Sunday, July 11, 2004

Why don't consequentialists go continuous?

Reading Gibbard today, I ran back into a familiar set of categories that ethicists use to classify acts: the forbidden, the optional, and the required. Utilitarians have often had trouble trying to fit these categories to their theory -- are you required to do exactly that set of actions that will maximize aggregate utility? If so, utilitarianism seems too demanding, because it requires you to give almost all your money to charity and devote your entire life to helping others.

I don't think these categories are as essential to our ethical life as they're made out to be, and I think utilitarians and other consequentialists might do well to set them aside. Rather than use these discrete categories, we could just go for a continuous scale of the goodness of actions. If you decide to give away all that money and devote your life to helping others, your decision is heroic. A decision to forgo luxuries and send 10% of your income to Oxfam is commendable. The occasional contribution to charity is good, but merely good. On the negative side, vandalism is bad, killing someone is massively evil, and perpetrating genocide in the Sudan is hellishly villainous. These descriptions of actions (from heroic to hellishly villainous) mark points on a continuous scale, unlike the discrete forbidden-optional-required system.

In any case, the forbidden-optional-required system seems to be a relic of deontology to me, and I don't know why so many consequentialists have felt the need to fit their theories to it. My hunch is that it has something to do with metaethical internalism, but I really can't figure out how, so that could be completely off.


Brandon said...

My sentiments exactly. Another interesting dimension along which to see the awkwardness of the "forbidden/permitted/required" trichotomy is one I just ran across in Julia Annas' "Morality of Happiness": Where deontological theories cast moral choices in terms that seem

"essentially punitive or corrective, 'the notion that morality is a life harassed and persecuted everywhere by 'imperatives' and disagreeable duties, and that without these you have not got morality'*…[ancient ethics'] leading notions are not those of obligation, duty, and rule-following; instead of these 'imperative' notions it uses 'attractive' notions like those of goodness and worth."

Utilitarianism, like virtue ethics (the comparison may be more or less agreeable to you, Neil - I'm not sure how you feel about virtue talk, though it's at least obvious that the virtuous life is very likely to be a net positive w/r/t utility, and so justifiable in that framework), seems to have that 'ancient' view of life as something to be lived well (in some sense), moreso than rightly. That may sound a little selfish to people with a deontological bent - and utility obviously lends itself to more selflessness than virtue - but I think this may have to do with the unfortunate belief (exacerbated by deontology!) that charitable acts are necessarily onerous for the benefactor.

Anyway, if utilitarianism or virtue ethics or any other humanistic moral theory can dissolve the awkwardness of that trichotomy, so much the better for us! Another moral myth bites the dust.

*That's a quote from Bradley's 1876 Ethical Studies

Anonymous said...

And I have to find out about this from Google Alert? For shame.

As for utilitarianism, I'm still not sure how you get from "pleasure is good for me" to "pleasure is good."

Anonymous said...

It's Dennis Clark, btw.

Perhaps this is a stupid, non-philosopher thought, but I'm tempted to say that that awkward set of categories is almost the definition of a system of ethics. I mean here that many would tend to take a "moral code" to be a set of rules dictating what one can and cannot do, which precisely means sorting behaviors according to the trichotomy.

One can also posit (as you do) a moral code which simply assigns actions to points on a continuum of goodness, but that doesn't really dodge the question; discounting onerousness (a nontrivial assumption, as your first poster points out), shouldn't there be points on the continuum beyond which a reasonable person simply should not act (i.e. murder) and vice versa? But this then establishes your trichotomy all over again.

I suppose it just means that free will means deciding how moral you're going to be, as always.