Consequentialism and the causal efficacy of the moral


Assume consequentialism and assume moral properties are causally efficacious. Then, I’ll argue, a puzzle arises. These assumptions lead to denying each of two plausible metaphysical principles: that a cause cannot cause anything occurring before its ground and that a cause cannot cause anything belonging to its ground. We therefore have to reject either consequentialism or the causal efficacy of moral properties or the plausible metaphysical principles. And, I’ll show, the puzzle arises again even if we replace moral properties with the non-moral properties making things right (wrong, etc.). Which component to reject is a question for another occasion: my aim here is to present the puzzle. It is a puzzle worth thinking about: no matter how we solve it, we stand to learn something, be it in normative ethics, metaethics, or metaphysics. And, I’ll suggest at the end of the paper, my arguments can be applied to other domains as well.

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  1. 1.

    For an example of such a question discussed in the literature, see the debate on consequentialism and the infinity of the future, especially Nelson (1991), Vallentyne and Kagan (1997) and Mulgan (2002).

  2. 2.

    For a defense of the view that moral properties are causally efficacious, see especially Sturgeon (1985) and Railton (1986); see also Boyd (1988) and Brink (1989), ch. 7. For these writers’ endorsement of consequentialism, see Railton (1984) and Sturgeon (1996) and (2010); see also Boyd (1988), pp. 202–204 and Brink (1989), ch. 8 (Brink’s views on consequentialism have more recently changed, though eventually not in ways that matter to my arguments below: see Brink 2006).

  3. 3.

    On this broad understanding of the term ‘consequence’, see e.g. Kagan (1998), pp. 26–28.

  4. 4.

    My arguments will remain neutral on whether the relevant time interval must, on consequentialism, have an end. Some argue it must and claim this is a problem for the theory; consequentialists typically reply it need not (see references in n. 1).

  5. 5.

    Think, in the first case, of Putnam’s (1975) Twin Earth example and, in the second case, of Burge’s (1979) arthritis example.

  6. 6.

    Temporal externalism (see Jackman 1999) does include, among the relevant relations, ones that are temporal and forward-looking, such as relations with one’s community’s future linguistic practice. Unlike traditional versions of externalism, this version is subject to the problem I am raising.

  7. 7.

    The relation between a moral property M-ness and an M-making property is one of the examples by means of which the grounding relation is typically introduced by its proponents (see Schaffer 2009 and Rosen 2010), so my choice is hardly surprising (Fine 2001 is a notable exception, but see Berker 2018 for a forceful defense—against, among others, Fine—of the view that the moral case provides a clear example of grounding). Proponents of grounding assume that the various specific metaphysical relations they offer examples of are suitably unified, so that it is fruitful to speak of a general grounding relation. My arguments in this paper do not hinge on this assumption: if the relevant relations are not suitably unified and appeal to grounding is superfluous (as argued by Wilson 2014), then in what follows ‘grounding’ should be taken merely as a name for the specific relation at play in ethics. The only consequence in such a case is that some of my points are not guaranteed to generalize—as in the text I’ll suggest they do—to domains other than ethics (they are not guaranteed to generalize, though it remains plausible, I believe, that they do). What my arguments do assume is that the relation at play in ethics is (bracketing a complication I’ll return to in a moment) a metaphysical relation: the claim, made by a normative theory like consequentialism, that right actions are those that are P is a claim to the effect that what makes right actions right is their being P, or that an action’s being right depends, in the order of things, on its being P. This way of looking at normative inquiry in general, and at consequentialism in particular, is both natural and common: think of the characterization of normative inquiry as aiming to identify the “right-making properties” of actions and of the textbook distinction, in presentations of consequentialism, between an account of the right-making properties and a decision-making procedure, with the standard clarification that consequentialism provides the former. The complication mentioned above concerns expressivism. Expressivists nowadays are happy to say there are moral properties. Are they also happy to say the relation between a moral property M-ness and an M-making property is, as my arguments assume, a metaphysical relation? If they are, then my arguments apply also within an expressivist framework. If they are not, they’ll presumably want to say they can mimic the metaphysical relation by means of a lighter relation, one equally deserving of the name ‘making’ or ‘grounding’—or possibly ‘quasi-grounding’. It is hard to see how the mimicking can succeed without at the same time making my arguments—give or take a few prefixes ‘quasi-’—applicable within their framework too. So either way, my arguments apply also within an expressivist framework.

  8. 8.

    It is commonplace in the grounding literature to point out that grounding is in one respect similar to causation. The point is often put by saying grounding is, like causation, an explanatory relation (see e.g. Fine 2001, pp. 15–16 and 2012, pp. 37–40 and Rosen 2010, pp. 116–117). Since ‘explanation’ is ambiguous between a metaphysical and an epistemological reading (and ‘dependence’ is sometimes used as another name for grounding), I put the point using ‘determination’.

  9. 9.

    One may want to raise this objection appealing to dispositions: the consequentialist can claim that what makes right actions right is, not their having optimific consequences, but their being disposed, at the time at which they occur, to have such consequences. I avoid doing so for two reasons. One, less important: I doubt the objection can be framed in terms of dispositions, given what I take dispositions to be. The other, more important: framing it in terms of dispositions would raise issues concerning what dispositions are, issues that are orthogonal to the objection and that neither the objector nor I need take a stand on here. I therefore bracket those issues in framing the objection, and in my reply to it. The discussion to follow will, I submit, address any concerns one may want to raise in terms of dispositions. More on dispositions later in the paper, where I will take a stand on the import of my arguments for one particular theory about them.

  10. 10.

    Philosophical theories that are, in other respects, analogous to the second way of fleshing out the suggestion avoid this problem by taking the second of the two ways out discussed above. Consider realizer functionalism about mental states. According to it, pain is identical to state S, where S is the state that occupies the pain role, i.e. (simplifying a bit) the role of being typically caused by tissue damage and typically causing aversive reactions (the example of pain is standard in the literature; I borrow this formulation of its causal role from Bennett 2007, p. 323). It is part of the view that this state may well differ for different beings capable of feeling pain. So for instance, if the state that occupies the role in humans is neural state S*, then human pain is identical to state S*. If, on the other hand, a different state S’ occupies the role for other, non-human beings (e.g. another animal on Earth or an alien from another planet), then pain in this non-human being is identical to state S’. Since causes and effects of a given state depend on the broader makeup of the being who is in that state, the view is also meant to allow for an atypical human who is, so to speak, hooked up wrong: state S* is not, in this human being, caused by tissue damage, nor does it cause aversive reactions. Note: if such a human being did not count as in pain when in state S*, realizer functionalism would face a problem analogous to that in the text. Human pain, says the view, is identical to state S*. But look at her: she is in state S*, yet she is not in pain. The view, however, does count such a human being as in pain, when in state S*. How so? Because on realizer functionalism, the roles associated with mental states are specified in terms of typical causes and effects, so the view can allow for exceptions: the atypical human counts as in pain because she is in state S*, the state that in humans typically has the relevant causes and effects (even if it fails to do so in her case). But this, we saw, is exactly what the consequentialist cannot do: the consequentialist’s contention is not that right actions typically have optimific consequences, though some fail to do so (the classic discussion of these issues with regard to realizer functionalism, though without use of the label, is Lewis 1980).

  11. 11.

    My presentation of these familiar points owes much to Kagan (1998), pp. 26–28, from whom I adapt the rescue example. For simplicity’s sake, I assume the death that occurs if I intervene is not part of what I do: I do not kill the person, drowning does. But even supposing it is (I prevent you from saving her, after all), the net value of what I do is the same whether I intervene or do nothing, namely zero: looking only at what I do still yields the wrong verdict.

  12. 12.

    Thomson (1990), especially chs. 5–6 (the quotes in the text come from p. 152 and p. 143; the point is repeated in Thomson 2008, p. 64). Thomson starts, in ch. 5, from the idea that the tradeoff is between the good coming of according and, respectively, infringing the claim. She discusses the consequentialist gloss on that idea in terms of total consequences and rejects it. When she turns to her favored gloss in ch. 6, she makes no appeal to total consequences. I bracket elements of Thomson’s theory not relevant here. My position in the text is at odds with the characterization sometimes offered of normative debates, especially by consequentialists, as involving parties that agree total consequences matter, but disagree on whether anything else does (see e.g. Kagan 1998, pp. 26–28 and elsewhere). Note that one need not reject consequentialism to find that characterization inaccurate.

  13. 13.

    Why adopt, not just consequentialism, but a consequentialist definition of rightness? Because even given a realist and naturalistic account of goodness, consequentialism is still compatible (e.g.) with non-naturalism about rightness. (Compare: even given a realist and naturalistic account of pleasure, utilitarianism is still compatible with non-naturalism about rightness.) If the upshot is to be a realist and naturalistic account of rightness, a definition is needed.

  14. 14.

    See e.g. Sturgeon (2006), p. 97 and p. 100.

  15. 15.

    What about accounting for our practice by appealing to people’s moral beliefs, e.g. to people’s belief in the injustice of the old regime, as opposed to either injustice or the non-moral properties that made the regime unjust? Though this is also an available option, it is not very promising: this strategy has shortcomings, some of them pointed out by its very proponents, that do not obviously extend to that appealing to the relevant non-moral properties. One problem is that the strategy is applicable only in some cases. We may, for instance, accept the claim ‘The injustice of the old regime caused loss of morale and decline in the effectiveness of authority among citizens’ even as applied to a society that, long before the revolution breaks out, is not yet considered unjust by its members and may even be thought just (the example comes from Railton 1986). Or we may say ‘The decency and humanity of her upbringing contributed to the child’s thriving’ even about a child too young to recognize the upbringing as decent and humane (Blackburn 1991 borrows the example from Sturgeon 1986 to make this point). Another problem (pointed out by Sturgeon 1991) is that even when the belief in, say, the injustice of the regime is present, part of our point in citing the injustice may be precisely to account for its presence: e.g. to rule out that people held it because deceived by the regime’s enemies. The strategy appealing to people’s moral beliefs does not therefore change much with respect to my claim in the text.

  16. 16.

    Bennett (2007), p. 330.

  17. 17.

    I argue that that principle is a better candidate than the others proposed in the literature in Viggiano, A. (manuscript). Mental causation, role functionalism, and the problem of grounding effects.

  18. 18.

    If you endorse the third objection discussed above and believe my two problems arise equally for all plausible normative theories, your assessment may well be different. As pointed out earlier, this would make the puzzle not less, but more interesting.


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I would like to thank Karen Bennett, Dick Boyd, Matti Eklund, Daniel Elstein, David Enoch, David Kovacs, Gerald Lang, Mike Ridge, Nick Sturgeon, Christine Tiefensee, Pekka Väyrynen, and my anonymous referees for this and another journal for very helpful comments and discussions on previous drafts of this paper.

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Correspondence to Andrea Viggiano.

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Viggiano, A. Consequentialism and the causal efficacy of the moral. Philos Stud 177, 2927–2944 (2020).

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  • Consequentialism
  • Moral causation
  • Causation
  • Grounding
  • Time
  • Metaphysical determination