and my new paradox of deontology.

So it may well be that other theorists wouldn't be so thrilled about focusing on this question of importance.  But it at least seems advisable for consequentialists!


  1. Great point! As a consequentialist, I think moral judgments (that an action is right/wrong) should also be made based on their consequences. So, we should judge an action A as morally right if judging so brings about the best consequences, even if A itself does not. On the other hand, an action that brings about the best consequences need not to be judged as "right", or even "permissible". But I wonder if this type of approch is prone to some "wrong kind of reasons" problem.

    1. Yeah, it's possible to imagine a scenario in which the best results would follow from making false moral judgments ("torture is wonderful!" etc.). That's not the sort of thing I mean to be talking about here. I think that formulating the view in terms of importance rather than rightness is a more accurate way of representing consequentialist thought.

    2. I'm not sure if I would even consider those moral judgments as "false". Given that right/wrong are not concepts that consequentilists ultimatly care about (as what you are saying here), it is hard to see how judgments such as "tourture is right" can be true or false for a consequentialist. I guess "tourture is right" could even be true according to some pragmatic theories of truth.

  2. Interesting! One advantage I see is that focusing on "importance" doesn't straightforwardly entail that we should be focusing on actions. Or the ascription of a property F to an action. After all, it would sound pretty awkward to say an "Act is important iff..." This might allow those of us attracted to consequentialism to occasionally cast our reasoning in terms of evaluative focal points other than individual actions - e.g. dispositions to cooperate or whatever else - in a less awkward fashion. Was that part of your intention? A more radical suggestion would be that we could even eliminate evaluative focal points from the fundamental theory. The only question to ask is which world is best. Whether claims about which world is best entail anything about other properties is just not the right question to ask.

    However, I'm a bit worried that I lack a firm enough grip on "importance" to be fully compelled here. To put the point more strongly than I mean to: It sounds too neutral - like it's merely naming a variable that we hope we'll get around to filling-in at some future date. Why not, as you gesture at in (1), just say the strength of our moral reasons ebbs and flows with the value of consequences? I think I have a firm enough grasp on different strengths of reasons that morally rationalize our choices, etc.

    1. Hi Jimmy, right, I think fleshing out in terms of normative reasons is a good way to go. (In the OP here I'm just trying to be as neutral as possible, but I agree it calls for more "filling in".)

      I do think it's an advantage that it doesn't single out actions as what's important. Though, contra global consequentialists, I actually do think there are significant structural differences between acts (and judgment-sensitive attitudes) and mere evaluands, that should be of interest to normative theorists. You can find the short version of my argument in this blog post, and the long version in my 'Fittingness' paper.

  3. [Doug Portmore writes:]

    If consequentialists held that what matters is the realization of better outcomes, then we would expect them to insist that, in Don Regan's famous case, Whiff and Poof must both push in order to satisfy their consequentialist theories. But, in fact, most consequentialist theories allow Whiff and Poof to satisfy their consequentialist theories by both not-pushing. This suggests to me that most consequentialist theories don't not hold that it's the realization of better outcomes that matters. Instead, what matters to them is that agents do the best they can given what other agents will in fact do.

    - Doug

    1. Do many consequentialists explicitly disagree with Regan, or do they just tend to bracket that sort of case (perhaps for simplicity) when formulating their views? I would guess the latter.

      I would also expect that, when pressed, they would grant that it's more important that Whiff and Poof both push (so as to realize the best outcome) than that they individually "satisfy" their theory.

      I wouldn't expect consequentialists to generally think that "what matters" is that agents act rightly, if we're able to construct a case where this would somehow lead to worse outcomes than an alternative in which they act wrongly.

      Which is all just to say that I really do strongly expect consequentialists to agree that the realization of better outcomes is what ultimately matters.

    2. [Doug Portmore replies:]

      I would say that most consequentialists explicitly specify a criterion of rightness that's such that Whiff and Poof can each satisfy that criterion by both not-pushing. And thus Whiff and Poof can each satisfy the criterion without realizing the best available outcome. Of course, these consequentialists may, as you assume, be willing to agree with you that the realization of better outcomes is what ultimately matters, but that would make their positions incoherent in the same way that the position of a rule consequentialist who insists that the maximization of the good is what ultimately matters is incoherent: that is, incoherent in that it specifies a criterion of rightness that allows agents to satisfy it without realizing what they think ultimately matters. Now, the core of consequentialism could be something that renders the position of most of its proponents incoherent, but I think that you would need to say more in defense of such a claim.

      - Doug

    3. My suggestion is that they are not being incoherent, but just (a little) sloppy. The criterion they defend is merely approximate, not an accurate reflection of their actual deepest commitments. This could most easily be the case if they weren't thinking about Regan cases when formulating their views.

      I think this is basically infinitely more likely than that most consequentialists don't really think that the realization of better outcomes is what matters most. That's just an absurd suggestion, whereas it's perfectly understandable that they might not have been thinking about Regan cases when wording their views.

    4. Is Hooker not a consequentialist? He doesn’t think that the realization of better outcomes is what matters most; he thinks that acting in ways that are impartially defensible matters more. Is Hooker’s position just absurd?

    5. I wouldn't call him a consequentialist. (A rule consequentialist is like a decoy duck.) But it wouldn't be absurd. What's absurd is suggesting that most (i.e. direct) consequentialists don't think that the realization of better outcomes is what matters most.

  4. At least one major deontologist — Kant — did not think acting from duty was of primary importance. On his view, arguably, the importance of acting from duty derived from the importance of recognizing dignity.

    But maybe I'm misunderstanding the game here: maybe the topic of dignity is upstream from normative ethical topics.

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  6. Hi Richard, great post.

    You're right that we should think of consequentialism as holding the good to be of central importance, but I think that can be brought out better by retaining a biconditional analysis of right in terms of the good. I like this one as a first pass (because it's neutral on, say, whether to maximise or satisfice), though ultimately we will need something more precise:
    An action is right if and only if its consequences are good
    Rather than rejecting this biconditional, or one like it, if I were you I would point out that accepting it is not sufficient to be a consequentialist, because we also need to ask (as we do with every biconditional analysis) a Euthyphro question about whether the right hand side is prior to the left hand side or vice versa. Properly formulated, I think we should think of consequentialism as saying not only that a biconditional like this is true, but also that its right hand side is in some sense prior to its left hand side. Non-consequentialists may or may not accept the truth of the biconditional, but if they do accept it, they can still deny consequentialism by maintaining that the left hand side has some kind of (conceptual, epistemological or metaphysical) priority.

    This is one moral I think can be drawn from the debate about consequentializing deontological theories, as in Campbell Brown's "Consequentialize this". If I remember rightly Brown calls the claim that goodness has conceptual priority over rightness because we have an independent grasp of the good Foot's thesis or something like that.

    We can think similarly about the following biconditional:
    A person is virtuous if and only if they are disposed to act rightly
    Virtue theorists, deontologists and consequentialists may all accept the truth of this biconditional (or some more precise version of it). But what is central to virtue ethics is not only that it is true but that the left hand side has priority over the right hand side, or in other words that it's because virtuous people are disposed to certain actions that those actions are right, and not vice versa.

    I don't think I'm disagreeing with you about anything substantive here. I just think it's under appreciated in debates like this, where views are formulated using biconditional analyses, that's what is at issue is not merely the truth of the relevant biconditional (although that is often at issue), but also the Euthyphro question about the relative priority of its right and left hand sides (which is often the more central issue).


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