A number of philosophers (e.g., Brown 2004, Dreier 1993, and Louise forthcoming) have hypothesized that most, if not all, non-consequentialist theories can be “consequentialized.” More precisely, the conjecture is this (paraphrasing Brown 2004): For any moral theory M, there is some conceivable theory of the good that, when combined with the consequentialist principle “φ-ing is morally permissible iff φ-ing would produce the best available state of affairs,” yields moral verdicts that are, in every instance, identical to those of M. For example, suppose that M includes an agent-centered constraint against the commission of murder, such that agents are prohibited from committing murder even for the sake of minimizing the number of murders committed overall. To accommodate such a constraint, the consequentialist need only adopt a theory of the good that holds (1) the value of a state of affairs in which a murder has been committed is agent-relative such that its value varies according to whether or not the evaluator is the murderer, and (2) the disvalue in an agent committing murder herself is, from her position (that of the agent), greater than the disvalue in numerous others committing comparable murders. What’s more, if M prohibits an agent from committing murder for the sake of minimizing the number of murders she herself commits, then the consequentialist need only adopt a theory of the good that holds (3) the value of a state of affairs in which a murder has been committed is temporally-relative such that its value varies according to whether or not the murder in question would take place in the present or the future, and (4) the disvalue in an agent committing murder now is, from her present position, greater than the disvalue in her committing numerous other comparable murders in the future. Thus, by incorporating certain agent-relative and temporally-relative values in its theory of the good, the consequentialist can, it would seem, yield moral verdicts identical to those of any other moral theory.
Following Brown 2004, I’ll call the above-mentioned conjecture “Dreier’s Conjecture.” From Dreier’s Conjecture, some philosophers have reached some fairly bold conclusions. Jennie Louise concludes both that “all moral theories are consequentialist” (forthcoming, p. 2) and that “since we are now all under the consequentialist umbrella, the question now becomes, not whether we should be consequentialist or not, but whether we should be Value-Neutralists or Value-Relativists” (forthcoming, p. 38). Philip Pettit concludes that consequentialism will retain a distinctive profile of its own only if it is defined solely in terms of neutral value (1997, pp. 130-1). And Campbell Brown concludes that “consequentialism is empty” (2004, p. 35). (To be fair, I should note that Brown doesn’t think that this conclusion follows from Dreier’s Conjecture alone—see his 2004.)
In a series of three entries (including this one), I will contest Dreier’s Conjecture and the conclusions that Louise, Pettit, and Brown have drawn from it. In Part I (which appears below), I’ll argue that Dreier’s Conjecture is false. In Part II (which will be posted tomorrow), I’ll argue that analogues of Dreier’s Conjecture are true of most moral theories, including contractualism, virtue ethics, and divine command theory—the implication being that if Dreier’s Conjecture establishes that we’re all consequentialists, then these analogues establish that we’re all contractualists, virtue ethicists, and divine command theorists as well, and this is just absurd. In Part III (which will be posted on Thursday), I’ll argue that Louise, Pettit, and Brown presuppose a mistaken conception of what distinguishes one moral theory from another. I’ll argue that even if a consequentialist theory and a nonconsequentialist theory are extensionally equivalent, the two are still importantly distinct.
In this section, I argue that Dreier’s Conjecture is false. I argue there is no theory of the good that, when combined with the consequentialist principle “φ-ing is morally permissible iff φ-ing would produce the best available state of affairs,” yields moral verdicts identical to those of a moral theory that includes agent-centered options—options to either safeguard one’s own interests or sacrifice those interests for the sake of doing more to promote the impersonal good.
Now consequentialism can avoid being overly demanding if the value in an agent promoting her own interests is agent-relative (e.g., proportionately greater for her than it is for others). In fact, consequentialism won’t be very demanding so long as there are a number of instances in which the agent-relative value in an agent promoting her own interests outweighs the agent-neutral value in having the impersonal good maximized. But this only takes consequentialism so far. It lets consequentialism hold, as many other moral theories do, that it is permissible for agents to promote their own interests even where they could instead do more to promote the impersonal good. Many theories, however, hold that not only is it permissible to safeguard one’s own interests, but also that it is permissible to sacrifice those interest for the sake of doing more to promote the impersonal good, and this is something that consequentialism cannot accommodate simply by incorporating certain relative values. To illustrate, consider the following case—I call it the Weekend. I can either spend this weekend working on this entry or volunteering for Oxfam (and assume, for the sake of simplicity, that these are my only choices). Here, we have the intuition that I am permitted to work on this entry even if I could do more to promote the overall good by volunteering for Oxfam. Agent-relative consequentialism can accommodate this intuition so long as it is true to say that the state of affairs where I spend this weekend working on this paper is, from my perspective, better than the state of affairs where I spend this weekend volunteering for Oxfam. The problem, though, is that, in this case, agent-relative consequentialism now seems to imply that I am morally required to spend the weekend working on this paper, for doing so would bring about what is, from my perspective, the best available state of affairs. Yet, intuitively, we believe that I am permitted to sacrifice the interest I have in working on this entry in order to do something that would better promote the overall good.
So it seems that although consequentialism can avoid implying that I am morally required to volunteer for Oxfam, it can do so only at the cost of implying something just as implausible, namely, that I am prohibited from volunteering for Oxfam. Thus even if agent-relative consequentialism isn’t overly demanding, it seems that it will still be counter-intuitive, for it cannot accommodate our intuition that agents have a moral option in more than just those few rare instances in which two or more acts are equal in their propensity to bring about what’s best.
We’ve seen, then, that consequentialism cannot accommodate agent-centered options simply by incorporating certain relative values in its theory of the good. It follows, then, that Dreier’s Conjecture is false: non-consequentialist theories that incorporate agent-centered options cannot be consequentialized simply by adjusting the consequentialist’s theory of the good. For the record, let me say that I believe that consequentialism can incorporate agent-centered options, but in order to do so consequentialism must do more than just tinker with its theory of the good. Those interested in how consequentialism might do so should read my “Position-Relative Consequentialism, Agent-Centered Options, and Supererogation.”
Brown, Campbell (2004). “Consequentialise This.” Working manuscript—draft of June
1, 2004. Research School of Social Sciences, Australian National University.
Dreier, James (1993). “Structures of Normative Theories,” The Monist 76: 22-40.
Louise, Jennie (forthcoming). “Relativity of Value and the Consequentialist Umbrella,” The Philosophical Quarterly.
Pettit, Philip (1997). “The Consequentialist Perspective.” In Marcia Baron, Philip Pettit, and Michael Slote, (eds.), Three Methods of Ethics, Blackwell, pp. 92-174.
Portmore, Douglas W. (2003). “Position-Relative Consequentialism, Agent-Centered Options, and Supererogation,” Ethics 113: 303-332.