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Consequentialism Generally put, consequentialism is the view that normative properties depend only on consequences. This is often expressed as the claim that Consequentialism: whether an act is right depends only on consequences An (act-) consequentialist theory generally includes three components: Criterion of right: what it is for an action to be right. Decision procedure: which action one ought to carry out. Agent neutrality/ agent relativity: a stipulation that the agent act impartially, or of ways in which the agent can permissibly act in a partial manner.
The 'alienation' objection The objection can be spelled out in a variety of ways, but the general thought is that consequentialism is incompatible with being the right kind of person, with personal aims, relationships and projects.
A reductio against consequentialism?
Both Williams and Stocker argue that, in one way or another, adopting an agent-neutral consequentialism conflicts with what makes life worth living. We could therefore reject consequentialism based on the fact it conflicts with our intuitions in this way. Another approach would be to attempt a reductio from this intuition:
1. Consequentialism mandates an 'estrangement' between the agent's affections and their rational, deliberative self (as Railton puts it): the affections essentially involve partiality, while the deliberative sense is following a completely impartial morality.
2. This alienation between affection and deliberation causes bad effects, for example a sense of loneliness or a lack of spontaneity in life.
3. Thus, following the consequentialist decision procedure has bad consequences: by his own lights, the consequentialist ought not to follow his decision procedure.
4. Therefore, consequentialism is self-defeating. However, this conclusion is, in itself, too strong. It is certainly not clear that there is no consequentialist reply. Many philosophers have attempted to reject the argument on the basis that the decision procedure need not lead to the negative effects in (2). The success of the rejection of consequentialism thus rests on the success of these theories.
Williams' objection: conflict with what makes life worth living The central thought is to Bernard Williams' argument in his 'Persons, character and morality' is that there is a tension between the things that make an agent's life worthwhile, and the fact that at any moment, an agent-neutral consequentialist theory could call on him to act at the expense of those projects. For Williams, this tension forcibly alienates an good agent from the projects that make his life worthwhile. 1
An individual person has a set of projects: the desires, concerns etc. that help constitute his character. Some of these projects are ground projects, projects which are closely related to the person's existence and which give a significant degree of meaning to his life. One's projects, and in particular one's ground projects, give meaning to one's life: without such projects, desires and interests, it is not clear why one should go on living at all. For example, intimate, loving relationships with others are part of what makes life worthwhile. In this way, one's projects are a condition for one's existence. On the other hand, a standard consequentialist account (for example, utilitarianism) is agentneutral. The account obliges an agent to take an impartial view; in Williams' terms it abstracts away from individuals. For such an account, the agent's projects do not matter. The agent is morally required to bring about the best state of affairs, come what may - even at the expense of the projects that make his life worth living. In Williams' view, if anything is to have sense
- including an impartial system of ethics - it must have substance. But if it is to have substance, it cannot grant supreme importance to an impartial system. For Williams, from the consequentialist perspective the basic bearer of value is the state of affairs. Hence, it does not matter who brings the state of affairs about. As a good consequentialist agent, one is reduced to a representative of a "satisfaction system" who happens to be near certain causal levers at a certain time. So long as the right outcomes are achieved, it does not matter if it is me, or two other people, or anyone else who brings it about: consequentialism abstracts the separateness away from persons. Williams brings the point out vividly with Fried's example of an agent able to save either his wife, or another person from drowning, but not both. (The agent is taken not to have any special responsibilities, such as public health official or the like). For Williams, it is the fact that it is the agent's wife that ought to suffice for the agent's justification of saving her. The agent's thought process, if it includes the impartial deliberation that it is morally permissible to save her, includes one thought to many. According to the agent-neutral consequentialist account, the agent is alienated from his projects, from the things that make his life worth living.
Stocker's objection: ruling out meaningful relationships Michael Stocker brings out the sense of alienation in a slightly different way. For Stocker, it is a mark of a good life that one's motives and one's reasons, values and justifications are in harmony. He diagnoses a moral schizophrenia in most contemporary ethical theories, according to which there is a split between one's motives and one's reasons. As such, these ethical theories fail in two ways: they make it impossible for an agent to achieve the good in an integrated way; and they make agents' lives psychologically uncomfortable, essentially fragmented and incoherent. He brings the point out with reference to hedonistic egoism. His point is not the standard objection that hedonistic egoism is, in fact, untenable. Instead, he wants to point to the fact that the hedonistic egoist cannot 'embody his motives'. Suppose J is a hedonistic egoist. Then J can participate in a love relationship, and do all the things calculated to cause pleasure. But 2
something is missing: love. The hedonistic egoist cannot act purely for the sake of his beloved. The beloved is essential replaceable; anything else with the same positive effects would do just as well. The hedonist may well have good reasons to enter into a loverelationship. But to achieve the great personal goods that come with such things, the he must abandon his motive (pure pleasure-for-self): he cannot embody his motive in his reasons. Stocker claims that this problem runs through a whole range of ethical theories. These views treat others externally, as something replaceable, as a repository of general, non-specific value. To embody in one's motives the values of such theories - the kinds of thing they hold to be ultimately good or right - one must treat people in a way that precludes intimate relationships. In each case, the person is not valued for themselves as a person, but as personqua-producer-or-possessor-of-general-values. Stocker brings this out with an example. You are in hospital, recovering from illness, and your friend Jones comes to visit you. However, it turns out that Jones only came to visit you because of external reasons: he believed it was his duty, or that it would most maximise the good, or whatever. In any case, it appears that Jones appears to have acted with a morally good intention - an essential part of acting morally - and yet he appears to have acted for the wrong reasons. You may well object that you'd want Jones to visit you because you are you, and not for any mediating ethical thoughts.
Meeting the objection There are at least two prominent ways of meeting the objection: modifying consequentialism into a 'two-level' view, or appealing to a different kind of decision-procedure altogether. The two-level view distinguishes between two kinds of reasoning: a kind of 'lower-level' or intuitive reasoning, such as rules of thumb, and a 'higher-level' reasoning more on the level of general principles. The thought is that by mostly acting on the lower-level (in accordance with certain standing desires at the higher level), one can find space for meaningful relationships. Two-level consequentialism summarised: a. The criterion of right action is as act-consequentialism says. b. The recommended decision procedure is: whichever procedure has the property that adopting it as one's decision procedure would lead to better consequences overall than adopting any alternative decision procedure. c. What the self-defeatingness objection points out is (only) that the optimal decision procedure is not: perform an explicit act-consequentialist calculation for every action (and inaction) that you take. d. What the optimal decision procedure is likely to be:
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