Consequentializing: Part III

This entry is the final 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. And, as also noted in Part I, philosophers such as Brown, Louise, and Pettit believe that if this conjecture is true, then the consequentialism/non-consequentialism distinction is an empty distinction. In this entry, I argue, to the contrary, that even if Dreier’s Conjecture is true, the consequentialism/non-consequentialism distinction is still an important and meaningful distinction.

Brown, Louise, and Pettit seem to presuppose that what distinguishes one moral theory from another is their moral verdicts, and so if two moral theories are extensionally equivalent in their moral verdicts, then there is no real distinction between the two. But this is, I believe, a mistake. A moral theory must do more than just identify which acts are permissible and which acts are impermissible. Moral theories must identify the fundamental right-making and wrong-making features of actions. Moral theories do this by endorsing a certain set of fundamental moral principles. Moral theories should, then, be differentiated in terms of what set of fundamental moral principles they endorse. For instance, utilitarianism is to be distinguished from other moral theories in that it takes the principle, “act always so as to maximize aggregate utility,” to be the one and only fundamental moral principle. Non-utilitarian theories accept some other set of fundamental moral principles.

In support of this way of differentiating moral theories, I offer the following example, which comes from my “Can an act-consequentialist theory be agent-relative?.” Consider the following theorist (call him Theo). Theo accepts a rather peculiar version of the divine command theory. He accepts both of the following: (1) There is one and only one fundamental moral principle, that is, “an act is morally permissible if and only if it conforms to God’s will” and (2) God’s will is that we maximize aggregate utility.

Thus Theo believes, just as the utilitarian does, that agents should always act so as to maximize aggregate utility. But, unlike the utilitarian, he takes this principle, “act always so as to maximize aggregate utility,” to be derivative of another, more fundamental, moral principle: i.e., “act in accordance with God’s will”—see (1). This principle in conjunction with his view about what God wills us to do—see (2)—generates the following derivative moral principle: “act always so as to maximize aggregate utility.” For the utilitarian, by contrast, the principle, “act always so as to maximize aggregate utility,” is a fundamental moral principle.

Now the question is, Is Theo a utilitarian? Theo does, as it happens, accept a theory that is extensionally equivalent to utilitarianism; this, however, is not sufficient to make him a utilitarian. For although extensionally equivalent, Theo’s theory and utilitarianism are importantly different. For one, the two disagree about what makes an act right or wrong. According to utilitarianism, it is wrong to commit a gratuitous murder ultimately because doing so would fail to maximize aggregate utility. Theo, on the other hand, thinks that it is wrong to commit a gratuitous murder ultimately because doing so involves disobeying the will of God. This means that two theories disagree on what the fundamental right-making and wrong-making features of actions are. It also means that the two theories have different truth conditions. Utilitarianism is true only if welfarism is true, for the utilitarian is committed to the view that only welfare has intrinsic value. Theo’s theory, by contrast, does not depend on the truth of welfarism—if God wills it, agents should, on Theo’s view, maximize aggregate utility whether there are other things of intrinsic value or not. Theo’s theory does, however, depend on God’s will, whereas utilitarianism does not—after all, the utilitarian is committed to the view that it’s right to maximize aggregate utility whether God commands or forbids our doing so.

But besides the two theories having different truth conditions, there is another important difference between the two, one that involves the fact that consequentialists are constrained in a way that non-consequentialists are not. A maximizing consequentialist can prohibit only those acts (i.e., act tokens) that result in a sub-optimal state of affairs. Thus the consequentialist can accept, for instance, an absolute constraint against murder (the act-type) only if she adopts a theory of value according to which the commission of murder always results in a sub-optimal state of affairs—see “Consequentializing: Part I.” Note, then, how consequentialism and non-consequentialism differ. The consequentialist can accept such a constraint only if she also accepts a certain theory of the good. The non-consequentialist, on the other hand, is not constrained in this way. She can accept an absolute constraint against murder while simultaneously admitting that committing murder will sometimes produce an optimal state of affairs. Unlike the consequentialist, the non-consequentialist can accept that it is sometimes wrong to bring about the best available state of affairs.

So we have seen that a utilitarian and a divine-command theorist can accept extensionally equivalent theories, as both Jeremy Bentham and Theo do. The upshot of all this is that we cannot distinguish various normative theories in terms of which acts they take to be right and wrong. Instead, we must distinguish various normative theories in terms of what moral principles they take to be fundamental. And, therefore, what distinguishes the consequentialist from the non-consequentialist is the acceptance of the principle “act always so as to promote value” as a fundamental moral principle. So the consequentialist is one who accepts the principle “act always so as to promote value” as the one and only fundamental moral principle. The non-consequentialist is one who rejects this principle, denies that this is the only fundamental moral principle, or takes this principle to be derivative of some other, more fundamental, moral principle.

So, we’ve seen that even if Dreier’s Conjecture is true, it doesn’t follow, at least not straight away, that the consequentialism/non-consequentialism distinction is an empty distinction. The fact that a consequentialist theory and a non-consequentialist theory will always have different truth conditions and will always be constrained in different ways shows that even if consequentialism doesn’t necessarily differ from non-consequentialism in terms of their moral verdicts, there is still an important difference between the two theories. Thus even granting Dreier’s Conjecture, the consequentialism/non-consequentialism distinction is far from an empty distinction.

15 Replies to “Consequentializing: Part III

  1. Does Theo think that it is necessary that God commands us to maximize aggregate utility? If not, then Theo is not a utilitarian, since his view doesn’t have the same extension as utilitarianism in every world. If so, then it seems to me that Theo is a utilitarian. His view about *why* we ought to maximize utility is different from Jack Smart’s, but that’s utilitarian in-fighting.
    Consider Connie, who thinks that the single fundamental principle is that each is always to bring about the state of affairs in which one has followed God’s will; and Connie and Theo both say that God’s will is that we maximize utility. Is it your view that Connie and Theo disagree? Connie likes to think in terms of consequences, Theo in terms of (temporally) intrinsic features of actions, but I say they have the same normative theory.

  2. You ask, “Does Theo think that it is necessary that God commands us to maximize aggregate utility?” No. As I frame things in my example above, God could change his mind and command us to pave the streets with Gold even where this won’t maximize aggregate utility. So we agree that Theo is not a utilitarian. Yet Theo’s theory (the theory that combines the principle “act always in accordance with God’s will” and the view that God’s will is that we maximize aggregate utility) is extensionally equivalent to utilitarianism. So Jack Smart’s view and Theo’s view yield that exact same moral verdicts, but they accept different theories. That’s my point: two moral theories can be extensionally equivalent and yet be distinct in some non-empty sense. Am I missing something?
    In regards to Connie and Theo, I think that they hold the exact same moral theory, since saying (1) that an act has the property of bringing about a state of affairs in which one has followed God’s will and saying (2) that an act has the property of being in accordance with God’s will seem to be two ways of describing the very same property. So I agree with you that they accept the same moral theory, because they accept the same fundamental moral principle—only they express that same principle in different language. Does this trouble for me?
    If Connie had said that the one and only fundamental moral principle is “act always so as to produce the best available state of affairs” and thought that the state of affairs in which one has followed God’s is always the best, then I would think that she was a consequentialist as opposed to a divine command theorist.

  3. This issue has come up in my dissertation, and I just thought I’d add that the Swedes have worked on it a good deal. (Not specifically the God question.) Their contributions are often somewhat overlooked, but they are thankfully in English.
    Don’t miss Erik Carlson’s book, “Consequentialism Reconsidered” and its comments on Graham Oddie and Peter Milne’s “Act and Value: Expectation and the Representation of Moral Theories” in Theoria 57, 1991, 42-76.

  4. Ok. I think it is quite clear that there are distinct theories that are coextensive. But Dreier’s Conjecture is about necessary coextension.

  5. I guess that I’m confused. Whether DCT is extensionally equivalent to utilitarianism is contingent on whether or not God’s will is that we maximize aggregate utility. But isn’t it also the case that whether C is extensionally equivalent to a given M is contingent on whether or not a certain G is true? Where am I going wrong? What exactly is supposed to be necessarily coextensive on Dreier’s Conjecture? M and C? Or M and (C + a certain G)? Or what?

  6. I figure the relevant sorts of Gs are going to be true or false necessarily. They aren’t theories of what is instrumentally good, after all. Utilitarians don’t think that there are other possible worlds in which happiness is really bad.
    Ugh. I don’t want to go sort through all the terminology again. But if I’m remembering it right, then it’s like this. What you call C+ a certain G is a particular Conseqeuentialist view, right? So the Conjecture is that for each M there is a G* such that M is necessarily coextensive with C+G*. Each moral theory is equivalent to (coextensive in every possible world with) some Consequentialist theory.

  7. So is it your view that so long as two theorists accept the same moral verdicts in all possible worlds, they accept the same moral theory whether or not they accept different fundamental moral principles? Is there any reason to adopt this view instead of a view that that holds that those who accept different fundamental moral principles accept different moral theories?

  8. I guess I provisionally think that, yes. I would like to see what difference it makes which theory is accepted (or true). Otherwise I suspect that the two theories are really notational variants.

  9. Jamie,
    I think that maybe it does make a difference. Consider the case of Virgil (since the Theo example left something to be desired). Virgil takes the principle, “φ-ing is morally permissible iff φ-ing is what a virtuous agent would characteristically do in the circumstances,” to be the one and only fundamental moral principle. Also, Virgil holds the view that what it is characteristic for virtuous agents to do in all circumstances is to maximize aggregate utility (and he doesn’t think that there are other possible worlds where it is characteristic for virtuous agents to do something other than maximize aggregate utility). Now I want to say that although Jack Smart and Virgil both think that, in all possible worlds, the right thing to do is to maximize utility, they still accept different moral theories in that they accept different fundamental moral principles. But if I understand you correctly, you’ll want to say that Virgil is, like Smart, a utilitarian who just disagrees with Smart on *why* we ought to maximize utility.
    Maybe they are both utilitarians if we define a utilitarian as anyone who holds that, in all possible worlds, the right thing do to maximize utility. To avoid confusion, let’s call someone who holds this view a “substantive utilitarian.” But let’s call someone who accepts “act always so as to maximize the good” as a fundamental moral principle a “foundational utilitarian.” (I think that Kagan uses this terminology, but I’ll have to check whether we’re using it in the same way). And let’s call someone who accepts some other fundamental moral principle a “foundational non-utilitarian.” Now the difference between the substantive utilitarianiam who is a foundational utilitarian as well (e.g., Smart) and the substantive utilitarian who is a foundational non-utilitarian (e.g., Virgil) is not merely notational. For whereas Smart’s theory (but not Virgil’s) depends on the truth of welfarism, Virgil’s theory (but not Smart’s) depends on whether Virgil’s theory about what virtuous agents characteristically do is correct.
    So it seems to me that even if Dreier’s Conjecture is correct, the distinction between foundational consequentialism and foundation nonconsequentialism is far from an empty one.
    I’ll let you have the last word, but then I think that it’s probably time to move on to other topics. Thanks, though, for an interesting discussion and for setting me straight on a number of issues.

  10. Consider the following principle:
    (P) If two moral theories are necessarilly coextensive, then there can be no substantive disagreement between them (they are mere notational variants, in other words).
    I tend to vasilate on (P), but my present inclination is to reject it. My reason is this: if (P) were true, there would be too many utilitarian theories. To see why, let’s define utilitarianism as follows:
    (U) An action is right iff its outcome contains at least as great a total of wellbeing as every alternative.
    Notice that (U) is flexible in a similar way to consequentialism: (U) does not specify what wellbeing is. Thus, by plugging in different theories of wellbeing, we may generate different versions of utilitarianism. And this flexibility makes it possible to “utilitarianise” putatively non-utilitarian moral theories. (We just need to gimmick up an appropriate theory of wellbeing.) Indeed, it seems plausible that, on a broad interpretation of (U), the following will hold: for every moral theory M, there exists some theory of wellbeing W such that M is necessarilly coextensive with the conjunction (U & W). If we accept (P), therefore, we may have to accept that every moral theory is utilitarian (that utilitarianism is empty, etc.). But that doesn’t seem right. So I reject (P).

  11. Okay, interesting points and example, Douglas. But consider this, although the two maxims that Theo follows [(1) There is one and only one fundamental moral principle, that is, “an act is morally permissible if and only if it conforms to God’s will” and (2) God’s will is that we maximize aggregate utility] it doesn’t follow that 1&2 and the consequentialist maxim are extensionally equivalent.
    For 1&2 and the consequentialist maxim to be extensionally equivalent, we must say that 1&2 and the consequentialist maxim always yield the same result. This wouldn’t necessarily be the case.
    Suppose 1&2 are true: (1) There is one and only one fundamental moral principle, that is, “an act is morally permissible if and only if it conforms to God’s will” and (2) God’s will is that we maximize aggregate utility.
    Although God’s will is that me maximize aggregate utility, we can imagine that at a future point in time, his will could be extensionally inconsistent with (2), and thus, extensionally inconsistent with the consequentialist maxim.
    So we might say that 1&2 and the consequentialist maxim might be temporarily extensionally equivalent for Theo. Do we want to say that 1&2 and the consequentialist maxim are “extensionally equivalent” when the union of 1&2 could, at any time and – if we allow that God could change his will instantly, then at any moment, yield an extension inconsistent with the consequentialist maxim?
    Maybe we do, but I’m just suggesting a stronger example here. If one is, then I think your position as a whole – that the truth of Drier’s conjecture doesn’t lead to the abolisiton of the consequentialist/non-consequentialist distinction – works.
    To further demonstrate this need, consider two people, Theo and Jeremy. They follows 1&2 as explained by you. Jeremy follows the c.m. Both are faced with act A. The conditions of act A are that: Both see a child drowning in shallow water. Jeremy follows the consequentialist maxim and attempts to save the child. Theo attempts to follow 1&2 (God’s will and the c.m, because God’s will demands it.) As the child screams in the water what is extensionally required of Theo and Jeremy is equivalent (attempt to save the child). They both make their way for the child. As soon as this occurs, what Theo is required to do changes. Since he is bound to 1, and since God – knowing that Theo’s saving the child will have cause trauma to Jeremy (the child is Jeremy’s son, and since Jeremy is Theo’s enemy and would be badly distraght if his foe beat him to such an important task) God’s will changes. No longer would following 1 require the following of 2, and hence, 1&2 would not be extensionally equivalent with the consequentialist maxim for act A.

  12. Horace, kudos for a clever example, but you’ve missed the point here. From what I understand, Doug need not establish a necessary extensional equivalency between, as you put it, 1&2 and the consequentialist maxim. To make his case, it must only be true that 1&2 and the c.m. at some point, be extensionally equivalent. Even if they are, “temporarily” extensionally equivalent, they are nonetheless equivalent, which allows Doug to make the case that Theo’s doing what will maximize utility need not categorize him as a utilitarian; a moral theory must do more than just identify which acts are permissible and which acts are impermissible.

  13. Thanks, Dick. That’s my point exactly: Theo’s holding that the right thing to do is to act always so as to maximize aggregate utility doesn’t necessarily make him a utilitarian. Hence, a moral theory must do more than just identify which acts are permissible and which acts are impermissible. But thanks to Horace for the example; it is perhaps better than my original even if my original is sufficient to make my point.

  14. Sorry to be a pest but it seems to me that using Virtue Ethics or Kantian Ethics would make for a better example because Divine Command Theory might arguably be best intepreted as a Meta-Ethical theory (One where ethical truths are relative to the beliefs or statements of God)
    Thus some of the moves in response to the arguments thus far made might be meta-ethical moves rather than standard ethical theory moves.

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