Dale Jamieson and Robert Elliot (hereafter J&E) have recently formulated a new version of consequentialism. It’s called ‘progressive consequentialism’ (this is in Philosophical Perspectives 2009). They believe that this view is motivated by the same considerations as the so-called satisficing views whilst not suffering of the same problems. I want to claim that, as the problems of the view which J&E themselves explore show, progressive consequentialism just is a form of satisficing, and thus it suffers from the very same problems. And, if J&E believe that progressive consequentialism can deal with these problems, then so can the satisficers too.
J&E begin from the familiar thought that the standard forms of consequentialism are too demanding. Some people have suggested that satisficing consequentialism can avoid this obejction. If one is required to only bring about ‘good enough’ consequences, then perhaps we do not face 'unreasonable' moral demands.
J&E claim that the central problem of satisficing is arbitrariness. What would be good enough? According to J&E, any attempt to establish the required baseline would be ad hoc. Should be bring about at least 20%, 25%, or 30% of the best consequences? Nothing about the satisficing consequentialism as such seems to motivate any answer above others.
J&E suggest that progressive consequentialism can avoid the demandingness objection without falling into the arbitrariness trap. Progressive consequentialism states that right action ‘improves the world’. Like satisficing, this view too thus gives up the maximising idea of traditional consequentialism. One is not required to bring about the best outcome. Rather, one is only required to improve things, i.e., make them better than the ‘status quo’.
This makes me think that progressive consequentialism is just a form of satisficing. It too provides a base-line and then claims that morality requires to do something that gets you above that base-line. ‘We have to make the world [some amount] better than we found it’ J&E write.
So, if a progressive consequentialism is a form of satisficing, one expects it to inherit the problems of satisficing. And, indeed this is the case. Firstly, arbitrariness creeps back in. As J&E recognise, progressive consequentialism itself does not offer just one baseline. There are many different baselines of the ‘world as we find it’ to which we could compare the value of the consequences of our actions.
We have at least two major choices (and their variants). First, in the ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’ – James Stewart kind of thought-experiment, we could compare the consequences of our acts to a world in which we did not exist at all. Call this the impersonal option. Second, we could compare the consequences of our actions to a world in which we existed but did nothing in the relevant situations. Call this the personal option.
Is there a principled way of making the decision which one of these is the right baseline? The only method J&E use is to consider which gets the results that fit our moral intuitions. If this is a non-arbitrary way of picking the baseline, then there’s no reason why the satisficers should not be able to use this same method to avoid the arbitrariness problem. In fact, there could be a contextualist satisficing view according to which the good enough varies in different contexts so as to get right normative outcomes. This would be just as ad hoc or non ad hoc as any form of progressive consequentialism.
The second problem is that none of the baselines seems to work, as J&E seem to recognise. The personal option requires being able to make the distinction between acts and omissions which is notoriously problematic (and not consequentialist in spirit). Also, consider a case in which there are 12 people drowning in a lake and one person has a small headache. You could try to save as many people as could, go into the other direction to give a pain-killer for the person who has a slight head-ache, or do nothing (stand still perhaps but that does sound like an action). Well, giving the pain-killer would make things go better than doing nothing, so this should be permissible according to the progressives.
J&E think they can deal with this problem by what they call ‘an efficiency requirement’. This says that ‘if a person is willing to allocate a specific degree of effort to improve the world, then we might reasonably require that she use that degree of effort to produce the best result possible’. The thought is that individuals have a natural disposition to act in certain ways. This inclination fixes the degree of effort the agent is willing to allocate originally in the efficiency requirement.
Now, if this requirement worked for progressivists, it would also save satisficing theories from the familiar harming and preventing goods from being delivered above the cut-off line kind of objections. But it doesn’t. Saving even one person might require more effort that giving a pain-killer to someone. If my natural inclination is then to only help others a little bit by doing trivial acts but not to do more, the efficiency requirement could not explain why I might be required to save someone’s life in this case.
What about the impersonal James Stewart baseline? Well, if you hadn’t been conceived, your parents could have had children instead who would have solved the problems of nuclear fusion. In this case, anything you would do would be wrong unless you made things even better. Or, imagine that your parents would have had children whose evil deeds would have surpassed those of the worst dictators. In this case, it would be ok for you to be almost as many bad things just as long as your natural inclinations were not towards any good. Improving things would be easy for you in this case but very bad for others.
So, it seems like progressive consequentialism makes irrelevant considerations about the counterfactuals in which you don’t exist relevant to the rightness of your actions (as well as natural inclinations to act badly or well). I guess I cannot see any non-arbitrary way of picking the counter-factuals so as to avoid these problems. This seems like the same percentage-game as the one facing the satisficers.