Tuesday, October 27, 2009

A Refutation of Consequentialism? (I)

I'd like for someone to explain to me why the following isn't a sufficient refutation of consequentialism (at least of the maximalist or aggregative variety): One of the more over-reported anecdotes of the past century is Mao's retort to the question, "What was the significance of the French Revolution?" "It's too early to tell," Mao replied. Mao's point was partially tongue in cheek, but it managed to get across an important point: the effects of any action continue on into an indefinite, and at the limit, infinite, future. With that in mind, here's a refutation of consequentialism:

1) The right action in a given situation is a function of its net sum total consequences relative to alternative possible actions.
2) Sum net totals are calculated over total moments.
3) There are no total moments.
4) Hence, there are no sum totals.
5) Hence, there is no net sum total greater than all others.
6) Hence, there is no right action.

The key premise, obviously, is the third. It is also the least refutable. This is the insight captured in Mao's retort, and easily demonstrable: Let's take March 30th, 1794. You are Robesipierre, member the Committee for Public Saftey, deciding on the matter of Danton's execution. You think to yourself, What is the right thing to do? The answer, it is easy to demonstrate, depends upon what time frame is in question (and that, it should be stressed, is solely a matter of whim!). If the time frame is only through the end of the year, killing Danton will exacerbate the reign of terror (leading to your own execution!!), resulting in many more deaths. But, if your time frame is, say, up to 1814, it is precisely the excesses of the Reign of Terror and the Revolution that make Napoleon possible. Napoleon brings order finally to France, but he also harbingers war; yet without Napoleon there is no Congress of Vienna, which brings nearly a century of relative peace to Europe. But of course, without the developments that that century of peace engenders, there is no World War One and thus no World War Two. But without World War Two there is no United Nations....I could go on, but the point I take it is clear: whether it is right for you, Robespierre, to order the execution of Danton right now, in 1794, radically depends upon the time frame in question.

This is not an epistemic point. Of course it is hard to calculate out the consequences, and of course there is no reason whatsoever to believe that Robespierre could have made the considerations I just went over. But that is besides the point, which is that the consequentialist must be a realist about morality. The statement 'It is right in 1794 that Danton be executed' and its opposite, "It is wrong in 1794 that Danton be executed' must each have a determinate truth value. In general, any statement of the sort 'X is right' or 'X is good', if consequentialism is correct, must have a definite truth value, but no statement of that sort does. "It is right that Danton in 1794 be executed" is false in 1795, true in 1814, false again in 1816, true again maybe until 1914, false between 1914 and 1945, true again in 1946, and so on--which is just to say, "It is right that Danton is executed in 1794" has no definite truth value.

I suppose that one could argue that consequentialism is not a normative theory about what one ought to do, but is a descriptive theory that analyzes what we mean by statements of the sort 'X is right' and 'X is good'. But in that case, we have just shown that 'X is right' and 'X is good' have no definite truth values, and this, if any thing, speaks on behalf of error theory--and that, in turn, gets us to the same point: namely, that consequentialism is false.

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Tuesday, October 13, 2009

A Solution to Moral Luck?

Tomorrow I teach Nagel's 'Moral Luck' essay. I wonder if the solution to resultant, and perhaps circumstantial luck, is easily solved by the concept of moral risk. Winning the lottery is lucky, but it is not pure luck. Merely finding a winning lottery ticket in your coat pocket is pure luck. Playing the lottery and winning is something else. It is a risk one takes--deliberately accepting the cost of a few dollars for the low possibility of many thousands. It strikes me as perfectly reasonable to say that one deserves whichever outcome, even though that result is out of one's control. The outcomes may be widely divergent (a $2 sunk cost or $50,000 on the Pick 4), and yet equally deserved. Similarly, if I choose to drive over the speed-limit, I am taking a moral risk--and deserve whichever outcome, however divergent (getting to work on time vs. vehicular manslaughter). Not only is this a solution to resultant moral luck, but I believe that it's a fair exposition of our intuitions on the matter. Right?

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Thursday, October 8, 2009

Sandel on Justice on the Radio

I haven't read his book, and I don't do political philosophy very much, but it seems to me that there is a pretty clear fallacy in Michael Sandel's thinking, at least as it is expressed in this recent NPR interview. Sandel argues that many CEO's and sports stars are unjustly compensated. This is supposed to follow from his definition of justice. Justice he understands to be, roughly, 'to each what they deserve,' and then specifies that by 'deserve' he means what results from one's doing. In general, one deserves the results of what one has done. CEO's today make roughly eight times what they made in 1980 relative to the average worker. It is hard to believe that they are eight times more productive, or work eight times harder. Thus, the increase in their compensation has not resulted from what they have done, and hence, they have no special right to those proceeds. He makes a similar argument about A-Rod: A-Rod may excel at baseball due to his hard work and natural talent, but his talent is not the result of his own doing, nor is the fact that there is a high demand for superb baseball skills. I detect an illicit conversion in both cases. Sandel is arguing that from (1) 'All things we deserve are things we have a right to' it follows that (2) 'All things we have a right to are things we deserve.' That can't be right, even if we stick with 'right' in an exclusively moral sense. Surely there are things to which we have a right even though we do not deserve them in the sense that they result from something we have done. For example, even in a Rawlsian framework, where we accept that I do not deserve my talents, can it really follow that I do not have a right to my talents? Or is this a bad counterexample?

UPDATE: Let me turn the somewhat hazy intuition informing this post into a question (okay, several questions): Is there anything, in a Rawlsian framework, that an individual deservesqua individual? Or do I 'deserve' only what is consistent with minmaxing, the difference principle, etc., regardless of my labor, effort, talent, luck, etc? In other words, do I, this unique individual, Michael, deserve anything? Or is it that only my behind-the-veil self, interchangeable with anyone, deserves anything? If so, it seems that Rawls is in fact missing an deep intuition about justice and desert, namely, that it is individual. As far as I can tell, according to Rawls, I only deserve anything as that behind the veil self, not as me. Alternatively: I just have Rawls completely wrong.

I might add at this point that I'm sympathetic to Sandel's conclusion, I'm just suspicious of his reasons. I can imagine a more libertarian-inclined fellow replying: 'Even if we grant your conclusion--namely, that we do not have a right to what we do not deserve--it hardly follows from the fact that I don't deserve a benefit I currently enjoy that you have a right to confiscate it. And that is what we are talking about: a collective of agents utilizing the coercive power of the state to confiscate the fruits of a good enjoyed by A-Rod that A-Rod doesn't deserve.' It's clear to me that A-Rod doesn't deserve it (in this I agree with Rawls and Sandel), but a lot more has to be said before we can conclude from this fact that A-Rod has no right to it. In fact, it's not entirely clear to me that these two should be related at all.

Assume for a moment that there is only one fan, that this fan is extraordinarily rich , that she has earned her money justly by Sandel's standards, and that she is happy to pay A-Rod $30 million a year to play baseball. I wonder if taking A-Rod's money (say through excessive taxation, higher than an average rate for that income level) is not in fact a violation of the fan's rights. And in any case, I would argue that A-Rod has a full right to this money, even if he did not earn it in a moral sense (does not morally deserve it). Remember, it seems to follow from Sandel's reasoning that 'excessive' compensation has nothing do with absolute earnings ($30 million/ year just being too much) nor with relative earnings (12 times the wage of the average worker), but solely with undeserved earnings. So, a just taxation system, it would seem to follow, would be one that taxed A-Rod at a higher rate than our fan, even if, let's suppose, they have the same income.

I can see avoiding this conclusion, but only if we accept that no one really earns their wage; that there is no such thing as a just wage individually calibrated. In other words, we can avoid the above conclusion if we rule out a priori the possibility that someone could morally earn $30 million, and then acknowledge that if one cannot morally earn $30 million, one can't really morally earn $30 thousand either.

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