Broadly construed, a theory is consequentialist (or teleological, if you prefer) iff it takes the deontic status of an action to be solely a function of some transitive ordering of outcomes in terms of their goodness or desirability. Now what I want to ask is: Can a consequentialist appeal to his or her considered moral convictions when determining how outcomes are to be ordered? That is, can a consequentialist defend one ordering over another on the basis that the former but not the latter yields intuitive moral verdicts when combined with the principle “an act is permissible iff no other available outcome ranks higher than its outcome”? I use to think that the answers to such questions were obviously "no" and “no,” but a comment made by Campbell Brown on my previous post has made me rethink my position.
Let O1 designate A1’s outcome, O2 designate A2’s outcome, and so forth. Clearly, the consequentialist cannot define the deontic status of an action in terms of some ordering and than define that ordering as follows: O1 outranks O2 iff A1 is deontically superior to A2, where a supererogatory act is deontically superior to a merely permissible act and a permissible act is deontically superior to an impermissible act. That would be circular. Let’s call this form of consequentialism:
Empty Consequentialism: Come to some fixed judgment about the rightness of actions that is entirely independent of any judgments we have about the desirability of outcomes, and then define the desirability of outcomes in terms of the rightness of actions.
Interestingly, though, ruling out empty consequentialism doesn’t commit us to answering “no” to the above questions, because there are still at least two further possibilities:
Foundational Consequentialism: Come to some fixed judgment about the desirability of outcomes that is completely independent of any pre-theoretical judgments that we have about the rightness of actions, and then define rightness in terms of the desirability of outcomes.
Coherence Consequentialism: Keeping the consequentialist principle “an act is permissible iff no other available outcome ranks higher than its outcome” constant, revise both our pre-theoretical judgments about the desirability outcomes and our pre-theoretical judgments about the rightness of actions in light of each other until reflective equilibrium is reached.
Unlike both the foundational consequentialist and the empty consequentialist, the coherence consequentialist doesn’t consider either her pre-theoretical judgments about the desirability of outcomes or her pre-theoretical judgments about the rightness of actions to be fixed starting points. Whereas the foundational consequentialist is unwilling to revise her judgments about the desirability of outcomes in light of any potentially counter-intuitive implications it may have when combined with consequentialist principle, the coherence consequentialist is willing to do so. And whereas the empty consequentialist is unwilling to revise her pre-theoretical judgments about the rightness of actions in light of any potential conflict that may arise when she combines her pre-theoretical judgments about the desirability of outcomes with the consequentialist principle, the coherence consequentialist is willing to do so.
Now if we think that coherence consequentialism is a legitimate, non-circular, and potentially informative form of consequentialism, then we should answer “yes” to the above questions. And it seems to me that coherence consequentialism is all these things.
So does anyone see a reason for thinking that coherence consequentialism is an illegitimate form of consequentialism?
(An aside: Coherence consequentialism employs the method of narrow reflective equilibrium, but it may itself be the product of wide reflective equilibrium, where all our judgments, including the consequentialist principle, are open to possible revision.)