I am currently working on a manuscript in which sophisticated consequentialism (SC) plays a role, and I want to make sure I characterize the view accurately.

The heart of SC is the recommendation that the act consequentialist standard of right action not necessarily be utilized by agents in their deliberations.  The 'sophisticated consequentialist' is supposed to be justified is not using that standard in her deliberations to the extent that using it would have worse consequences than using some other non-consequentialist deliberative procedure. On its face then, SC is not a view of right action but a view about right deliberation.

However, SC is sometimes characterized as a view of right action, namely, as a version of indirect consequentialism, wherein the rightness of acts is determined not by their consequences but by some other factor. In the case of SC, the other factor is psychological: An act is right if it flows from a motivational structure or set of deliberative dispositions that tends to result in the best overall state of affairs an agent can produce. This is how SC is described in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry on 'Special Obligations,' for example.

But this characterization is not the best, in my opinion. For one, if SC is a form of indirect consequentialism, then it becomes a bit less interesting because it joins an already crowded field, occupied by rule consequentialism, motive consequentialism, and the like. Second, it would also inherit all the advantages and disadvantages of such theories, including the worry (pointed out by Richard Arneson) that it would sometimes direct the sophisticated consequentialist agent to knowingly and intentionally perform a suboptimal act simply because that act is one that would be performed by an agent who uses deliberative procedures that otherwise tend to result in the best overall state of affairs. 

Lastly, this characterization of SC doesn't quite coincide with how Peter Railton, the foremost progenitor of SC, describes it. In "Alienation, consequentialism, and the demands of morality," Railton says that a sophisticated consequentialist agent does not “set special stock in any particular form of decision making and therefore does not seek to lead a subjectively consequentialist life” but still retains a “standing commitment to leading an objectively consequentialist life." The sophisticated consequentialist's deliberative outlook thus satisfies a counterfactual condition: “while he ordinarily does not do what he does simply for the sake of doing what’s right, he would seek to lead a different sort of life if he did not think his was morally defensible."  I hear Railton saying that the sophisticated consequentialist has the higher-order disposition to adopt whatever deliberative or motivational strategies results in actionss that in fact satisfy the act-consequentialist standard for right action, including (if need be) the standard itself. On this reading, then, SC doesn't propose a standard of right action that rivals the act consequentialist standard. Rather, it merely recommends adopting some other standard(s) as deliberative procedures when, and only when, doing so better enables agents to satisfy the act consequentialist standard. Railton's thought seems to be that certain partial values, stemming from special relationships, etc., will only be adequately accounted for, in act-consequentialist terms, if individuals adopt deliberative procedures that diverge from the act consequentialist standard. This is because the attitudes that constitute these values will be distorted or undermined unless we deliberate about them in ways that treat their value as partial. In the end, SC is only a view about right deliberation, not right action. SC is needed, on Railton's view, only if there are goods that can only be properly accommodated by act consequentialism only if the act consequentialist standard is occluded from deliberation. That (I take it) is an interesting, but controversial, claim.

I'd appreciate any clarity you might provide as to how best to characterize this view: Is a form of indirect consequentialism, only a view about right deliberation, or something else entirely?


9 Replies to “Getting clear on ‘sophisticated consequentialism’

  1. Hi Michael,
    I worry that this is a question about the choice of unfortunate terminology. Firstly, ‘sophisticated consequentialism’ is a bad name for a theory. Who would want to accept the opposing ‘unsophisticated consequentialism’? It’s a bit like saying that I’m defending a good theory. Who wouldn’t?
    More seriously, I think we need to first think of what the distinct views are and then ask what names to give the different alternatives. This is much better than first thinking of a name and then asking which view is this.
    As far as the views are concerned, there seems to be two important distinctions in this ballpark. One of them is the question of whether a specific consequentialist view is offered primarely as the criterion of rightness or as a deliberation. procedure. Now, with this distinction, I take it that the criterion of rightness view has been called SC (sadly). It’s true that this view has implications too for how we are to deliberate – probably not in the consequentialist way. But, I don’t think it is right to say that because of this SC is not a view about right action but rather about deliberation. I think this gets thinks exactly wrong way around when we consider this distinction.
    The second distinction is between direct and indirect forms of consequentialism. I agree that it would not be a good idea to call the indirect views sophisticated. In a way they are, but there are very sophisticated forms of direct consequentialism too.
    So, I take it that if you are a consequentialist, you need to specify whether your view is a criterion rightness or a deliberation procedure. If it is the former, you need to say something about the recommended deliberation too. And, you need to specify whether your view is direct or indirect form of consequentialism. If you do this, then it doesn’t really matter what name you give for your view. Except, SC seems to be a bad name for any view that takes a stand on these distinctions.
    When it comes to Railton, I would want to say that his view is primarily a form of direct consequentialism understood as a criterion of rightness. Note that Railton does not have a theory called sophisticated consequentialism in the paper. Rather, he describes an agent called sophisticated consequentialist who has a certain sort of motivational structures. I take it that the purpose of this is to argue that even the objective forms of consequentialism (direct, criterion of rightness) can be compatible with and approve of agency that is not alienated from morality and yet in some sense connected to the consequentialist criterion of rightness. So, what is sophisticated here is not the theory but the motivations which agent approved by the theory has. Railton also has nice argument to the conclusion that the direct/indirect distinction is different from the criterion/deliberation procedure one if I remember this right.

  2. To expand on Jussi’s comment, I think it’s also important for a view about deliberation procedures to further specify whether it’s a view about what DP is recommended as optimal or what DP is constitutive of rationality, since these may come apart. (For more on this, and further analysis of Railton’s sophisticated consequentialist agent, you might be interested in my paper, What’s Fit for the Fallible.)

  3. This may seem extreme, but I would say that a view that says we ought to deliberate by consciously trying to add up the utilities of our possible actions and choose the action that appears to get the highest total and that we ought to do that regardless of the costs of such deliberation, is no kind of consequentialism at all. It is a deontological view that says that morally there is something one must do regardless of whether the heavens will fall if one does it, namely employ a certain decision-procedure. Presumably the view would be that one should employ that decision procedure even if by not so employing it, 5 others would thereby be able to employ it, etc.
    Thus I think “sophisticated consequentialism” is just what consequentialism is, properly understood.

  4. David – Couldn’t a (slightly misguided) consequentialist think that the expected-utility DP is what’s constitutive of rationality? That’s not to say we should always be rational (as we know from Schelling, Parfit, etc.). By all means be irrational if that’s the only way to stop the heavens from falling. Regardless, we might still think that an account of practical rationality is part of what we should want from a complete normative theory. And it’s very natural (albeit, I argue, mistaken) to think that consequentialism implies that calculating expected utilities is the rational way to decide what to do (including, of course, the choice of whether to take an irrationality pill, etc., and hence to cease calculating utilities in future).

  5. I could imagine thinking that maximizing expected utility was constitutive of morality. But it is something else to say that calculating expected utility as a decision procedure is constitutive of morality. We can, as it were, calculate expected utility for the agent given her credences. There is no reason, I think, to think that such a view actually requires the agent to do such calculating if for no other reason than that the expected utility of doing so is sure to be much lower than other things one might do in many cases.

  6. I agree (for just the reasons you point out) that it’d be crazy to think that calculating expected utility is morally required. But that’s why I spoke of what’s rational, rather than what’s required. We already know that sometimes rationality can be a curse. So it takes more than that to show that calculating utilities isn’t the rational way to make decisions. (I do think that the normality of bad consequences in this case is some reason to doubt it, insofar as rationality shouldn’t normally be a curse. So I don’t want to say too much in defense of the mistaken view. But I do think it’s a respectable view that’s worth distinguishing from the bad view you rightly dismiss. In fact, I think it’s very plausible that calculating expected utilities would be what’s rational for cognitively unlimited or “ideal” agents — even if it was not morally recommended due to the punishments of some utilitarian-hating evil demon.)

  7. I guess it is not clear to me that rationality (as opposed to morality) requires caring as much about other people’s utility as one’s own.

  8. We can side-step that issue by reading ‘rationality’ in the above as shorthand for ‘rationality from the moral point of view’ or ‘rationality given purely moral ends’, or something along those lines. (Elsewhere I call it moral “fittingness“, to avoid just this issue, but I figured that ‘rationality’ is a more familiar term.)

  9. To All,
    Not only am I coming late to this discussion, but since I lack the theoretical background of others on this site, I many be about to ask a naive or ill-conceived question. But here it is anyway. What constraints, if any, exist with respect to the decision-procedure selected by a consequentialist before he/she is no longer a consequentialist? In other words, if my ultimate objective is right action, and right action is defined in terms of the best consequences, may I adopt any decision-procedure that arguably might produce the best consequences without being drummed out of the Corps?
    I ask this question because I have always understood that one of the fault lines between consequentialists and deontologists was their respective positions with respect to the “deontological paradox.” But based on this thread, it seems possible to me that a consequentialist could, at least in principle, adopt a decision-procedure that would respect this paradox, i.e. not kill one even to save five. If so, then the line between these two theories seems to blur.

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