on August 7, 2010
Anyone serious about philosophical ethics knows something about consequentialism--the moral theory that actions are to be evaluated based on the agent-neutral states-of-affairs they produce. Maximizing utilitarianism is the most common variety but there are others.
Consequentialism begins with what seem like reasonable, even commonsense, premises (i.e. the correct response to valuable states of affairs is promotion) but ends up dictating things that seem to fly in the face of our deepest moral convictions (i.e. morality requires us to sacrifice our personal projects in order to improve overall, long run states of affairs.)
As Paul Hurley points out, attempts to avoid consequentialism are often plagued with problems that proponents of consequentialism can easily exploit. Suppose you're concerned that consequentialism neglects your personal projects. The consequentialist responds: 1.) your personal projects have already been weighed impartially and 2.) (rhetorically) what justifies you in rejecting theoretical considerations because of unsavory conclusions? In this way, non-consequentialist criticisms can be dismissed as question-begging.
In Beyond Consequentialism, Hurley throws in with the critics of consequentialism. He argues that the critics can be successful if they focus on much-overlooked criticisms that cause trouble at the level of theory. The basic problem with consequentialism, on my reading of Hurley, is that it unjustifiably collapses moral standards and moral reasons. While many non-consequentialists have honed in on the over-demandingness objection, Hurley makes a strong case that the real problem with consequentialism is under-demandingness. The moral standards are high, but they are not supported by any theory of practical reason, so it makes sense to ask "but
why should I bother with those moral standards?"
Traditional moral theories like virtue ethics, Kantianism and Hobbesianism each begin with a theory of reasons for action. Consequentialism does not. As a result, consequentialism is left with some unenviable choices: a.) stick with a kind of practical dualism that gives no possibility of reconciling moral and practical reasons, b.) claim (implausibly) that all reasons for action are agent neutral, or c.) deny that morality provides rationally authoritative moral standards. From these considerations we can produce the following aporetic triad:
1 The Rational Authoritativeness of Moral Standards
2 The Non-Impersonality of Reasons for Action
3 Consequentialist Moral Standards
Hurley believes that these three propositions are incompatible and hopes to put pressure on us to reject the third. The obvious consequentialist reply to the effect that consequentialist moral standards are automatically rationally authoritative, but Hurley points out that this claims draws on commonsense morality intuitions that consequentialsts must reject to explicate their moral theory.
I am impressed by the force of Hurley's argumentation in Beyond Consequentialism. The response to Samuel Scheffler alone makes this book worth reading. However, the offense stands only if Hurley can provide a good defense. Hurley himself acknowledges that his argument is much weaker if there are no robust alternatives to consequentialism. If none are forthcoming, we may be stuck with consequentialism and find ourselves choosing whether to reject the non-impersonality of practical reason or rejecting the authoritativeness of moral standards. In this book, Hurley, by his own admission, offers only the faintest outline of a positive account.
All in all, Beyond Consequentialism is a very good book that provides the critic of consequentialism with the right sort of ammunition, but it is clearly not the final word.