Sunday, February 06, 2005

Promise And Warning Fulfilled

A number of interesting things came up in the discussion about Scanlon on Wednesday, most of them quite meta-ethical - for example, if we assume that the Athenians and their slaves did not have the conceptual apparatus to see that slavery was wrong, an assumption which is totally factually unwarranted, does this prevent us from claiming that that particular instance of slavery was wrong in the sense that they had reasons not to do it? I think this is a very interesting question, because it forces us to think very hard about the consequences of taking the linguistic turn in philosophy seriously. If the claim that we cannot think outside of the web of concepts our language provides is true, then, if some group does not have the conceptual apparatus to conceive of something in a particular way, they cannot take regarding that thing in the way that they cannot as a reason to act in a certain way. Because of this, if the Athenians did not and could not see slavery as wrong, then there is at least some sense in which slavery was not wrong. I say 'some sense in which' here because I'm not sure about the precise rules about inter-temporal moral judgements on the Wittgensteinian view: I have every reason to believe that slavery is always wrong, but, ex hypothesi, the Athenians don't have any reason to believe it is, and so when I say slavery is wrong, that judgement of mine is timeless even though, for the Athenians, it is false.

There may in fact be some intuitions about what constitutes good grounds for moral judgements of moral agents, as opposed to institutions, doing some of the work here, but I'm not sure about any of these either: for example, the question of whether it is necessary to hold that some individual has acted unjustly to hold that an institution or outcome is unjust is not something I really have any firm ideas about, and that clearly plays a role here. Anyway, this isn't what I was going to write about, but if anyone has any answers, or even suggestions - I think the original question comes up in Joseph Raz's 'The Practice of Value', which I haven't read, and Gerry Cohen has apparently written on the problem of moral judgements - I'd be grateful.

The interesting thing that came up which I really wanted to write about was a type of moral theory called, in the philosophical jargon, consequentialism. Fairly obviously, consequentialism indicates a concern with consequences. That's rather vague though, because it’s not clear what we are picking out with the reference to consequences, and so we need a more precise definition of what we mean by consequences. The important question here is the question of what are consequences properties of, of what kinds of things have consequences. Two things have consequences, but in different ways: acts have consequences, in the sense that they cause certain other events to occur, and those other events are the consequences of that act, while consequences seem to inhere in states of affairs, in the sense that consequences are themselves events which are part of larger states of affairs, ways the world is. So when we talk about consequences, we are talking about events which are parts of states of affairs, but not the event which caused these other events.

This means that consequentialists must believe that events have moral character separate from their status as acts. Obviously, a consequentialist can think that the consequences of one act can include another act, but they are not interested in this act qua act, only as an event in a causal chain reaching back to the initial act, which is not itself assessed as an act, but again, as an event which started a certain causal chain (when I say causal here, I mean causal in a strict physicalist sense: there is a separate philosophical debate about whether actions qua actions – that is intentional behaviours of agents, where intentions matter – are causes, which I don’t want to get into). This distinguishes them from deontological views, which take the intention of an act as key, as in Kant’s Categorical Imperative – do not will a maxim such that you could not will it as a universal law – and virtue-based views, which hold that acting on the basis of the virtues – dispositions like courageousness, humility, fairness, honesty, and so on – is what it is to be moral.

I think that holding only this view about what kinds of things have moral character leads to some fairly bizarre consequences, and that holding a hybrid version of this view eventually comes down to adopting some form of virtue ethics, but this is on the basis of what I did as an undergraduate, and I’m not sure I can make those charges stick any more. So I’m just going to run it, and see if I can make it work. As with the musings about the Athenians and slavery, I’d really appreciate any comments.

States of affairs, the things that have events and so consequences in, are quite starkly depersonalized, especially if the events you are concerned with are bare events, and do not include events considered as acts. This is because states of affairs are necessarily global: the current state of affairs includes, banally, everything there is at the moment, but less banally, from a global perspective. They are a kind of God’s Eye or third person view, which is to some degree inaccessible from a first person perspective, and is purified of the bias which accompanies the first person perspective by being a kind of blank statement of the facts. This kind of blank statement of the facts can’t really accommodate events as acts, because events as acts are tied to the first person perspective of intentions and dispositions. This makes sense if you think about how consequentialism must view events, because if what matters about events is their event-ness, not their status as acts done by a particular actor with certain intentions and dispositions, then it would be odd for the things that events are themselves embedded in to be able to accommodate events as acts.

This depersonalization of states of affairs, of the things that bear moral character for consequentialists, makes consequentialism an incredibly impartial moral theory. Events are events, and have the same moral character, regardless of their location, because the depersonalization of those events means that any importance that their location might have is stripped away: from the impartial, third person perspective, it does not really matter whether an event happens here or there, because it is the same event as long as it has the same characteristics, and the kind of characteristics which give it its location are personal characteristics, which cannot be accommodated from the third person perspective. This impartiality gives consequentialism an awful lot of its appeal, but also gives makes it bizarre, I think.

It does this in two ways. It gives consequentialism a logic of maximization, and it makes the object of that maximization – whatever it is that gives events their moral character, whatever it is about events that consequentialists think is morally important – necessarily also impartial. These two implications of the impartiality of consequentialism are closely intertwined, because, if the bearers of moral character for consequentialists are events which are stripped of any connections they might have to agents, then those bearers of moral character are necessarily impartial, and if those bearers of moral character are necessarily impartial, then the logic of maximization follows remarkably quickly. Impartiality, in the sense outlined above, leaves one with moral goods and bads which do not have an intrinsic connection to any individuals, whose moral character is derived from the importance for the world conceived impartially, rather than because of their importance for particular individuals, and so it is not because we are doing something for a particular individual, or group of individuals, that we act morally. We are thus simply trying to make more good things, conceived of abstractly, not connected to any particular location, occur, when we act morally. Since we are simply trying to create more good events, and it must be irrational to create less when we could create more, we ought to be trying to create as much good as possible: we should maximize the good across all possible locations of the good.

This idea of maximization of the good, impartially conceived, across all its possible locations is what is morally bizarre about consequentialism, I think. It collapses a whole set of relevant moral distinctions between what is acceptable, praiseworthy and supererogatory, as well as between what is disappointing, wrong, and repugnant by demanding that we maximize, and accusing us of failure if we do not. It fails to understand that what is morally preferable or required and what is possible may come apart, as when we are faced with conflicting moral obligations: Bernard Williams’s attack on utilitarianism through the thought experiment of Jim and the Indians seems to be partly based around this intuition.

The thought at root here seems to be that moral reasoning involves taking the character of acts as acts seriously, the intentions and agency of the agents involved as having some moral import, because what Williams finds troubling about Jim and the Indians is that the consequentialist takes it as self-evident that the best thing for Jim to is kill one Indian to save the rest, despite the fact that Jim did not create the situation in which his committing what is undoubtedly a moral wrong will lead to the prevention of other moral wrongs. Jim replying that he refuses to take innocent life, and challenging the militia officer to do his own dirty work, is a legitimate course of action, if not the one we might necessarily advocate ourselves. By abstracting away from acts qua acts, the consequentialist denies the importance of responsibility: the militia officer created this situation, and he is responsible for it, not Jim, who has merely stumbled across it. To further illustrate this, think of vastly temporally distant acts and their consequences: allowing, for the sake of argument that Christianity has been a moral good, and that it would have died, not to be replaced by anything else with comparable effects, if Pontius Pilate had not crucified Christ, then that crucifixion must have good, the right thing to do. But crucifying people was a barbaric and disgusting practice, which no one ever ought to participate in. Pontius Pilate is not responsible for any unintended effects of any of his crucifixions, and we ought to judge all of them wrong.

Consequentialism, because of this abstraction, cannot account properly for what is of value either, I think. Values are connected to our status as agents, as purposive: this is why Pontius Pilate’s and Jim’s intentions in the two cases matter, because their purposes are morally relevant. If we do not consider purposes and agency, then an adequate theory of the good cannot be formulated, and so, because consequentialism rules out those as possible sources of the good, consequentialism cannot have an adequate theory of the good. This means that it cannot adequately explain why the allegedly good consequences it believes we should promote are good. The (philosophically) notorious problems of utilitarianism with hedonism are an exemplar of this, I think: it is a general problem of consequentialism that explaining why the pleasure of a torturer at torturing should not be considered as equivalent to my pleasure in writing lengthy philosophical arguments and posting them on the internet is impossible (or, if you are of that view, why they should be viewed as equivalent).

Yet, if consequentialism were to take actions, agency, as being relevant to our moral assessments, not just as producers of consequences but as examples of agency, then it would lose much of its distinctively consequentialist character, because consequences would not be bare consequences any more: morally relevant features of acts would include the agent’s intentions and commitments, which might outweigh considerations of the consequences of the act in question. The distinction between this and the virtue ethics view, that certain dispositions – the virtues – are what make a person moral, and that a moral act is done from those dispositions, would be very thin, because the virtues clearly mean caring about some of the consequences of your acts, in some broad sense: to be kind or benevolent is to be sensitive to the effects of your acts on others, for example, insofar as they please them or offer them help. The difference between the adapted consequentialism and the virtue ethics view would lie in the claim about where the importance of the consequences lay, either as abstractly as consequences, or as effects on rational individuals with projects and so on, I think. Naturally, given what has already been said, I tend to believe that the virtue ethics view is more plausible.

All this said, I’m a bit unsure of the necessity of the connection between consequentialism – the idea that the bearers of moral character are consequences – and the extreme understanding of impartiality I have linked it to. If consequentialism does have to endorse that strong concept of impartiality, I think my critique of it as excessively abstract and depersonalized does follow, but merely taking consequences to be the bearers of moral character may not be enough to do that. Certainly, a lot of forms of consequentialism have taken that view – all the versions of utilitarianism I’ve come across do – but it clearly does not necessarily do so merely because it has done in the past. This may just be a terminological dispute, that I want to reserve the use of the term consequentialism for a particular kind of theory which believes that consequences, in a particular sense, are the ultimate bearers of moral character, which not even philosophers have any legitimate interest in, but I’m not sure about this. I think there is something to the idea that thinking that consequences are of themselves morally important that drives such theories towards the extremes I have described, but maybe not…


Anonymous said...

Why is your judgement timeless when you say slavery is wrong?
David Brion Davis, The Problem of Slavery in Western Culture, is interesting about historical forms of slavery.

Rob Jubb said...

The reason I say that my judgement that slavery is wrong is timeless is because the reasons on which the judgement is based - that it is degrading, that it denies people the ability to shape their own lives, connectedly, that it denies their humanity, and so on - seem to always be true. Those seem to be necessary entailments of slavery. Yet, the Athenians, ex hypothesi, have no reason not to hold slaves. This provokes at least two questions. Is slavery wrong for the Athenians, that is, do the reasons they do not have have any traction for them, and, regardless of the answer to that question, am I entitled to criticise them for holding slaves. The question isn't really about slavery: it's about what needs to be true to make certain kinds of moral judgements about practices, and slavery serves as the example, because it's something which we almost all agree on.