Utilitarians are not nice people

Such, at least, is the conclusion drawn by writers at the ‘Economist’ who have just reported on the publication, in ‘Cognition’, of a paper that claims (in its title) that ‘Antisocial Personality Traits Predict Utilitarian Responses to Moral Dilemmas’.

Reading the article in the Economist made me recall a report that apparently appeared in the Los Angeles Times a few years ago. In the same it was that reported that when “asked to resolve hypothetical dilemmas — such as tossing a person from a bridge into the path of a trolley to save five others — people with damage to their ventromedial prefrontal cortex tended to sacrifice one life to save many”. Indeed, according to the report, “people with damage to their ventromedial prefrontal cortex” are “about three times as likely to sacrifice one person for the greater good compared with people without brain damage or those with damage in a different part of their brains” (or, rather, this is how they respond to rather unlikely thought experiments). This was based on findings published in Nature by Koeings et al in a paper titled “Damage to the prefrontal cortex increases utilitarian moral judgements” (available as as pdf here)..

The new paper referred to in The Economist (‘The Mismeasure of Morals’) is by Daniel M. Bartels of Columbia University and David A. Pizarro at Cornell University. The two note in their abstract that “Researchers have recently argued that utilitarianism is the appropriate framework by which to evaluate moral judgment, and that individuals who endorse non-utilitarian solutions to moral dilemmas (involving active vs. passive harm) are committing an error.” But they then report on “a study in which participants responded to a battery of personality assessments and a set of [trolley] dilemmas that pit utilitarian and non-utilitarian options against each other. Participants who indicated greater endorsement of utilitarian solutions had higher scores on measures of Psychopathy, machiavellianism, and life meaninglessness.” The authors claim “these results question the widely-used methods by which lay moral judgments are evaluated, as these approaches lead to the counterintuitive conclusion that those individuals who are least prone to moral errors also possess a set of psychological characteristics that many would consider prototypically immoral.”

Bartels and Pizzaro (and indeed the Economist) are keen to stress that the “results do not speak to whether utilitarianism …  is the correct normative ethical theory, as the characteristics of a theory’s proponents cannot determine its normative status”. It is also pointed out by Bartels & Pizzaro that “a variety of researchers have shown that individuals with higher working memory capacity and those who are more deliberative thinkers are, indeed, more likely to approve of utilitarian solutions”.

Still, does it make anybody wonder? Is it wrong if it does?

 

61 Comments.

  1. Bartels and Pizzaro (and indeed the Economist) are keen to stress that the “results do not speak to whether utilitarianism … is the correct normative ethical theory, as the characteristics of a theory’s proponents cannot determine its normative status”.

    Ironically, while this is true for most ethical theorists, it cannot be true for utilitarian-consequentialists. Consequentialists face a theoretical burden that other theorists don’t. For the consequentialist, the right is only a function of the good a theory produces.

    If utilitarianism fosters or enables a psychopathic disposition, then utilitarianism cannot be a viable consequentialist theory for that reason alone. A moral theory that on balance brings about bad consequences cannot be a consequentialist moral theory. On the other hand, if psychopathy fosters utilitarianism, then while utilitarianism might (as it happens) be morally valid, it will have to be kept out of the hands of natural utilitarians. As such, it’s unmotivated.

    So much the worse for Benthamites and the consequentialists. Good riddance to bad rubbish.

  2. Damn Nelson you’re good at this – you really should be blogging more.

    In their hedonic calculations, the fat-man-pushers also don’t seem to take into account just how unhappy the other 90% get about their trolley stopping antics.

  3. I know, I know! I’d like to blog more, but I’ve just gotten into my third year of the doctorate, meaning that it’s publish or perish time. That means, whenever I write for anything besides publication or presentation, I’m kicking my future in the groin.

    And there are other (non-selfish) reasons. Your posts on ethics are incredibly interesting and I can say a lot about them, but I think they deserve more than just the stuff I can say off the top of my head. Also, I don’t want to just rehash the same old points that I’ve already said in other threads. Neither of these things are going to be anywhere near good enough to take the depth of the threat to utilitarianism seriously.

    That said, I’m still thinking about the questions to some extent. e.g., right now I have three papers on my desk by Jonathan Riley (from Utilitas). “J.S. Mill’s Doctrine of Freedom of Expression”, and parts 1 and 2 of “Millian Qualitative Superiorities and Utilitarianism”. Judging by the excellent and fascinating essay he did on utilitarianism without consequentialism (or, as I call it, token-consequentialism), I get the feeling that Riley has got all the answers. But we’ll see.

  4. Ugh — sorry, that was Jacobsen who wrote Utilitarianism without Consequentialism. You can see where my head is at, clearly!

  5. s. wallerstein (ex amos)

    If the vast majority of people consider that pushing the fat man is wrong, then it makes sense that those who would push the fat me (including myself) possess characteristics that the majority of people consider as immoral.

    However, whether Machiavellianism and considering that life is meaningless are “immoral” is precisely the question that we should be considering.

    I for one see no meaning in life and at times in politics Machiavelli is an excellent guide to action. In fact, I’d rather live in a country governed by a Machiavellian than by an idealist filled with illusions or by a fanatic or by a leader who wants to change or democratize the world.

  6. Ah well, yes Benjamin you should focus on your doctorate and on publishing. It’s not selfish to do so – the end you strive for opens up opportunities to do a lot of unselfish good.
    As for the story above, which if I should have tried tacking some arguments onto, one might still wonder if those with “higher scores on measures of Psychopathy, Machiavellianism and life meaninglessness” might still make life better for the other 90%. – perhaps these are the people we need in charge: people not so choked up with empathy that they have the nerve required to sacrifice the few for the many? People willing to divert the path of nuclear bombs so they don’t land on the city but on a smaller town?

    … Ah, hello Amos. Your comments have just arrived right there. Yes, yes… I think you are onto very good points. I think there’s scope for some good arguments here (I just don’t provide them myself).

  7. What’s wrong with being a utilitarian oneself (in that one judges right/wrong in terms of good/bad consequences) but wanting everyone else to be non-utilitarians, because that delivers the best outcomes?

    It would a bit like encouraging people to believe that there are speed cameras all over the place, even though you know there aren’t, because that encourages other drivers to slow down.

    I have a somewhat similar position myself as an atheist who thinks it would be better if more people believed in God. Their lives tend to go better with the false belief.

    Am I missing Benjamin’s point?

  8. Interesting Jeremy,

    It is possible to hold that commitment to the truth of utilitarianism or hedonic consequentialism is not itself conducive to happiness but that the theory is still true. And you could also hold that belief by ‘the masses’ in some other non-consequentialist moral theory is a good thing *on consequentialist grounds* yes. The consequentialist doesn’t care a straw why people do what they do, what is important is whether what they choose to do actually promotes happiness (that does not have to be their aim). If belief in some other moral theory is more likely to cause the populace to act in such a way that they promote the general happiness than belief in the truth of consequentialism then one might prefer them to hold false beliefs. The connection [between] possession of the truth and happiness is not direct and obvious, and happiness cannot be pursued directly (hence the paradox of hedonism).

    Whether you are missing Benjamin’s point or not is a question for Benjamin.
    But perhaps Pascal would suggest you get yourself down to the nearest non-consequentialist Church and try to get yourself persuaded of the truth of another theory?

    Amos,

    I only just caught your comments on the way out earlier. It seems to me you are on to something, fat man pushers are judged to have ‘psychopathic’ attributes by criteria set by the non-utilitarian majority and it is only by assuming that utilitarianism is false that you come to the conclusion that those who subscribe to it are immoral or psychologically unhealthy.

    The belief that ‘life is meaningless’ seems common to many, such as myself, who do not buy into religious doctrine.

    I have some sympathy for the idea that we need a consequentialist in charge. Do we really want a president saying ‘No, we must let the missile land on Los Angeles, it is wrong to divert it onto that small town in the Nevada desert”? Even those opposed to consequentialism generally might agree the powers-that-be must be willing to get dirty hands*.

    * http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/dirty-hands/#ConCon

  9. Jeremy, that’s a valid point. The problem with that possibility is that we have to say that the worth of consequences is only for you to determine. Many people, including myself, would regard that as a violation of the publicity condition of morals, meaning that morals should be understandable for all. That leaves me thinking that it can’t be a fundamental norm in ethics (though it might be a meta-ethic of sorts).

    Putting that aside, there are still deeper questions. One has to ask, where does your authority as a judge of consequences come from? There are two options. Perhaps your authority comes from your skills at determining the whole range of consequences and accurately foreseeing the future. If that’s the case, then we need some independent reasons for thinking that you’re more in touch with the best consequences overall then anyone else. And if your authority comes from something other than consequential abilities, then it’s not clear that it’s a consequentialist doctrine.

    I am sympathetic to the first option. But it requires a rich account of what counts as a consequence, and how to weigh consequences against each other. One problem, just to give an example, is that the fact that we are linguistic animals produces the unusual fact that our intentional states themselves have consequences.

  10. It’s a very interesting question whether or not the personalities of those who hold this or that moral theory are relevant. I’ve been slapped down in the past for saying personalities are relevant, but I’m sticking with my guns! (For now – be aware I have “strong opinions, weakly held”!)

    When trying to decide between rival scientific theories, ideally we test them – and that involves appealing to the observational consequences of each theory. When deciding between rival moral theories, on the other hand, the best we can do is appeal to something analogous to their “observational consequences” – our “pre-theoretical moral stomachs”, maybe, or the way things strike us on a visceral level rather than from the internal perspective of one or other theory.

    As well as “testing” rival moral theories against “observations”, we might look for some “internal” problem – e.g. something that a utilitarian would find troubling according to his own utilitarianism, or a Kantian would find troubling as a Kantian.

    I accept Jim’s and Benjamin’s point that a utilitarian should be troubled by the observation that utilitarians are a bunch of *****s, but I accept the point for different reasons from their reasons. I think everyone on all sides should be put off any moral theory if its proponents seem to behave in ways that strike us on the visceral level as immoral. That’s the “moral theory” equivalent of testing – we’re looking at how rival theories fit with our pre-theoretical “observations”.

    From the “internal” perspective of utilitarianism, I don’t see any problem with a utilitarian just being un-proselytising and hoping no one else gets converted. (Although I’m guessing I’m missing something here.)

    Rival theories such as utilitarianism and Kantianism have internal troubles galore, but I’m not convinced the above is one of them. (Very interesting points by all concerned, however.)

    By the way, as a (non-hedonistic) utilitarian I use the word ‘narcissism’ a lot. This is to create “internal” problems for (and irritate) Kantians. When utilitarians try to act morally, they try to act for the best, by guessing what the consequences will be. But when Kantians try to act morally, they try to act from the best motives, in effect by guessing how blemished their souls would be. And it is troubling – from within a Kantian perspective, note – to reflect on the fact that one’s moral deliberations are focussed on oneself.

  11. Sorry Benjamin, comments crossed in post, will read with interest and reply tomorrow — JB

  12. s. wallerstein (ex amos)

    Jeremy:

    I’m agree with your observation that some moral theories can be seen as narcissistic.

    However, that means that narcissism becomes a deadly sin.

    Can you justify why narcissism is a deadly or meta-sin?

    I guess that one could show that narcissism is bad from a consequentialist point of view, but I don’t think that where you’re coming from.

  13. JB: “I think everyone on all sides should be put off any moral theory if its proponents seem to behave in ways that strike us on the visceral level as immoral.”

    The problem I have with this argument is that “visceral” reactions are not necessarily reliable guides as to whether actions are moral or not. For instance, in Western countries it is considered (by most) to be okay to eat chickens but the idea of dogs on the menu is a “visceral” no-no. Clearly, many “visceral” reactions are both learned and irrational.

  14. The trolly-type problems involve a logical, detached solution and an intuitive, emotional answer.

    Those who are able to bypass the typical intuition and emotion will get the logic “correct.” Other characteristics may be *correlated* with this ability.

    There are two issues with the 1 vs. 5 scenarios that I find complicate things. First, the hypotheticals often involve unrealistic assumptions. In real life, we can’t be *sure* pushing the fat man will save the five or that it was absolutely necessary to kill him to save the others. Most of these scenarios involve a situation that in real life would suggest uncertainty or caution. It might be that people intuitively or emotionally reject the hypothetical for this reason (even if they cannot articulate this as the reason). Perhaps even accepting the hypothetical is, in a sense, giving up on finding another solution.

    Second, these scenarios create a dilemma for a more sophisticated utilitarian: it may seem appropriate to sacrifice 1 for 5 in some one-off unique case, but following simple, bright line rules has its own benefits. Seeing each moral question as a new, unique situation leaves room for self-interest to affect one’s analysis.

  15. Keith,

    The idea of eating dogs does not, I think, strike us as *immoral* on the visceral level. But yes there may be learned ‘local’ moral gut reactions that are ‘irrational’ in that they are merely matters of historical accident. And indeed there do seem to be near-universal moral ‘gut’ reactions that might not be learned but are hard to defend rationally – consensual adult incest springs to mind. Still some things do seem to be bedrock moral ‘facts’ that no argument can touch e.g. ‘torturing children for kicks is wrong’. We simply don’t look for a justification for that, its non-negotiable and any moral theory that claims that such acts are right or permissible we know is faulty.

    But for Jeremy’s claims about judging theories by the behaviour of their proponents not to simply dissolve into a claim about judging a theory on what it demands or permits, prima facie, it seems the agents have to be acting in a way that is contrary to their own theory. If a theory appears impossible to live up to that might suggest to some it is not a good theory. But then this has little to do with ‘visceral’ moral disgust, except in so far as we might be disgusted the hypocrisy of some. Unless, of course, such acts are forbidden by our theory too. If the proponents of a given moral theory seem to have broken ‘commandments’ common to us all more than the proponents of other theories have, then it may, I suppose be taken to show, that the theory fails to motivate people. Or that accepting the theory as a whole – and moral precepts may only be a part of it – is bad for one’s moral character.

    There is another circumstance that springs to mind. If one found the proponents of a given ‘philosophy’ – lets call it theory O – to be unfailingly unpleasant and ill-adjusted individuals one might, I think, not unreasonably be inclined to think there’s something wrong with the theory before wading through the texts of its proponents.

  16. I think personality is relevant as a consequence of holism. To some extent it also applies to scientific theories. For example, take Newton’s laws.

    Because Newton’s laws have to be applied in concert with a big raft of other assumptions (such as that space and time are “absolute” rather than “relative”), when we judge how good Newton’s laws are we have to look at how well they work in situ, in the activities of Newtonians. So we have to ask such questions as: “How well do Newtonians deal with balls rolling down inclined planes?” “Can they predict planetary motion?” “How about projectiles?” Etc.

    Most of us would answer: “They’re great at that stuff! Much better than, say, the impulse theorists who preceded them!”

    Analogously, to some extent proponents of a moral theory embody the theory plus the raft of other assumptions required to put the theory into practice. There are no doubt bad utilitarians and bad Kantians, just as there are bad Newtonians. But there is a loose connection all the same.

    Keith wrote:

    ‘The problem I have with this argument is that “visceral” reactions are not necessarily reliable guides as to whether actions are moral or not.’

    Yes, but to my mind that reflects the fact that “is” and “ought” are very different. To put the point starkly, “there are no moral facts”. Moral claims look like factual claims sometimes because we expect/demand reasons for them (unlike mere expressions of taste such as “chocolate ice cream is nice”). But really all they express is how we would like people to behave. So all we can appeal to at the most basic level is our “visceral” likes or dislikes in people’s behaviour.

    Students who first encounter formal moral theories tend to gravitate towards one or the other guided by little more than feelings on a gut level. For example, people who feel our treatment of animals is unacceptable tend towards utilitarianism, while people who feel lying is unacceptable tend towards Kantianism.

    I agree with Jim’s point that much of the “yuck” factor in eating dogs may be more distaste about food than distaste about behaviour, but I guess some people also have the feeling that dogs are more discerning, playful, intelligent, social, anticipatory, etc. than chickens, and so the suffering of dogs raised for the table must be worse than that of chickens. So there might be a moral component to their “yuck” reaction.

  17. Saying you wouldn’t push the guy on to the tracks isn’t really a problem for utilitarians. It seems evident that the greatest good is served by upholding the principle that people are not to be treated as means to the ends of others. After all, that’s essentially anarchy. It’s one thing to say that the government should perhaps sacrifice one person’s interests, in whole or in part, for the greater good, but no society wishes to encourage individuals to go around “sacrificing” others based on their own personal moral calculus. Essentially, it is more important to uphold the prohibition against murder than to allow someone to commit murder to save a few lives, because the protection that law gives to society outweighs the costs in the specific instance.

  18. Jeremy,

    Yes, I suppose there could be a moral component, on the part of some, to the aversion to killing dogs for food not present when they think of chickens. For most us in the UK and US we have no problems eating pork either – I’m putting aside the special objections of Jews and Muslims – and pigs, seem to have all the attributes one might ascribe of dogs and then some. This suggests to me there’s no rational reason to think that killing a dog to eat is immoral but doing so with a pig is not (though few nowadays could actually bring themselves to kill a pig for all the pork chops they’ll happily eat).

    What is in accord with our (moral) sentiments and what is rational are quite different things of course. I think the ‘moral’ problem (for those who do eat meat) is, as you point to talking of being raised at the table, generated by the fact dogs are creatures many of us will have felt strong affection for and who will have been incorporated into many families and obviously this is not true of pigs for most. So a Westerner who ate dogs for dinner might be viewed with ‘moral’ unease – because he is not displaying the sentimentality of his peers – he appears callous. One can imagine ‘moral’ unease being caused by a someone who keeps pet rabbits and plays with them in the normal way but upon their natural death is happy to skin them and serve them to her pet dogs. It might be eminently sensible – perfectly rational – but some, I think, would feel the behaviour somehow spoke badly of that person’s moral character – their lack of sentimentality would, I think, disturb some greatly. People (edit) view the unsentimental with great suspicion, and there’s nothing more at the root of morailty than sentiment.

  19. Richard

    Its not at all evident, on utilitarian assumptions, that “the greatest good is served by upholding the principle that people are not to be treated as means to the ends of others”. It might be that such a rule proved to have hedonic value but this seems a contingent matter. And we could, of course, have laws that permitted killing somebody to save many and hence no anarchy.

    But even if we didn’t have laws that permitted it you’d shoot the innocent driver to divert the path of the runaway train so it didn’t plough into the elementary school full of thousands of children wouldn’t you – even if it did then go on to kill a handful of workers in a tunnel? Or at least you wouldn’t condemn it surely? If we concede that we are just quibbling on the price.

  20. “we could, of course, have laws that permitted killing somebody to save many and hence no anarchy. ”

    No, you couldn’t. Not really, at any rate. Because then the person who blows up an abortion clinic is justified in his actions (because by his definition of people, he meets your criteria.) The terrorist who flies planes into skyscrapers in order to try to pressure a government into closing down military bases is also justified. Heck, maybe I think politician X’s policies would lead to an increase in poverty, hence more deaths by starvation, violent crime, etc., so why not just assassinate him. And so it would in fact be anarchy. Even a utilitarian can see that giving the state a monopoly on force serves the greater good more than opening the door to that.

    “But even if we didn’t have laws that permitted it you’d shoot the innocent driver to divert the path of the runaway train so it didn’t plough into the elementary school full of thousands of children wouldn’t you”

    And you have to make the lifeboat scenario increasingly ridiculous to try to justify it. The answer, of course, is no. I wouldn’t have a gun, for one — I don’t own one. For another, if he’s innocent he’ll probably turn aside if I were to, you know, ask him to. At the very least reasoning with him would probably be the first step, not homicide. And if, in the final analysis, I did shoot him because for some odd reason that was the only way to save the children, I’d expect to go jail for it, and something would be horribly wrong with a society where I didn’t.

  21. Richard,

    Prima facie the law can prohibit political assassinations and terrorist attacks, whilst making provisions that allow people in emergency situations to take the life of one innocent party if it will save 5, 500, 5000 or whatever.
    Thought experiments are meant to be ridiculous, they act as intuition pumps. You’re trained a s a simper and you know that shooting the driver will cause him not to take the turn he’s due to take or some such. You can fill in the details yourself but yes for some odd reason shooting the train driver will cause the train not to crash into the school but instead to kill a handful of workers. Whether its legal or not, whether it can be legal or not, is it the right thing to do? If you’re man enough to do it and go to jail on that account I applaud you. If you stick to your principles and say no, I won’t kill anybody to save those thousands of children well, you’re true to your principles.

  22. Thought experiments in which you have to choose to kill one to save five (say) often carry an insidious bit of “extraneous noise”, namely, how confident you can be that a course of action will have the intended outcome.

    When we act rationally, we don’t just take account of the desirability of the intended outcome. We also figure in the confidence we have that a course of action will achieve the outcome. For example, suppose I need a new car. How do I get the money? I can save diligently over a few years, or I can buy a lottery ticket. The intended outcome of the former (i.e. ending up with a few thousand) is much less desirable than the intended outcome of the latter (i.e. winning the lottery). But I choose the former because I can be much more confident of achieving the goal that way.

    If someone put a gun to your head and told you to press button A (which will certainly kill five people) or button B (which will certainly kill one person), you would not hesitate to press button B. We do hesitate, however, when confronted with complicated and unlikely-sounding causal chains (such as derailing “trolleys”, whatever they may be) mostly because we naturally figure in the confidence we can have that the intended outcome will be achieved.

    Try as we might to “suspend” our natural urge to take account of this extra factor, it is hard not to because it goes against nature not to. Hesitancy about the thought of chucking someone off a bridge to save a larger number of people might not be the urge to observe a non-utilitarian concept of justice so much as a difficulty imagining that such an act is likely to actually save them.

  23. Hi Jeremy (& Matt Manson if you’ve subscribed)

    Matt raised some aspects of this earlier, that “hypotheticals often involve unrealistic assumptions. In real life, we can’t be *sure* pushing the fat man will save the five or that it was absolutely necessary to kill him to save the others. Most of these scenarios involve a situation that in real life would suggest uncertainty or caution. It might be that people intuitively or emotionally reject the hypothetical for this reason”. As you say, “hesitancy about the thought of chucking someone off a bridge to save a larger number of people might not be the urge to observe a non-utilitarian concept of justice so much as a difficulty imagining that such an act is likely to actually save them”.

    This might suggest that there are more people out there who would sacrifice the fat man for the five if only the outcome was ‘really’ certain. But, I’m still inclined to think that its more that 5 lives just isn’t enough. I can understand the resistance to taking seriously complicated and unlikely-sounding causal chains involving trolleys. And perhaps for everyday purposes a working morality doesn’t need to cover such unlikely events. But I think, given the certainty or high probability of the outcome, most of us have a price at which we’d sell the fat man’s life. These would be extraordinary circumstances perhaps but I think, in principle, very few could hold out for good, and I think they’d have to be of a religious ‘better the heavens fall’ mindset. And I think we need people with the will to make such decisions in the seats of power – men who will not hesitate about whether it is right to divert the nuclear missile from Los Angeles to some small town in the Nevada desert. Ask “would you kill a fat man to save 5 million people?” and almost anybody who takes the thought experiment seriously must surely say ‘yes’ but they think the man who does it for 5 is immoral.

    I’m reminded of the story of the woman who says ‘of, course I’d sleep with you for a million dollars’, but asked if she’d do it for $50, she is affronted and says: “What do you think I am, a hooker?”

    Once you take the thought experiments seriously, I think we’re just haggling over the price. I think nearly every man has one.

    But all that said… “If someone put a gun to your head and told you to press button A (which will certainly kill five people) or button B (which will certainly kill one person), you would not hesitate to press button B.” Isn’t this exactly the type of fact that the likes of the Nazis depended on? You gas all the old men because otherwise they’d shoot you all?

  24. Hi Jim,

    “Isn’t this exactly the type of fact that the likes of the Nazis depended on?”

    Of course – it’s a monstrous scenario. But don’t let the wickedness of the person holding the gun to your head distract you from the salient features of the choice. Your epistemic confidence in achieving each outcome is the same, so that the two options only differ in the desirability of the outcomes. (Avoiding five deaths is more desirable than avoiding one death.)

    With trolley cases, we have to pretend to ourselves that the options only differ in respect of the desirability of the outcomes. That’s difficult, because in real life they would also differ greatly in respect of our epistemic confidence in achieving them. (Throwing one guy off a bridge is very likely to result in his death, whereas a long unlikely chain of causes and effects is quite unlikely to result in saving five people).

    An effort of the imagination is required to imagine the external scenario of the trolley and the bridge, etc. An extra, separate effort is required to imagine a further internal scenario in which we would have the same epistemic confidence in each outcome. I’m not convinced anyone can make that extra effort.

  25. Hi Benjamin,

    “The problem with that possibility is that we have to say that the worth of consequences is only for you to determine.”

    Whenever we act, we judge “for ourselves” the desirability of our intended goal. That doesn’t mean that the “objective” value of the goal is determined by our wills, just that we are the judges.

    To see this, consider a simple-minded, self-interested businessman who just wants to make as much money as possible. That is, he just wants to rake in dollars, and as many as he can. How much dollars are worth in the market is an “objective” matter (of exchange rates, or whatever). In judging whether this or that business deal will actually make large numbers of dollars, he has to make a judgement about how effective each course of action will be. That’s essentially what all agents do when they act.

    Analogously, when acting morally, a preference utilitarian tries to satisfy preferences as much as possible, to the best of his own judgement. He has chosen to satisfy preferences because he is a preference utilitarian. There are “objective” facts about other agents’ preferences – about how strong these preferences are, and how successfully the utilitarian’s actions will actually satisfy them, and so on – just as there are “objective” facts about how much money a business deal will actually make. But so what? Every agent has to judge as best he can given the limited information available to him, and every agent is fallible.

    “Many people, including myself, would regard that as a violation of the publicity condition of morals, meaning that morals should be understandable for all.”

    I don’t recognize the “publicity condition of morals”. I’m not sure utilitarians have to worry about it. I can see how “laws of the land” have to be understandable to most of those who abide by them, but this is morality, not the law. For most utilitarians, morality has nothing to do with rules.

    “One has to ask, where does your authority as a judge of consequences come from?”

    Who needs “authority” to be a judge of consequences? Just as a self-interested businessman judges as best he can, without any external “authority”, so does a non-self-interested utilitarian.

    “There are two options. Perhaps your authority comes from your skills at determining the whole range of consequences and accurately foreseeing the future. If that’s the case, then we need some independent reasons for thinking that you’re more in touch with the best consequences overall then anyone else.”

    A businessman doesn’t need to have supernatural powers of judging the markets to be a good businessman – he doesn’t even need to be a better businessman than anyone else. Similarly, a utilitarian doesn’t need omniscient powers to read other agents’ interests. Often, he just guesses.

    “And if your authority comes from something other than consequential abilities, then it’s not clear that it’s a consequentialist doctrine.”

    Hmm… sorry, I don’t understand your supposition that some sort of “authority” is needed. Perhaps this is a “hangover” assumption of non-consequentialist thinking?

  26. Hi Jeremy,

    JH: “Isn’t this exactly the type of fact that the likes of the Nazis depended on?”

    JB: Of course – it’s a monstrous scenario. But don’t let the wickedness of the person holding the gun to your head distract you from the salient features of the choice.

    No, its not the wickedness of the person holding the gun that distracts me… but I am distracted by unfocused concerns..

    You arrive at the camps and you and everybody that got off that particular rain will be shot if a big enough group of you don’t co-operate and help gas and bury the old and the young from your train. Either all of you off that train will die or only the ones that can’t work (or refuse to co-operate) will. The latter is, prima facie, consequentially a better outcome in your account (others, not absurdly, think its better you all die than the survivors become party to the murder of children). But then the whole ‘final solution’ project only works because the Nazis know there will be enough consequentialists (and egoists) on each train. The guards can’t shoot and dispose of the bodies of all the people off every train. Would the better informed consequentialist refuse to co-operate? Given that he also knows he will just end up getting shot and enough people will co-operate anyway? As you indicate, if only enough people believed consequentialism was false the consequences would be better. Better they wrongly believe that, in principle, its better five men die than those five men become child murderers.

    Shouldn’t you be deceitfully arguing against utilitarianism anyway? Isn’t it immoral to defend your beliefs?

    Im just musing…

  27. ps what is your utility function anyway?

  28. Hi Jim!

    “ps what is your utility function anyway?”

    I accept Peter Singer’s “minimal moral position”:

    Trivially, we all act in ways that satisfy our own preferences. As soon as we start to think morally, we are obliged to treat the preferences of other agents as we already treat our own.

    Singer’s “argument” here (if it is one) is that the universalizable nature of morality commits us at least to the “minimal” moral position of preference utilitarianism.

    I’m just unusual in being unprepared to go any further that that.

  29. Hi Jeremy,

    Ah yes, I’d missed your reply to Benjamin, you make your position clearer there. I got distracted thinking about Nazis… you end up with them at some point if you hang around the intuition-pumps.

    I can concede your point that many people may have trouble imagining the certainty of the outcome that tends to come packaged with trolley talk, though I don’t think its beyond the abilities of everybody to make that effort.

    Should people need 100% certainties in these moral dilemmas anyway? It depends how you cash in your consequentialism I suppose, but is it actual consequences we should judge? Is it not rather objectively probable (and reasonably foreseeable consequences) we should be concerned with anyway (even if we don’t care a fig about the motive)? IF its right to push the fat man when its absolutely certain he will stop the trolley, surely its right to do it even if there is some chance it won’t work (as there always is outside thought experiments), and its remains the right thing to have done even if by some unlikely chain of events the plan fails?

    … Preference utilitarianism, yes that fits, is it unusual you go minimal? It seems unusual if you have a moral theory – any non-religious moral theory – that you are really committed to across the board. I suspect outside philosophy forums, seminars and publications almost nobody is really a utilitarian (minimal or otherwise) or a Kantian through thick and thin, the bullets they may bite in discussions aren’t real ones, and neither are the lives they take or save in thought experiments. It’s not just a case of moralists not having the nerve to do what they know is right, it’s a case of them coming to the conclusion that their theory doesn’t really cover the real world and all its complexities if they come into contact with it.

  30. s. wallerstein (ex amos)

    Jim:

    I agree with you that no one or almost no one applies a theory, Kantian or utilitarian or otherwise, in their daily life.

    Wouldn’t it be more profitable to begin to talk about how we make decisions in the real world?

    By “we”, I mean the participants in this forum, since I don’t expect much from established moralists.

    I suspect that it’s as difficult or more difficult to get most people to speak honestly about their day to day morality (I’m not talking about once a year donations to worthy causes or signing petitions in internet, but about how we treat others and our motives for doing so at work, at home, in the street, in the supermarket, etc. ) than about their sex lives, but we can try.

    How about posting on the subject?

    The point isn’t to produce confessions or mea culpas, but analysis about who we are in ethical terms instead of who we would like to think that we are.

    Thanks.

  31. Amos,

    “Wouldn’t it be more profitable to begin to talk about how we make decisions in the real world?”

    Hmm, maybe so…

    First off, I’d want to say I’m very much open to any ideas you may have for future blogs. If you’ve ideas you like to see put out there for discussion I’m happy to talk to you about them. I did wonder if I should canvass people about the ideas they would like to discuss – I suppose I can at least canvass opinion on the idea of canvassing them here :)

    I know it’s the discussions that I have got the most out of though my time spent on here and I’d like to facilitate that, though maybe it has to be organic, and maybe its also the case that I’m better commenting on the blogs of others than blogging, maybe I’ll find my feet, maybe not..

    As for what you suggest, it does sound interesting…try and get most people to speak honestly about their day to day morality, analysis of who we really are in ethical terms…

    Any more thoughts about how we could best do that Amos – and everybody else your opinions on how – and if – this is best done?

  32. Hi Jim

    You raise a couple of interesting questions:

    “Should people need 100% certainties in these moral dilemmas anyway?”

    No, I would say epistemic symmetry is enough to illustrate that most people choose the less bad option. With button A and button B, you cannot be certain that the buttons are working properly, or that the person holding the gun to your head isn’t deceiving you. But as long as there is nothing to choose between the buttons epistemically, the only thing that can guide your choice is the respective desirability of outcomes.

    “It depends how you cash in your consequentialism I suppose, but is it actual consequences we should judge?”

    Yes. I’m what you might call an actualist. I say morally, we should always act for the best – i.e. for the best actual consequences.

    A lot of people will have real difficulties with that, because it entails leaving praise or blame out of moral consideration altogether. According to my form of actualism, an agent does the (morally) right thing even if he intends to do the wrong thing but sheer good luck thwarts his intentions. (As of course it won’t do very often.) He doesn’t deserve praise when things go right, any more than the person who meant well but caused a disaster deserves blame. But those are not moral issues. By keeping culpability and morality separate, our moral deliberation can always be focused on bringing about the best actual consequences.

    Of course, in non-moral contexts we still want to talk about praise and blame – we judge character by what agents intend to do, the legal system has to judge legal responsibility, and so on. But these are matters of personal aesthetics and the law, not morality. Moral deliberation remains a (philosophically) simple matter of trying to act for the best, not trying to avoid blame.

    This decoupling of morality and blame requires a big conceptual jump for most people, perhaps even a “paradigm shift”. I would liken it to the move from Newtonian to Relativistic physics. From one side of the divide, the claims of the other side might seem obviously false or absurd, but this is mostly because the “meanings” of some of the terms involved have changed, as always happens across theory change. From my perspective on the other side of the divide, morality just isn’t a matter of blame.

    (The analogy of the simple-minded businessman might help here. He’s not trying to look like someone making the right decisions, but trying to make actual money.)

  33. Hi Jeremy,

    I was still pondering on ‘fat-man-pushers generally rather than pressing you on your particular position….
    If it’s only the actual consequences of an act that counts morally:

    (1) then if A doesn’t know about the runaway trolley, and he pushes the fat man off the bridge for a laugh and it has the unexpected effect of saving many workers at the expense of the few then morally he has committed the right act.

    (2) if B is acting to bring about the outcome of saving the many workers (maybe his motives are selfish – he’d lose money if the five die and he dislikes the fat man – it matters not a jot), and he has grounds for having great certainty that pushing the fat man will work, and only it will work, he commits a morally wrong act if, by some very unlikely chain of events, the plan fails.

    In that case its not just that motives don’t matter, and that there can be moral luck, its that to call act X ‘moral’ just reduces to saying that X just so happened to have a ‘happy’ outcome (hedonically or, indeed, in terms of preference satisfaction). And if that is all C is concerned about, why bring does he bother with the word ‘moral’ at all? It doesn’t seem to do any work (you say “in non-moral contexts we still want to talk about praise and blame – we judge character by what agents intend to do” – it does indeed seem much more plausible to say that praise/blame attribution is ‘moral’ judging than anything C does, even if we think character is not what should be the primary ‘thing’ of moral judgement).

    ‘I say morally, we should always act for the best – i.e. for the best actual consequences.’ We ‘should always act for the best’ must surely mean that morally we should try to bring about the best outcomes (hedonically or preference-wise). But acting with the aim of bringing about the best outcome (hedonically or preference-wise) doesn’t make an act moral it only (presumably) increases the odds that it might turn out to be so.

    So you have a moral obligation to try and bring about the outcome of saving 5 workers over the one (and/or the fat man). But your act is morally wrong if it fails to achieve that outcome. You did what you were morally obliged to do but the act you committed was morally wrong?

  34. s. wallerstein (ex amos)

    Jim,

    My ethical baggage is a complicated mess of rules, principles, virtues and limits, which often have no connection with each other and at times contradict one another.

    What’s more, I’m not sure why they need to form a coherent whole and why they cannot contradict one another.

    It’s not hypocrisy because first of all, I believe in A when I act on A and I believe in not exactly A when I act on not exactly A and because second of all, I don’t preach either A or not exactly A or make a public show of either.

    In fact, one of my few consistent principles is “don’t preach”.

    It’s not opportunism either because I am capable of acting on A when according to normal standards of self-interest
    (money, social status, obtaining a sex partner), it would be “wiser” for me to not act on A.

    Why do I sometimes act on A and sometimes on not exactly A? It seems right to me. However, I’m not using “right” in the normal moral sense. Actually, I give “right” a semi-aesthetic sense as in “that ending of the novel seems right to me”.

    Is there a method in my madness?

    Well, there is a definite set of principles, rules, virtues, limits, etc., on which I act. If I took the time, I could describe or list them. For example, “don’t preach”.

    What seems less clear is whether there is a some metaprinciple or metarule which dictates what is right in any given situation.

    Now, my ethical mentality may be idiosyncratic, but I have noticed that other people are very inconsistent in their ethical behavior and I suspect that rather than being deliberately hypocritical or machiavellian, they simply have a sometimes contradictory and inconsistent internal set of principles and rules, etc. as I do.

  35. Amos,

    Yes it sounds like your moral life is conducted in the real world, without the nonsense of dogma.

    When it comes to our messy moral and political world, we should be very wary indeed of people who say there is a simple answer. I am not inclined to think there is some first principle from which we can identify what is the right act in all cases even in principle.

    Any thoughts on moral particularism ?

    http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/moral-particularism/

  36. Hi Jim

    You wrote:

    “If it’s only the actual consequences of an act that counts morally:

    (1) then if A doesn’t know about the runaway trolley, and he pushes the fat man off the bridge for a laugh and it has the unexpected effect of saving many workers at the expense of the few then morally he has committed the right act.”

    Exactly – although of course no one would praise him for it. Symmetrically, suppose another trolley is coasting along out of control, and the driver accidentally kills everyone on board by derailing it while doing his best to stop it by pulling on the brake. He “shouldn’t have done that”, because the outcome was very bad, but of course he deserves no blame for it, any more than the laughing fat-man-pusher deserves praise for what he did.

    I’m quite serious when I say this requires a “paradigm shift”. You have to completely re-think the way the word ‘ought’ is used, just as physicists had to re-think the way the word ‘mass’ was used. They had to deal with “rest mass” and “relativistic mass”, the former being an unimportant “shadow” cast by the central concept of the older theory. Analogously, there are two senses of ‘ought’ now – one of mere personal aesthetics and the other of moral deliberation – and again the former is just an unimportant “shadow” cast by the central concept of the older theory.

    “if that is all C is concerned about, why bring does he bother with the word ‘moral’ at all?”

    He uses the word ‘moral’ for the same reason as relativistic physicists continue to use the word ‘mass’, although it does not apply to exactly the same thing as it did in the older theory. In the most important moral context – that of deliberation, of trying to work out what one “morally ought” to do – utilitarianism says you ought to act for the best, with no regard whatsoever for one’s supposed “obligations”. Concepts such as obligation, praise, blame, etc. properly belong to the realm of personal aesthetics (for want of a better word – whatever we call it, it is morally irrelevant from the “actualist” utilitarian perspective.)

    “So you have a moral obligation to try and bring about the outcome of saving 5 workers”

    We morally ought to save the 5 workers. If nothing more than that is meant by saying we “have a moral obligation” to save them, OK, but the temptation is to read much more than that into the word ‘obligation’. We are inclined to read so much more into it, in fact, that I’d prefer to say there’s simply no such thing as moral obligation.

    So I’d prefer to say: “yes, we morally ought to save the 5 workers, but no, have no moral obligation to do so, because obligation is a matter of social aesthetics rather than morality.” If I may mix analogies, rather than saying “so the burning building is filling with phlogiston…” we should say “yes, it’s burning, but no, it’s not filling with phlogiston”.

    Concepts such as “obligation” are indeed important in many social contexts – complying with the law, doing one’s professional duty, making oneself popular, etc. We need to retain the language of culpability, in those contexts. But it just muddies the water when we are trying to decide what we ought to do morally.

    “acting with the aim of bringing about the best outcome (hedonically or preference-wise) doesn’t make an act moral it only (presumably) increases the odds that it might turn out to be so.”

    Yes, that’s right I think.

    “So you have a moral obligation to try and bring about the outcome of saving 5 workers over the one (and/or the fat man). But your act is morally wrong if it fails to achieve that outcome.”

    I don’t like the word ‘obligation’ here. I prefer to say: “I ought to try and save five by killing one. If I fail to achieve that, I didn’t do what I should have done.”

    “You did what you were morally obliged to do but the act you committed was morally wrong?”

    I think this illustrates the sort of trick the word ‘obligation’ plays on us. Here, it equivocates between judging my motives, and judging the actual consequences of my action.

  37. s. wallerstein (ex amos)

    Jim:

    I confess that I’ve never heard of moral particularism. I invented my system or lack of system myself.

    However, I’ll read the link you sent with interest.

    Thanks.

  38. Hi Jeremy,

    Few would praise either: A on account of the *outcome* (& motive) he aimed for and B – even if he had succeeded – on account of the *motives* behind his outcome. I’m not surprised you discount the moral value of motives. (Its important to get clear on the distinction between intended outcome and motive). Its (2) I find the surprising result – the acts of B are wrong because he failed to achieve the outcome intended in your account (I appreciate you think its is supposed to strike me as odd but I see no reason why I should stop thinking its odd).

    Praising and blaming, in response to motives or intended outcomes, misguided or otherwise, is moral blaming and praising – that just is a factual description of what people are doing when they praise and blame people for their motives or intended outcomes. What rethinking is to be done about how we use the word ‘ought’ morally? There is the matter of fact about how it is in fact used and that seems about it.

    Going ‘hurrah that was lucky’ or ‘damn that’s a pity’ in response to the consequences of actions with no resort to the question of the intended outcome (or the motive) just doesn’t seem like moral judgment at all. So much so that I don’t rather think the word ‘moral’ is simply being misused. It seems you want to employ ‘moral’ to mean, on the basis of the actual outcome ‘it’s lucky he did that’ and ‘immoral’ to mean “it’s a pity that didn’t work”.

    There seems some rationale behind the physicist’s use of the word ‘mass’, I still see no rationale behind using the word ‘moral’ here, some acts have favourable outcomes, some don’t, the roulette wheel spins, where the ball lands may be a favourable or unfavourable outcome but its not a moral or immoral outcome.

    “utilitarianism says you ought to act for the best, with no regard whatsoever for one’s supposed ‘obligations’” …

    hmm, well then your utilitarianism *seems* to say you have an *obligation* to act for the best…

    “yes, we morally ought to save the 5 workers, but no, have no moral obligation to do so, because obligation is a matter of social aesthetics rather than morality.”

    You don’t like talk of ‘moral obligations’ okay but what work does ‘morally ought’ do if it doesn’t suggest ‘moral obligations’?

    You want ‘ought’ to apply retrospectively and contingently, it seems, D did what he ought to have done, if the actual outcome so happens to maximise preference satisfaction or happiness. But what then does it mean to say you ‘ought’ to maximize preference satisfaction?

    All your ‘ought’ seems to mean is ‘hurrah – your acts happened to maximize happiness or preference satisfaction’.

    JH: “So you have a moral obligation to try and bring about the outcome of saving 5 workers over the one (and/or the fat man). But your act is morally wrong if it fails to achieve that outcome.”

    JB: “I think this illustrates the sort of trick the word ‘obligation’ plays on us. Here, it equivocates between judging my motives, and judging the actual consequences of my action.”

    No, its not judging motives. I am judging intended outcome. Your motive for trying to save the 5 and killing the fat man can be very unpleasant or it might be very noble. What I’m suggesting is that it is more plausible to say that it is the outcome aimed at – saving the five for whatever motive – that is important morally not the actual outcome that comes with the roll of the dice.

    There’s a lot of interesting things being said, I’m rushed a but now, and I don’t know that I’ll have time to get to the bottom of it here. But interesting nonetheless…

  39. Hi Jim,

    “No, its not judging motives. I am judging intended outcome.”

    It is judging a mental state. Whatever we choose to call it, it occurs in the head of the agent before he acts, rather than in the world outside his head after he acts.

    The sort of moral deliberation I am arguing for involves trying to anticipate how the world outside my head will be arranged after I act. It does not involve asking myself if my mental state before I act is praiseworthy or blameworthy.

    “Praising and blaming, in response to motives or intended outcomes, misguided or otherwise, is moral blaming and praising”

    That strikes me as nothing more than an assertion of traditional, non-consequentialism.

    “just is a factual description of what people are doing when they praise and blame people for their motives or intended outcomes”.

    Non-consequentialists use the word ‘moral’ for this activity, but consequentialists like myself might use the word ‘narcissism’. We use different words because we hold different theories, not because one of us has failed to grasp the supposed fact (a linguistic fact?) that other people call this activity “moral”. Analogously, Lavoisier and Priestley used different words for the same thing. Lavoisier didn’t use the word ‘oxygen’ because he had failed to grasp a linguistic fact about how Priestley used the word ‘dephlogisticated air’, but because he thought that linguistic fact reflected a deeper error.

  40. Hi Jeremy,

    JH: “No, its not judging motives. I am judging intended outcome.”

    JB: “It is judging a mental state. Whatever we choose to call it,”

    Let’s call it what it is Jeremy – its not a motive.

    The arguments for judging intended or expected outcomes as opposed to actual outcomes are presumably something you have come across. Bob gives the stranded stranger $5 to go get the bus home. Maybe he does this with the motive of impressing his mistress, maybe his motive is that he just wants this black person to leave his nice white town. But the expected and intended outcome is that the stranger will get home safely. The bus crashes and the stranger dies, if Bob had acted differently it would (as it turns out) have been better. On your account the act was also morally wrong although Bob is blameless. You leave yourself no room to start talking about foreseeable, intended or likely consequences. You just call the act ‘morally wrong’ and this seems to mean nothing more than ‘that was unlucky’. You can bite that bullet but don’t expect to actually persuade anybody.

    JH: “Praising and blaming, in response to motives or intended outcomes, misguided or otherwise, is moral blaming and praising”

    JB: That strikes me as nothing more than an assertion of traditional, non-consequentialism.

    I am happy to admit the possibility that what they should be attaching moral value to is not motives but I still contend, as a matter of fact, what they are doing is attaching moral value to motives – it is *moral* blame and praise – it is not non-moral clapping and booing.

    JH: “just is a factual description of what people are doing when they praise and blame people for their motives or intended outcomes”.

    JB: “Non-consequentialists use the word ‘moral’ for this activity, but consequentialists like myself might use the word ‘narcissism’.

    No, most people accept that what those people are doing is giving *moral* praise and blame (as in making ‘ethical evaluations’ not as in being morally correct) whether they agree with them or not. The imbecile who judges you immoral for being an atheist or a homosexual or whatever on account of his silly religious beliefs is judging you morally (as in ‘ethically’ not ‘correctly’).

    There is no need to, and no advantage from deciding to, change the meaning of words, we can just argue over what should be judged moral or immoral: should it be motives, actual consequences or character etc. Throwing phrases like ‘narcissism’ around sounds quite unhelpful if you want useful debate, I suspect there are very few who think otherwise. It sounds a bit Ayn Rand to me.

    I don’t know whether you have failed to grasp the linguistic fact about the words ‘moral’ and the word ‘ought’ when used in a moral context or whether you think there is some advantage in deciding to use those words that in a way that only makes sense if you accept the truth of your theory.

    In neither case does it help you.

  41. Hi Jim

    Hope you’re enjoying the discussion/disagreement as much as I am!

    JH: “No, its not judging motives. I am judging intended outcome.”

    JB: “It is judging a mental state. Whatever we choose to call it,”

    JH: “Let’s call it what it is Jeremy – its not a motive.”

    JB: So, IS it a mental state?

    JH: “You leave yourself no room to start talking about foreseeable, intended or likely consequences.”

    I have unlimited “room” for talking about those things! But as a consequentialist, I believe talk of those things belongs to psychology, epistemology, politics, etc – not ethics. If you say they have to belong to ethics, you’re simply ruling a rival theory out without trying to understand it properly. That would be like a someone saying special relativity must be wrong because “we already know mass is an intrinsic property of matter”.

    JH: “You just call the act ‘morally wrong’ and this seems to mean nothing more than ‘that was unlucky’.”

    In that case you may not be reading carefully enough. Luck obviously has something to do with it, just as luck is a factor in almost all human pursuits, such as making money, science, art, etc. But it is very far from having everything to do with any of the above.

    Why expect morality to be any different? – I submit: because you want there to be such as thing as a blameless act. But that’s just non-consequentialism again. You’ve got to make the effort to think like the other side to criticise it properly.

    JH: “You can bite that bullet but don’t expect to actually persuade anybody.”

    Well, I don’t expect to persuade people whose theoretical parochialism is too severe for them to genuinely consider the alternative theory. Rival moral theories are especially bad for this, because moral indignation so effectively “suspends disbelief”. But I expect philosophers to have the intellectual discipline and intelligence to be able to look at things a different way occasionally.

    JH: “I am happy to admit the possibility that what they should be attaching moral value to is not motives but I still contend, as a matter of fact, what they are doing is attaching moral value to motives – it is *moral* blame and praise – it is not non-moral clapping and booing.”

    Of course they are attaching what they think is moral praise and blame, because they are non-consequentialists! That’s what you’d expect! But in any case, I think it is quite unlike “clapping and booing”. It is a vital matter of personal and social interaction, and a serious matter for law courts. It just should not play any part in moral deliberation… It is a hangover of traditional religious thinking in which the point of morality was to “keep your soul free of blemishes”.

  42. Hi Jeremy,

    ‘Hope you’re enjoying the discussion/disagreement as much as I am!’

    I imagine so. I don’t have time these days to engage in things indefinitely, sometimes I have to cut things short and get on with other things, but I wouldn’t engage beyond the minimal courtesies if it wasn’t fun. The clock is ticking though…

    “JB: So, IS it a mental state?” – Yes that is the right question to ask.

    By using ‘intended’ I have sort of painted myself into that unintended corner. But we can reject actual consequence consequentialism without resorting to saying its mental states that matter. One could say it is what is objectively probable that counts without moving very far from your position. And we can move further away – and stay in the realm of what is loosely called consequentialism – without saying that what matters is anything inside the actual agent’s head as such, we can judge the reasonably foreseeable consequences of an act. There are a number of reasons why people are tempted to move along those lines.

    JH: “You just call the act ‘morally wrong’ and this seems to mean nothing more than ‘that was unlucky’.”
    JB: Luck obviously has something to do with it, just as luck is a factor in almost all human pursuits…”

    Ok, for you, being moral is more like poker than games of pure chance, except you can win without trying to or indeed even if you are trying not to win that game. What counts is if you hit upon what happens to satisfy the most preferences (these being the mental states you value) .

    “Well, I don’t expect to persuade people whose theoretical parochialism is too severe for them to genuinely consider the alternative theory…”

    I, along with most people – philosophers and non-philosophers – think actual consequence consequentialism is deeply implausible and riddled with problems. That’s all I mean to point out. And most of us with some education in philosophy have looked at actual consequence consequentialism in introductory or historical settings, its just that, along with ethical egoism there doesn’t usually seem much call to revisit it again afterward…

    “Of course [non-consequentialsts] are attaching what they think is moral praise and blame, because they are non-consequentialists! “

    Sorry, but I honestly can’t take seriously the notion that all these people only *think* they attributing moral praise and blame and that you have a vague error theory relating to religion which shows they aren’t doing what they think they are doing, and what nearly everybody agrees they are doing. I’m only open to the idea that they are attaching moral value to the wrong things.

    tick tock tick tock (:

  43. can you be explicit on Bob and the bus fare.. was his act morally wrong?

    (there are moves you can make you know to avoid that bullet)

  44. s. wallerstein (ex amos)

    Jim:

    The article on moral particularism is very thought-provoking, so thought-provoking that I will need some time to sort out my thoughts about it.

    In any case, I do not think that I am a moral particularist in the sense that the article outlines that position, although my position and that of the author coincide in some respects.

    (For one thing, the author seems to believe in Morality–with a capital letter– more than I do.)

    Thanks once again.

  45. Not at all Amos.

    I will have to try and devote time to reading it too. It was something I’d had cause to look up at one point and it came to mind.

    I’m think I’m glad you haven’t found an ‘ism’ for your morality really. I don’t want morality with a capital M either – it rather makes you expect a copyright symbol.

    Would you consider writing something yourself?

  46. Hi Jim,

    “One could say it is what is objectively probable that counts without moving very far from your position.”

    But I have no reason at all to do that, since my form of consequentialism leaves nothing out. If you think it leaves something out, say what.

    Furthermore, I have a very good independent reason not to: as far as I am concerned, “objectively probable” is an oxymoron.

    In my opinion, epistemic probability is just another way of talking about “how much something ought to be believed”, which differs from one agent to the next, depending on their other beliefs, which brings us right back to mental states. (Statistical “probability” — i.e. relative frequency — is another matter, of course).

  47. Hi Jim,

    “The bus crashes and the stranger dies, if Bob had acted differently it would (as it turns out) have been better. On your account the act was also morally wrong although Bob is blameless.”

    Yes, but remember mine is the “minimal” moral position. Saying the act was immoral means nothing more than “he ought not to have done it”.

    The narrator of a movie might say “Bob thought he knew it all, but that dark night he made a mistake — he boarded the ill-fated bus”. There are clearly some contexts in which we might say a “mistake” was made, from a God’s-eye point of view perhaps. This will seem much more natural once you make the (admittedly very big and effort-demanding) conceptual leap to seeing that morality has nothing to do with blame.

    Blame is for punishment, etc. — the realm of law, personal ostracism, etc. rather than morality.

  48. Hi Jeremy,

    Okay, so Bob gives the $5 to the stranded stranger, and that is an immoral act because it is a necessary chain in the causal story that leads to the death of the stranded stranger (though the consequence was neither intended or foreseeable). As are Bob’s decisions to take money out of the ATM and to walk home through the bus station presumably. And the bus driver’s decision to sell the stranger a ticket is immoral too. As was the decision made by the over-cautious driver in front of the bus that caused the bus to be delayed a few seconds, if that had not happened the bus would not have hit the fire brigade vehicle. And the fire crew acted immorally by responding to the call because it resulted in the stranger’s death. All the causally necessary acts that lead up to an event that does not maximize preference satisfaction are immoral.

    Except there never is any knowledge whether an act is moral or immoral or not – are there even any matters of fact to know? – because there are all sorts of consequences to every act stretching out across the years… and there’s all the counterfactuals too… and you don’t take up the option of restricting what does and doesn’t count..

    So we have, and never have, any moral knowledge.

    But given that ‘moral’ only mean ‘happened to maximize preference satisfaction’ and ‘immoral’ only means ‘happened not to maximize preference satisfaction’ it doesn’t much matter to anybody.

    We all continue praising and blaming people for their characters and motives, just as long as we change our linguistic practices and don’t use the word ‘moral’ here as these are matters of aesthetics and law and they have nothing to do with morality.

    And you have a principle that is no guide to action, you remain in permanent in ignorance what is ‘moral’ and and nothing much hangs on it.

    I can live with that actually…

  49. Hi Jim,

    Many of the objections you raise to consequentialism apply just as well to the simple-minded self-interested businessman trying to “rake in dollars”. When they are so applied, they reveal themselves to be toothless.

    For example, the businessman doesn’t need to be certain, or omniscient, or infallible, or blameless, or immune to error, or always motivated by greed, anything of that sort to just make money. Luck does have something to do with it, but judgement, ability to anticipate, business nous, etc. have more to do with it. Some self-interested businessmen are very talented at what they do, although we don’t find it admirable.

    A good consequentialist is very different from the self-interested businessman in the sort of consequences he is trying to promote, of course, but no special cause-and-effect or epistemological problems arise for him that do not arise equally for the businessman. We might re-read your own formulation of the problems substituting the word ‘profitable’ for ‘moral’ and ‘unprofitable’ for ‘immoral’.

    “Bob gives the $5 to the stranded stranger, and that is an immoral act because it is a necessary chain in the causal story that leads to the death of the stranded stranger (though the consequence was neither intended or foreseeable).”

    Yes. If that sounds odd to you, you’re probably bringing the wrong expectations to the discussion. Those expectations belong to a rival moral theory – one that focusses on culpability rather than consequences. But you must leave Newtonian expectations at the door when you enter the temple of Relativity! You seem to keep forgetting that this is the “minimal” moral theory, and it assumes that blame has absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with morality.

    Blame is for retribution, not moral deliberation. One of the strengths of my consequentialism is that the only legitimate forms of punishment are self-protection, example to others, and atonement. Retribution is immoral, and we should not allow it. Many would find that a more humane alternative to the non-consequentialist urge to give wrong-doers what they “deserve”.

    “As are Bob’s decisions to take money out of the ATM and to walk home through the bus station presumably. And the bus driver’s decision to sell the stranger a ticket is immoral too. As was the decision made by the over-cautious driver in front of the bus that caused the bus to be delayed a few seconds, if that had not happened the bus would not have hit the fire brigade vehicle. And the fire crew acted immorally by responding to the call because it resulted in the stranger’s death. All the causally necessary acts that lead up to an event that does not maximize preference satisfaction are immoral.”

    Yes, but you’ve got to remember that all of the above acts would normally result in good consequences. Each of the agents involved had good reasons to do what he did, given the information available to them, and are not just blameless but entirely praiseworthy for trying to to the right thing. I have to stress once again that culpability is not part of moral deliberation! That is a very different moral theory from the one you are used to, so no wonder it sounds odd at first.

    “Except there never is any knowledge whether an act is moral or immoral or not – are there even any matters of fact to know?”

    Of course there is, and of course there are. A simple-minded self-interested businessman can recognize a “good deal” when he sees one and successfully act in profitable ways, there are facts of the matter about “profitable” and “unprofitable” behaviour. (“Profitable” acts have the consequence of making a profit, and morally right acts have the consequence of satisfying preferences in general.)

    Perhaps we differ in that you are using a “Cartesian” concept of knowledge according to which all knowledge must be certain, but that’s a different story. (I would urge a sort of reliabilism instead.)

  50. Jeremy,

    No, no.. these aren’t objections – this is what commends your theory: the resulting moral scepticism and lack of practical import are in its favour.

    We can now get over talking about ‘morality’ all together.

    I applaud it and commend it to the house.

  51. s. wallerstein (ex amos)

    Dancy, the philosopher who wrote the article on Moral Particularism, is trying to think some things through on his own. He is not reviewing the literature or trying to win an argument or pushing a system.

    All of the above make it a valuable article.

    What is missing from the article are examples. Any article on moral particularism would be better, in my opinion, if it builds on examples, since moral particularism starts from the concrete, not from the abtract.

    It also may be that Dancy attempts to systematize what is not systematic, moral particularism.

    Now, my “particularism” may have a certain unity or regularity, but that unity would tend to be psychological, I (and most people) being a creature of habit.

    Some people are more unified than others: that is, some people have more predictable or more fixed habits.

    That would be true for ethical habits too.

    (I was unfair to Dancy when I said that he speaks of Morality with a capital “m”. I’m not sure what I meant, but I meant something, which it will take me a while to
    understand.)

  52. Peter Singer (who defended a very similar position to mine) called his book _Practical Ethics_ because he felt it gave more rather than less practical guidance in ethical decision-making.

    In guiding what one ought to do, it is far more comprehensive than any of the alternatives. It’s just that the deliberation involves history, science, politics, psychology, etc. rather than just turgid academic philosophy.

    (Oy vey — that gives academic philosophers less to write about!)

    The idea that morality is “not about blame” is actually quite a traditional idea: JS Mill remarked on the affinities between utilitarianism and “original Christian” thinking.

  53. Amos,

    http://www.personal.leeds.ac.uk/~phlpv/papers/moralparticularism.pdf

    There’s another article here from a forthcoming companion to ethics here. Not that I’ve had to read it, I shall try to look into this somewhere and we’ll try to arrange a conversation around some of the ideas you find interesting in time.

  54. ah yes.. Amos, Bernard Williams… you might find stuff of interest in him.. very suspicious of philosophical theory.. especially ethical theories

  55. s. wallerstein (ex amos)

    Jim:

    I can’t open your link to the paper.

    I’m a big fan of Bernard Williams. I’ve read his Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy, Shame and Necessity, and Truth and Truthfulness. He’s my favorite contemporary (or almost contemporary) academic philosopher.

    I’ll have to reread Ethics and the Limits.

  56. The paper should arrive by email.

  57. Jeremy,

    I could have rounded off our conversation rather better, sorry but I did rather lose patience and interest. Some of your thoughts are quite worthy of discussion though I have to admit I do think you are more wrong-headed than wrong on the fundamentals (and I presume you think the same of me :).

    I shall be ‘offline’ for a bit after tommorow but perhaps some of this can be fruitfully revisited at a later date.

    regards

    James

  58. Amos,

    Do give further thought to the ideas that you’d be interested to see brought up for discussion, I’ll be away – and probably offlien – for a couple of weeks from tommorow evening but I look forward to talking about your ideas later.

  59. s. wallerstein (aka amos)

    Jim:

    Enjoy your vacation from internet.

    As to topics, you mentioned Bernard Williams. He brings up lots of questions about official Morality, and exploring them might be worthwhile.

    Williams is quite a subversive fellow, in a low-key way.

  60. Hi James,

    I really look forward to that. I think utilitarianism tends not to get a fair hearing, because people with different moral opinions regard each other as “immoral”, or at least insincere.

    You can see that happening all over the place, from climate science (where one side is “trying to raise taxes” and the other is “in the pay of Big Oil”) to Northern Ireland (where one side is “just a gangsters’ racket” and the other is “trying to hold on to their wealth”). In reality, almost everyone is sincerely committed to their own cause, on moral grounds. They’re just different moral grounds from their opponents’ moral grounds.

  61. Carpe Diem and the Longer Now | Talking Philosophy - pingback on January 1, 2012 at 6:52 pm

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