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Against Securitism, the New Breed of Actualism in Consequentialist Thought

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  20 August 2015

New Mexico State University,


In Commonsense Consequentialism: Wherein Morality Meets Rationality, Douglas Portmore introduces a novel position regarding the actualist–possibilist controversies in consequentialist thought – securitism – a position he argues is theoretically superior to the standard views in both the actualist and possibilist camps. After distinguishing the two camps through an examination of the original Procrastinate case, I present Portmore's securitism (a new species of actualism) and its implications regarding his modified Procrastinate case. I level two serious objections against securitism: (i) that it implausibly implies that morality is radically more demanding for the virtuous than it is for the vicious and (ii) that it fails to recognize moral vice in a wide range of cases. I close by arguing that a possibilist variant of Portmore's securitist view is impervious to such objections and thus appears theoretically superior to the actualist version Portmore promotes.

Research Article
Copyright © Cambridge University Press 2015 

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1 The possibilist camp includes Goldman, Holly Smith, ‘Doing the Best One Can’, Values and Morals, ed. Goldman, A. I. and Kim, J. (Dordrecht, 1978), pp. 185214CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Greenspan, Patricia S., ‘Oughts and Determinism: A Response to Goldman’, The Philosophical Review 87 (1978), pp. 7783CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Thomason, Richmond H., ‘Deontic Logic and the Role of Freedom in Moral Deliberation’, New Studies in Deontic Logic, ed. Hilpinen, R. (Dordrecht, 1981), pp. 177–86CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Humberstone, I. L., ‘The Background of Circumstances’, Pacific Philosophical Quarterly 64 (1983), pp. 1934CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Feldman, Fred, Doing the Best We Can (Dordrecht, 1986)CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Zimmerman, Michael J., The Concept of Moral Obligation (Cambridge, 1996)CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Vorobej, M., ‘Prosaic Possibilism’, Philosophical Studies 97 (2000), pp. 131–36CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Vessel, Jean-Paul, ‘Defending a Possibilist Insight in Consequentialist Thought’, Philosophical Studies 142 (2009), pp. 183–95CrossRefGoogle Scholar. Note that Thomason, ‘Deontic Logic’; Humberstone, ‘Background’; Zimmerman, Moral Obligation; and Vorobej, ‘Prosaic Possibilism’ aren't necessarily consequentialists, but consequentialist interpretations of their positions are available. Douglas Portmore suggested to me in correspondence that his securitist position qualifies as a species of possibilism under my characterization of the view, claiming that what distinguishes securitism from traditional forms of possibilism is its novel conception of a course of action available to an agent. I remain sceptical about Portmore's suggestion and will attempt to illustrate precisely why securitism is a species of actualism and not a species of possibilism, even under my characterization.

2 A ‘best’ possible course of action available to an agent at a time is one than which no other course of action available to the agent at the time is better.

3 The actualist camp includes Goldman, Holly Smith, ‘Dated Rightness and Moral Imperfection’, The Philosophical Review 85 (1976), pp. 449–87CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Sobel, Jordan Howard, ‘Utilitarianism and Past and Future Mistakes’, Noûs 10 (1976), pp. 195219CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Sobel, Jordan Howard, ‘Utilitarian Principles for Imperfect Agents’, Theoria 48 (1982), pp. 113–26CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Jackson, Frank and Pargetter, Robert, ‘Oughts, Options, and Actualism’, The Philosohical Review 95 (1986), pp. 233–55CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Goble, Lou, ‘The Logic of Obligation, “Better” and “Worse”’, Philosophical Studies 70 (1993), pp. 133–63CrossRefGoogle Scholar; perhaps Vallentyne, Peter, ‘Review of Fred Feldman's Utilitarianism, Hedonism, and Desert’, Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 60 (2000), pp. 734–5CrossRefGoogle Scholar; and Portmore, Douglas, Commonsense Consequentialism: Wherein Morality Meets Rationality (Oxford, 2011)CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

4 Jackson and Pargetter, ‘Actualism’, p. 235. This case is structurally similar to the Journal Referee case in Thomason, ‘Deontic Logic’; the Jack and Jill case in Carlson, Erik, ‘Consequentialism, Alternatives, and Actualism’, Philosophical Studies 96 (1999), pp. 253–68CrossRefGoogle Scholar; the Fran and Stan case in Vessel, ‘Defending’; and the new Procrastinate case in Portmore, Commonsense Consequentialism, which soon will be investigated carefully. Note that positions diverging from both possibilism and traditional actualism have been defended in the literature. For example, Carlson, Erik, Consequentialism Reconsidered (Dordrecht, 1995)CrossRefGoogle Scholar and Carlson, ‘Consequentialism’ are hesitant to be included among the traditional actualists. They believe that the act consisting of Procrastinate accepting the invitation lacks a normative status because of their conception of the precise nature of the bearers of normative status and performability requirements.

5 Satisficing consequentialists are the exception to the norm. They don't believe that we are required to bring about the best; rather, we are merely required to do that which is ‘good enough’. Slote, Michael, ‘Satisficing Consequentialism, Part I’, Aristotelian Society 58 (1984), pp. 139–64CrossRefGoogle Scholar and Slote, Michael, Beyond Optimizing: A Study of Rational Choice, (Cambridge, 1989)CrossRefGoogle Scholar are paradigm satisficers. Hurka, Thomas, ‘Two Kinds of Satisficing’, Philosophical Studies 59 (1990), pp. 107–11CrossRefGoogle Scholar seems sympathetic to satisficing versions of certain subjective forms of consequentialism. Critics of satisficing versions of consequentialism include Pettit, Philip, ‘Satisficing Consequentialism, Part II’, Aristotelian Society 58 (1984), pp. 165–76Google Scholar; Mulgan, Timothy, ‘Slote's Satisficing Consequentialism’, Ratio 6 (1993), pp. 121–34CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Bradley, Ben, ‘Against Satisficing Consequentialism’, Utilitas 18 (2006), pp. 97108CrossRefGoogle Scholar; and Vessel, Jean-Paul, ‘Supererogation for Utilitarianism’, American Philosophical Quarterly 47 (2010), pp. 299319Google Scholar.

6 Note that Portmore, Commonsense Consequentialism is a new breed of actualist and rejects the following conjunctive obligation claim.

7 This obligation statement might be considered to be incomplete in some respects. It should also, perhaps, explicitly indicate whose obligation it is and when the obligation is in effect. I will leave these features to be gleaned from the context.

8 Zimmerman, Moral Obligation and Vessel, ‘Defending’ believe that the moral relevance (or lack thereof) of subjunctive conditionals like SC lies at the core of the dispute between the actualists and possibilists.

9 Note that Portmore, Commonsense Consequentialism also endorses the principle.

10 Curiously, Erik Carlson, a theorist who rejects DC, believes that the act consisting of Procrastinate accepting the invitation to write the review lacks normative status while the act consisting of Procrastinate declining the invitation comes out morally wrong. For details, see Carlson, ‘Consequentialism’, §1.

11 Cf. of Zimmerman, Moral Obligation, §6.2.1, where Zimmerman presents a list of principles that actualists are committed to rejecting.

12 McKinsey, Michael, ‘Levels of Obligation’, Philosophical Studies 35 (1979), pp. 385–95CrossRefGoogle Scholar, suggests that there are different ‘levels’ of obligation that will disarm the problem of incompatible obligations.

13 Jackson and Pargetter, ‘Actualism’ claim that something may be deemed obligatory in light of a certain set of options, but should that set of options be reduced to a smaller set, different – in fact incompatible – obligations might emerge. Apparently, Jackson and Pargetter believe that in certain situations, what we actually ought to do is to behave in accordance with the obligations generated by the smaller sets, and that this somehow disarms the problem of incompatible obligations. We might call ‘restricted obligations’ those that are generated by the smaller, restricted sets of options.

14 McKinsey seems to believe that obligations of different levels are equally important: ‘By saying that an obligation is secondary (or tertiary, or n-ary, where n>1), I do not mean that it is any less of an obligation than a primary one. In my view, it is just as incumbent upon a person to fulfill his secondary obligations, as it is incumbent upon him to fulfill his primary ones’ (McKinsey, ‘Levels’, p. 391).

15 See Zimmerman, Moral Obligation, ch. 6. Vessel, ‘Defending’ presents a consistent possibilist approach to this matter and also shows how possibilism has the resources to illustrate why some are pulled the (traditional) actualist way.

16 Arguments establishing the invalidity of factual detachment for conditional obligation and for the validity of a modified version of the factual detachment rule can be found in Greenspan, ‘Oughts’, pp. 81–2; Humberstone, ‘Background’, pp. 20–3; Feldman, Doing the Best We Can, pp. 90–2; Zimmerman, Moral Obligation, ch. 4, where Zimmerman argues that if it were valid, acting morally would be ‘ridiculously easy’; and Vessel, ‘Defending’. Note that if Procrastinate were unable to alter the truth value of ~W, then O(~A) could be legitimately inferred from O(~A/~W) and ~W. But Procrastinate can alter the truth value of ~W; it's just that he will not, because he's a procrastinator.

17 Fred Feldman also believes that this might be at the root of the disagreement between actualists and possibilists; see Feldman, Doing the Best We Can, pp. 53–5.

18 Arguments for this diagnosis are presented in Vessel, ‘Defending’.

19 See especially chapters 6 and 7.

20 The following definitions are taken virtually verbatim from Portmore, Commonsense Consequentialism, pp. 165–7.

21 Portmore borrows these definitions from Ross, Jacob, ‘Actualism, Possibilism, and Beyond’, Oxford Studies in Normative Ethics, vol. 2, ed. Timmons, M. (Oxford, 2012), pp. 7996Google Scholar.

22 Portmore, Commonsense Consequentialism, p. 166. Portmore borrows the major content of this definition from Ross, ‘Actualism’, claiming that the general notion of personal possibility comes from Goldman, ‘Doing the Best One Can’, p. 193, and Zimmerman, Moral Obligation, p. 46. Fred Feldman elucidates an interesting conception of personal possibility (and related concepts) in Feldman, Doing the Best We Can, ch. 2.

23 Portmore, Commonsense Consequentialism, p. 172.

24 Portmore, Commonsense Consequentialism, pp. 166–7. For ease of explication, Portmore assumes counterfactual determinism here: the view that for any event, e, ‘there is some determinate fact as to what the world would be like if e were to occur’, but Portmore isn't committed to the view and illustrates how his definition should be emended if counterfactual determinism is false. For arguments against counterfactual determinism, see Ayer, A. J., Probability and Evidence (London, 1972), p. 116CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Lewis, David, Counterfactuals (Cambridge, 1973), pp. 18, 21, 79–83Google Scholar; Stalnaker, Robert, Inquiry (Cambridge, 1984), pp. 164–5Google Scholar; and Vessel, Jean-Paul, ‘Counterfactuals for Consequentialists’, Philosophical Studies 112 (2003), pp. 103–25CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

25 Portmore, Commonsense Consequentialism, p. 167.

26 Portmore, Commonsense Consequentialism, p. 177.

27 This is a slightly altered version of the case presented in Portmore, Commonsense Consequentialism, p. 180.

28 The brackets are mine but are justified by the third condition in Portmore's definition of scrupulously securable.

29 Portmore suggests that instead of appealing to what securitism entails about what morality requires of the virtuous and vicious here, I should restrict my claims to those about people who would freely and knowingly engage in moral (or immoral) action. But one might think of morally virtuous people as people who always (or at least generally) freely and knowingly (when such knowledge can be secured) engage in morally permissible lines of behaviour.

30 A sketch of this objection to securitism was originally presented in Vessel, Jean-Paul, ‘Review of Douglas Portmore's Commonsense Consequentialism’, Utilitas 24 (2012), pp. 551–4CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

31 A question arises regarding whether this scenario is coherently described. Given that Procrastinate knows that SC2 is true, how can he sincerely intend to complete the review by t8? Can a person coherently and sincerely intend to do something he knows he will not do? It seems unlikely. Portmore suggests that the scenario is possible so long as the agent is sufficiently irrational; see Portmore, Commonsense Consequentialism, p. 182. This might highlight another theoretical problem with securitism: the concept of an intention employed in the definition of scrupulously securable may not be sufficiently suited to play the requisite theoretical role.

I assume that Procrastinate accepts the invitation with the intention to complete the review by t8 to illustrate clearly what grounds the truth of SC2 and thus renders Procrastinate's acceptance of the invitation morally impermissible according to securitism.

32 Portmore, Commonsense Consequentialism, pp. 210–11.

33 See Vessel, Jean-Paul, ‘The Probabilistic Nature of Objective Consequentialism’, Theoria 73 (2007), pp. 4667CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Vessel, ‘Defending’; and Portmore, Commonsense Consequentialism, chs. 6 and 7.

34 Vessel, ‘Defending’.

35 Thanks to thoughtful audiences at New Mexico State University, the 2013 annual meeting of the New Mexico–West Texas Philosophical Society, and the 2013 annual meeting of the Eastern Division of the American Philosophical Association. Thanks to Timothy Cleveland, and to Eric Gilbertson and Evan Williams, both of whom provided thoughtful, helpful commentaries on the manuscript. I am especially indebted to Douglas Portmore, who provided insightful, detailed commentaries on several drafts of the manuscript.

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