TAR will be on hiatus for a week or so while I’m travelling. One amusing story to leave you with while I’m away.

In Prankster’s Ethics Andy & I suggested that there is a certain class of counterexamples to consequentialism which (a) seem fairly compelling and (b) don’t look like they would be instantiated. Ishani has suggested that the Minnesota Vikings “Love Boat” saga (I won’t link to this – Google should offer you plenty of stories) is a real-world example of an Egan-Weatherson style counterexample to consequentialism. Given a choice between living in a world where the Vikings did this and one where they didn’t, I would, without much hesitation, choose the one where they did. The whole thing hasn’t stopped being a source of amusement weeks after the event. But it is plausible that this was nevertheless the wrong thing to do – indeed that part of the reason I’d choose to be in such a world is that it is so wrong.

One important caveat. As we argue in the paper, there aren’t Egan-Weatherson style counterexamples that involve serious wrongness. If it turns out that the Vikings Love Boat involved serious criminal activity, as opposed to the mostly harmless high jinks we’ve come to expect from the Vikings, it will cease to be a counterexample, because it will cease to be utility maximising. (And I’ll feel very bad for having been so amused to date.) I hope that this isn’t the case. But still there is some doubt this is a real counterexample. So I’m less considerably less confident than I was a few weeks ago that consequentialism is empirically adequate on account of this case.

3 Replies to “Hiatus”

  1. Brian,

    You say (1) that, given a choice, you’d choose a world in which the Vikings Love Boat fiasco occurs rather than one in which it doesn’t, and (2) that, nevertheless, the players involved in the fiasco acted wrongly. But a consequentialist, like me, can say just the same thing. Consequentialists may say that, sometimes, it’s better to choose a world in which people act wrongly rather than one in which they don’t. Here’s a stark example, which I’ve used before. Suppose it is within your power to annihilate the human race. If you choose not to do so, then, predictably, people will perform many wrong acts, which they would not perform otherwise. Still, the world in which you don’t annihilate the human race is better than the one in which you don’t (or so we can suppose). So consequentialism tells you not to do it.

  2. Campbell, the problem is that the actions should indeed be right if they make the world better. Brain is saying that they make the world better but are wrong. If that’s right, then it’s a counterexample to consequentialism.

  3. Jeremy,

    It is not correct to say that “actions should indeed be right if they make the world better.” This ignores cases of so-called blameless wrongdoing, which involve acts that are not optimific but nonetheless right, such as presently caring more about one’s own child than what is optimal when that’s necessary to keep one’s future caring disposition.

    Having introduced this conceptual distinction, let me just add that it seems to me that Egan/Weatherson-type cases could be accommodated within a consequentialist framework by simply describing the prankster’s acts as those of someone who blamelessly does the wrong thing. This alternative explanation avoids the implausible analysis of ‘ought’, which many moral philosophers regard as normatively primitive, in terms ‘goodness’, to which Egan & Weatherson seem to be committed (see p. 49; note, incidentally, that on pp. 47-48 they characterize Egan/Weatherson-type cases as “situations in which (a) an agent ought not to phi, and (b) it’s best that the agent does phi.” The wording is inconsistent with the analysis of ‘ought’ to which they commit themselves a few paragraphs later.)

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