There are many ethical theories that think of right and wrong in terms of what consequences the general adoption of moral principles would have. Contractualists think of what consequences the principles would have for individual lives; rule-consequentialists think of what consequences they would have for the aggregate wellbeing and other general values; Kantians think of the consequences which the principles would have for the effectiveness of our subjective principles of action; and so on. It’s now generally accepted that we shouldn’t compare the moral codes at universal, 100% level of acceptance. This is because we want to also generate principles for self-improvement, dealing with moral disagreements, punishment, and so on. It is an interesting problem at what lower level of social acceptance should we compare the principle. But, here I am just going to assume that there is some such level n% where n is less than 100 at which it makes sense to compare the consequences of different moral codes. It has become evident that this idea leads to further problems which the defenders of these theories haven’t really tackled yet. These problems have surfaced in various discussions I’ve had with many people but they have also been formulated very forcefully in the last section of Holly Smith’s wonderful 2010 Utilitas paper “Measuring the Consequences of Rules”. Here I want to introduce the problem and also three ways of trying to respond to it. I’m still sceptical about these answers but I would like to hear other people’s opinions about and also whether there might be other solutions.
So, let’s assume that we are comparing different moral codes when n% of people in the world have internalised the codes where n is less than 100% and more than 0%. We are doing this in either contractualism, RC, or Kantian ethics. We can then ask two awkward questions that will have important consequences for what the compared outcomes will be. The first question is, who are the people who haven’t internalised the moral codes? It could well be that, whichever individual code we take, that code will have one set of consequences if one group of people have internalised it and another set of consequences if different people have internalised it. So, who are the people we should use in the comparisons?
I believe that Tom Hurka has provided a nice solution to this question. The idea is that we can rank people in terms of how easily they naturally adopt moral codes. This ability might be based on genetic makeup which is responsible for different cognitive and emotional capabilities that influence how easily the person learns morality. The idea then is that we assume that the non-internalisers in the comparisons are the people that are hardest to inculcate. I think this perfectly solves the first problem.
However, I do think that there is an even more serious problem which this does not solve. This is because I do not think that whatever in the genetic background and other features of the individuals that determine how well they learn morality also decides what these individuals will do and think (or what kind of practical motivations and sensibilities they will have). Instead, I do think that their behaviour and thoughts are a function of both nature and nurture. The same chosen group of people can intuitively have different ways of being non-internalisers – call these different counter-cultures. Some counter-cultures may have partial overlaps with the morality which the majority has internalised, others can be more like the counter-cultures of anarchists, libertarians, psychopaths, mafiosos, hippies, and so on.
Now, the problem is that whichever counter-culture we take this will have very different consequences for what the outcomes of the adoption of different codes by the majority will be. Different moral codes presumably interact with different counter-cultures which means that with respect to different counter-cultures different moral codes might come on the top in the contractualist, rule-consequentialist, and Kantian comparisons. The problem is that it seems to very difficult to give a satisfactory and non-arbitrary answer to the question of what counter-cultures we should use in the comparisons of the moral codes. Here are few alternatives:
1. We should compare the codes with n% level of acceptance with respect to all possible counter-cultures. We should not limit our comparisons to merely reasonable counter-cultures as we do need duties for how to deal with the non-reasonable ones. Of course, if there were a moral code that was the optimal with every counter-culture then that would determine what is right and wrong. This, however, is unlikely. To overcome this problem we could calculate the expected consequences of the given code with respect to all the possible counter-cultures. Then the optimal code would be the one that would have the best expected consequences either in contractualist, rule-consequentialist, or Kantian terms. We would either need to assign the same probability for all counter-cultures or consider how probable they would be given some majority moral code. My main worry about this alternative is that these theories would become even more epistemically demanding as a result. I worry that on this view makes facts about right and wrong would become unknowable.
2. We could also begin from our intuitions about right and wrong and look for reflective equilibrium. That is, we should choose the compared counter-culture so that when we compare the codes with respect to that counter-culture we get from the procedure principles out such that they fit what we intuitively take to be right and wrong. My worry with this solution is that contractualism, rule-consequentialism, and Kantian theories become even more redundant.
3. Here’s my favourite solution at the moment. So far, when we compare the different moral codes we have been thinking that the natural resources of the worlds remain the same. We are comparing the principles for the ‘circumstances of justice’ of the real world as Rawls put it. So, I am thinking that we could think of the non-internalisers as a natural resource of our real world and keep them constant across the comparisons. I know this is difficult, but at the moment there is a positive morality in our society – a moral code which the majority has internalised. Then there is some percentage of people who have not internalised that code but rather perhaps only parts of it together with different counter-cultures. In fact, we can list different countercultures and determine how many percentage of the non-internalisers have internalised those. Now, the actual level of non-internalisers might not be 100-n%. But, when we have the level of acceptance n% for the comparisons, we could stipulate that the rest of the people in the compared situations have adopted the same proportions of counter-cultures as the non-internalisers in the actual world. At the moment, this is the best solution that I can think of. The advantage is that the principles we could get as a result would be able to then serve a function in our real world with respect to the kind of people we find here.
In any case, I would be interested to hear what you make of these solutions and whether you think there might be better ones.