The poll question was: Assuming that you’re a consequentialist (if you’re not one, then please don’t take this poll), do you believe that the best outcome available to a given agent is always the one that she ought to prefer to all other available alternatives?
And, as of 9:20 a.m. on 9/16/08, the results were as follows:
Total Votes: 47
Not sure: 8.5%
So, now, let me explain why I was interested in this poll. I’m interested to what extent consequentialists are committed to the idea that it is never morally wrong for an agent to act so as to bring about the outcome that she ought to prefer (i.e., the outcome that she has decisive reason, all things considered, to prefer) to all other available alternatives. I’m interested, because I find it quite implausible to hold that S ought to perform y as opposed to x while at the same time holding that S ought to prefer Wx to Wy (where Wx is the possible world that would be actual if S were to perform x, and likewise for Wy). If S can choose which possible world will be actual (and we’re supposing that she can), and if she ought to want the one in which she performs x (i.e., Wx) to be actual, then how could it be she ought not to perform x, but ought instead to perform y?
But now it seems at least coherent to suppose that S ought to prefer Wx to Wy even though Wy is slightly better than Wx, for, as Scanlon explains, “[t]o claim that something is valuable (or that it is ‘of value’) is to claim that others also have reason to value it, as you do. [Yet w]e can, quite properly, value some things more than others without claiming that they are more valuable” (1998, 95).To illustrate, suppose that S is me and that Wx is the world in which I save my daughter from drowning and Wy is the world in which I instead save some stranger’s child from drowning. Assume that they are both drowning and that I can only save one of the two. And assume that, because the stranger’s child is slightly more gifted than my own, it would be slightly better that Wy be actualized. It seems to me right to claim that I ought to prefer Wx to Wy (i.e., to value Wx above Wy) even though Wy is better than Wx. A number of philosophers agree and argue that, for this reason, those who seek to analyze ‘good’ and ‘better’ in terms of reasons for desiring and preferring must be careful to restrict their analyses to agent-neutral reasons for desiring and preferring.
But I’m wondering which consequentialists take to be more fundamental: (a) that the right act is the one that brings about the best outcome or (b) that the right act is the one that brings about the outcome that the agent ought to prefer to the available alternatives? Perhaps, they think that they needn’t choose, for, perhaps, they deny that anyone ought ever to prefer a worse state of affairs to a better state of affairs.
So, here are three new polls: