15 Replies to “Favorite readings on: Consequentialism

  1. Two that I would mention are:

    Derek Parfit, “Is Common Sense Morality Self-Defeating?” Journal of Philosophy, 1979. This was also incorporated into Reasons and Persons but I don’t have those page numbers on me. I think this could be used in an advanced undergrad class or higher. Parfit argues that non-consequentialist morality can be directly collectively self-defeating. That is, if we all successfully act according to the non-consequentialist view, our aims might all be less well achieved than if we had done something else.

    Peter Railton, “Alienation, Consequentialism, and the Demands of Morality” Philosophy and Public Affairs, 1984. Also in his collection of essays Facts, Values, and Norms. This too I think could be used in an advanced undergrad class or higher. Railton argues that one way for the consequentialist to respond to worries that their views are excessively demanding or alienating is to focus on what sort of character and support network a person would have to have to effectively fight to make the world a better place in the long run.

  2. Two that come to mind off the top of my head are Paul Hurley’s Beyond Consequentialism and Doug Portmore’s Commonsense Consequentialism. As for articles, Jamie Dreier’s ‘In Defense of Consequentializing’ and, for a counter-argument, Campbell Brown’s ‘Consequentialize This.’

  3. One nice paper that deserves more attention is James Lenman’s “Consequentialism and Cluelessness”. Lenman argues that the unforeseeability of many of the consequences of our actions poses a serious worry for consequentialism. Suitable for teaching in senior undergrad courses and up.

  4. I should mention Parfit’s Reasons and Persons more generally. Likely this is still the best pro-consequentialism thing to read that I am aware of. Additionally, I would also give a shout out to Liam Murphy’s Moral Demands in Non-Ideal Theory and Sam Scheffler’s The Rejection of Consequentialism. I would only assign Murphy’s book in grad classes but the others could be read in advanced undergrad classes.

  5. G.A. Cohen’s ‘Rescuing Conservatism: A Defense of Existing Value’ raises a really interesting challenge for consequentialists (amongst others) regarding a possible tension between valuing particular value-bearers vs. maximizing the sheer amount of value in the world (even if it means destroying/replacing existing things of value).

    Suitable for advanced undergrads, I think, but perhaps most ideal for graduate seminars.

  6. For an undergraduate course, chapters 1, 2, and 7 of Kagan’s The Limits of Morality can be read within a week. This is, I believe, still the best attack on agent-centered options. Very roughly: We have a pro-tanto reason to promote the good. We are required to do whatever we have most reason to do. So, unless the reason to promote the good is outweighed, we are required to promote the good. If, however, the reason to promote the good is outweighed, then we are required to act in accordance with this outweighing reason. Hence, we are either required to promote the good or required to act in accordance with the outweighing reason. Thus the structure of practical reasons combined with the pro tanto reason to promote the good leaves no room for agent-centered options.

  7. Let me also add David Sobel’s ‘The Impotence of the Demandingness Objection’, which argues that our judgment that impartial consequentialism is “more demanding” than other theories depends upon deontological presuppositions, since in terms of raw (theory-neutral) cost it would seem that other theories impose or allow greater burdens (e.g. on the global poor). Nice accessible examples make it suitable even for undergrads, I think.

  8. I keep waiting for someone to mention Bernard Williams’ response to Smart in Utilitarianism: For and Against. No one has, so I will. The George and Jim cases are great conversation starters; Williams’ discussion of them is much harder. Getting at the heart of the integrity objection is tough stuff. But you can give a simpler analysis of the cases to lower undergrads (e.g., consequentialists [in their utilitarian guise] take the answer to be much easier than it seems to be), and then struggle with upper-division students over the deeper integrity worries.

  9. Following David’s cue: like lots of people I love Williams on integrity, but also like lots of people I think Railton’s consequentialist response to the objection is, at least on the surface level, decisive. (Williams pushes back a bit in Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy, but his response there is even more cryptic than the original U:FA piece.) So here’s what I really want to know: does anyone have any favorite anti-consequentialist responses to the Railton line?

  10. I have argued, in the paper Richard kindly mentioned above, that Kagan (and Liam Murphy) have given us the tools to see the problems with Williams’s Integrity Objection.

    “Recall how Samuel Scheffler tried to amend Consequentialism to accommodate something like the Demandingness Objection. If the problem is that one’s own point of view is not permitted to be given enough weight in one’s moral deliberation, he in effect reasoned, then we should simply permit one’s interests to be given more weight. Thus, on his view, one could multiply the significance of one’s own interests by a certain number and be morally permitted to maximize the new weighted aggregate. This is the most obvious response to the thought that Consequentialism requires too much of us and does not make enough room for our projects and interests.

    Shelly Kagan objected to Scheffler’s strategy for making Consequentialism less demanding. Kagan argued that Scheffler’s theory would permit one to cause harm for the sake of one’s magnified interests as much as it permits one to allow harm for the sake of one’s magnified interests. This sort of permission, Kagan rightly thought, is not sanctioned by commonsense intuitions about morality. The Demandingness Objection only comes into its own when we think of morality as permitting us to allow (or merely foresee) a certain harm.

    Kagan’s worry generalizes. Recall that Bernard Williams argued that Consequentialism threatens our integrity because it requires that we step aside from our most central personal projects merely because the sum of interests of others outweighs one’s own interests. Again, such a complaint only finds resonance when we presuppose that our projects require only that we not aid others. When we think of projects that require that we cause or intend harm to other people for no better reason than that our outweighed personal project be promoted, then the integrity complaint against Consequentialism is unpersuasive.”

    Thus the Integrity Objection (and the Demandingness Objection) to Consequentialism only looks persuasive when we presuppose breaks from Consequentialism, such as the causing/allowing distinction, which are independent of such objections. Thus we should reject Consequentialism independently from the Integrity Objection (or the Demandingness Objection) or not at all.

  11. Another piece worth mentioning is Sinnott-Armstrong’s How Strong is this Obligation. The piece is short and accessible. And it makes for a nice companion if you also assign Sidgwick. Just as Sidgwick argued that the utilitarian principle harmonizes and systematizes common-sense judgments, Sinnott-Armstrong argues that consequentialism can best explain the importance we assign to different duties. His main point is that since the strength of a moral obligation goes up and down as the bads attached to violating it go up and down, this correlation supports the hypothesis that the bads attached to violating it are what make the moral obligation as strong as it is. And if concomitant variation supports a consequentialist account of the strength of our obligations, then (in order to offer a unified account) we should think it explains the source of our obligations too.

  12. How about Jonathan Bennett’s argument against the significance of the doing/allowing distinction in “Whatever the Consequences”, and in his Tanner Lectures, and in The Act Itself? The argument, briefly: you do harm when most of the ways you can move your body are such that if you move in that way, the harm won’t occur; but you move your body in some other way. You allow harm when most of the ways you can move your body are such the harm will occur, and you move your body in one of those ways. But the moral quality of moving your body in some way, such that the harm occurs, doesn’t depend on how many other ways you could have moved your body such that the same harm would have occurred. So there’s no moral difference between doing and allowing, ceteris paribus. Ever since I first encountered this argument as an undergrad, I’ve thought that if it’s right, it’s one of the most powerful arguments in this history of moral philosophy. And I believe it’s a lot closer than most people think to being right.

    And at the risk of looking like a brown-noser, I’ve got to second Richard’s recommendation of David Sobel’s paper on demandingness.

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