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.