“Why Consequentialism’s ‘Compelling Idea’ Is Not“
“Two Dogmas of Consequentialism“
Consequentialism has withstood the criticism to which it has been subjected because many challenges have merely hacked off branches of the consequentialist tree, leaving its trunk and roots intact. The consequentialist trunk is the “Compelling Idea” that it is always at least morally permissible to do what promotes the best state of affairs. The anchoring roots of the theory are provided by appeal to prevailing state of affairs centric accounts of attitudes, actions, reasons, and contrasting directions of fit. A state of affairs centric approach in normative ethics – consequentialism — can seem to fall out from such state of affairs centric accounts as a virtual corollary.
My argument strategy against each of these two dogmas is the same. First, I demonstrate that there are in fact commitments concerning certain compelling ideas in the first case, and contrasting directions of fit in the second, that are widely endorsed by nonconsequentialists and consequentialists alike. Next, I demonstrate that the dogmatic arguments for consequentialism appeal to state of affairs centric interpretations of these commitments. These dogmatic interpretations of the commitments are in each case presented as the commitments themselves, hence as appropriately drawing upon the plausibility of the original commitments for their support. Finally, with the plausible shared commitment in each case disambiguated from its dogmatic interpretation, I demonstrate that the shared commitments provide no support for consequentialism, and that the state of affairs centered interpretations beg precisely the questions that are at issue between consequentialists and their critics.
“Consequentializing and Deontologizing: Clogging the Consequentialist Vacuum”
Oxford Studies in Normative Ethics Vol. 3
That many values can be consequentialized – incorporated into a ranking of states of affairs – is often taken to support the view that apparent alternatives to consequentialism are in fact forms of consequentialism. Such consequentializing arguments take two very different forms. The first is concerned with the relationship between morally right action and states of affairs evaluated evaluator-neutrally, the second with the relationship between what agents ought to do and outcomes evaluated evaluator-relatively. I challenge the consequentializing arguments for both forms of consequentialism. The plausibility of the evaluator-neutral consequentializing of certain values, I argue, in fact establishes the implausibility of an evaluator-neutral consequentialist account of such values. The problems that beset this evaluator-neutral consequentializing argument do not beset its evaluator-relative counterpart. But I demonstrate that evaluator-relatively consequentialized theories can also readily be ‘deontologized’, located within an alternative evaluative framework that is congenial to the articulation of nonconsequentialist moral theories. Such an alternative framework can accommodate what is compelling in consequentialists’ ‘Compelling Idea,’ and what is attractive in their Explanatory Thought. This alternative, moreover, can function as a shared evaluative framework within which the merits of consequentialist and nonconsequentialist alternatives can be considered without begging the question either way.
“Whose Problem is Non-Identity?“
Co-authored with Rivka Weinberg
Journal of Moral Philosophy
In this essay we argue for a fundamental reframing of the non-identity problem. Central to the problem, as currently framed, is an account of wrongdoing upon which x cannot be wronged by z if x has first-personally benefitted from z’s action. This account is incorporated into non-identity treatments of appeals to rights: Parfit argues that agents will retroactively consent to actions that first-personally benefit them, hence that such actions do not violate their rights. We demonstrate, however, that on standard non-teleological accounts of rights an agent is wronged whenever her second-personal claims are violated, and is wronged regardless of whether the actions in question result in first-personal benefit. Using as our central example Scanlon’s moral theory, we demonstrate that non-identity does not pose a fundamental problem for such theories once they are properly understood as providing an account of wronging another that does not require first-personal harm.
draft of entry in the International Encyclopedia of Ethics
Oxford University Press
Consequentialism, the theory that morality requires us to promote the best overall outcome, is the default alternative in contemporary moral philosophy, and is highly influential in public discourses beyond academic philosophy. Paul Hurley argues that current discussions of the challenge consequentialism tend to overlook a fundamental challenge to consequentialism. The standard consequentialist account of the content of morality, he argues, cannot be reconciled to the authoritativeness of moral standards for rational agents.
“Desire, Judgment, and Reason: Exploring the Path Not Taken”
The Journal of Ethics
At the outset of The Possibility of Altruism Thomas Nagel charts two paths out of the fundamental dilemma confronting metaethics. The first path rejects the claim that a persuasive account of the motivational backing of ethical judgments must involve an agent’s desires. But it is the second path, a path that Nagel charts but does not himself take, that is the focus of this essay. This path retains the standard account, upon which all motivation involves desire, but denies that desires are given prior to reason. Instead, these attitudes that motivate are themselves open to rational assessment. One reason for this focus is that many philosophers, including Quinn, Raz, and Scanlon, have come to reject the claim Nagel takes to block this path – that desires are somehow given prior to reason, hence are not in the relevant way proper objects of rational assessment. A second reason is that unlike the first path, this second does not require the rejection of the belief-desire theory, only the rejection of one assumption about the nature of conative attitudes. Unlike Nagel’s chosen path, then, the second holds out the prospect of reconciling ethical objectivity, internalism, and the belief-desire theory within a unified account. I argue that the account of desire found in Quinn, Raz, and Scanlon, augmented by aspects of Davidson’s account of propositional attitudes, yields a coherent account of the involvement of reason even in basic desires, an account that is well suited to Nagel’s intriguing path not taken.
“Does Consequentialism Make Too Many Demands, or None at All?”
Defenders of consequentialism typically concede that the theory is extremely demanding, but deploy a range of defenses against this charge. In this essay I argue that the deeper challenge confronting consequentialism is not one of excess but of defect, in particular, of defects along precisely this dimension upon which it is taken to be excessive. It is a theory of exacting moral standards, but not of rational demands upon agents to conform to these standards. As a result the theory can readily be incorporated within an overall account upon which agents rarely have any reasons to heed its standards.
“Fairness and Beneficence“
In his ‘Moral Demands in Nonideal Theory’, Liam Murphy argues that agent-neutral principles, properly understood, generate their own limits in partial compliance situations. The excesses of traditional principles can be curbed from within the impersonal standpoint, he argues, through appeal to considerations of fairness. This essay presents a critical assessment of his arguments for these claims. Although his arguments from considerations of fairness in partial compliance situations commit him to a modification of the optimizing principle, I demonstrate that they also threaten to undermine the moral conception within which both it and his own collective principle are embedded. His attempts to ward off this threat involve a departure from traditional utilitarianism that is both radical and intriguing.
“A Davidsonian Reconciliation of Internalism, Objectivity, and the Belief-desire Theory”
This paper argues that Donald Davidson’s account of assertions of evaluative judgments contains a here-to-fore unappreciated strategy for reconciling the metaethical “inconsistent triad.” The inconsistency is thought to result because within the framework of the belief-desire theory assertions of moral judgments must have conceptual connections with both desires and beliefs. The connection with desires is necessary to account for the internal connection between such judgments and motivation to act, while the connection with beliefs is necessary to account for the apparent objectivity of such judgments
“A Kantian Rationale for Desire-based Justification”
This paper demonstrates that a rationale for a circumscribed form of desire-based justification can be developed out of a contemporary Kantian account as a natural extension of that account. It maintains that certain of Christine Korsgaard’s arguments establish only that desires must have certain features antithetical to instrumentalism in order to justify. Other arguments purport to establish the standard (stronger) result: that because desires do not have these features, they cannot justify. Her arguments for this strong result, I contend, cannot be reconciled with central commitments in her epistemology and philosophy of mind. The consistent implementation of these commitments opens up a surprising space within what is still readily recognizable as a Kantian ethics–the space for a circumscribed form of desired-based justification.
“Sellars’s Ethics: Variations on Kantian Themes”
Agent-Centered Restrictions: Clearing the Air of Paradox
Even critics of agent-centered restrictions typically concede that such restrictions initially appear to make sense. They readily allow that if intuition alone is consulted, agents are often morally prohibited from performing the action that will bring about the best available state of affairs.’Such restrictions are typically generated in cases in which the action that will bring about the best state of affairs is an action that will require the agent to do great harm. They stem from the recognition of requirements to avoid doing harm.
“Getting Our Options Clear: A Closer Look at Agent-centered Options”
“Many acts which would lead to the best results overall…are not required of us by ordinary mortality”
“Scheffler’s Argument For Deontology”
The Pacific Philosophical Quarterly
“The Hidden Consequentialist Assumption”
“How Weakness of the Will is Possible”
“The Many Appetites of Thomas Hobbes”
History of Philosophy Quarterly
“Dewey on Desires: The Lost Argument”
Transactions of the Peirce Society
1998 Reprinted in John Dewey: Critical Assessments, J. E. Tiles (ed.) (Routledge, 1992), pp. 91-99.