Monday, January 03, 2011


Richard looks at defending utilitarianism. He starts off below case of ethics, we should likewise distinguish 'morally fortunate' from 'morally fitting' character. The fortunate character is that which serves to promote the good. The fitting character is that which embodies an orientation towards the good. This is the sense in which someone might have "good intentions", even if the intention has bad consequences, and so is unfortunate. Talk of "virtuous" character also plausibly concerns the 'fitting' mode of evaluation.
Critics of consequentialism often object to how a consequentialist agent would (allegedly) think. They claim that the consequentialist agent is, in some sense, a bad character. Defenders of consequentialism typically dismiss such objections by citing the distinction between 'criteria of rightness' and 'decision procedures'. (Utility provides the criterion that determines the moral status of an act; it's a further question whether agents ought to attempt to calculate utilities themselves.) This is not entirely satisfactory.

This is a good and useful seperation (not entirely new of course but nothing is)

Interestingly in the comments on the thread I see from X. Trapnel

I don't see any reason to think that "being a consequentialist just means rejecting" the 'fitting' mode of evaluation. (That would certainly be a surprise to readers of Parfit's Reasons and Persons.) It merely means that given a choice between being fitting or fortunate, we should prefer the latter.

Richards response is
I don't see any reason to think that "being a consequentialist just means rejecting" the 'fitting' mode of evaluation. (That would certainly be a surprise to readers of Parfit's Reasons and Persons.) It merely means that given a choice between being fitting or fortunate, we should prefer the latter.

no more comments after this but I take that as Richard conceding the whole debate at least for a normal utilitarian... why?

Well because consequentialism says somthing about almost everything. it is the classic objection to utilitarianism that it is hugely demanding becuase every action influences an almost infinite number of future actions. Well this is also relevant here because fortunate and fitting overlap in EVERY case. If you prefer any degree of fortunate over any degree of fitting then you have no regard for fitting.

Also possible I suppose is an ideal agent where their desires etc are completely decoupled for their actions. Ie that their having a friend or enemy has absolutly no influence on what they do in regard to that person. Like a person in your brain watching the world operate according to utilitarian rules. I suppose that sounds like some sort of torture for this fellow but I also envisage the minor fix (in fact i think this would be natural) that they dont care about the fact that there is a discontect between their desires and actions.


Anonymous HulGil said...

I think there is a good reason to prefer a man of "fitting" character to a man you have observed to be fortunate. In the former case, the man will desire to do good; and as you mention, there is certainly a link between fitness and fortune. Thus, this man will continue to attempt to attain goodness, and if he is rational and intelligent, he will most probably attain it.

In the latter case, however, you have a man who does not have the "orientation to do good", and thus any goodness that comes from his acts is mere good fortune. It is unlikely that it will be replicated; thus, more net goodness (utility) will come from the "fitting" character.

There are exceptions: if someone is irrational and wants to do good, it is possible that they will inadvertantly do evil. If there were rational, they could see this or be persuaded of it, but not so in the case of irrationality.

Another exception is if we say a man of "fortunate" character will consistently do good by good fortune: i.e., if "fortunate" refers to all of his actions as a sum, instead of just some actions you have observed that could be due merely to luck. In this case, it is better than anyone except someone who is both fit and fortunate. And I do agree that the two qualities are correlated.

10:04 PM  
Blogger TruePath said...

I've always felt that it's simply mistaken to even think in terms of agents for a conventionalist theory (or at least utilitarianism).

The idea that morality is about agents and choices is itself a substantial assumption (or at least suggestive framing). I would argue that a proper understanding of utilitarianism rejects the whole idea that morality has anything to do with agents.

Rather, morality is nothing but a normatively correct preference relation over states of affairs. Now, if you want to model yourself as an actor with free choice this preference relation induces a preference relation on your actions (action A is better than B if A leads to a state of affairs that is preferable to B).

I'd argue this is a very valuable feature for a moral theory to have for several reasons.

First, it divorces our moral theory from any concerns about what we are free to choose and where to draw the line between difficult actions and impossible ones (can you choose to hold your hand in a fire for 5 minutes etc..).

Of course if one has a substantive (non-compatibilist) theory of free will this may not be that big of a deal. However, I take the evidence for compatibilism to be overwhelming (unless we want to deny the existence of free will in which case divorcing morality from agent choice is vital). But, compatibilism reduces the distinction between free choices and non-free actions to a pragmatic stipulation. But if there is no principled difference between mere reflexes and choices then any theory that attempts to evaluate the morality of our choices is unprincipled. But no moral realist should be prepared to admit that moral judgements can depend on an unprincipled matter of stipulation.

Another benefit of viewing our moral theory as a pure preference relation on states of affairs is that it can handle a situation with no optimal choice.

No realist moral theory should depend on the laws of physics having turned out just in the way they have, they certainly shouldn't make controversial assumptions about actual physical debates. In particular we can't rule out the possibility that an actor A can be forced to choose a real number r in the interval (0,1] and whatever that number is some immortal evil dictator will inflict r units of pain per hour on an innocent until the end of time. Now if we think of a moral theory as making demands about what choices one should make then, however small we are obligated to choose r, we lose the intuitively important fact that it would be better to have chosen r smaller. While there may be social reasons for a theory of blame or acceptable action in cases like this only a theory which simply ranks outcomes can accommodate the most important moral aspect of the situation, it's always better to pick a smaller value for r. (Such a choice is arguably physically possible by sending the immortal actor who will choose r on a special path through space time that allows him to experience an infinite duration of time while those watching only see an hour pass. Thus, r could simply be the fraction of the hour remaining when the actor first signaled back. Thus, the actor is faced with the dilemma that it is always better to signal later but must signal at some point).

Now, one might argue that some additional moral theory is needed on top of this framework. I'm personally unconvinced. However, I think the reasons I've given here present a strong case for thinking of consequentialism as merely giving the normatively correct preference relation on states of affairs.

3:32 AM  

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