11 Comments
Nov 18, 2022·edited Nov 18, 2022Liked by Richard Y Chappell

I think all the stuff you're saying is important and basically correctly, but I think it has to be admitted there are non-fantastical scenarios when non-naive act utilitarians ought, by their own lights, to do things that significantly violate conventional morality. Stuff about maxims and meta-courses-of-action complicate things, but ultimately if you live a utilitarian life, there is a non-trivial possibility you're gonna have to do something pretty 'sketchy' at some point.

How often this happens is a complex empirical quesiton relevant to the art of utilitarian living in the present moment in human history, but it does happen sometimes.

And, modulo stuff about population, everyone should be glad of this in some sense, since it increases their ex-ante welfare.

Expand full comment
Nov 20, 2022·edited Nov 20, 2022

The claim that "our normative ethical theory tells us how or whether moral agency upsets the basic picture given to us by our axiology" can be read as implying that axiological facts are prior to, and specifiable independently of, normative facts. Is this what you mean? Because if it is, many (most?) non-consequentialists will of course disagree: they will say facts about which outcomes are good are grounded in metaphysically prior facts about what agents have reason to want.

Expand full comment
author

Oh no, I'm quite happy with reasons fundamentalism. We can still roughly characterize the consequentialism/non-c. dispute in terms of whether the presence of agency in a causal chain fundamentally changes *what we have reason to want*.

Expand full comment

If a moral theory, no matter how compelling, is easily abused, then it seems strange to avoid the possibility that despite being compelling, it is nevertheless incorrect.

While we might be able to get away with this in physics just as long as it gets us on the moon, the result of a mistake here is such that impacts the welfarist notions acting as a foundational appeal.

Given the repeated destruction in the wake of both good and bad acting utilitarians, at some point the utilitarian has to say utilitarianism does not deliver a greater good, no matter how you cut it.

Sam was not a bad apple. He was entirely predictable, predicted, and predicated by utilitarianism in its most fundamental, true form.

Expand full comment
author

Any view may, of course, be incorrect. But the consequences of believing it are not what decides its truth or falsity.

I also wonder why you think you're better positioned than the actual proponents of a view to specify what its "true form" is. Shouldn't we expect the people who developed the theory to understand *what their view is* better than random critics?

Expand full comment

I think it’s asking a too much of a technician to think reflectively on their own work.

I want the plumber making sure the pipes flow, but I wouldnt trust them to develop water policy.

I have no doubt you are the best person to evaluate a given scenario in the terms you have created to analyze it.

I’m not so sure you’re the best person to argue that your method is the best method.

But maybe you are!! No one doubts your honesty and dedication.

That said, I’m begging that you consider SBF as constitutive of utilitarianism, if only as an exercise, and process that stain; rather than explain him away as a bad apple.

And if you aren’t making a bad apple argument, mea culpa. But it sure seems like you are, and I’m hoping you can be more reflective and take the appropriate level of responsibility for enabling one of the most heinous financial crimes of the last 40 years.

Expand full comment
author

I'm afraid you're sorely exaggerating my causal influence. It's very unlikely that SBF has read or been influenced by me in any way. You might as well blame your local imam for "enabling" the 9/11 attacks.

That said, if you're really into the whole "collective responsibility" thing, why not reflect on *your* responsibility, as someone who apparently believes that fraud is "constitutive of utilitarianism" -- a belief that you apparently take (i) yourself to share with SBF, and (ii) to essentially explain his misdeeds.

I think you're playing a silly game here. But if you're going to play it, best be consistent.

Expand full comment

I think you’re sorely discounting your causal influence. Local imams should take responsibility, and many did come out forcefully against those who misinterpreted their teachings. Those who tried to avoid responsibility are the ones to be wary of.

I am not into collective responsibility. Rather, I think we should valorize taking responsibility, even for things that aren’t our fault. Instead, however, we have a world where those adept at avoiding responsibility when things go wrong and claiming credit when they go right win.

I believe utilitarianism is a tool for evaluating specific, well defined problems. It is neither a moral theory nor a set or concepts capable of handling risk or managing uncertainty. Trying to make it so only arms evil people like SBF. I believe he would not have been able to hurt as many people as he did - and he did destroy lives - were it not for effective altruism and the utilitarian structure supporting it.

It’s not a silly game. It couldn’t be more serious.

Expand full comment
Nov 17, 2022·edited Nov 17, 2022

"Ethical theories tell us what fundamentally matters, and actual events have no greater significance than purely hypothetical ones so far as such in-principle judgments are concerned."

I'm not sure this is uncontroversial.

I think many philosophers think that the "true" functions and algorithms in the correct comprehensive moral theory (if they exist at all) would be so incomprehensibly complex that they are not worth trying to determine--that would be a fool's errand. The best we can do, they reason, is to try to try to find moral principles that approximate the correct ones in the particular contingent circumstances in which contemporary humans find themselves. For this more modest task, actual events may well be of relevance.

[In a world where humans were a bit different (e.g. had significantly worse memory), morality (in this more provisional sense) would be different.]

Some appear to think that events such as the Holocaust and antebellum slavery are relevant to ethical theory in quite a theoretical sense. If I recall, some of the philosophical rhetoric in writings about the UN declaration of human rights suggests they are at least somewhat agnostic on these issues.

Expand full comment
author

That sounds to me like a project on the more "practical" side of the theory/practice divide, justified by their theoretical view of (something close to) moral particularism: that there are no true, exceptionless general principles simple enough for humans to grasp.

Expand full comment
Nov 17, 2022·edited Nov 17, 2022

Well I think virtually all non-utilitarians are moral particularists in a broadly defined sense (it's a matter of degree). I admit I didn't read close enough to see whether these issues are crucial to your main argument in the piece, so don't bother with me.

Expand full comment