As a first pass, we may think of Consequentialist moral theories as those that specify the right in terms of the good. But these terms occlude some important structure that can be brought out by further analysis. In particular, I take it that to say what's good is to say what we have reason to desire, whereas to ask about what's right is to ask about what we have reason to do.
I'm interested in how our understanding of different variants of consequentialism may be advanced by reformulating them in terms of reasons. I think we obtain two especially illuminating results if we discipline our normative theorizing in this way. Firstly, we find that Global Consequentialism (GC) is arguably just a terminological variant that fails to go beyond Act Consequentialism (AC) in any substantive respect. Second, we gain some insights into the structure of Rule Consequentialism.
(1) Here's the argument for deflating Global Consequentialism. Consequentialists begin with an axiology which specifies all the evaluative facts, i.e. what outcomes are good or desirable. The substantive work for a consequentialist theory is to use these evaluative facts to ground some further normative claims. AC does this work: it uses the basic consequentialist axiology to develop new claims about what reasons for action we have. The challenge for GC is to clarify what further claims it makes beyond this.
The GCist may suggest that his theory allows us to make new 'ought' claims about any kind of thing, not just acts. Let's take eye colours as a random example. Just as we ought to perform the act (of those available) that would lead to the best outcome, so — the GCist might claim — we can now say that we ought to possess the eye colour (of those available) that would lead to the best outcome. But we may question whether the GCist is really making a new claim here, or whether they are just repeating an old (evaluative) claim using new words.
The crucial point of disanalogy is that while we can act for reasons (which allows us to make substantive claims about how we ought to act that are not just disguised evaluative claims), we cannot possess eye colours for (normative) reasons. Having blue eyes is not the exercise of a rational capacity, the way that acting is. So there doesn't seem to be anything else for a consequentialist to say here, beyond the fact already implied by our axiology, that having a certain eye colour may be desirable, or the fact implied by AC, that we thereby have reason to bring this about if we can.
That's the gist of my argument. I develop it in more detail in a short paper viewable online here. (Any feedback would be much appreciated!)
(2) Towards the end of the paper, I discuss the following puzzle regarding Rule Consequentialism (RC). RC claims that we ought to act in accordance with the best rules, even if so acting is not itself best. This seems difficult to make sense of if the axiology exhaustively specifies our reasons for desire, for RC would then seem to imply that we ought to hope that we act differently from how we ought to act. Such a disconnect between rational preference and rational action does not seem especially coherent. Yet Rule Consequentialism is surely a coherent (if mistaken) view. What has gone wrong?
Most naturally, when RC in this way prohibits the so-called "best act", the prohibited act is not really desirable all things considered, but only antecedently desirable, i.e. before we consider the distinctive reasons for desire that derive from an act's deontic status as morally right or wrong. In this sense, their initial axiology is inconclusive or incomplete. It accounts for only some of our reasons for desire: agent-neutral welfarist reasons, perhaps. But these reasons for desire are not decisive. Let's unpack how this might work.
Rule Consequentialists first identify the rules that are best in terms of impartial welfare (or what's antecedently desirable), and then specify that we have decisive reasons to act in accordance with these rules. Finally, they might add, we have overriding reasons to prefer that we so act. This way, a prohibited act may be "best" according to the antecedent (agent-neutral welfarist) reasons for desire, and yet be bad (undesirable) all things considered. This avoids the incoherence mentioned above. But it also brings out how convoluted the view is. It is recognizably Consequentialist in the sense that it takes (some) reasons for desire as fundamental, and subsequently derives an account of reasons for action. But then it goes back and "fills in" further reasons for desire — trumping the original axiology — to make sure that they fit the account of right action. In this sense it exhibits a deontological streak: reasons for action are at least partly prior to reasons for desire. In other words, the initial axiology includes only some values (the 'pre-moral', agent-neutral welfarist ones), and what's right serves to determine the remaining ('post-moral', all things considered) good.
Does that sound right?Like