Tuesday, June 22, 2004

Lee on the Demandingness of Consequentialism, Part II

A couple posts ago I tried to sketch how someone might formulate the objection that consequentialism is too demanding and how they might do so in a way that gives the objection some prima facie plausibility. Now I'll say a bit about some ways in which a consequentialist might respond to this objection. The responses here are pretty schematic, but I'm really just trying to lay out the options. (You should also check out Christian Lee's detailed comments on the first post on this issue, as he discusses some of the same issues there.)

And away we go, with some possible consequentialist responses to this supposed problem. I'll talk about responses of two types. I'll begin with responses that go after this sort of reflective equilibrium argument, and then I'll briefly discuss a couple more arguments.

Against the Reflective Equilibrium Argument

The first move here is to admit that a reflective equilibrium argument will show that morality isn't as demanding as consequentialism implies, but to deny it's a problem. As I said, it's not likely that a reflective equilibrium argument of this sort is going to persuade someone who didn't think much of the consequentialism-is-too-demanding objection in the first place. The underlying reason seems to be that a person who doesn't buy this argument is likely to hold views about the issue of how revisionary a plausible moral theory can be that conflict with taking reflective equilibrium arguments very seriously. Now, the (and I hereby coin this word) revisionariness of a normative moral theory is a matter of how many of our considered judgments and mid-level principles we're required to give up in accepting the moral theory. Relying on reflective equilibrium seems to be based on a sort of methodological conservatism: we take our considered judgments quite seriously, and we don't abandon them lightly. So relying on arguments like this seems to be based on a conviction that a moral theory shouldn't be radically revisionary. If, on the other hand, you don't want to take these considered judgments or mid-level principles seriously--if you're happy with a revisionary moral theory--this sort of argument isn't likely to appeal to you. And that seems to be the source of the underlying debate here. So this is one way the defender of consequentialism can avoid the demandingness objection: she can refuse to accept the method of argumentation on which it appears to rely.

The second move is one I won't discuss in detail. It is to accept reflective equilibrium argumentation, at least for the sake of argument, but to deny the reflective equilibrium arguments shows that consequentialism is too demanding. Perhaps, if we adequately understand our considered judgments and mid-level principles, we'll find that it's not so clear that they conflict with a radically demanding moral theory. It may be that, once we fully understand them, we'll see that they do in fact imply that morality is very demanding; or it maybe that, once we fully understand them, we'll see that there are elements that suggest that morality is demanding and elements that suggest it isn't. I won't say much about the plausibility of this response, as doing so would take me too far afield. But I'll just point out that the arguments that morality is very demanding of which I'm aware--and I don't know much about this literature--involve some argument of this sort. In his "Famine, Affluence, and Morality" Peter Singer points to some fairly plausible mid-level principles, and he argues that they imply that we have very demanding moral duties. In Living High and Letting Die Peter Unger focuses more on our considered judgments about certain imaginary cases, and he argues that our considered judgments about such cases provide evidence for the view that we have very demanding moral duties in actual cases.

Against the Demandingness of Consequentialism

Both the sorts of arguments discussed above involve admitting that consequentialism, as defined above, does lead to the conclusion that our moral obligations are very demanding. Of course, one could also go the other way and deny that consequentialism leads to this conclusion. I'll now consider that possibility. One argument focuses in on (1) in the definition of consequentialism in the previous post; the other goes after (2b). I'll begin with the latter.

The way to go here is focus in on the relevant notion of goodness. What the consequentialist has to do is come up with a conception of goodness that gets around these worries about demandingness. I'm not going to claim that I know how to do this, since I don't. But I'll just sketch an example to show how it might work in a particular case that might seem to pose the demandingness problem.

Say you've got $1000, and you're trying to decide whether you should put in your child's college fund or send it to Oxfam. And suppose you take a fairly crude hedonistic conception of the good: what is good is the feeling of pleasure. With this conception of the good, it's pretty easy to figure out what you should do. You just need to ask yourself which course of action will lead to the greatest amount of happiness in the long run. Well, if this is the relevant issue, it seems clear that you could do more good by giving our money to Oxfam. For, though contributing a nice chunk of cash to your child's college fund might make her much happier (and it might make you happier as well), sending the same amount of money to Oxfam would make either a single person much happier (it might save her life and provide her with resources to live on for quite some time) or it would make a group of people happier. So more total pleasure is produced by giving to Oxfam. And it should be clear how this sort of argument can quickly lead to a very demanding conception of morality. For similar arguments are going to work for pretty much any amount of money you're planning on spending on yourself or the people close to you. Quickly, then, we seem to be led to the conclusion that you're obligated to give pretty much all your money away to Oxfam.

Can we avoid this? Sure, we only need to come up with a conception of the good that doesn't allow for this. So we need a conception of the good that tell us it's better to spend $1000 on your child than it is to send the money to Oxfam. Suppose we say that the fact that the state of affairs of your putting the money in the college fund is one involving a special relationship between people, and that this gives it more intrinsic value than the state of affairs in which you give the money to Oxfam. And if we can do something similar in other cases, we may not have to worry about demandingness.

A couple things about this sort of response. First, I don't even know that it can be done. I don't know that we can come up with a conception of the good that will avoid all problems of this sort. Maybe it can be done, and maybe not. Second, there's the obvious problem that the conception of the good suggested above can seem pretty counterintuitive. The money sent to Oxfam could lead to a state of affairs that saves the life of a young child, or that feeds a hungry child for several weeks or months. Yet, according to this conception of the good, it's really better from an impersonal point of view to send your child to college than it would be to send the money to save the life or feed a child you don't know. I'm not sure how plausible a conception of impersonal good this is, and it seems to undermine what's supposed to make consequentialism plausible in the first place. What seems to make consequentialism a plausible moral theory is that it allows us to understand the nature and purpose of morality by appealing to some intuitively plausible conception of the good. If, for instance, we're considering utilitarianism, we're able to understand the nature of happiness, why it's a good thing, and how morality can be understood as a system for promoting happiness. However, if we're going to develop the sort of conception of the good that is needed to avoid this objection, it's not clear that we're going to be able to appreciate its goodness. (Furthermore, you might wonder whether a conception of the good that is tailored to allow consequentialism to be consistent with our ordinary moral thought is really doesn't turn into a moral conception of the good.)

Another possible way to argue that consequentialism doesn't require too much of us could be based on a focusing in on (1) and what a person can do. The move is pretty simple: we try to argue that (many of) these extremely demanding obligations get thrown out as things we can't do. So, for example, we have to argue that giving your money to Oxfam rather than putting it in your child's college fund is something you can't do.

But, of course, there is a sense of 'can' in which you can do this. What sense is that? Well, it would seem to be that, given your actual psychology, it is in your power to act this way. It may be difficult to do so--it may require that you give up things you value most--but it is still an option for you. And this is why it seems that your obligations are demanding--they are can require to give up those things you find most valuable in order to do the right thing.

Now, the way to avoid this objection would be to understand the sense of 'can' in (1) in such a way that it doesn't turn out that you can often ignore those things that you find most valuable. If we could do this, then it couldn't turn out that consequentialism tells us that doing what we ought to do requires a sort of heroic detachment from what we actually care about. Is there any such sense of 'can'? Maybe. It does seem true that there's an ordinary sense of 'can' in which it's true to say that most normal people in normal situations can't give up their most central projects and ignore obligations resulting from their closest relationships in order to do create more good for others. Given their motivational set and how much they care about the things, they can't do this (at least not in the relevant sense of 'can'). And if they come to think their moral obligations require this of then, then you're just going to think, "so much the worse for my being moral" and they're going to act accordingly. It's not just that people would find these obligations too demanding when compared to what they usually think of their moral obligations, but that, in some way, such obligations would be too demanding for them to be able to do it.

Can this be plausibly argued? Maybe, but I'm not sure how to do it. The first and most obvious problem is that there is empirical evidence that some people can do this sort of thing. Now, that in itself isn't a problem for the defending of this sort of response. They could always admit this but argue that most ordinary people can't do this sort of thing, and so the response still works in most cases. But they've got to assume that there's some substantial psychological difference between the people who do give up these things in order to meet such perceived obligations and ordinary people who they're going to claim couldn't do this. Is there such a difference? I don't know. Call in the psychologists.

But, even if we had empirical evidence that there were such psychological differences, there could still be problems with this response. The first, of course, is that it's not clear how much help such a response would be. It might only rule out extremely demanding things--say, giving up your entire life and going off to help the indigent--and not giving the money to Oxfam rather than putting it in your child's college fund. Second, it might seem that taking this route is going to lead to serious problems making sense of moral obligations that we think people actually have. For, even though we think that consequentialism can be too demanding, we still think that morality can be pretty demanding, that it can sometimes require people to give up things they really want and value. But if we're employing some notion of what people can do that closely ties people's abilities to their actual desires, values, aims, etc., we might have trouble making sense of this. Furthermore, a consequentialist who offers this response might have trouble making room for the fact that people with very strange desires, values, aims, etc. can have ordinary moral obligations. We certainly don't want to say that the serial killer isn't under any moral obligation not to kill people just because he really wants to kill them (and so can't, in this sense, not kill them). But if we tie what a person's alternatives are to what they actually want in the way that this response seems to require, it's not clear we can avoid this sort of problem.

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