Within consequentialism, it’s common to draw a distinction between two kinds of rightness: an act X is said to be objectively right just when, among the alternatives open to the agent, X will, as a matter of objective fact, have the best consequences; whereas X is said to be subjectively right just when the agent believes (or may reasonably believe) that X will have the best consequences. Thus, the question arises — at least for consequentialists — which of these two varieties of rightness is primary in ethics. Which, if either, is the more important or relevant kind of rightness? (I imagine that a similar distinction can be drawn in non-consequentialist ethics; so this is a question for everyone. But it’ll simplify things to frame the issue in consequentialist terms.)
A common argument given by subjectivists — i.e. those who hold that subjective rightness is primary — appeals to the notions of praise and blame. Surely, it is said, when it comes to praising and blaming people’s actions, it is only subjective rightness that is at issue. We cannot hold a person responsible for the (reasonably) unforeseen consequences of her actions. If a person acts in the (reasonable) belief that by so acting she will bring about the best possible world, given her alternatives, then she should not be blamed for so acting, even in the event that her belief turns out to be false. Hence, if ethics is primarily an exercise in apportioning praise and blame, subjective rightness is primary.
I want to suggest that common practises of praising and blaming, as exemplified by poker players, put pressure on the argument just outlined.
My own experience suggests that in games of poker players will often praise or blame other players on the basis of objective rightness. (“Rightness” may not be quite the right term here. In poker, the question is normally not whether a player’s actions are moral, but rather whether they are rational. So the analogy between poker and ethics is not perfect. But I don’t think that makes an important difference here). Consider an example. A certain player, Monica, calls a large bet before her hand has been completely revealed to her (e.g. in a game of Texas Hold’em, she calls on the turn). At the time of calling, her hand, for all she knows, amounts to nothing much. If the final card to be revealed is, say, the six of hearts, then she’ll have a straight flush (very good); otherwise she will, at best, have a pair of sixes (not very good). Now, the final card is revealed, and, to Monica’s delight, it’s the six of hearts. She hits her straight flush and wins a huge pot (that’s a lot of money, not a large cooking implement). Her opponent — the guy who made the large raise that Monica called — is revealed to have a full house. When all of this comes to light, the other players in the game respond approvingly to Monica’s play: “Good call!” they say.
It is doubtful, however, that this praise for Monica’s play could be justified by subjective rightness (or the counterpart of rightness in the case of rationality). At the time when she called, the odds of her making the straight flush were worse that 19-to-1 against. Hence, assuming that she’s not abnormally risk-seeking, she could not have reasonably believed that the expected utility of calling was greater than that of folding. From a subjective standpoint, her action seems clearly irrational. From an objective standpoint, on the other hand, her action is perfectly rational. Although Monica could not have known this at the time she acted (we assume she’s not cheating), her action did, in fact, have the best consequences for her. It seems, therefore, that when the other players judge Monica’s play praiseworthy, they do so from an objective standpoint.
The argument for subjectivism, as outlined above, claims that praise and blame depend on subjective rightness. But the example of poker suggests that, sometimes, people’s actual practises of praising and blaming bely that claim. How might subjectivists reply? I see three possibilities. First, it might be said that the other poker players are simply mistaken; although Monica’s play is praised, it’s not really praiseworthy. Second, it might be said that the other players believe that Monica’s play is subjectively rational, because she could have reasonably believed that calling had the greatest expected utility; perhaps they assume that she has some extraordinary poker intuition that allows her to foretell what cards will be dealt (aside: does this violate the “no cheating” stipulation). Third, it might be said that Monica’s action is praiseworthy, not because it maximises subjective expected utility, but because it displays some other kind of virtue (e.g. it was highly courageous).
None of these responses strikes me as entirely satisfying. But I’ll leave their evaluation to discussion, to see what others think.
Update: There’s a fourth possible response, which I negelected to mention above. It might be said that the other players are not really praising Monica’s play; rather, they’re remarking on her good fortune. In this context, “good call” might be taken to mean something like “you just got very lucky”.