Consequentialist DCT
December 1, 2009 — 17:16

Author: Luke Gelinas  Category: Uncategorized  Comments: 17

Here is something I was thinking about on the bus ride home the other night (i.e., I haven’t fully worked it out yet). It seems possible to have a view about act evaluation that is both significantly consequentialist and committed to the claim that rightness/wrongness is a function of God’s commands. This could happen if you think that consequentialism is a view about what makes actions good or bad, better or worse–but that, strictly speaking, consequentialism has nothing to say about rightness/wrongness.


The latter isn’t a crazy view (Alastair Norcross endorses it, as does Frances Howard-Snyder). The general motivation for consequentialists to say stuff like this is that, on act consequentialism, miniscule differences in value can make the difference between wrong and right. But this seems to trivialize rightness and wrongness. One way to avoid this is to say that rightness and wrongness admit of degrees. But most people don’t seem to think this. If that’s you, it might be better to avoid deontic concepts altogether than to make them arbitrary features of the moral universe. A theory is then consequentialist just in case it tells you which acts are good (those acts that bring about net good) and which bad (ditto for bad), which better (those that bring about more value) and which worse (those that bring about less).
If you think this is the best interpretation of consequentialism, you can also happily hold that rightness/wrongness is a function of God’s commands. I even think this may have independent appeal (apart from the truth of theistic premises), given both (1) the intuitive pull of the claim that the better the outcome, the better the act, and (2) the work that we sometimes want ‘objective thresholds’ to do in moral theory. In particular, I’m wondering whether this kind of view can help with worries about threshold-arbitrariness. I think maybe it can, though it might depend partly on the particulars of the DCT.
Suppose you think that while our duty to keep promises usually trumps our duty to maximize value, there are times when our duty to maximize good trumps our duty to keep promises. On the consequentialist DCT I have in mind, what makes it the case that the right act to perform here is the one that maximizes value has nothing to do (as most Ross-style deontologies hold) with the amount value at stake; that would leave us open to the same worry about trivializing rightness/wrongness. What makes this the case is rather some fact about God’s commands. Since God’s commands aren’t arbitrary–at least, according to DCTs–the theory may be able to escape worries that plague other views of this sort.

Comments:
  • Mike Almeida

    On the consequentialist DCT I have in mind, what makes it the case that the right act to perform here is the one that maximizes value has nothing to do (as most Ross-style deontologies hold) with the amount value at stake; that would leave us open to the same worry about trivializing rightness/wrongness. What makes this the case is rather some fact about God’s commands. Since God’s commands aren’t arbitrary–at least, according to DCTs–the theory may be able to escape worries that plague other views of this sort.
    Luke,
    Very interesting post. But I’m having trouble following where the trivializing comes from here (above). How does God’s commands help? To avoid the charge of God’s commands being arbitrary you’ll have to offer some meta-principle concerning how God weighs the various morally relevant features of actions. But having done that, it seems that God’s command itself plays no role in making an action right. That might not matter. The command can play a role in making an action something we ought to do; just as a military commander can make an action something I ought to do, even if it doesn’t make the action militarily right. In these cases, I’m suggesting, I can be obligated to do what is not objectively right (given a less than perfectly rational commander). We don’t abandon the rationale for rightness, but we add a rationale for what we are obligated to do.

    December 1, 2009 — 18:58
  • Luke Gelinas

    Hi Mike,
    I don’t know if I’m entirely clear on the way you’re using ‘ought’ in the last part of your comment above–is it just a subjective action-guiding ‘ought’? But yes, I have to be clearer about the trivialization/arbitrariness stuff.
    As I see it, the big worry is that objective thresholds could be arbitrary in a morally objectionable sense. The thought that miniscule differences in value can make the difference between right and wrong is troubling because we tend to attach such different attitudes to rightness and wrongness (e.g., wrongness often occasions blame and regret, rightness doesn’t). It doesn’t seem like miniscule differences in value should make the difference between these sort of things.
    But in the situation I’m envisaging, what makes it the case that the act is right is that an essentially morally perfect being doesn’t forbid it (or whatever it is about God that does the work). Since the being is morally perfect, there is nothing arbitrary in a morally objectionable sense about where the threshold is set. Maybe the way to phrase the view I’m noodling with is that IF what the best DCTs tell us is true—that God’s commands (or desires, or whatever it is about God that does the work) are in some way constrained by God’s morally perfect nature, and so necessarily not morally objectionable—then consequentialist DCT might help with objective thresholds. For now I’m trying not to take a stand on just what it is about God that does the right-making work.

    December 1, 2009 — 20:11
  • I have wondered about a similar view.
    George Berkley defended a view a bit like this in Passive Obedience. Also, I think R M Hare’s views also lend themselves to a consquentialist DCT. If one turns the hypothetical arch angel into an actually existing God then you have a meta-ethic whereby right and wrong are the prescriptions God and what God seeks is the maximisation of utility.
    One interesting feature of such a theory is how it might tie into a skeptical thiest response to the problem of evil and also link a consquentialist ethic with a deontological intuitionism.
    One line of argument Alan Donagan raises against act utilitarianism is that one is not in an epistemic position to calculate the total long term utility of ones acts. Suppose, following Hare (and Berkeley to some extent) one postulates levels of ethical thinking. At the critical level with full rationality and impartiality one is an act utilitarian, however because human beings frequently cannot approximate this position a person at the critical level would also promulgate a set of largely exception less rules, the acceptance of which would maximizes, that are adopted by human beings at the intuitive level.
    One could have a picture whereby God being omniscient and impartial is an act utilitarian he allows evils to occur when greater goods will result. However our epistemic situation means that we cannot know these goods, hence a kind of skeptical theist theodicy follows. On the other hand because our epistemic situation means we cannot accurately follow an act utilitarian criteria God promulgates to humans a series of rules the acceptance of which maximizes utility and for utititarian reasons we accept these rules intuitively.
    I wonder also if some of the troublesome OT passages could be explained in this way. In certain rare circumstances an absolute rule at the intuitive level can be suspended on utilitarian grounds. John Hare once defended the bombing of Hiroshima along Harean lines like this. One could in theory, apply this line of argument to the commands viz a viz the Canaanites.
    I am not sure such a view is defensible but have always been interested in seeing if it could be worked out.

    December 2, 2009 — 6:23
  • Mike Almeida

    Since the being is morally perfect, there is nothing arbitrary in a morally objectionable sense about where the threshold is set.
    Right, but what is the nature of the perfection? Is he a perfect utilitarian? If not, then what? You’ve essentially pushed the question back one step, it looks like.

    December 2, 2009 — 10:09
  • Luke Gelinas

    Hi Matt,
    Nice, it’s been a while since I’ve read Hare, and I hadn’t even thought of the similarities. Hare is (as you say) committed to a maximizing view, but I’d like the view I have in mind, while remaining compatible with maximizing views, also to be available to non-maximizers.
    I don’t know if you’re saying that consequentialist DCT helps w. Donagan’s objection, or just calling attention to it to point out the connection to ST. I’m not sure it helps with opacity problems, since I’m not sure how confident we can be about where God sets the threshold.
    As for the sort of dual-level view you suggest, it will be open to what I think are pretty serious (and familiar) objections. E.g., every act that breaks the rules but nonetheless maximizes value should be right. Are the rules on the view you propose what makes acts right/wrong? Or are they just a subjective decision guide?

    December 2, 2009 — 10:13
  • Luke Gelinas

    Right, but what is the nature of the perfection? Is he a perfect utilitarian? If not, then what? You’ve essentially pushed the question back one step, it looks like.
    I don’t know what the nature of the perfection is, since I don’t know what the correct normative theory is. I don’t think I have enough to go on to figure out these sort of complex facts about God’s nature a priori, or even using ‘special’ revelation.
    I may just be pushing things back a step here. But in this case pushing things back a step may be worth something. It seems to me at least slightly less morally objectionable to appeal to the will of an essentially morally perfect being (assuming one exists and such) to ground the threshold than to make its location turn on minuscule differences in value.

    December 2, 2009 — 10:25
  • Mike Almeida

    It seems to me at least slightly less morally objectionable to appeal to the will of an essentially morally perfect being (assuming one exists and such) to ground the threshold than to make its location turn on minuscule differences in value.
    Right, unless it turns out that an essentially perfect being does just the thing you’re trying to avoid. He makes rightness/wrongness turn on small differences.
    But come to think of it, isn’t it necessarily possible that rightness and wrongness turn on small differences? For any description D of my action that subvenes the attribution of the moral property of being right, there will be cases of borderline D. Some actions will be almost right, though wrong. Others will be clearly right.

    December 2, 2009 — 12:52
  • Luke Gelinas

    I see, yes–this is the place to push (and one of the places I haven’t fully thought through yet). I’ve been tossing around a couple moves in my head, neither of which I’m real confident about:
    (1) Suppose the reason God places the threshold where God does turns entirely on slight differences in value. So far as I can see, what grounds the threshold will still be some fact about the divine nature. The divine nature is such that this difference in value makes the difference between right and wrong, and so this is the spot at which the threshold exists.
    I agree that this isn’t real satisfying, but it might yet be more satisfying than some of the other options, e.g., positing the existence and positioning of the threshold as brute metaphysical facts. I’m not sure, for example, how plausible it is to think that normativity of this sort would come built into the world if God doesn’t exist.
    (2) We could also say that slight differences in value constitute some–but not the whole of–God’s reasons for setting the threshold where God does. God takes account of the differences in value, but God’s decision about where to set the threshold is also partly informed by God’s wider desires, purposes, and such.
    So it’s not true that minuscule differences in value, all on their own, make the difference between right and wrong. God’s desires and wider purposes play a role too. Since of necessity these desires and purposes are morally exemplary, we don’t have to worry about arbitrariness in the same way.

    December 2, 2009 — 14:50
  • Luke Gelinas

    As for the more general issue, you may be right. I have to think more about this.

    December 2, 2009 — 15:07
  • Mike Almeida

    The divine nature is such that this difference in value makes the difference between right and wrong, and so this is the spot at which the threshold exists.
    Right, but I thought you were running an in principle objection to small value differences making a difference in deontic standing (to rightness/wrongness). But you here allow that such small difference might matter more than they seem. I’ve actually argued in another context that it is coherent to hold that a single sin can make a huge difference: the difference between salvation and damnation. I don’t think this is the way things actually are, but the view is coherent and can be made sensible. God might save everyone that is definitely indefinitely redeemable, and indefinitely irredeemable and save no one that is definitely irredeemable. That can be true despite the fact that there is in some cases a sin’s difference between the indefinitely irredeemable and the definitely irredeemable.

    December 2, 2009 — 15:56
  • Luke Gelinas

    Right, but I thought you were running an in principle objection to small value differences making a difference in deontic standing (to rightness/wrongness).
    I thought I was arguing that this sort of view could *help* with threshold-arbitrariness. I think that may be true, insofar as appeal to God’s nature constitutes a better explanation for the location of the threshold than positing it as primitive. But I didn’t mean to say or imply that views of the latter sort are downright incoherent or otherwise completely hopeless.
    It could be that necessarily possibly small differences make the difference between wrong and right, but I’m not sure that these small differences will always be as morally irrelevant as minuscule difference in value can seem to be. I have to keep thinking about it.
    And yes, your chapter on vague eschatology is on my reading list … hopefully over the break.

    December 2, 2009 — 16:27
  • Luke As for the sort of dual-level view you suggest, it will be open to what I think are pretty serious (and familiar) objections. E.g., every act that breaks the rules but nonetheless maximizes value should be right.
    Actually I remember a paper that argued that Berkeley consequentialist DCT avoided this problem. Because it’s not the fact that an action maximizes consequences that makes it wrong Its wrong because God commands it. God on the other hand maximizes or seeks humans happiness because that’s a descriptive understanding of what being loving involves. I’ll have to look up the paper for you.
    I don’t know if you’re saying that consequentialist DCT helps w. Donagan’s objection, or just calling attention to it to point out the connection to ST. I’m not sure it helps with opacity problems, since I’m not sure how confident we can be about where God sets the threshold.
    I think it helps because obviously God can reveal to us what the moral law is. If God did not do this then we would have to work out a rule consquentialist system ourselves empirically or assume that our moral intuitions had evolved naturalistically to conform to such a system, which seems on the face of it implausible. If one had the two level view God could have created us with intuitions which reliably perceive his commands (perhaps along Plantingan lines) or could reveal them through scripture or both.
    Interestingly I think the link between the skeptical theist view and Donagan’s objection is hinted at by Tooley is his debate with Plantinga. Tooley objects to Rowe both on the grounds that his position is consequentialist and also on skeptical grounds. Tooley turns it to a deontological version to avoid both objections.

    December 2, 2009 — 18:26
  • Mike Almeida

    I don’t know if I’m entirely clear on the way you’re using ‘ought’ in the last part of your comment above–is it just a subjective action-guiding ‘ought’?
    It might be true that an action that is fully justified on moral grounds is not something you ought to do. The analogy (I think this was suggested by Alex in another thread on DCT) is with military commands. Take an action A that is the right military action in circumstances C. A is right in C in the sense that it is fully justified on military grounds. It might still be true that A is not something that you ought to do in C unless commanded to do A.
    I like this approach to DCT. I have argued that A might supervene on many things including God’s commands, but this is a better way to go, I think. It gives you a nice way to avoid the Euthyphro dilemma. God’s commands do not justify actions, but they do justify you in performing them. They do not make actions right, but they do make right actions obligatory.

    December 3, 2009 — 9:12
  • Luke Gelinas

    Hi Matt,
    Yes, I’d be interested to see the paper you have in mind.
    But you say:
    Because it’s not the fact that an action maximizes consequences that makes it wrongIts wrong because God forbids it. God on the other hand maximizes or seeks humans happiness because that’s a descriptive understanding of what being loving involves.
    I take it the first sentence contains a typo, and should say the opposite, i.e., on the view it’s not the fact that an action *fails* to maximize goodness that makes it wrong, it’s that God forbids it. Is that right?
    I’m still not posolutely sure what the view is. Is it that the standard for objective rightness differs between God and humans? I.e., acts performed by God are right iff they maximize happiness, and acts performed by humans are right iff they don’t run afoul of God’s commands?
    If that’s the view, I don’t see much reason to hold it. Unless you think there’s some fairly big difference bewteen our evaluative concepts and God’s (which brings its own problems). But I don’t see why the ideal utilitarian standard wouldn’t be our standard as well.
    Is it supposed to be that the laws promulgated take account of human imperfection in such a way that obedience to them (or internalising them generally) has better overall consequences than if humans tried to maximize utility? That might be true, but there could still be individual cases where breaking the rules has better consequences than following them. If the ultimate justification for the rules is consequentialist, it seems strange to call this kind of act wrong. Maybe not incoherent, but unseemly.

    December 3, 2009 — 10:18
  • Luke Gelinas

    Mike,
    That’s interesting–it seems in the military example one of (at least) two things could be going on.
    (1) You’re not obligated until commanded because you aren’t in a position to know that the act is fully justified on moral grounds (but the commander is).
    (2) You’re not obligated until commanded because moral reasons don’t exhaust the realm of obligation. Prudential and other considerations are relevant for obligation too.
    (1) seems to turn obligation into a subjective action-guiding concept. My worry is that there can then be cases where you are obligated to do the wrong thing. If you think, as I tend to, that obligation is tied up in concepts of blame, regret, and such, this is tough to swallow. I.e., I don’t want to blame people who fail to do the wrong thing.
    Now that I consider it a minute, I’m not sure (2) is workable, if we want the example to carry over to DCT. Presumably we want to say that God’s commands constitute moral reasons, not (merely) prudential ones (or whatever).

    December 3, 2009 — 10:47
  • Mike Almeida

    The military example illustrates the role of military authority in determining what is obligatory. Even if I know better than my commander what ought to be done from a military point of view, I’m not in authority to command the action. Similarly for God’s moral authority. The view assumes that you can know what makes an action right without knowing that you ought to do it. The obligation requires the command of a moral authority or sovereign. Could God have a reason not to command me to perform an action that is right? Perhaps his middle knowledge would have him believing that I’d not complete the action or someone else would do it at least as well.

    December 3, 2009 — 12:46
  • Luke Gelinas

    Mike,
    It’s an interesting view–I think I see some of its appeal. I’m not sure how persuasive I find the military example. Can the commander obligate you to perform acts that are wrong?
    I guess have doubts that I can know that the act is all-things-considered best but not be obligated to perform it. In at least some cases, if a soldier knows that some act is best, but isn’t commanded to do it, we would still hold the soldier responsible for not performing that act.
    ‘I knew the act was best but didn’t do it because I wasn’t commanded, and so under no obligation’ will not always work as an excuse, will it? In some cases we’ll think that the soldier ought to have done what he knew to be best, whether or not commanded.

    December 4, 2009 — 10:48