Consequentializing: Part II

This entry is the second installment of a three-part series on consequentializing non-consequentialist moral theories. As noted in Part I, a number of philosophers accept what’s called Dreier’s Conjecture: For any moral theory M, there is some conceivable theory of the good that, when combined with the consequentialist principle “φ-ing is morally permissible iff φ-ing would produce the best available state of affairs,” yields moral verdicts that are, in every instance, identical to those of M. In her forthcoming article, Jennie Louise concludes from this conjecture that all moral theories are consequentialist (forthcoming, pp. 2 & 33). In this installment, I argue that this can’t be right since analogues of Dreier’s Conjecture are true of most moral theories, including Kantianism, contractualism, virtue ethics, and divine command theory. Thus, if Dreier’s Conjecture establishes that we’re all consequentialists, then these analogues establish that we’re all Kantians, contractualists, virtue ethicists, and divine command theorists as well, and this is just absurd.

Consider first virtue ethics. The analogue of Dreier’s Conjecture in this case would be: For any moral theory M, there is some conceivable theory of the virtues that, when combined with the virtue ethicist principle “φ-ing is morally permissible iff φ-ing is what a virtuous agent would characteristically do in the circumstances,” yields moral verdicts that are, in every instance, identical to those of M. For example, if we hold that what it is characteristic for virtuous agents to do in all circumstances is to maximize aggregate utility, we arrive at a view that is extensionally equivalent to utilitarianism. Furthermore, if we hold that what it is characteristic for virtuous agents to do in all circumstances is to treat humanity as an end-in-itself or to obey God’s commands, we arrive at views that are extensionally equivalent to Kantianism and divine command theory, respectively.

Next, consider divine command theory. The analogue of Dreier’s Conjecture in this case would be: For any moral theory M, there is some conceivable theory of God’s commands that, when combined with the divine command theorist principle “φ-ing is right iff φ-ing is commanded by God,” yields moral verdicts that are, in every instance, identical to those of M. For example, if we hold that God has commanded us to maximize aggregate utility, we arrive at a view that is extensionally equivalent to utilitarianism.

Similar analogues can be constructed for contractualism, Kantianism, and others. In each case, the recipe is as follows. Take the fundamental moral principle that the theory endorses (e.g., “φ-ing is morally permissible iff φ-ing involves treating humanity as an end-in-itself and not merely as a means”). Conjoin that fundamental moral principle with some other view (in this case, a view about what it is to treat humanity as an end-in-itself as opposed to as a mere means) to arrive at the same moral verdicts as M. Thus if M is utilitarianism, we conjoin the Kantian moral principle with the view that giving everyone equal consideration while doing what will maximize aggregate utility is what it means to treat humanity as an end-in-itself.

So suppose for a moment that Dreier’s Conjecture is true. What, then, follows from it? Well, it can’t be, as Louise seems to suggest, that we are all consequentialists. For analogous conjectures are true of virtue ethics, the divine command theory, and others, and it can’t be that we are consequentialists and virtue ethicists and divine command theorists. So something must be awry here. In the final installment (which I’ll post tomorrow), I’ll try to diagnosis what has gone wrong.

References:

Brown, Campbell (2004). “Consequentialise This.” Working manuscript—draft of June
1, 2004. Research School of Social Sciences, Australian National University.

Dreier, James (1993). “Structures of Normative Theories,” The Monist 76: 22-40.

Louise, Jennie (forthcoming). “Relativity of Value and the Consequentialist Umbrella,” The Philosophical Quarterly.

Portmore, Douglas W. (2001). “Can an Act-Consequentialist Theory Be Agent-Relative?American Philosophical Quarterly 38: 363-377.

4 Replies to “Consequentializing: Part II

  1. Is Divine Command Theory a normative theory? I have heard it presented as a meta-ethical theory.
    I hae an understanding of what it would be for God to command something, and my understanding is independent of what it is for that thing to be right. I don’t have an understanding of what it is for a state of affairs to be morally good that is independent of my understanding of what we have moral reason to do and to bring about. (This is what Campbell call’s “Foot’s Thesis”.) So I think the case of DCT is different from the case of Conseq.

  2. I too have heard it presented as a metaethical theory. For instance, I believe James Rachels characterizes the divine command theory as a view about the meaning of moral terms—-specifically, that, on DCT, ‘right’ just means ‘commanded by God’ and ‘wrong’ just means ‘forbidden by God’. Nevertheless, I’ve also seen it presented (for instance, in Timmons’ introductory text) as a normative theory, and clearly that’s what I have in mind when I characterize DCT as the view that holds that an act is right iff it is commanded by God. Isn’t the principle, “an act is right iff it is commanded by God,” a moral principle–indeed, a criterion of rightness?

  3. Yes, it could be.
    As I said, I have a very clear understanding of the difference between something’s being willed by God and its being the thing to do. I have no clear grip on the difference between something’s being the best alternative and its being the thing to do. That’s why DCT seems like a substantive claim while Consequentialism does not.

  4. I’ve long held concerns similar to Doug’s (they came up in my dissertation a few years ago). I think the way Jamie’s just put it – “DCT seems like a substantive claim while Consequentialism does not” – motivates a distinction between something like formal and substantive consequentialism. Formal consequentialism says ‘do the best alternative act.’ If ‘best’ here seems indisinguishable from ‘the thing one should do’, then it is common to all moral theories. But Doug’s point is, as I follow it, about finding a characterization of the kind of consequentialism that is distinguishable from other moral theories. After all, this is where the action is in debates about rightness. And this kind of view is substantive Consequentialism: ‘do the act that promotes the best consequences.’ Here ‘promote the best consequences’ is not conceptually equivalent to ‘do the best thing’ or ‘the thing one should do’ – or else all moral theories whose *fundamental* principles (as Doug emphasizes) are not reducible to substantive Consequentialism (that is, all other normative moral theories) are conceptually confused, which seems doubtful.
    So, if we focus on substantive Consequentialism, we find that it is distinct from other moral theories, and it is interesting. If we focus on formal consequentialism, this is an indistinct view, and one that I would think is fairly uninteresting.

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