The poll question was: If someone holds both (a) that an act is morally permissible if and only if it maximizes aggregate pleasure and (b) that nothing whatsoever (not even pleasure) is good, then s/he is what type of theorist?
And, as of 9:20 a.m. on 9/16/08, the results were as follows:
Total Votes: 73
A consequentialist: 75.3%
A nonconsequentialist: 24.7%
First of all, some of you have questioned why there’s no ‘not sure’ category for the second poll. Good question! The answer is that I don’t know squat about how to design or conduct polls properly. Sorry.
Now, let me explain why I’m interested in these results. In an interesting paper entitled “Consequentialism, Time, and Value”, David Killoren argues that, of the following two definitions given below, D1 offers the correct descriptive definition of ‘consequentialism’, where a good descriptive definition should match the usage patterns of competent speakers.
“D1 = whether an act is morally right depends only on consequences.”
“D2 = moral rightness depends only on the value (or goodness – I will use these terms interchangeably) of the consequences.”
In defense of his claim that D1 is the correct descriptive definition of ‘consequentialism’, Killoren says “it is hard to imagine a (competent, unbiased) user of philosophical jargon would not classify it [referring to the theory that consists of the conjunction of (a) and (b) in the poll question] as a consequentialist theory.” But now we see that even if it is hard to imagine, there are plenty of competent, unbiased users of philosophical jargon who would not classify it as a consequentialist theory. Indeed, the poll shows that roughly 25% of those polled classify it as a nonconsequentialist theory. Surely, there’s no good reason to think that all these respondents are either biased or not competent users of philosophical jargon. I think that we PEA Brains (i.e., participants on the blog) represent some of the best and brightest normative ethicists. Now I’m surprised that the number isn’t higher, but I think that it is high enough to indicate that there are competent, unbiased users of philosophical jargon who would not classify it as consequentialist.
What’s more, I would like to offer an explanation for the poll results: there is no canonical definition of ‘consequentialism’. This explains why there is such substantial disagreement over how to classify such a theory. And because there is no canonical definition of consequentialism, there is no correct or incorrect descriptive definition of ‘consequentialism’. I don’t think this because ‘consequentialism’ is a term of art, as Killoren suggests that I do in his paper. I readily acknowledge that there are many terms of art (in law, for instance) that do have canonical definitions. But it seems to me that a simple survey of the relevant literature shows that there is no settled or agreed-upon definition for ‘consequentialism’. There simply is no common usage pattern among all philosophers when it comes to the term ‘consequentialism’. Definitions of the term vary widely and in significant ways. For instance, quite a few philosophers think that agent-neutrality is definitive of act-consequentialism. Yet quite few others think that an act-consequentialist theory can be agent-relative.