Before wrapping up, I want to talk a little more about the implications of my proposal, what this means for Hammerton’s distinction and McNaughton and Rawling’s demarcation project, and what I mean by stating that the distinction between agent-neutral and agent-relative rules has nothing inherently to do with the distinction between deontological and consequentialist normative theories.Footnote 31
I stressed in the introduction that McNaughton and Rawling’s version of the distinction arose as an attempt to demarcate the boundaries of deontology and traditional universalist maximising act-consequentialism. ‘Consequentialism’, in McNaughton and Rawling’s sense, provides an agent-neutral account of both the right and the good: the value of any state of affairs does not depend on the personal point of view of the agent, so ‘no reference to the agent or her position in the world need enter into a consequentialist understanding of what makes an action right or wrong’.Footnote 32 A common criticism of agent-neutral accounts of the right and the good is their failure to accommodate the constraints that are central deontological pluralism or commonsense morality. Agent-neutral consequentialism fails because it is too lax to capture the force of deontological restrictions and obligations, and too demanding or alienating in terms of the limits it places on an agent’s deontological permissions.
Now, McNaughton and Rawling noted that consequentialism might be able to make room for threshold restrictions by claiming the performance of certain acts like murder and telling lies are intrinsically bad. The consequentialist can ‘suck up’ the intrinsic disvalue of killing innocents into their consequentialist vacuum cleaner, and, once the disvalue in question is in the dust bag or container (I presume a consequentialist would use a bagless vacuum cleaner in order to maximise suction), a threshold can be set as to where the intrinsic disvalue of killing innocents can be weighed against any further detrimental consequences of sticking to the initial restriction. However, McNaughton and Rawling argued that the vacuum cleaner interpretation fails to capture the agent-relative feature of deontological restrictions, i.e., the agent-neutrality that is central to consequentialist theories fails to account for who is breaching the restriction in the final calculation. For McNaughton and Rawling, then, deontological restrictions have a particularised concern with the agent’s conduct: reference to the agent is an essential part of understanding why the action is wrong. This is precisely the author agent-relativity that (I have argued) leads us towards agent-relative consequentialism. Moreover, it is the very same rationale that McNaughton and Rawling extend to their analysis of deontological obligations and permissions to depart from maximising general well-being in order to, say, care for one’s own children or pursue one’s own personal projects. Indeed, what matters here, they argue, is not simply that looking after one’s child is extremely valuable. Rather, what’s important is that agents care for their own children themselves. It is this notion of author agent-relativity that McNaughton and Rawling insisted other leading formulations of the distinction (namely Nagel’s ‘general form’ version and Pettit’s ‘full-specification’ version) could not capture.Footnote 33
To understand this properly, consider the following rule:
Parents should look after their own children.
On my informal account, this rule is object agent-relative. It is a narrow scope rule telling each agent to look after their own children (presumably by themselves where possible – there is an extent to which constantly dumping your children on babysitters or grandparents instead of spending quality time with them could be construed as simply not caring for them in the appropriate way).Footnote 34 However, McNaughton and Rawling claim that this rule remains open to agent-neutral consequentialist interpretation. On an agent-neutral reading, the consequentialist will use their vacuum cleaner to suck up the impersonal value of parents looking after their own children; if it is valuable for parents to look after their own children, then the agent-neutral rule requires parents to neglect their own child in order to maximise the total number of children looked after by their own parents. The agent-relative deontologist, on the other hand, maintains that the permissibility of neglecting one’s child is determined by the fact the parent will be neglecting their child, not merely that a child is being neglected (notice, again, that the emphasis is on the author agent-relativity of the obligation not the object agent-relativity).
To cement this idea, they offer an example:
Consider, Alan, a conscientious subscriber to the doctrine that parents should look after their own children, who is reading a book to young Betty. In a full specification of his reason for reading to her it may be essential to mention that Betty is his daughter (which explains why he is reading to her and not some other child) and that he is doing the reading himself (which may explain why he is not employing someone else to do it). Neither of these pronominal back references to the agent is eliminable in a full account of his reasons for his reading to Betty. So Alan’s reasons are agent-relative on this account. But nothing in our specification of Alan’s beliefs determined whether Alan subscribes to the agent-relative or the agent-neutral version of this principle. So the full specification account fails to capture the distinction. […] [Nagel’s general form] account tries to avoid this problem by specifying that a reason is agent-neutral if it can be given a general form in which there is no reference to the person who has it. But what is the general form of Alan’s reason? The obvious answer is that he is reading to Betty because he believes that parents should look after their children. This reason contains no reference to the agent and so is agent-neutral. But our difficulty was precisely that this principle could be given an agent-relative or agent-neutral reading.Footnote 35
It is unclear, however, what Pettit’s or Nagel’s (or my) distinction is failing to capture here.
McNaughton and Rawling are worried that we don’t know whether Alan subscribes to an agent-relative or an agent-neutral reading of the rule, i.e., we don’t know whether Alan is a consequentialist with a vacuum cleaner or a deontologist. They insist that Nagel tries to avoid this problem by specifying that a reason is agent-neutral if it can be given a general form that contains no reference to the person who has it, and stress that the obvious answer is that Alan is reading to Betty because he believes that parents should look after their own children – a reason they claim is agent-neutral because it contains no reference to the agent. But the general form of the rule ‘Parents should look after their own children’ is clearly object agent-relative according to mine, Pettit’s, and Nagel’s formal account of the distinction in The Possibility of Altruism (where x ranges all agents and φ over all acts, events, and circumstances):
(11) (x, φ) (If φ is looking after x’s own child then x has reason to promote φ)
Granted, in The Possibility of Altruism Nagel maintains that agent-relative rules can be subsumed under their agent-neutral counterparts.Footnote 36 For instance:
(12) (x, φ) (If φ is looking after Alan’s own child then x has reason to promote φ)
(13) (x, φ) (If (∃y) (φ is looking after y’s own child), then x has reason to promote φ)
But there is nothing about this that commits Alan to either of the readings; he can consistently subscribe to both. In his role as a parent, Alan feels it is his responsibility to read to Betty because he is a firm believer that parents should look after their own children. However, Alan may also feel there is something important about parents looking after their own children which should be promoted by anyone – even by those who don’t have children themselves. Agent-relative rules assign certain personal or agent-relative values to things for individuals, i.e., the value to an individual of looking after his children. Yet, rules can also be construed agent-neutrally, but not in any consequentialist sense, but purely a sense in which they assign impersonal value to looking after one’s own children. Primarily, then, the rules apply to conduct that directly supports the rule, such as reading a book to one’s own child. Though, in assigning impersonal value to particular action types, the rules are also applicable derivatively to actions that promote similar conduct whether in oneself or from others. The impersonal value is conterminous to reasons of wide practical scope, i.e., the wide scope of the reason is explained by the impersonal value in the realisation of the state of affairs. Although, importantly, contra McNaughton and Rawling, even if the rule ‘Parents should look after their own children’ is construed agent-neutrally, it does not require you or anyone else to neglect their own children in order to promote parents caring for their own children more generally. Nagel explicitly stresses this when referring to familial permissions:
Concern for one’s wife and children is not merely concern for the welfare of some people whom one happens to be in a convenient position to help. Consequently, the [agent-neutralisation] of the reasons in whose acknowledgement this concern finds rational embodiment will not yield equal reasons to concern oneself with the wives and children of others. [...] The principle still yields [agent-neutral] rather than merely [agent-relative] reasons for people to look after their families. And even if one would defeat those reasons by directly assisting or forcing others to conform to them, two important consequences remain: there are reasons to avoid interference with others engaged in such activities, and also reasons to seek the social, economic, and political conditions which make pursuits possible, not only for oneself but for others.Footnote 37
Contra the demarcation project, then, there is nothing inherently consequentialist, utilitarian, or maximising about agent-neutral rules. There is, for example, nothing counterintuitive about a rule that provides agent-neutral reasons for anyone and everyone to minimise acts which involve the harming of others in order to benefit others. Indeed, Nagel was always keen to insist that ‘the principle of [agent-neutrality] does not automatically yield a species of utilitarianism, or some other counter-intuitive principle, as the method for deciding interpersonal conflicts. The requirement of [agent-neutrality] demands that full weight be accorded to the distinction between persons, and to the irreducible significance of individual human lives’.Footnote 38