I am currently working on a manuscript in which sophisticated consequentialism (SC) plays a role, and I want to make sure I characterize the view accurately.
The heart of SC is the recommendation that the act consequentialist standard of right action not necessarily be utilized by agents in their deliberations. The 'sophisticated consequentialist' is supposed to be justified is not using that standard in her deliberations to the extent that using it would have worse consequences than using some other non-consequentialist deliberative procedure. On its face then, SC is not a view of right action but a view about right deliberation.
However, SC is sometimes characterized as a view of right action, namely, as a version of indirect consequentialism, wherein the rightness of acts is determined not by their consequences but by some other factor. In the case of SC, the other factor is psychological: An act is right if it flows from a motivational structure or set of deliberative dispositions that tends to result in the best overall state of affairs an agent can produce. This is how SC is described in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry on 'Special Obligations,' for example.
But this characterization is not the best, in my opinion. For one, if SC is a form of indirect consequentialism, then it becomes a bit less interesting because it joins an already crowded field, occupied by rule consequentialism, motive consequentialism, and the like. Second, it would also inherit all the advantages and disadvantages of such theories, including the worry (pointed out by Richard Arneson) that it would sometimes direct the sophisticated consequentialist agent to knowingly and intentionally perform a suboptimal act simply because that act is one that would be performed by an agent who uses deliberative procedures that otherwise tend to result in the best overall state of affairs.
Lastly, this characterization of SC doesn't quite coincide with how Peter Railton, the foremost progenitor of SC, describes it. In "Alienation, consequentialism, and the demands of morality," Railton says that a sophisticated consequentialist agent does not “set special stock in any particular form of decision making and therefore does not seek to lead a subjectively consequentialist life” but still retains a “standing commitment to leading an objectively consequentialist life." The sophisticated consequentialist's deliberative outlook thus satisfies a counterfactual condition: “while he ordinarily does not do what he does simply for the sake of doing what’s right, he would seek to lead a different sort of life if he did not think his was morally defensible." I hear Railton saying that the sophisticated consequentialist has the higher-order disposition to adopt whatever deliberative or motivational strategies results in actionss that in fact satisfy the act-consequentialist standard for right action, including (if need be) the standard itself. On this reading, then, SC doesn't propose a standard of right action that rivals the act consequentialist standard. Rather, it merely recommends adopting some other standard(s) as deliberative procedures when, and only when, doing so better enables agents to satisfy the act consequentialist standard. Railton's thought seems to be that certain partial values, stemming from special relationships, etc., will only be adequately accounted for, in act-consequentialist terms, if individuals adopt deliberative procedures that diverge from the act consequentialist standard. This is because the attitudes that constitute these values will be distorted or undermined unless we deliberate about them in ways that treat their value as partial. In the end, SC is only a view about right deliberation, not right action. SC is needed, on Railton's view, only if there are goods that can only be properly accommodated by act consequentialism only if the act consequentialist standard is occluded from deliberation. That (I take it) is an interesting, but controversial, claim.
I'd appreciate any clarity you might provide as to how best to characterize this view: Is a form of indirect consequentialism, only a view about right deliberation, or something else entirely?