A Real Prankster

When Andy and I wrote the pranks paper we believed that we were dealing with purely fictional cases. We didn’t believe, that is, that there could be wrongdoing that actually increased utility. David Killoren reports on a guy who attempted to actually carry out the wrongful utility-maximising plan. The guy is an artist, so he doesn’t explictly talking about doing wrong for the sake of utility, but doing wrong for the sake of beauty. Given the broad conception of utility Andy and I are working with, this is less of a distinction than it may first appear.

Richard Chappell argues that David’s case isn’t a counterexample to consequentialism because it should be solvable by whatever solves the liar paradox. I’m not entirely sure I understand the response, but think I don’t think it’s correct. The guy did perform an act, and it either was the right thing to do or it wasn’t. And it sure seems to me that there are possible contexts (whether or not the actual world is one of them) where the actions make for an all-things-considered better world but it is still a wrong act. Anyway, it’s worth reading David’s piece to get the full background to see if you agree.

6 Replies to “A Real Prankster”

  1. Your argument against consequentialism is that it gives the wrong answer: the pie-throwing or picture-stealing is immoral, but consequentialism says that it is moral. David’s argument against consequentialism is that it’s self-defeating: if consequentialism is correct, then the picture-stealing is both moral and immoral, so consequentialism cannot be correct. Richard’s reply is to David’s argument, not to yours.

    Consider the following assumptions about the artist’s act:

    1. The artist’s work produced some unhappiness because it involved stealing photos.

    2. The artist’s work will make collectors happier iff it produces more total unhappiness than happiness.

    3. The quantity of happiness that the work could produce in the collectors is greater than the quantity of unhappiness that it produced.

    4. An act is moral if and only if it increases the amount of happiness in the world.

    This version of David’s argument is supposed to show that the version of consequentialism in assumption 4 is self-defeating. Does the artist’s act increase the amount of happiness in the world or decrease it? Well, it increases it iff it decreases it, so we have a contradiction. But we have this contradiction whether or not “increasing the amount of happiness in the world” has anything to do with morality. The contradiction is produced by assumptions 1, 2, and 3, whether or not we assume 4.

    Thus, the problem is not with this kind of consequentialism, but with some other assumption. A similar argument could apply to any other kind of consequentialism (like the desire-fulfillment version that Richard discusses). Since lots of assumptions similar to 2 produce paradoxes in a variety of areas outside of moral philosophy, as Richard points out, the assumption to deny seems to be 2.

  2. Blar,
    This version of my argument is not quite correct. For one thing, the case I want to examine does not need to involve your premise 2. Something more like

    2* The artist’s work will be of great value to the collectors iff it is immoral

    would, I think, better represent the kind of case I have in mind. I’m not sure it’s so obvious that we should reject 2*. Certainly the fact that similar problems are generated in other areas does not show that there is not a genuine problem in this case. In any event, I share your and Richard’s suspicion that the problem can be dissolved without abandoning consequentialism, but I’m not yet sure whether that’s the case.

  3. David, let’s say that everyone agrees that cases like my assumption 2 cannot take place. Now people are trying to decide if your 2* can possibly hold.

    It seems strange to me that anyone would decide whether to reject 2* before deciding what “immoral” meant. But if you decide on a meaning of “immoral” that leads to a contradiction, that implies that you understand 2* to ultimately be self-referential in the same way as 2 and other statements that lead to versions of the liar’s paradox. Anyone who believes that the morality of the act depends on whether the collectors place great value on the artist’s work can reject premise 2* on the exact same grounds that everyone used to reject 2, namely, that its self-referential nature leads to contradictions.

  4. That just shows how silly it is to believe always in the law of the excluded middle. An act can easily contain elements of both wrong and right. If you still want to hold LEM, you will need to break many acts down into “the part of the act that is right” and “the part of the act that is wrong”, or have some kind of rightness function “an act is right if the good outweighs the bad” for example.

    If you can’t handle morally grey acts in your philosophy, it’s going to be difficult to say much about ambiguous cases. I don’t think it’s really terribly interesting to claim that all morally ambiguous actions are paradoxes.

  5. I think right and wrong are mutually exclusive but not jointly exhaustive. So for “grey” cases, I’m not much troubled by saying that some actions are neither right nor wrong. But I am troubled when a theory says that a given action is both right and wrong.

  6. If you are troubled, David, perhaps you should stop asking troubling questions đŸ˜‰

    There is clearly a sense in which something is meant when I claim that action X is both right and wrong. It is a frequently used language construct, it clearly expresses the case where both things-that-seem-right and things-that-seem-wrong apply to action X. The challenge is on you to explain what is happening here, and I haven’t yet seen it done by anyone who also holds strongly to LEM.

    After all, infinity can be both negative and positive.


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