Philosophical Studies

, Volume 162, Issue 3, pp 547–566

Objective consequentialism and the licensing dilemma

Article

DOI: 10.1007/s11098-011-9781-7

Cite this article as:
Andrić, V. Philos Stud (2013) 162: 547. doi:10.1007/s11098-011-9781-7
  • 235 Downloads

Abstract

Frank Jackson has put forward a famous thought experiment of a physician who has to decide on the correct treatment for her patient. Subjective consequentialism tells the physician to do what intuitively seems to be the right action, whereas objective consequentialism fails to guide the physician’s action. I suppose that objective consequentialists want to supplement their theory so that it guides the physician’s action towards what intuitively seems to be the right treatment. Since this treatment is wrong according to objective consequentialism, objective consequentialists have to license it without calling it right. I consider eight strategies to spell out the idea of licensing the intuitively right treatment and argue that objective consequentialism is on the horns of what I call the licensing dilemma: Either the physician’s action is not guided towards the intuitively right treatment. Or the guidance towards the intuitively right treatment is ad hoc in some respect or the other.

Keywords

Objective consequentialism Subjective consequentialism Frank Jackson Action-guidance Licensing dilemma 

Thought experiments reveal intuitions. While it may be clear that the intuitions are relevant to a particular philosophical issue and while it may be clear in which direction they point, it still can be hard work to spell out what exactly is shown by a thought experiment. In this paper, I want to spell out an insight from a famous thought experiment concerning objective consequentialism and subjective consequentialism. The thought experiment has been put forward by Frank Jackson.1 I call the thought experiment the Case of Jill. In my view, the Case of Jill shows that objective consequentialism is on the horns of a dilemma.

Here is a rough sketch of the positions in question: According to consequentialism, what makes actions right is that they are related to the promotion of value in some way or the other. Subjective consequentialism contains a subjective criterion of rightness according to which the agent’s point of view partly determines whether an action is right. Objective consequentialism includes an objective criterion of rightness according to which the agent’s point of view does not at all determine whether an action is right.

I will start with illustrating what I understand by objective and by subjective consequentialism as well as by a third position that I call the mixed view (Sect. 1). Then the Case of Jill will be introduced and I will present my claim about what exactly this case shows for objective consequentialism (Sect. 2). My claim is that objective consequentialism faces what I will call the licensing dilemma. In the following sections (310), I will substantiate my claim. Finally (Sect. 11), I will comment on the significance of the licensing dilemma.

1 Objective consequentialism, subjective consequentialism, and the mixed view

In order to see what is at issue between objective and subjective consequentialism, let us consider the following case.

Mistaken. You are going for a walk when you hear two men talking. “No”, says the first, “please don’t do it”. “Now you are going to pay for you sins”, the second answers. Then you see the men. One is pointing a gun at the other. He says, “Three—two…” You take a stone and throw it at him, yelling, “No!” Strike! You hit the gunner’s head, he is going down. Unfortunately, the next thing you see is a camera and a stunned crew. The actor is seriously injured. Did you act wrongly?

Your throwing the stone had bad consequences. The world would have been better if you had not thrown the stone. Therefore, objective consequentialism says, you acted wrongly. But wait a minute. If what you had reason to believe had been the case and the gunner had been about to shoot the other man, then what you did would have had good consequences. You did what you reasonably expected to have the best consequences. Therefore, subjective consequentialism says, you acted rightly.

Let us consider the positions in more detail. For the purpose of this paper, we can understand objective consequentialism as the doctrine that an act is right if and only if it produces at least as much value as any other act (available at the same time to the same agent). In other words: If you face a choice between different options, then, according to objective consequentialism, you ought to choose the option that maximizes actual value. If there are several such options, then you ought to choose one of them.

Take subjective consequentialism to be the position that an act is right if and only if it has at least as much expected value as any other act (available at the same time to the same agent). What is an act’s expected value? Each act has possible outcomes. Each outcome has a value—assigned to it by a consequentialist theory of value—and is associated with a likelihood of its occurrence, given the act is performed—assigned to it on the basis of what the agent has reason to believe. The expected value of an act is the sum of its outcomes’ value-probability-products.

Subjective consequentialism tells you that, if you face a choice between different options, then you ought to choose one that maximizes expected value. To put it in contrast, while objective consequentialism tells you to maximize actual value, subjective consequentialism tells you to maximize expected value.

There is an alternative to objective and subjective consequentialism that I call the mixed view. The mixed view is the conjunction of what I call weak subjective consequentialism and weak objective consequentialism. According to weak subjective consequentialism, an act is subjectively right if and only if it maximizes expected value. Weak objective consequentialism says that an act is objectively right if and only if it maximizes actual value.

Weak subjective and weak objective consequentialism are derivatives of subjective and objective consequentialism. Contrary to the original positions, the derivatives are consistent with one another because they do not judge acts to be right or wrong simpliciter, but subjectively or objectively right or wrong, respectively. According to the mixed view, your throwing the stone in Mistaken was subjectively right but objectively wrong.

2 The licensing dilemma

Let us now consider the Case of Jill from Frank Jackson’s paper “Decision Theoretic Consequentialism and the Nearest and Dearest Objection”:

Jill is a physician who has to decide on the correct treatment for her patient, John, who has a minor but not trivial skin complaint. She has three drugs to choose from: drug A, drug B, and drug C. Careful consideration of the literature has led her to the following opinions. Drug A is very likely to relieve the condition but will not completely cure it. One of the drugs B and C will completely cure the skin condition; the other though will kill the patient, and there is no way that she can tell which of the two is the perfect cure and which the killer drug. What should Jill do?2

The main features of the Case of Jill, including Jill’s well-grounded subjective probabilities, are highlighted in Table 1.
Table 1

Outcomes in the Case of Jill from Jill’s perspective, that is, including her well-grounded subjective probabilities

Jill’s actions

States of nature

Drug B is lethal and drug C is perfect (p = 0.5)

Drug B is perfect and drug C is lethal (p = 0.5)

Prescribing drug A

John is partially cured

John is partially cured

Prescribing drug B

John is dead

John is completely cured

Prescribing drug C

John is completely cured

John is dead

Before we start to draw a lesson from the Case of Jill, let us briefly consider what objective and subjective consequentialism tell Jill. For this purpose, I will stipulate in the following that there are no long-term consequences of Jill’s behaviour. Hence the outcome ranking is quite simple: a perfect cure is best, a partial cure is second best, John’s death is the worst outcome.

According to objective consequentialism, the only right thing for Jill to do is to prescribe the drug that will completely cure John. But here is a problem. If Jill tried to act rightly according to objective consequentialism, she would risk John’s death. Intuitively, Jill’s risking John’s death seems to be wrong. Of course, according to objective consequentialism it is not right for Jill to risk John’s death—it is right for her to completely cure John. However, since Jill cannot decide to completely cure John (under that description of the decision’s content), she is left clueless. Thus, objective consequentialists have to somehow supplement their position in order to guide Jill’s action. And they should better do so without recommending Jill’s trying to completely cure John.

In contrast to objective consequentialism, subjective consequentialism obviously succeeds in guiding Jill’s action. Choosing drug A has a higher expected value than choosing drug B and than choosing drug C. Therefore, according to subjective consequentialism, it is right for Jill to choose drug A.3

Notice that the subjective consequentialist output in the Case of Jill is quite appealing. I suppose that objective consequentialists will want to supplement their theory so that it does not only guide Jill’s action but also does so appropriately. Appropriate action-guidance in the Case of Jill means that objective consequentialism will somehow license Jill’s prescribing of drug A. I think that objective consequentialism has to license the prescribing of drug A because that action intuitively seems to be the right one for Jill to perform. At least, I cannot see another motivation for the licensing.4

According to objective consequentialism, prescribing drug A is the wrong thing for Jill to do. Therefore, “licensing” the action that produces most expected value has to mean something different for objective consequentialism than judging it to be right. How can a proponent of objective consequentialism spell out the term “licensing”? There are many different ideas about how objective consequentialism can license the action that has most expected value. What I want to show in the following sections is that all the ideas exhibit one of two serious faults: Either the licensing is too weak, that is, Jill’s action is not guided towards the prescription of drug A. Or the guidance of Jill’s action towards prescribing drug A is ad hoc in some respect or the other.

It is beyond the scope of this paper to present a deductive argument for the inescapability of the licensing dilemma. Rather, I will consider eight strategies that spell out the idea of licensing Jill’s prescribing of drug A and show for each of them that either the problem of appropriate action-guidance remains unsolved or the solution is an ad hoc one. I will begin with five strategies that license the prescribing of drug A by focusing not on this act but on some other evaluands (Sects. 37). Then I will consider three strategies that license the act of prescribing drug A by assigning a positive status to this act, albeit not the status of being right (Sects. 810).

3 Jill ought to decide to prescribe drug A

A very straightforward way for the objective consequentialist to license Jill’s prescribing of drug A consists in giving her the following piece of advice: “While you ought to prescribe John the drug that completely cures his skin condition, I recognize that you do not know which drug that is. Neither do I know this. In this situation of uncertainty, you ought to decide to give John drug A.” Thus, the objective consequentialist distinguishes between the right action on the one hand and the right decision on the other hand. This distinction is supposed to enable the objective consequentialist to provide Jill with appropriate action-guidance.5

Distinguishing right actions from right decisions commits the objective consequentialist to the acceptance of two criteria of rightness, one criterion for actions, the other for decisions. In order to provide appropriate action-guidance for Jill, the objective consequentialist’s criterion of rightness for decisions has to be a subjective criterion of rightness. That is, according to the objective consequentialist’s criterion of rightness for decisions, a decision is right if and only if it maximizes expected value. If the objective consequentialist did hold an objective criterion of rightness for decisions, then Jill would have to decide to prescribe the drug that completely cures John. Adopting an objective criterion of rightness for decisions would, regarding the problem of appropriate action-guidance, not be an improvement of objective consequentialism compared to just holding an objective criterion of rightness for actions.

Let me now state my criticism. If you already accept the objective criterion for actions, there seems to be nothing apart from overcoming the problem of appropriate action-guidance that speaks in favour of adopting a subjective rather than an objective criterion for decisions. Thus, this move seems to be ad hoc.

The charge of ad-hoc-ness can be backed by the following two considerations. The first consideration is that, in everyday moral language, it seems to be generally accepted that either you ought to decide to act rightly or your right decision guarantees your acting rightly. In our everyday moral language, the rightness of an action and the rightness of a decision for that action cannot come apart. In contrast, according to the view under consideration, Jill ought to decide to act wrongly. This is completely at odds with everyday language.

Secondly, notice that the view under consideration includes an objective criterion of rightness for actions as well as a subjective criterion of rightness for decisions. This seems to be an unsatisfactory compromise because whatever the objective consequentialist dislikes about the subjective criterion of rightness for actions also seems to speak against the subjective criterion of rightness for decisions. And, accordingly, whatever the objective consequentialist likes about her objective criterion of rightness for actions also seems to speak in favour of the objective criterion of rightness for decisions.

Here is an example of what the objective consequentialist dislikes about the subjective criterion of rightness for actions. Subjective consequentialism sanctions the misleading evidence that gives rise to wrong beliefs about what will produce most value.6 For example, subjective consequentialism sanctions the misleading evidence that gives rise to your wrong belief in Mistaken. This problem speaks against the subjective criterion for decisions, too, because the rightness of a decision can also be a function of misleading evidence.

To sum up, the objective consequentialist’s adopting a subjective criterion of rightness for decisions in order to license Jill’s prescribing drug A leads to a highly unattractive ad hoc position. The combination of the subjective criterion for decisions with the objective criterion for actions even seems to be incoherent insofar as what counts in favour of the objective criterion for actions speaks against the subjective criterion for decisions. (The same is true, mutatis mutandis, for what counts against the subjective criterion for actions and the objective criterion for decisions.) Thus, the combination of objective consequentialism with a subjective criterion of rightness for decisions sits on the second horn of the licensing dilemma.

4 Jill’s decision procedure will tell her to prescribe drug A

Instead of adopting a subjective criterion of rightness for decisions, the objective consequentialist may want to stick to her objective criterion of rightness for actions exclusively. The idea now is to somehow license Jill’s decision to prescribe drug A without judging the decision to be right. This is supposed to be achieved by the recommendation of a decision procedure that does not qualify as a criterion of rightness for decisions. The decision procedure tells Jill to prescribe drug A so that (under normal circumstances) she will decide to prescribe drug A and put her decision into action. At the same time, objective consequentialists can either be silent on Jill’s decision to prescribe drug A or even judge it to be wrong. Either way, objective consequentialism implies that it is right for Jill to prescribe the drug that completely cures John and objective consequentialism does not imply that it is right for Jill to decide to prescribe drug A.7

I consider two ideas to ground the distinction between the criterion of rightness for actions and a decision procedure. According to the first idea, the distinction between the criterion of rightness and a decision procedure can be based on metaethical observations. According to the other, the having of a decision procedure can be justified on objective consequentialist grounds. I will consider the first idea in this section and the second in the next one.

Can the distinction between the criterion of rightness and a decision procedure convincingly be based on metaethical observations? Assume that the main function of a moral theory is not to be action-guiding but to explain what makes actions morally right or wrong. Now the idea is that at least some moral theories must be combined with a decision procedure in order to be action-guiding. This seems to be true in the case of moral agents with cognitive limits like the ones human beings exhibit. In order to be capable of acting rightly according to sufficiently complex moral theories, human moral agents must have decision procedures which enable them to class their available action tokens with the allegedly right action types. Thus it seems that the distinction between the criterion of rightness and a decision procedure can be grounded on metaethical observations.

But this distinction between the criterion of rightness and a decision procedure does not help the objective consequentialist in the Case of Jill. For the question is not whether Jill ought to have a decision procedure in order to enable her to perform the action that is right according to objective consequentialism. This decision procedure will not be of help for her when it comes to the treatment of John. As things stand, Jill needs a decision procedure that tells her to perform the wrong action of prescribing drug A. Such a decision procedure goes beyond the decision procedure that allows you to class available action tokens with right action types. It cannot be justified in the same way. As long as nobody comes up with another kind of justification, objective consequentialism sits on the first horn of the licensing dilemma: it fails to guide Jill’s action in an appropriate way.

5 It is right for Jill to have a decision procedure that tells her to prescribe drug A

Let us now turn to the idea that, according to objective consequentialism, it is right for Jill to have a decision procedure that tells her to prescribe drug A. For this idea to work, adopting and maintaining a decision procedure have to qualify as actions. For actions are the evaluands of objective consequentialism and the objective consequentialist wants to judge on purely objective consequentialist grounds that Jill ought to have—adopt or maintain—a decision procedure that tells, and thus leads, her to prescribe drug A.8

I think that this idea does not work. If having a decision procedure counts as an action that is right according to objective consequentialism, then having a decision procedure must maximize actual value. What kind of decision procedure would maximize actual value? It seems that objective consequentialism can only recommend having a decision procedure that leads the agent to perform exclusively actions that maximize actual value. This means for Jill that she ought to have a decision procedure that results in her prescribing the drug that completely cures John. But Jill cannot decide to adopt the decision procedure that leads Jill to maximize actual value (under that description of the description’s content), just as she cannot decide to prescribe the drug that completely cures John (under that description of the decision’s content). Therefore, she is not appropriately action-guided and objective consequentialism faces the first horn of the licensing dilemma.

But perhaps I have been too fast. An objective consequentialist could object that—under normal circumstances—there may be no decision procedure available to Jill which would lead her to prescribe the perfect drug. Furthermore, the best available decision procedure may well be one that would lead her to prescribe drug A. Such a decision procedure would be best under normal circumstances, because Jill would on the whole realize more value than she would if she had any other available decision procedure.

I do not buy the objection. For I think that there is a decision procedure available that would lead Jill to perform all and only acts that maximize actual value. It is a decision procedure that simply comprises all and only those decisions that lead Jill to maximize actual value, whatever contents the decisions may have. It is true that this decision procedure is not available in the sense that Jill could choose it under the description “decision procedure that leads Jill to maximize actual value”. But it is also true that Jill cannot choose to prescribe the drug that completely cures John under that description. The objective consequentialist nevertheless holds that prescribing the drug that completely cures John is the right action for Jill to perform. Since the objective consequentialist thereby presupposes that this action is available to Jill, the objective consequentialist would have to justify why she wants to employ the notion of availability in another sense when it comes to the action of adopting and maintaining the aforementioned decision procedure. I see no justification to that effect.

The objective consequentialist could reply that the sequence of all decisions that lead an agent to maximize actual value on every occasion does not qualify as a decision procedure. Arguably, a decision procedure is something that can be used by an agent, like an instrument, but the sequence of all decisions that result in maximizing actual value cannot be chosen and cannot be used in order to maximize actual value. The crucial point seems to be that the agent does not derive the decisions in question by using a unified procedure, like applying a set of rules of thumb, and that the sequence of decisions therefore does not constitute a decision procedure. Moreover, the best (genuine) decision procedure that can be used by Jill arguably is the one that tells, and thus leads, her to maximize expected value. Therefore, Jill ought to have a decision procedure that tells her to prescribe drug A.

But this objection does not work either. Let us assume that the best available decision procedure for Jill is one that leads her to maximize expected value. Then it simply is not true that Jill, according to objective consequentialism, ought to have the best available decision procedure. For this decision procedure would lead her to perform actions that, according to objective consequentialism, are wrong, such as prescribing drug A rather than the perfect drug. Jill would realize more value without having any decision procedure at all and by just acting rightly on every occasion.

There is another reply available to the objective consequentialist. The reply’s starting point is the claim that the best (genuine) decision procedure is one that leads the agent to maximize expected value. But this alone does not take the objective consequentialist to the licensing of Jill’s prescribing drug A. The objective consequentialist needs further premises for a full blown argument. Here are the best that come to my mind.

The first premise rests on the claim that, even though Jill can maximize actual value in every choice situation, she, as a matter of fact, often would not do so if she tried. Even as a devoted consequentialist, without any motivational shortcomings, Jill would, due to her cognitive limits, often perform wrong actions—such as, out of ignorance, not choosing the drug that would perfectly cure John. The first premise, then, says that,
  1. (1)

    Jill would, in the long run, realize more value if she had a decision procedure that would lead her to maximize expected value than if she had any other decision procedure or no decision procedure at all.

     
Now, the objective consequentialist needs a further premise that says something about the normative significance of the first premise. For she has not established yet that, according to objective consequentialism, it is right for Jill to have the best decision procedure. Establishing this is challenging because one could argue that, according to objective consequentialism, Jill ought to maximize actual value on all occasions, and since her doing so is incompatible with her having a decision procedure that effectively leads her to maximize expected rather than actual value, it is wrong for Jill to have such a decision procedure. Thus, the objective consequentialist needs a normative premise along the following lines:
  1. (2)

    Whether an act is right, wrong, or obligatory according to objective consequentialism does not depend on the consequences an agent could bring about if she performed the act, but on the consequences the agent would bring about if she performed the act.

     
It follows from (1) and (2) that Jill, according to objective consequentialism, ought to have a decision procedure that would lead her to maximize expected value.

There are various problematic aspects about this line of thought that cannot be discussed in this paper.9 One could wonder, for example, whether the justified decision procedure would be of any help at all for Jill when it comes to her treatment of John. After all, Jill could call into question what her decision procedure suggests to her and resist the suggestion when it becomes obvious that maximizing expected value will not maximize actual value. However, I will confine myself to just one point and assume, for the sake of argument, that the best decision procedure would effectively lead Jill to prescribe drug A. My point rests on the assumption that Jill’s behaviour has no long-term consequences. I have made this assumption in Sect. 2 for the reason that otherwise the outcome ranking in the Case of Jill would be unclear. Let me now elaborate on that assumption by adding the detail that John’s treatment is the last thing that Jill does in her life. This assumption renders the first premise false because it is no longer true that there are long-term profits associated with having a decision procedure that leads Jill to maximize expected value.

To see in detail how the assumption that John’s treatment is Jill’s last action undermines the objective consequentialist’s argument, we can distinguish two cases. Either Jill has already adopted a decision procedure that leads her to maximize expected value, or she does not yet have such a decision procedure. In the former case, the question is whether, according to objective consequentialism, it is right for Jill to maintain the decision procedure. In the latter case, the question is whether, according to objective consequentialism, it is right for Jill to adopt the decision procedure. Since there will not be any choice situations in Jill’s life after her treatment of John, the answers to both questions depend solely on whether Jill would choose the lethal or the perfect drug if she tried to completely cure John. In case that Jill would choose the perfect drug, it would not be true that Jill ought to maintain or adopt, respectively, the decision procedure. But, of course, Jill does not know whether she would choose the lethal or the perfect drug. Therefore, Jill does not know whether she ought to have (adopt or maintain, respectively) a decision procedure that leads her to prescribe drug A. Her action is not guided at all and thus not appropriately guided. Objective consequentialism is still left on the first horn of the licensing dilemma.

6 Jill’s prescribing drug A is so called blameless wrongdoing

Instead of distinguishing between the criterion of rightness and a decision procedure, the objective consequentialist could focus more on Jill’s character and present the following idea, which is based on a thought that is known under the label “blameless wrongdoing”. Under normal circumstances, so the objective consequentialist could say, it would be best for Jill to be motivated to maximize expected value and thus to prescribe drug A, because having such motives would, under normal circumstances, realize most actual value. Moreover, having these motives would be most conducive to value even if it would result in Jill’s acting wrongly. Thus, Jill’s prescribing drug A in virtue of her good motives is, on balance, desirable from a consequentialist point of view.

How can the idea of blameless wrongdoing be justified? Imagine Jill’s being a physician who is willing to risk the lives of her patients just for achieving perfect results. Even if we assume that she always succeeds in performing actions that maximize actual value and even if cases like the one with the treatment of John actually do not occur, Jill’s patients would be scared and suspicious due to Jill’s attitude. This would make outcomes worse according to any plausible theory of value. Jill would be more conducive to value by being another kind of person with a less risk taking attitude.10

Notice that the idea to license Jill’s prescribing drug A on grounds of blameless wrongdoing has three attractive features. These features make the idea more promising than the licensing attempt which is based on the distinction between the criterion of rightness and a decision procedure. At least, this seems to be the case in the light of the criticisms provided in the previous sections.

First of all, it is perfectly in line with the consequentialist’s commitment to the promotion of value to license Jill’s prescribing drug A insofar as it results from her having the best motives. If Jill is, on balance, more conducive to value by having certain motives that lead her to act wrongly than by having other motives that lead her to act rightly, then, from a consequentialist perspective, Jill ought to have the former motives, even if they result in her acting wrongly. In contrast, Jill’s having a decision procedure is desirable, from a consequentialist perspective, only insofar as it results in her promoting value through actions.

The second feature is related. It also concerns the way in which having certain motives can promote actual value. Having a decision procedure is conducive to value just insofar as the actions it results in are conducive to value. Therefore, a decision procedure can only be recommended on consequentialist grounds for persons who will perform at least one future action. In contrast, having certain motives can be conducive to value in other ways than by being mediated through actions. Thus, Jill could be most conducive to value by being motivated to prescribe drug A, even if her motives will not lead her to perform actions that promote value on future occasions and even if she will not act again at all. For this reason, I cannot simply rephrase the scenario I invented at the end of the previous section.

Thirdly, while a decision procedure can immediately be adopted or dropped, it takes time to develop or lose motives. Thus, if John’s treatment is Jill’s last action and she has already developed the motive to maximize expected value, she may not be able to drop this motive. This is another reason why I cannot outline a situation similar to the one that I introduced in order to argue against the action of having a decision procedure that leads Jill to maximize expected value.

Despite its promising features, the idea to license Jill’s prescribing drug A on grounds of blameless wrongdoing does not work—and here is why. The idea provides no solution to the problem of appropriate action-guidance. The crucial point is that it might not always be possible or it might not always be best for Jill to have the motive to prescribe drug A. We can illustrate or modify the Case of Jill to the effect that it is not possible or best, respectively, for Jill to have the motive to prescribe drug A. As a result, Jill will not be appropriately action-guided and objective consequentialism faces the first horn of the licensing dilemma.

For a case where it is not possible for Jill to have the motive to prescribe drug A, imagine that Jill fails to have this motive by the time she has to decide on John’s treatment. She cannot at that time choose to have the motive because developing motives takes some time. It could be that Jill, as a first step, had to go to a psychiatrist in order to cure her obsession with actions that maximize actual value. This would take some time. But, let us assume, she has to decide now about John’s treatment because otherwise his skin complaint would become incurable. Thus, Jill is left without action-guidance.

One can imagine several cases where it is not best for Jill to have the motive to prescribe drug A. Consider the possibility that Jill is very skilful or just lucky when it comes to hiding her motive to maximize actual value. In that case, her obsession with actions that maximize actual value would not give rise to mistrust. Arguably, the best consequentialist theory of value says that the outcome would on balance be best if Jill maximized actual value and people think that she would not do so by risking their lives. In this case, Jill would be left without appropriate action-guidance, again.

Of course, one can also modify the Case of Jill in ways that are more fanciful. Perhaps a demon or a mad scientist somehow caused Jill’s motive to have no consequences apart from those that are mediated by actions. Then Jill’s prescription of drug A simply would again not be blameless but blameful wrongdoing.

At the bottom line, the objective consequentialist cannot always license Jill’s prescribing drug A with the idea of blameless wrongdoing. Thus, objective consequentialism is left on the first horn of the licensing dilemma.

7 Jill is not blameworthy if she prescribes drug A

The term “blameless wrongdoing” is inappropriate, because the issue is not about whether an agent is blameworthy or to be blamed for wrong actions but rather about whether an agent will sometimes realize more value on the whole if she has a motive that leads her to not maximize actual value. In contrast, the view under consideration in this section really is about whether an agent is blameworthy for wrong actions. You can sometimes read that, while subjective consequentialism is the appropriate basis for the assessment of agents, objective consequentialism is the appropriate theory for the assessment of actions.11 Agents should be assessed, so the suggestion goes, as praiseworthy or blameworthy depending on whether they act rightly or wrongly according to subjective consequentialism. Thus, if Jill prescribes drug A, she is not blameworthy, because she maximizes expected value. It is in this sense that Jill’s prescribing drug A is supposed to be licensed.

The aforementioned considerations, in my view, are fallacious. For one thing, it is doubtful whether agents, according to consequentialism, should be assessed in the alleged way. For another thing, the proposed assessment would not solve the problem of appropriate action-guidance.

The alleged standard for assessing agents is doubtful because the rightness of praising or blaming an agent may have nothing to do, according to consequentialism, with whether the agent has acted rightly or wrongly. Thus, the consequentialist may either want to hold that calling an agent “praiseworthy” or “blameworthy” is just another way of saying that it is right to praise or blame the agent. Or she may want to dismiss the notions of praiseworthiness and blameworthiness altogether.

The doubt concerning the proposed link between blameworthiness and praiseworthiness on the one side and right and wrong actions on the other arises from the thought that blaming as well as praising an agent are actions and thus are to be judged either by their actual consequences (according to objective consequentialism) or by their expected consequences (according to subjective consequentialism).12 Thus, it might be right, for example, to praise someone who gave more money to the poor than his fellow citizens because the praising has the best (actual or expected) consequences, although the praised person did act wrongly (according to subjective consequentialism), for she could have given more money than she actually did. It seems that this person is praiseworthy although she failed to maximize expected value.

But even if we put aside this objection, the suggestion under consideration does a poor job in the Case of Jill. Assume that Jill is blameworthy if she prescribes drug A. So what? This has no relevance for her decision which drug to prescribe. Jill would have to prescribe drug A, if she were primarily concerned with not being blameworthy. But these are not Jill’s concerns. Instead, as a moral agent she simply wants to do the morally right thing. Thus, the problem of appropriate action-guidance remains and the suggestion under view sits on the first horn of the licensing dilemma.

8 Jill ought to prescribe drug A

Let me now consider licensing strategies that assign a positive status to the act of prescribing drug A, albeit not the status of being right. The boldest of these strategies consists in modifying objective consequentialism and distinguishing between, on the one hand, the action that it is right (or wrong) for an agent to perform and, on the other hand, the action that the agent ought (or ought not) to perform.

Having put down this distinction, the Case of Jill can be analyzed as follows: It is right for Jill to prescribe the drug that completely cures John because prescribing this drug has the best consequences. At the same time, Jill ought to prescribe drug A because prescribing drug A maximizes expected value.

Is the proposal convincing? I do not think so. There is nothing that counts in favour of distinguishing between rightness and oughtness in this context apart from overcoming the problem of appropriate action-guidance. The distinction therefore qualifies as an ad-hoc solution to the problem of appropriate action-guidance.

Two considerations back the accusation of ad-hoc-ness. The first consideration can be expressed as a question: How can the proponent of objective consequentialism defend his subjective criterion of oughtness against an objective criterion of oughtness and at the same time defend his objective criterion of rightness against a subjective criterion of rightness? It seems to me that all that can be said in favour of a subjective criterion of oughtness undermines the arguments in favour of an objective criterion of rightness, and vice versa.

Secondly, there is a close conceptual link in everyday language between “being right” and “ought to be done”. This link seems to consist of two tenets: (1) if an action is right, then it is not the case that the agent ought not to perform it; (2) if an agent ought to perform an action, then that action is right.13 According to the view under consideration, Jill ought to act wrongly. This is clearly at odds with the second tenet.

My conclusion is that it is not reasonable to combine an objective criterion of rightness with a subjective criterion of oughtness. The combination seems ad hoc. Objective consequentialism is left on the second horn of the licensing dilemma.

9 It is subjectively right for Jill to prescribe drug A

In Sect. 1, I introduced weak subjective consequentialism. According to weak subjective consequentialism, an act is subjectively right if and only if it maximizes expected value. The view under consideration in this section is the conjunction of objective consequentialism and weak subjective consequentialism. According to this view, Jill ought to prescribe the drug that completely cures John and Jill ought subjectively to prescribe drug A.

Is the distinction between subjective rightness and rightness helpful for Jill? It depends. According to objective consequentialism combined with weak subjective consequentialism, Jill ought subjectively to prescribe drug A while she ought to prescribe the drug that completely cures John. But what does this mean for Jill’s decisions? Is it more important to act rightly than to act subjectively rightly? Is Jill licensed to act subjectively rightly just in case she does not know what she ought to do? Or can Jill ignore rightness altogether and base her decisions on subjective rightness alone?

Let us consider the different possibilities one by one and start with the view that it is always most important to act rightly even if Jill does not know which action is the right one. This interpretation is faced with the first horn of the licensing dilemma. Since Jill does not know which drug completely cures John, the problem of appropriate action-guidance remains unsolved.

Here is a second extreme interpretation. It says that, whenever you cannot identify the right action, it is more important to act subjectively rightly than to act rightly. This interpretation, in my view, does not qualify as a version of objective consequentialism. It rather seems to be a kind of mixed view, combining a weak subjective criterion of rightness for the sake of action-guidance with an objective criterion of rightness.

Between the two interpretations, there is a lot of middle ground, for there are different amounts of weight that Jill can attach to acting subjectively rightly on the one hand and to acting rightly on the other hand. In the Case of Jill, it seems reasonable to care more about not bringing about John’s death than about not acting wrongly by prescribing drug A. Therefore it seems reasonable for her to attach more weight to not acting subjectively wrongly. But in order to hold a middle ground solution and not the mixed view, you have to assign some weight to not acting wrongly. For instance, an objective consequentialist might propose that Jill had to flip a coin between prescribing drug B and prescribing drug C, given a modified Case of Jill in which one of the drugs completely cured John and the other’s effect were negligible, leaving John only slightly worse off than he is now.

Is one of the middle ground solutions convincing? I do not think so. The middle ground solutions do not just include the objective and the subjective criteria of rightness, but a third criterion of rightness that deals with how to weigh the other two criteria in order to determine what it is right to do conclusively. This is confusing and the middle ground solutions seem to be theoretically overloaded.

But the flaw just mentioned can be eradicated. The middle ground solutions can just drop the subjective criterion of rightness because this criterion’s attractiveness resulted solely from its action-guiding function which it does not fulfil anymore. Instead of weighing the subjective rightness (or wrongness) of an action against its wrongness (or rightness), the middle ground solutions can now talk of weighing the expected value of an action against its wrongness (or rightness). The now vacant notion of the subjective criterion of rightness can thus be assigned to the criterion of rightness that tells one how to act in light of the expected value of one’s options and their rightness (or wrongness).

Let us consider the restated middle ground solutions. A middle ground solution has to determine a threshold for when to maximize expected value and when to take one’s chance of acting rightly. How can this threshold be determined? It seems to me that intuition-pumping by means of consideration of different cases will not do. If you accept the basic commitment of consequentialism to the promotion of value, then there simply is no place for putting acting rightly on an equal footing with the promotion of value.

Consider the Case of Jill. As a consequentialist, Jill is concerned with the goodness of states of affairs. If, in addition, Jill were concerned with her acting rightly according to objective consequentialism for its own sake, then she would eventually approve losses or at least probable losses of value. Therefore, the middle ground solutions do not match with the very idea of consequentialism. Each of them is ad hoc. The middle ground solutions are on the second horn of the licensing dilemma.

10 It is rational for Jill to prescribe drug A

Here is the last proposal for objective consequentialism. It combines the objective criterion of rightness with considerations of instrumental rationality. Let us therefore call the proposal the rational-license-view. According to the rational-license-view, it is rational for Jill to prescribe drug A, although doing so is wrong.

There are two versions of the rational-license-view. They differ in their explanations of why it is rational for Jill to prescribe drug A. The first version says that it is rational for Jill to prescribe drug A because it is more rational to be certain to do a minor wrong than to risk a major wrong by trying to act rightly. According to the second version it is rational for Jill to prescribe drug A because this maximizes expected value.14

It seems to me that the second version is more attractive than the first one. You can see this by considering the following two questions.
  1. (1)

    In which circumstances does the risk of doing a major wrong make it rational for an agent to do a minor wrong?

     
  2. (2)

    Why is it rational to do a minor wrong in these circumstances?

     

The answer to the first question is that it is rational to do a minor wrong if and only if the expected value of doing a minor wrong is at least as great as the expected value of trying to do the right thing. There are no reasonable alternatives to this answer.

The salient alternative is to hold that doing the right thing has a value of its own. Thus, there would be cases in which it were rational to try to do the right thing even if the trying had an expected value that is smaller than the expected value of doing a minor wrong. But this alternative position is not reasonable. For it would assign right actions the status of a fetish. Moral agents who followed this view would in the long run do less good than agents who always maximize expected value. Moreover, I cannot see how the proponent of the alternative position could determine the “rational weight” of acting rightly in a non-arbitrary way.

Proponents of the rational-license-view should hold, then, that acting rightly does not carry a rational weight of its own and therefore it is rational to do a minor wrong if and only if the expected value of doing a minor wrong is at least as great as the expected value of trying to do the right thing. I have just argued for this claim. I needed to argue for it because the claim is not obvious. The first version of the rational-license-view is misleading in that it can lead you to think that acting rightly has a value of its own. This speaks against the first and in favour of the second version of the rational-license-view.

Now consider the second question. Why is it in some circumstances rational to do a minor wrong instead of trying to act rightly? The answer is, of course, that its bigger expected value makes it rational to do a minor wrong instead of trying to act rightly. Thus, my second argument against the first version of the rational-license-view is once more that this version is misleading. It suggests that you can fully explain a moral agent’s doing a minor wrong in the circumstances under consideration with the fact that it is too risky to try to do the right thing. But the exhaustive und ultimate explanation of the agent’s action is that it maximizes expected value. Thus, the second version of the rational-license-view is more appealing, for it allows for stronger explanations than the first one.

I take these thoughts to establish that a proponent of the rational-license-view should accept the second version of this view according to which it is rational for Jill to prescribe drug A because this maximizes expected value although it is wrong for Jill to prescribe drug A. In what follows, I will critically assess the rational-license-view.

In order to be distinguishable from the mixed view, the rational-license view has to insist that calling Jill’s prescribing drug A rational is something different than to call it subjectively right. But I think that there are good reasons to call Jill’s prescribing drug A not only rational but also subjectively right. The refusal to do so makes the rational-license-view an ad hoc solution to the problem of appropriate action-guidance.

What does speak in favour of calling Jill’s prescribing of drug A not only rational but also subjectively right? First of all, in everyday morality, the notion of rightness has, at least among other things and in some way, an action-guiding function. According to the rational-license-view, rationality has an action-guiding function. According to the best formulation of the rational-license view, the rightness or wrongness of Jill’s action has nothing to do with what it is rational for her to do and thus is not linked with action-guidance at all. Rather, rationality has to do only with the expected value of her available actions. This is at odds with everyday morality. In order to link rightness and action-guidance, one should call Jill’s prescribing drug A not only rational but also subjectively right. Especially since, as we have seen in Mistaken, the everyday notion of rightness is ambiguous between objective and subjective rightness.

Secondly, according to the rational-license-view prescribing drug A is what Jill ought to do for moral considerations which, as one can argue, qualify as moral reasons of some kind. It seems strange not to call an action right, at least in some sense, if one ought to perform it for moral considerations. Thus, analyses of the concepts that are connected with rightness, rationality, and morality further strengthen the first point.

Last but not least, moral intuitions suggest that Jill’s prescribing of drug A is right. Correspondingly, prescribing the drug that completely cures John intuitively seems to be too risky and therefore wrong. Thus, moral intuitions strengthen the case for calling Jill’s prescribing drug A right.

Is there something that speaks in favour of calling Jill’s prescribing drug A rational but not subjectively right? Michael Smith offers an argument. He takes Jackson’s remark that the “ought” of subjective consequentialism is the “ought most immediately relevant to action” to mean that the “ought” of subjective consequentialism refers to what an agent can appropriately be held responsible for doing.15 Smith then claims that we cannot more legitimately expect agents to maximize expected instead of actual value than we can expect them to maximize value instead of value-as-they-see-it.16 This holds because some agents live in oppressive cultures and are therefore epistemically cut off from facts about what is of value. If an agent maximizes expected value-as-she-sees-it instead of expected value, then she is acting wrongly according to subjective consequentialism, albeit through no fault of her own. From this Smith concludes that the concept of a right action must abstract from what we can legitimately hold agents responsible for. “It is therefore […] a concept that incorporates two ideals—one on the evaluative side of things and the other on the non-evaluative side of things—that properly captures the concept of right action.”17

If Smith is right, then the subjective criterion of rightness is unstable because on the non-evaluative side of things it focuses on what one can expect an agent to believe while on the evaluative side it focuses on facts and abstracts from what one can expect an agent to believe. In contrast, the criterion of rationality focuses on both sides on what one can expect an agent to believe. So you cannot substitute the talk of rationality by the talk of rightness. It is a sheer coincidence that Jill’s prescribing drug A does not only maximize expected value-as-she-sees-it but does also maximize expected value.

There are a lot of metaethical assumptions in Smith’s argument that one could disagree with. But I will ignore these and just focus on the crucial point: I do not think that the rationale for the subjective criterion of rightness consists in the commitment to the idea that an action can be right only if the agent can be held responsible for not performing it. Rather, what speaks in favour of the subjective criterion of rightness is its provision of appropriate action-guidance. So it would not undermine the subjective consequentialist criterion of rightness if it were true that agents sometimes cannot be held responsible for failing to recognize value. This is why Smith’s argument does not convince me.

Perhaps the proponent of the rational-license-view will want to state another reason for her refusal to call the rational action the subjectively right one. It is argued by some philosophers that the mixed view faces some problems on its own.18 Therefore, it might not be rational for the objective consequentialist to switch to the mixed view.

It is not the purpose of this paper to argue for the mixed view. But notice that, even if the mixed view were untenable, then this would not mitigate the problem of the rational-license-view. For the refusal to adopt the subjective criterion of rightness just for the sake of eschewing the problems of the mixed view would still be ad hoc.

I see no other argument that speaks in favour of the rational-license-view. The view fails because calling Jill’s prescribing of drug A rational while refusing to call it subjectively right is ad hoc. As a result, the rational-license-view sits on the second horn of the licensing dilemma.

11 Conclusion

I have argued that objective consequentialism is on the horns of the licensing dilemma. Either Jill’s action is not guided towards the prescription of drug A. Or the guidance of Jill’s action towards prescribing drug A is ad hoc in some respect or the other.

How significant is this result? The licensing dilemma does not show that consequentialists should dismiss objective consequentialism. For it could be that there are strong arguments in favour of objective consequentialism. Furthermore, subjective consequentialism, the mixed view, and alternatives that I have not considered in this article (for example, a contextualist view) may face problems bigger than the licensing dilemma. At the bottom line, all that can be said is that the licensing dilemma counts against objective consequentialism.

Footnotes
1

Jackson (1991, pp. 462–463). A similar case has been described prior to Jackson in Regan (1980, pp. 264–265).

 
2

Jackson (1991, pp. 462–463).

 
3

As Feldman (2006) shows, subjective consequentialism is not action-guiding in the sense that you can actually calculate the expected values of your options in each situation. It remains a task for subjective consequentialists, then, to show how exactly their theory is action-guiding. I will not try to show this. But I think it can be shown. My opinion is based on the observation that in cases like the Case of Jill you can easily see without calculation which of the actions has most expected value.

 
4

Zimmerman (2008, p. 18) even goes as far as to frame his argument against objective moral theories such as objective consequentialism as an ad hominem one by pointing out that any conscientious person in the position of Jill would prescribe the drug that only partly cures John.

 
5

Persson (2008) distinguishes between an objective criterion for what we ought to do and a subjective criterion for what we ought to try. This seems to be just another formulation of the view under consideration. I think that the underlying idea becomes clear in this quotation: “We could roughly distinguish between the ‘internal’ and the ‘external’ side of an action which is intentional under some description. The internal side is what we decide, intend and try to do, while the external side is what we in fact do, intentionally or unintentionally, what changes we in fact cause in our attempt”, Persson (2008, p. 351). I think that my argumentation in this section can easily be adapted to any distinction between an objective criterion for the external and a subjective criterion for the internal side of actions.

 
6

As Bykvist (2010, p. 85) illustrates, a variety of subjective consequentialism that focuses on actual beliefs would sanction beliefs that even may be bizarre. In this paper, I confine myself to a version of subjective consequentialism that focuses on what it is reasonable to believe.

 
7

The distinction between a criterion of rightness for actions and a decision procedure is very popular since Bales (1971).

 
8

The view under consideration in this section can be understood as based on the idea that, as Tännsjö (1995) formulates it, “if, consistently, we try to maximize expected utility, then, in the long run, probably, we end up with better results than consistently applying any conceivable alternative strategy” (p. 589). (Tännsjö himself, though, defends the view that I consider in Sect. 10, cf. Tännsjö (1995, pp. 589–590). For a criticism of the ideas mentioned in Tännsjö (1995), see Bergström (1996, Sect. 6).

 
9

The position that an agent ought to perform an act if and only if it is an option such that what would happen if the agent performed it is better than what would happen if she did not perform it is called actualism. Actualism is defended, for example, in Jackson and Pargetter (1986). The main alternative to actualism is possibilism. Possibilism says that an agent ought to perform an act if and only if it is an option such that what could happen if the agent performed it is better than what could happen if she did not perform it, whereby “could” refers to what the agent can do. Cf. Zimmerman (2008, Chap. 3.1).

 
10

Concerning the issue of “blameless wrongdoing”, see Parfit (1984, pp. 31–35), and the related discussion concerning “global consequentialism” in Pettit and Smith (2000).

 
11

This idea has often been mentioned since Moore (1912, pp. 98–101).

 
12

For straightforward consequentialist accounts of blaming and praising, see Norcross (2006, pp. 224–247) and, especially, Shaw (1999 pp. 134–138). (Notice, though, that Norcross defends an unusual kind of consequentialism, namely scalar consequentialism, according to which acts are not right or wrong but better or worse than their alternatives).

 
13

Against the assertion of the first connection, you might hold that if an action is right, then it ought to be done. But I think that this is not true. For (1) there might be more than one right action and you can, and thus ought, only choose one of them, and (2) supererogatory actions are right but it is not the case that you ought to perform them.

 
14

The first version is mentioned in Bykvist (2010, pp. 90–91); the second seems to be defended in Smith (2006, pp. 145–147).

 
15

Smith (2006, p. 141).

 
16

Smith (2006, pp. 142–145).

 
17

Smith (2006, p. 145).

 
18

For a prominent objection to the mixed view, see Zimmerman (2008, pp. 6–7).

 

Acknowledgements

Earlier versions of this paper have been presented at the University of Mannheim in spring 2010 and at Saarland University in summer 2010. I am grateful to Krister Bykvist, Christoph Fehige, Bernward Gesang, Benjamin Kiesewetter, Marcel Mertz, Oliver Petersen, Daniel Ramöller, Julius Schälike, Peter Schulte, Attila Tanyi, Ulla Wessels, and Joachim Wündisch for comments and suggestions.

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2011

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Universität KonstanzKonstanzGermany

Personalised recommendations