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Clues for Consequentialists

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  02 January 2014

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In an influential paper, James Lenman argues that consequentialism can provide no basis for ethical guidance, because we are irredeemably ignorant of most of the consequences of our actions. If our ignorance of distant consequences is great, he says, we can have little reason to recommend one action over another on consequentialist grounds. In this article, I show that for reasons to do with statistical theory, the cluelessness objection is too pessimistic. We have good reason to believe that certain patterns of action will tend to have better consequences, and we have good reason to recommend acting in accordance with strategies based on those advantageous patterns. I close by saying something about the strategies that this argument should lead us to favour.

Research Article
Copyright © Cambridge University Press 2013 

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1 Lenman, J., ‘Consequentialism and Cluelessness’, Philosophy and Public Affairs 29 (2000), pp. 342–70CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

2 See also: Moore, G. E., Principia Ethica (London, 1903)Google Scholar, ch. 5, secs. 93–100; Kagan, S., Normative Ethics (Boulder, 1998), p. 64Google Scholar; Parfit, D., Reasons and Persons (Oxford, 1987)Google Scholar; Frazier, R., ‘Act-Utilitarianism and Decision Procedures’, Utilitas 6 (1997), pp. 241–8Google Scholar; Wiland, E., ‘Monkeys, Typewriters, and Objective Consequentialism’, Ratio 18 (2005), pp. 352–60CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Howard-Snyder, F., ‘The Rejection of Objective Consequentialism’, Utilitas 9 (1997), pp. 241–8CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Mason, E., ‘Consequentialism and the Principle of Indifference’, Utilitas 16 (2004), pp. 316–21CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Miller, D., ‘Actual-Consequence Act-Utilitarianism and the Best Possible Humans’, Ratio 16 (2003), pp. 4962CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Lang, G., ‘Consequentialism, Cluelessness, and Indifference’, The Journal of Value Inquiry 42 (2008), pp. 477–85CrossRefGoogle Scholar. An account that might be interesting to compare with my own is Hare, C., ‘Obligation and Regret When There is No Fact of the Matter About What Would Have Happened if You Had Not Done What You Did’, Noûs 45 (2011), pp. 190206CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

3 Tyler Cowen suggests that cluelessness only undermines small-scale actions, and not large-scale ones. But it seems reasonable to worry that larger-scale actions will tend to have comparably greater hidden consequences, in which case it is not clear that Cowen's argument overcomes the cluelessness objection. Cowen, T., ‘The Epistemic Problem does not refute Consequentialism’, Utilitas 18 (2006), pp. 383–99CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

4 Such views have been discussed at length and by many, but see for instance Howard-Snyder, F., ‘It's the Thought that Counts’, Utilitas 17 (2005), pp. 265–81CrossRefGoogle Scholar. For an in-depth study of perspectives on subjective rightness, see Smith, H. M., ‘Subjective Rightness’, Social Philosophy and Policy Foundation 27 (2010), pp. 64110CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

5 See e.g. Mason, ‘Consequentialism and the Principle of Indifference’; Shaw, W., Moore on Right and Wrong (Dordrecht 1995), pp. 114–20CrossRefGoogle Scholar: Dorsey, D., ‘Consequentialism, Metaphysical Realism and the Argument from Cluelessness’, Philosophical Quarterly 62 (2012), pp. 48–70CrossRefGoogle Scholar. See also W. Sinnott-Armstrong, ‘Consequentialism’, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (2011).

6 Norcross, A., ‘Conseqentialism and the Unforeseeable Future’, Analysis 50 (1990), pp. 253–6CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

7 Strevens, M., ‘Inferring Probabilities from Symmetries’, Nôus 32 (1998), pp. 231–46Google Scholar.

8 Good introductions to the CLT include: Crofton, M. W., ‘On the Proof of the Law of Errors’, Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society London 160 (1870), pp. 175–87CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Page, S., Diversity and Complexity (Princeton, 2011)Google Scholar; Tijms, H., Understanding Probability: Chance Rules in Everyday Life (Cambridge, 2007)CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Adams, W. J., The Life and Times of the Central Limit Theorem (London, 2009)CrossRefGoogle Scholar; LeCam, L., ‘The Central Limit Theorem around 1935’, Statistical Science 1 (1986), pp. 7891Google Scholar; Zabell, S. L., Symmetry and its Discontents (Cambridge, 2005)CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

9 Strevens, M., Bigger than Chaos: Understanding Complexity through Probability (London, 2003)Google Scholar. See also Page, S., Diversity and Complexity (Princeton, 2011)Google Scholar.

10 An important assumption must be made if we are to apply the Law of Large Numbers: we must assume that we are dealing with the sorts of events for which it is appropriate to reason as if they are characterized by an underlying probability distribution (i.e. where it yields predictive power to do so). Just how to determine which events are reasonably treated as having an underlying probability distribution is a matter of some dispute. One proposal is that simple behaviour will emerge for complex systems when the micro-properties affecting the outcome are sufficiently numerous and independent, or with interdependencies that for one reason or another tend to wash out. We see below that this happens in the case of climate and dice – indeed, a washing-out of micro-level influences must happen anytime outcomes in the long run follow a clear probability distribution. Specifying precisely under what conditions this washing-out will take place is, however, difficult. Thanks to Michael Strevens for discussion on these points. Interested readers might see Strevens, Bigger than Chaos and also Page, Diversity and Complexity.

11 See Strevens, Bigger than Chaos.

12 I. Kant, Critique of Practical Reason (1788). ch. 1.8, theorem IV, remark II.

13 Shaw, W., Moore on Right and Wrong (Dordrecht, 1995)CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

14 Lenman interprets Moore as being optimistic about action guidance. I do not think that is right. The passage that Lenman cites comes in the midst of a highly cautionary account, with Moore vividly portraying the scale of our ignorance. Moore argues that the assumptions that must hold if we are to give action guidance – namely that unforeseeable consequences will not overturn foreseeable advantages – are large ones which have never been shown to be true, and that without them we shall have no hope for practical ethics. See chapter V of Principia Ethica, and in particular sections 93–100.

15 J. Bennett makes this observation as well. Bennett, J., The Act Itself (Oxford, 1998). p. 53CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

16 Thanks to Bob Adams for reminding me of the seriousness of this worry.

17 I am using ‘strategy’ as an umbrella term, much in the way that Lenman uses ‘policy’ (p. 343). One sort of strategy (or policy) would be directly to attempt to maximize expected utility; another would be to adopt a given rule or practical principle; and another would be to develop a particular aspect of one's character. A strategy need not be conscious or intentional (it could simply denote how one goes about things) and it need not aim at producing good consequences. This is the familiar point that being affectionate out of love for one's friend does not aim at the greater good, but a consequentialist can recommend it as a good way to go about things.

18 Thanks to Tim Lewens for this example.

19 On expectation effects, see Harsanyi, J., ‘Morality and the Theory of Rational Behaviour’, Social Research 44 (1977), pp. 623–56Google Scholar; Riley, J., ‘Defending Rule Utilitarianism’, Morality, Rules, and Consequences, ed. Hooker, B., Mason, E. and Miller, D. E. (Edinburgh, 2000), pp. 4070Google Scholar; Hooker, B., Ideal Code, Real World (Oxford, 2000)Google Scholar.

20 Such considerations might add support to the ‘stabilization wedges’ approach to climate change mitigation, advocated in Pacala, S. and Socolow, Robert, ‘Stabilization Wedges: Solving the Climate Problem for the Next 50 Years with Current Technologies’, Science 305 (2004), pp. 968–72CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed. Thanks to Robert Socolow for this suggestion.

21 Oppenheimer, Michael, Robert Keohane and other audience members drew my attention to this point at the ‘Communicating Uncertainty in Science’ seminar (Princeton University, December 2012)Google Scholar.

22 Many people have offered helpful comments on this article. I am particularly indebted to Brad Hooker, who has been exceptionally generous with his support, and to my doctoral supervisors, Tim Lewens and Hallvard Lillehammer. I would also like to thank Bob Adams, Chris Bertram, Luc Bovens, John Broome, Kam Chadha, Roger Crisp, John Cusbert, Andrew Ellis, Marc Fleurbaey, Stephen John, Jimmy Lenman, Brian McElwee, James Morauta, Martin Peterson, Onora O'Neill, Simon Rippon, Michael Strevens and Peter Vallentyne; and workshop audiences in Cambridge, London, Oxford, Princeton, and Bristol. For funding and institutional support, I thank the Cambridge Political Economy Society Trust; the Rausing Trust; the History and Philosophy of Science Department at Cambridge; the G. L. S. Shackle studentship at St. Edmund's College, Cambridge; and King's College, Cambridge. Finally, most of all I would like to thank Frank Burch-Brown, Carol Burch-Brown and Ann Kilkelly, and my partner William Baker.