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In Defense of a Version of Satisficing Consequentialism


In this article, I develop, motivate, and offer a qualified defense of a version of satisficing consequentialism (SC). I develop the view primarily in light of objections to other versions of SC recently posed by Ben Bradley. I motivate the view by showing that it (1) accommodates the intuitions apparently supporting those objections, (2) is supported by certain ‘common-sense’ moral intuitions about specific cases, and (3) captures the central ideas expressed by satisficing consequentialists in the recent literature. Finally, I offer a qualified defense of the view that consists in showing that it meets Bradley's criteria for being a version of satisficing consequentialism that is ‘worth considering’. Specifically, it is a version of SC that solves certain problems for maximizing consequentialism and yet does not permit the gratuitous prevention of goodness.

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1 This qualification will become important for reasons mentioned later in this article. For preliminary remarks on its importance, see n. 3.

2 Bradley Ben, ‘Against Satisficing Consequentialism’, Utilitas 18.2 (2006), pp. 97108.

3 Note that the challenge, as Bradley officially states it here (without my insert), is one only about the gratuitous prevention of goodness. Even so, Bradley himself goes on to show that there is at least one version of satisficing consequentialism that does not allow the gratuitous prevention of goodness (see Bradley, ‘Against Satisficing’, p. 107). He still rejects this version, apparently on the grounds that it sanctions an inappropriate prevention of goodness. That being so, I have interpreted Bradley's challenge as being that of developing a version of SC that allows neither the gratuitous nor the inappropriate prevention of goodness. The difference between a gratuitous and an inappropriate prevention of goodness is addressed later in this article (see, for example, n. 44). For ease of expression, I will not always include the ‘or inappropriate’ qualification in what follows.

4 Bradley, ‘Against Satisficing’, p. 108.

5 In this article, I will assume that ‘morally right’ and ‘morally permissible’ are semantically equivalent terms, and so will use them interchangeably. There may be reasons to question this assumption; I make it largely for convenience. Readers with qualms are welcome to substitute ‘permissible’ for ‘right’.

6 Something very much like this characterization of consequentialism in general is offered by Walter Sinnott-Armstrong, ‘Consequentialism’, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, ed. Edward N. Zalta (2006) <>. The reader is referred to that work for extremely helpful elucidations of various possible versions of consequentialism. As I have presented it here, ‘consequentialism in general’ also has some affinity with Peter Vallentyne's ‘core consequentialism’, but the two are not identical (see Peter Vallentyne, ‘Against Maximizing Act-Consequentialism’, Contemporary Debates in Moral Theory, ed. J. Dreier (Malden, MA, 2006), pp. 21–37). Vallentyne's ‘core consequentialism’ does hold that the rightness (Vallentyne says ‘permissibility’) of actions is determined entirely by consequences. However, Vallentyne's explication of the two essential theses of ‘core consequentialism’ appears to rule out rule-consequentialism. Core consequentialism's ‘Supervenience’ thesis says that ‘the permissibility of actions in a given choice situation supervenes on (is fully determined by) the value of their consequences’ (p. 22, emphasis added), where ‘their’ apparently refers to the actions themselves. But rule-consequentialism does not maintain that the permissibility of actions is determined by the value of those actions’ consequences (as Vallentyne himself earlier acknowledges); rather, it maintains that the permissibility of actions is determined by (for example) the value of the consequences of acceptance of the rule prescribing those actions in the given situation.

7 See Sosa David, ‘Consequences of Consequentialism’, Mind 102 (1993), pp. 101–22.

8 The assumptions are made for two reasons. First, these assumptions make the version of consequentialism being defended here a version that is somewhat standard as far as consequentialisms go. Second, these assumptions seem to be endorsed by the views that Bradley considers. I do not think that anything crucial depends on these assumptions, however, and so the reader is invited to make adjustments in these assumptions should he or she desire.

9 For more on these categorizations, the reader is again directed to Sinnott-Armstrong, ‘Consequentialism’.

10 See Bradley, ‘Against Satisficing’.

11 For example, one variation, called (by Bradley) ‘absolute level satisficing consequentialism’ (ALSC), holds that

ALSC There is a number, n, such that: An act is morally right iff either (i) it has a utility of at least n, or (ii) it maximizes utility.

Another version, called ‘comparative satisficing consequentialism 2’ (CSC2), maintains that

CSC2 There is a number, n (n > 0), such that: An act is morally right iff its utility plus n is greater than or equal to the utility of a utility-maximizing alternative.

These views present ways of cashing out what it is for the consequences of an act to be ‘good enough’: consequences are good enough when they satisfy the non-maximizing utility requirements on the right side of the relevant biconditional. For more on these views, see Bradley, ‘Against Satisficing’.

12 Hurka Thomas, ‘Two Kinds of Satisficing’, Philosophical Studies 59 (1990), pp. 107–11.

13 Both the statement of the principle and the name of the view itself come from Bradley, ‘Against Satisficing’.

14 See Bradley, ‘Against Satisficing’, p. 99.

15 Thanks to John Bennett for the suggestion here.

16 Bradley, ‘Against Satisficing’, p. 101.

17 At least, this is true in all cases except perhaps for those (fortunately fantastical) cases where all available alternatives are terrible, and the best of them is an alternative involving the gratuitous killing of several individuals (assuming for the moment that the killing in such a case could even count as ‘gratuitous’; the proper understanding of what Bradley means by ‘gratuitous’ is considered later in this article). This is not the sort of case described here, however; nor is anything like that sort of case considered in this article.

18 The values assigned here are arbitrarily chosen.

19 Bradley, ‘Against Satisficing’, p. 100.

20 Bradley evaluates ISALSC in this way in ‘Against Satisficing’, p. 101. He admits that there may be issues regarding the welfare levels of dead people, but notes that the example could be changed to avoid such problems. Presumably, he means that the example could be changed so that it involves causing immense levels of harm to individuals rather than killing them, as in the counterexample that follows in the body of this article.

21 Bradley, ‘Against Satisficing’, p. 102.

22 See the important qualification in n. 17, however.

23 Strictly speaking, the theory to be considered does not quite say this. I have expressed the claim here colloquially, rather than in the more precise language of the theory. The theory does not actually say anything about a single situation's becoming better or worse. Instead, the theory regards the situation before the act as one situation, and the situation after the act as another. It says that the latter situation cannot have less value than the former. Despite this somewhat technical point, I will occasionally express the claims of the theory in a more colloquial manner, for the sake of ease of expression.

24 I note here that, with the exception of a theory called ‘CSSALSC’ (to appear later in this article), SSC and all other theories presented hereafter are my own.

25 Quoted in Bradley, ‘Against Satisficing’, p. 99. For citation of the original, see n. 12.

26 Bradley, ‘Against Satisficing’, p. 100, emphasis added.

27 Bradley, ‘Against Satisficing’, p. 100, emphasis in original.

28 In fairness, Bradley admits that Hurka takes the value of the situation before an act to be of significance, and so does not see him as endorsing SALSC outright. My complaints here are just that (i) Bradley appears first to get Hurka's remark wrong when he takes it to suggest generally that an agent in a good-enough situation need not do anything, and that (ii) this leads him to modify the view that he takes Hurka to be suggesting in the direction of SALSC (and thus away from the view that Hurka actually seems to me to endorse). These issues can be avoided if Hurka's view is instead interpreted along the lines that I suggest (with SSC).

29 Hurka Thomas, ‘Satisficing and Substantive Values’, Satisficing and Maximizing: Moral Theorists on Practical Reason, ed. Byron Michael (Cambridge, 2004), pp. 71–6. The quotation is from p. 71, emphasis added.

30 As mentioned in n. 3, Bradley allows that at least one form of SC that he considers does not sanction the gratuitous prevention of goodness, but rather sanctions a prevention of goodness that is intuitively inappropriate.

31 Bradley, ‘Against Satisficing’, p. 98. Though the objection to follow is an instance of Bradley's general objection, the specific counterexample is my own. Bradley himself does not consider SSC (since its presentation in this article is its debut).

32 Bradley, ‘Against Satisficing’, p. 103.

33 Though Smith did take some pleasure from eating the cookie, presumably this is not really a reason (let alone a good reason) to eat the cookie in this case, since that very same pleasure (plus extra pleasure for others) would have obtained even had he not eaten it.

34 Turri John, ‘You Can't Get Away with Murder That Easily: A Response to Tim Mulgan’, International Journal of Philosophical Studies 13.4 (2005), pp. 489–92. The quotation is from p. 489.

35 Turri, ‘Murder’, pp. 489–90.

36 I use scare-quotes here because there are good reasons for thinking that there are certain situations that meet the description given in the body of this article and yet are not cases of the prevention of goodness. There appear to be at least possible situations wherein an agent chooses an alternative that has consequences of lesser value than some other alternative but yet does not prevent (according to our ordinary understanding of prevention) the better outcome. Rather, he precludes the better outcome by virtue of enacting the alternative with lesser consequences. Consider, for example, an agent choosing between viewing either of two different movies. The agent in fact selects the movie that is less pleasing, and so he enacts the alternative with lesser consequences. The alternative with better consequences is not enacted. Still, it does not seem that the agent prevents better consequences from obtaining – it is not as if the better consequences that would result from viewing the other movie are on their way to unfolding (as, for example, they are in the case where Smith eats the cookie) but then are prevented by the agent. Rather, it is just that, by virtue of choosing one alternative, the consequences of choosing the other alternative are precluded. Ultimately, I do not believe that this distinction has any serious repercussions for what is said in the body of this article. It is simply worth mentioning at this juncture. I continue to use the word ‘prevent’ throughout the article so as to maintain consistency. (The distinction, together with the example of movie-selection, was mentioned to me by Earl Conee.)

37 I am assuming here that, in the second alternative, the third person remains in a poverty that is equivalent to the poverty which the agent enters in the first alternative, despite the person's being aided to some minimal degree.

38 Even the infamous ‘Singer Solution to World Poverty’, a paradigm case of strict moral requirements, does not demand that individuals relinquish all of their possessions. Indeed, it explicitly allows that there may be a level of self-sacrifice beyond which no further sacrifice is required. See Peter Singer, ‘The Singer Solution to World Poverty’, The New York Times Magazine (5 Sept. 1999), pp. 60–3.

39 Here, what is ‘morally required’ for an agent is the enacting of the most minimally good alternative that the agent could enact while still acting in a morally permissible manner. Enacting at least this minimally good alternative is morally required in the sense that the agent fails to act morally (i.e. permissibly) if he fails to do at least this much. Going ‘above and beyond’ what is morally required thus involves enacting an alternative better than the bare minimum required for the agent's acting in a morally permissible manner.

40 Vallentyne, ‘Against Maximizing’, p. 27.

41 Vallentyne, ‘Against Maximizing’, p. 27.

42 Bradley does not actually mention what the letters in this acronym stand for. I have attempted to discern this from the context.

43 Bradley, ‘Against Satisficing’, p. 107.

44 On this, see Bradley, ‘Against Satisficing’, pp. 107–8. Bradley says there that CSSALSC ‘does not allow for gratuitous prevention of goodness’, but adds that it still ‘permits the prevention of a better outcome’ in cases where such permission ‘does not seem right’. This is the version of SC to which I have been alluding in my previous comments about ‘gratuitous’ versus ‘inappropriate’ preventions of goodness; see particularly nn. 3 and 30. Bradley's remarks here give some further indication of what it is for an act to be gratuitous, in his terms. An act is gratuitous when it is performed for no reason (Bradley explicitly says as much on p. 103). In the sort of case presented against CSSALSC, there is some reason (for the agent) for not performing the maximizing alternative, but it is apparently not a reason sufficient for making it the case that the agent's not performing the maximizing alternative is permissible. The agent's performance of the non-maximizing alternative is, in my terminology, an inappropriate rather than a gratuitous prevention of goodness.

45 Bradley, ‘Against Satisficing’, pp. 107–8.

46 See Turri, ‘Murder’, p. 491.

47 It is true that CSSALSC2 delivers the verdict that A1 is also morally permissible in this case (since it maximizes utility). The problem is just that, of the three alternatives, it seems intuitively that A1 is the only permissible one; A3 is not also permissible. But CSSALSC2 says that A3 is permissible, since it meets CSSALSC2's condition (i): A3 has a value of at least n, and the only overall better alternative, A1, is such that its enaction results in a decrease in Jack's personal welfare.

48 Something generally like this example is presented in Vallentyne, ‘Against Maximizing’, though toward different ends.

49 Such judgments will obviously be largely intuitive. I do not claim to have provided a precise algorithm for determining comparative significance.

50 The reader is encouraged to apply CSSALSC3 to the other cases considered, keeping in mind that CSSALSC3 allows satisficing only when maximizing requires the agent to make a sacrifice that makes things worse for the agent to a degree that is comparatively significant.

51 I use scare-quotes here because the claim that a view is too demanding is now rather well known in the consequentialist literature. Bradley (‘Against Satisficing’) and Vallentyne (‘Against Maximizing’) cite some of the relevant works on demandingness, most (if not all) of them focused on the problem of demandingness for versions of maximizing consequentialism. This is worth noting because, if the view developed here avoids the demandingness problem while maintaining the other virtues of CSSALSC3, then it satisfies condition (i) of Bradley's challenge in at least two respects, by virtue of solving two problems facing maximizing consequentialism: the demandingness problem and the (related) problem of accommodating the intuition that there are morally supererogatory acts.

52 This example is inspired by suggestive remarks toward a similar case in Hurka's ‘Satisficing and Substantive Values’.

53 Note that at least hedonistic evaluative objective maximizing act-consequentialist theories (i.e., traditional act-utilitarian theories) will deliver this same result. In a nutshell, this is the traditional demandingness problem.

54 Commenting on a similar scenario, Hurka remarks, ‘Surely that is implausible . . . If a situation is already reasonably good . . . there is no moral demand to make it better.’ See Hurka, ‘Satisficing and Substantive Values’, pp. 72–3.

55 It is worth noting here that, as I also hint in n. 51, the intuition driving the demandingness problem is, in some sense, ‘another side’ of the intuition that some acts are morally supererogatory. It is at least similar in that it suggests that there are morally permissible non-best acts.

56 Here, as SASSC indicates (and as will be explained in what follows), both the value of the situation prior to the act and the value(s) of the situation(s) that would result from enacting other available alternatives are relevant.

57 Better alternatives are just those that produce situations with higher overall values.

58 Brackets and emphases are included here only as an aid to the reader.

59 Many readers, particularly those inclined toward satisficing consequentialism, may worry that this element of SASSC is still too demanding. Such readers are encouraged to ‘stick it out’ for the moment. Due to organizational concerns, I address this worry later, in the article's brief appendix.

60 Questions might arise here: why have I now mentioned ‘cost to the agent’ instead of simply appealing again to the sacrifice required for the agent to bring about one situation as opposed to another? And how (if at all) are costs to the agent and sacrifices related? Each of these questions is answered at the end of the paragraph in the body of this article. But put briefly, ‘cost to the agent’ is intended as a mere measure of the energy, work, or exertion required for the agent to enact an alternative; it need not be that a cost to the agent is (all things considered) a sacrifice on the agent's part, resulting in a loss of personal welfare for the agent.

In certain ways, appreciable greatness exhibits a ‘relativity’ similar to that exhibited by ‘comparative significance’ in my earlier discussion of comparatively significant sacrifices.

61 I admit that some may feel inclined to deny the assumption here, particularly given that I have indicated that a situation having only somewhat greater value than another, and the actualization of which exacts quite minimal cost to the agent, is appreciably greater than another (see the previous paragraph in the body of this article). I thank Earl Conee for pointing this out to me. In response, I have two rejoinders. First, I do not think that it is right to deny the assumption here, because, in the situation that I am envisioning, the enjoyment of the candy bar by Trent results in a really quite minimal and qualitatively superficial additional value. With respect to this value, the costs to Trent of putting aside his relaxation on the bench, walking to the snack stand, requesting the candy bar, etc., seem significant enough. Thus, I think it is right to say that the cost to Trent here is such that the value of the resulting situation is not appreciably greater than the value of the situation wherein Trent remains on the bench. But second, leaving these considerations aside, I do not see that the fact that someone may deny the initial assumption is a problem for SASSC. To the extent that someone thinks that one situation really is appreciably greater than another – and this is what is involved in denying the assumption here – they ought also to think that the correct moral theory will require someone to bring about that appreciably greater situation (at least, barring significant self-sacrifice), and so the fact that SASSC will, if the assumption is false, say that Trent's relaxing on the bench is impermissible is not bad news for the theory. It does not seem too demanding for a theory to require someone to bring about a better situation when that situation is appreciably greater than an alternative and when doing so requires no significant self-sacrifice. Turri makes a similar claim in a related context, remarking, ‘As far as I can tell, there is no interesting sense in which it is too demanding to require someone to promote a better outcome so long as it doesn't require any [appreciable] personal sacrifice on their part’ (Turri, ‘Murder’, p. 491, emphasis in original).

62 See n. 59 in this regard. I thank Jonathan Matheson for pressing me on this point.

63 At least perhaps so long as the value of the resulting situation does not fall below the bare minimum marked by the absolute threshold.

64 Earl Conee suggested this modification to me in conversation.

65 If the situation were appreciably worse, then SASSC2 would require maximizing, but that is not obviously incompatible with our intuitive judgments about the case, given the appreciable difference between the outcomes.

66 The point made here would apply even if the maximizing alternative were only to keep the situation equally as valuable as before, however.

67 Indeed, because of this and its other features, SASSC will be able to avoid the charge, leveled by Timothy Mulgan (see Mulgan Timothy, ‘How Satisficers Get Away with Murder’, International Journal of Philosophical Studies 9 (2001), pp. 41–6), that satisficing views allow agents to ‘get away with murder’. A lengthy consideration of this issue is beyond the scope of this article. Briefly, however, Mulgan's objection is based on an example in which an individual, Mary, finds herself standing on a bridge next to a heavy sandbag, a light sandbag, and an innocent bystander, Bob, while overlooking a trolley line on which there is a trolley carrying ten passengers that is hurtling out of control toward a nearby cliff. In the example, if Mary does not do something, it is certain that the trolley will plunge over the cliff and the ten passengers on board will die. Mulgan worries that satisficing views will allow Mary to permissibly shoot Bob, causing his body to fall and stop the trolley, instead of simply throwing the heavy sandbag onto the tracks and stopping the trolley thereby (even though neither action requires sacrifice on Mary's part, or even if the latter requires very little sacrifice). Fortunately, SASSC does not allow this.

Since I have mentioned Mulgan, it is worth also saying a word about a general concern that he raises for satisficing views that, like SASSC, appeal to sacrifices and ‘costs to agents’. In response to Turri's particular view, Mulgan (see Mulgan Timothy, ‘Reply to John Turri’, International Journal of Philosophical Studies 13.4 (2005), pp. 493–6) contends that such views are not really versions of consequentialism, since they ‘define moral obligations in terms of costs to the agents, not just in terms of features of outcomes’ (Mulgan, ‘Reply’, p. 494). But I do not see the force of this objection. That an agent becomes such that he has had to endure a cost of some value x by bringing about some alternative just is an outcome of the act of bringing about that alternative, so far as I can tell. Additionally, there are non-hedonistic versions of consequentialism that can appeal to other features of outcomes as morally relevant besides net pleasure and pain, such as, for example, the fact that the outcome is such that there is an agent who had to undergo significant self-sacrifice to bring it about (for more on species of consequentialism with different value theories, see Sosa, ‘Consequences’, and Sinnott-Armstrong, ‘Consequentialism’). Finally, there remains the fact that, Mulgan's concern aside, self-sacrifice satisficing views constitute a subset of the views against which Bradley objects, and so whether such views are indisputably consequentialist is an ultimately tangential concern – this article remains a defense of the sort of views against which Bradley objects using the moniker ‘satisficing consequentialism’.

Sincere thanks go to Earl Conee for his encouragement and helpful input during the course of writing this article. Thanks also go to an audience of faculty and graduate students at the University of Rochester (to whom an earlier version of this article was presented), particularly to Jonathan Matheson and Joshua Spencer.

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