Consequentialist theories are often exciting and tempting as they give us a real chance at having a universalizable theory of morality and justice. As a moral theory, one can look at the different flavors of consequentialism and evaluate them against a range of features of plausible moral theories, noting if each of those features are accounted for by each theory.
In this paper, I propose a number of features that we expect to exist in plausible moral theories. I discussing these features in general, mostly appealing to intuition to justify why we expect these features. The features, roughly, are: the existence of permissible morally good acts that go beyond what is morally required; reasonable level of blameworthiness of moral agents; and finally, the moral impermissibility to compel others to do the right thing on certain occasions.
In particular, I will spend some time examining objective act consequentialism, and expected value (subjective) act consequentialism, and discuss a number of remedies, including scalar utilitarianism, satisficing consequentialism and progressive consequentialism, in an effort to address some of these worries. Different moral theories will be appropriate in addressing these different worries.
The moral ought: permissibility and requirements
First, we expect a moral theory to have a distinction between one ought to do and what one may do. We expect a range of possible actions to be morally required, while others are morally good and have moral value beyond that of what is required. Giving money to a particular charity, for instance, is seen as morally good but not morally required. Certain personal sacrifices, such as undergoing pain (say, taking a bullet) on behalf of someone else, is also seen as morally good but not necessarily morally required.
In hopes that (some version of) consequentialism is a plausible moral system, we would like to observe that (some version of) consequentialism allows us to view both of these acts as morally good, but not be the only permissible (thus, required) actions out of the available set.
Plausible moral systems still include impermissible actions, so an interpretation of consequentialism (see scalar utilitarianism, discussed later) where all actions are permissible but good in varying degrees, fails to capture our moral intuitions. Inflicting harm on others is impermissible; failing to save a nearby drowning child is reprehensible; stopping to give a hungry homeless family a gold star sticker (which will make the child infinitesimally happier) might be seen as wrong if you could have given them food or money without expending more effort.
We often also expect a corresponding feature for morally bad and morally impermissible actions; given a range of possible actions, some might be morally impermissible, while others could be not morally ideal yet still permissible. For the purposes of our explorations, I will not concern myself with this feature as I am more interested in virtue than dis-virtue. It does not seem unreasonable for someone to extend the consequentialist theories that address morally good and virtuous, yet not required, to also address the opposite problem.
Act consequentialism, as commonly stated, says that an act is permissible if and only if no other available act has a better [expected] value, according to a certain axiology. Act consequentialism restrains and compels an agent making the decision into taking the action that maximizes moral goodness. A moral agent is not permitted to take an action that produces suboptimal [expected] value of moral goodness. This raises the common demandingness objection that concerns the opponents of utilitarianism.
One defense of act consequentialism as stated is to say that our intuition about morally good versus morally required actions only applies when we have epistemic concerns with following act consequentialism. For instance, one could say that plain act consequentialism makes a lot of sense when dealing with omniscient agents in cases of perfect-information; how could it possibly be morally permissible to condemn the world to be worse off than it can be?
Yet, our intuition about giving to charity is that it is not required, even though we can be very sure (at least, for some charities) that we condemn the world to be worse off by not contributing.
Looking back at the intuitive moral feature we are investigating, it is important to come up with a nuanced explanation of where and how plain act consequentialism falls short. For instance, act consequentialism is still expected to yield a set of permissible actions, not a single permissible action, in cases where available actions yield equal or incomparable results. Thus, it is incorrect to state that act consequentialism is deficient by only permitting a single action for a given situation.
Rather, our criticism can be put forward in one of two (equivalent) ways. Either that we worry that act and rule consequentialism overlook sufficiently good actions, accounting them as impermissible, only because better actions exist. Alternatively, our worry is that we expect to see, for each action in the set of permissible available actions in a given situation, a spectrum in the moral goodness of its consequences; yet, consequentialism suggests that, if such range were to be observed then only the actions with the maximal value would have been permissible. Rule consequentialism similarly fails to account for such range or spectrum of moral goodness of consequences of rules (e.g. the rule of giving to charity).
Both of these objections are very closely related to a common objection to act consequentialism: the demandingness objection.Continue reading “In Search for Plausible and Intuitive forms of Act Consequentialism”