I’m interested in defending consequentialism against allegations that it represents an inherently perverse perspective, or that the consequentialist agent would have a morally bad character. For example, critics allege that the consequentialist agent would have ‘one thought too many’, that they would treat others as replaceable ‘value receptacles’, that they would be cold and calculating, untrustworthy, and incapable of genuine personal relationships. I aim to rebut these charges.
By way of background: I assume that for any given moral theory, we can reconstruct what it would take to be a fitting agent, i.e. one who exemplifies the theory's moral perspective. Roughly: the fitting agent is one who believes, and has fully internalized, the moral truth. They thus desire just what’s genuinely desirable. Importantly, to call a character ‘fitting’ in this sense is not to say that the theory in question recommends adopting it. We might do better, by the theory’s lights, to believe and act upon moral falsehoods.
The paradox of hedonism is a great example of this. According to egoistic hedonism, the fitting agent would desire only his own happiness. But such an agent might predictably be happier were he to come to care non-instrumentally about other things and other people. So the hedonist would want to change their character to become a happier non-hedonist instead. Even so, that doesn’t change what the fitting hedonistic character or mindset looks like. We can assess the hedonistic mindset, independently of its consequences, for whether it seems to constitute a morally accurate perspective — this is just an indirect way of assessing whether the theory of hedonism is true. Nonetheless, I think it’s a helpful methodology, because — at least in some cases — we may have stronger intuitions about the appropriateness or perversity of concrete psychologies than we do about the truth of abstract theories.
Now, everything I just said about hedonism also applies to impartial consequentialism. We can grasp the consequentialist mindset, or what it would take to be a fitting consequentialist agent, and we can assess whether this seems to constitute a morally accurate perspective, or a morally perverse one.
Past defenders of consequentialism have typically neglected this challenge, feeling content to gesture at the distinction between criteria of rightness and decision procedures, and pointing out — correctly enough — that consequentialism needn’t recommend that we adopt a consequentialist decision procedure. But this is non-responsive to the kind of objection I’m considering here. The objection is not that consequentialism recommends an instrumentally bad mindset, but that it exemplifies an inherently misguided one. There are two ways to defend against this objection. One is to bite the bullet and just insist that what critics claim to be perverse is not really so. (Maybe it’s actually completely appropriate to treat people as value receptacles!) The second, which I pursue, is to argue that the critics are mistaken to attribute the psychological feature in question to the fitting consequentialist agent.
For example, some claim that the fitting consequentialist agent has but a single desire — to maximize utility — and the welfare of particular individuals is merely instrumental to this end. To see why this is objectionable, compare the way in which we treat money: I don’t care if you switch the $20 bill in my hand with another, because I don’t care about the particular bills — I just care about my total net worth. But it’d seem terribly perverse to treat individual people as fungible in this way. Any theory that attributes intrinsic value only to aggregate welfare, and not to individuals, is I think clearly false.
But consequentialism need not have this implication. The fitting agent has distinct intrinsic desires corresponding to each thing that is intrinsically good or desirable. So if we think it’s fitting to desire each individual’s welfare separately, that just goes to show that we’re committed to a value theory that is in one sense pluralistic: rather than holding that there is only one token good, namely aggregate welfare, it says that what’s good is the welfare of this person, and that person, and so on, for each person. Consequentialism can comfortably take this form. This may not sound like a big difference, but it actually has concrete psychological implications. When weighing two equally good instruments to the same end, the appropriate response is indifference: this reflects the fact that the particular identities of instruments is not something of any normative significance. But faced with two equally weighty intrinsic goods, one responds not with indifference, but with ambivalence: one has distinct desires pulling in either direction. Even if it doesn’t alter one’s outward behaviour, this internal conflict reflects one’s recognition of the distinct and irreplaceable values in play.
So that's how I think consequentialists should respond to this version of the value receptacle / separateness of persons objection. In my full paper [pdf] [view online with Google Viewer] I defend my framing and methodology in more detail, and address several other character-based objections to consequentialism. It's very much a work in progress, so any feedback would be much appreciated!Like