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Rule-Consequentialism and Irrelevant Others

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  01 September 2009

DOUGLAS W. PORTMORE*
Affiliation:
Arizona State Universitydouglas.portmore@asu.edu

Abstract

In this article, I argue that Brad Hooker's rule-consequentialism implausibly implies that what earthlings are morally required to sacrifice for the sake of helping their less fortunate brethren depends on whether or not other people exist on some distant planet even when these others would be too far away for earthlings to affect.

Type
Research Article
Information
Utilitas , Volume 21 , Issue 3 , September 2009 , pp. 368 - 376
Copyright
Copyright © Cambridge University Press 2009

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References

1 See, for instance, Peter Singer, ‘Famine Affluence and Morality’, Philosophy and Public Affairs 1 (1972) and Unger, Peter, Living High and Letting Die (Oxford, 1996)CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

2 As we'll see shortly, Hooker formulates rule-consequentialism in terms of expected value such that ‘we need only find and follow the code [of rules] that could reasonably be expected to have better consequences than any other code we can identify’ – see Hooker, Brad, Ideal Code, Real World (Oxford, 2000), p. 74Google Scholar. The point of the oracle, then, is to ensure that we can reasonably expect the consequences that will ensue given the internalization of various codes by the zargonians.

3 See Hooker, Ideal Code.

4 See Hooker, Ideal Code, p. 32. Hooker never says whether ‘everyone’ refers only to human beings or to all moral agents irrespective of their species or planet of origin. If it matters, we can assume that zargonians are human beings that colonized the planet Zargon long ago. In any case, I suspect that it would be implausible to formulate rule-consequentialism such that it relativizes the ideal code to each species of moral agents. What if two distinct species of moral agents inhabit the same planet and live together as part of the same moral community? Why should these two species have distinct moral codes when they are equally members of the same moral community? The mere fact that they are incapable of interbreeding, and hence distinct species, seems morally irrelevant.

5 Hooker, Brad, ‘Rule Consequentialism’, The Blackwell Guide to Ethical Theory, ed. LaFollette, Hugh (Oxford, 2000), p. 187Google Scholar.

6 Hooker, ‘Rule Consequentialism’, p. 189.

7 In a footnote regarding the formulation of rule-consequentialism that's quoted above, Hooker says, ‘Assume that new generations are not changed genetically’ (Ideal Code, p. 32). He also later suggests that rule-consequentialism should be revised as follows: ‘Moral wrongness is determined by the code of rules whose internalization by the overwhelming majority of everyone everywhere in each new generation (not including generations after any new development that significantly reduces the costs of internalizing more complex and demanding codes) has maximum expected value in terms of well-being with some priority for the worst off [emphasis added]’ – see Hooker, Brad, ‘Reply to Arneson and McIntyre’, Philosophical Issues 15 (2005), pp. 268–9CrossRefGoogle Scholar. Given the latter qualification, it is important to assume that the technological development that has enabled zargonians to dramatically reduce their costs with respect to getting more complex and demanding codes internalized is not a new development, but rather a development that occurred long ago. Also, to ensure that no other code besides Code M or Code E will be in contention for being the ideal code, let's assume that, for some unknown reason, all microchips preprogrammed with codes other than either Code M or Code E have failed to interface properly with the human/zargonian brain.

8 These values are ten times what they are on Earth, for Zargon is ten times more populous than Earth.

9 These values are the same as those for Earth, for although there are ten times as many people on Zargon, the costs of having these codes internalized by the zargonians is one-tenth of what it is to have them internalized by earthlings.

10 I thank Pete Marchetto for suggesting to me that Hooker's rule-consequentialism implies that what earthlings are morally obligated to sacrifice for the sake of their less fortunate fellows could depend on the existence of some distant populated planet even if no one on that planet is languishing in great need.

11 Assume that earthlings are innately disposed to make altruistic self-sacrifices for others to a degree that lies exactly between the degrees of self-sacrifice required by Code N and Code M. Thus the costs of getting each code internalized by earthlings are exactly the same.

12 It makes no difference which code egonians internalize, for there is no one in need of aid on Egon. So the effect of having either code internalized on Egon is the same: no one is aided, for no one is in need of aid.

13 Hooker, Ideal Code, pp. 1 and 4–5.

14 Interestingly, it seems that, despite his declarations to the contrary, Hooker is already committed to relativizing moral codes to different groups, for he is committed to formulating the ideal code in terms of expected value and the expected value of a code can vary from one group to another. Consider that the earthlings and the zargonians are in very different epistemic positions in that the earthlings have knowledge about the zargonians but the zargonians have no knowledge about the earthlings. This means that, in W2, the expected value of various codes will vary depending on whether one is an earthling or a zargonian. From the earthling's epistemic position, the expected values for Codes M and E are +21,000 and +173,000, respectively. From the zargonian's epistemic position, by contrast, the expected values for Codes M and E are +19,500 and +172,000, respectively. Given that the zargonians are ignorant of the existence of the earthlings, the expected costs and benefits of having these codes internalized by the earthlings don't get factored into their calculations of the total expected value. Of course, as I have presented the numbers here, the ideal code would not vary between the two groups in W2, but we could easily cook up a case where the differences in the expected values did result in the ideal code varying between the two groups in W2. Note, though, that this relativization to groups in different epistemic positions doesn't save Hooker's rule-consequentialism from my objection.

15 Hooker, Brad, ‘Rule-Consequentialism and Obligations toward the Needy’, Pacific Philosophical Quarterly 79 (1998), pp. 28–9CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

16 Mulgan, Tim, ‘Rule Consequentialism and Famine’, Analysis 54 (1994)CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

17 Hooker, ‘Rule-Consequentialism and Obligations toward the Needy’, p. 26.

18 Arneson, Richard, ‘Sophisticated Rule Consequentialism: Some Simple Objections’, Philosophical Issues 15 (2005)CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

19 Hooker escapes the objection by revising his view accordingly: ‘Moral wrongness is determined by the code of rules whose internalization by the overwhelming majority of everyone everywhere in each new generation (not including generations after any new development that significantly reduces the costs of internalizing more complex and demanding codes) has maximum expected value in terms of well-being with some priority for the worst off’ – see Hooker, ‘Reply to Arneson and McIntyre’, pp. 268–9. Note that my objection applies both to the original and to this revised formulation of rule-consequentialism.

20 See Brad Hooker, ‘Ross-Style Pluralism versus Rule-Consequentialism’, Mind 105 (1996) and Hooker, Ideal Code, pp. 104–7.

21 Hooker, Ideal Code, p. 4.

22 For helpful comments and discussions, I thank Richard Arneson, Brad Hooker, Tim Mulgan, David Shoemaker, Jussi Suikkanen, and the students in my spring 2008 seminar on consequentialism, especially Michael Augustin, Kimberly Campbell, Peter Marchetto, G. Shyam Nair, Nick Smith, and Pamela J. Stubbart.

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