Maximizing, Satisficing and Gradability

Greetings from the BSPC, now complete apart from Recreation Day. Soon to follow: BSPC participants sorted into their Harry Potter houses, and lots of photos. But first, some philosophy.

This is actually unrelated to anything that happened during the sessions, and is instead something I have been chatting about with Daniel Nolan (who, incidentally, should get a joint-authorship credit on this post for helping me write up the idea and improve my examples, though I do not have evidence that he is committed to the view itself, nor should any errors herein be attributed to him, etc.).

The idea is that gradability can help accommodate the apparently conflicting intuitions of Maximizing and Satisficing consequentialists.

Maximizers think that only the action(s) with the best consequences are right; all others are wrong (though perhaps to greater or lesser degrees). Satisficers think that all actions with good enough consequences are right, and that there may be several actions, with consequences of differing values, which have good enough consequences. (It need not be assumed that to be good enough a state of affairs has to be good simpliciter; the least worst option may count as good enough even if it is not very good at all.)

My basic thought is that ‘right’ appears to be a gradable adjective like ‘tall’ or ‘flat’. Familiarly, in some contexts, such as when we are talking about basketball players, ‘tall’ is used in a very demanding way, so that someone has to be at least 6’5’‘ to fall within its extension. In other contexts, such as when we are talking about children, it is used in a less demanding way, so that someone who is only 3’5’‘ falls within its extension.

Another example of gradability may be helpful on the way to the gradability of ‘right’. Consider ‘at the front of the line’. (I’m in the US so it’s a line rather than a queue.) Sometimes, we use that phrase in such a way that only the one person at the very front of the line counts as ‘at the front of the line’. For instance, if we ask ‘Who is at the front of the line?’ because we want to award a prize to the person who is next to be served, we are using it in this demanding way. On other occasions, we use it in such a way that the first few people count as ‘at the front of the line’. For instance, if you and I join a queue of 50 people and I then notice that Ross is in fourth in line, I might say to you ‘It’s OK, we can queue-jump: I know someone at the front of the line’.

The idea about ‘right’, then, is that in some contexts, ‘right’ is used in a very demanding way, so that only the action with the best consequences will be in its extension. On other occasions of use, ‘right’ is used in a less demanding way, so that any action with good enough consequences is in its extension. This is a common phenomenon in natural language; there are other gradable phrases, like ‘at the front of the line’, which are also sometimes used in such a way that only the first thing in some ordering falls within their extension, and on other occasions used in such a way that the first n things in that ordering fall within their extension (for some n>1).

The Maximizers and the Satisficers are therefore both half right; they are each offering a good account of how ‘right’ works on certain occasions of use. Both are motivated by good intuitions, which I think we can accommodate with this gradability point. Comments welcome (including especially, since I don’t know this literature well, comments of the form “wasn’t this said by X at t only better?”).

3 Replies to “Maximizing, Satisficing and Gradability”

  1. This is interesting. I think I talked sometime ago with someone who knew more about different variaties of consequentialism but I cannot remember the literature that came up.

    I think it would be helpful to distinguish between two different ideas that you bring up. First is the idea of gradability. It’s true that both maximisers and satisficers give a non-gradable account of rightness and wrongness. If you think of the value-ranking of the options in situation, maximisers and satisficers just put the cut-off point between right and wrong to different places. There are some satisficing views where how many options from 1 to n get to be above the cut-off point changes in different contexts (if for instance the option needs to have 90% value of the best option).

    But, not all consequentialist views are like this. Some acknowledge that once we have the value-ranking of options, the degree of rightness and wrongness is isomorphic on the value of the options. So, the least valuable option is the most wrong, the most valuable is the most right, and then there are degrees of rightness and wrongness that correspond to the amount of value of the consequences. I cannot name the official name of this view – I’ve heard people refer to it as progressive consequentialism (but some progressive consequentialists do not want to talk about right/wrong at all) or scalar consequentialism, but I’m sure there is a better name. Worth noting that this view too gives some sort of contextualism. In some contexts, you might have only one valuable option and many disvaluable ones and you get only one right action, whereas in others when you have many valuable options a lot more of them get to have different degrees of rightness.

    But, you seem to have in mind a more radical version of contextualism where the truth-conditions or even use and meaning of ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ can change from context to context. I think that this is idea should probably be better kept apart from the previous issues. I think that that’s probably right, but I wonder if all of the uses and contexts are to be accounted for with consequentialist resources. For instance, we talk about what would be the right machine-gun for the job. Thus, in some contexts we use right attributively and in some predicatively but that’s not strictly related to consequentialism. I’m also slightly worried about what theoretical role consequentialism is left to do.

  2. Alastair Norcross and (I think)Frances Howard-Schneider are proponents of the scalar view. I know Alastair has a piece defending it in Jamie Dreier’s recent Blackwell Contemporary Debates in Moral Theory.

    I was going to say that as a non-consequentialist I don’t have much to add to the discussion. But actually I suspect you can get related issues going so long as you think there is a continuum with right actions at one end and wrong at the other (an ordering in terms of righter than and wronger than at the extremes). Sometimes people are going to want to reserve ‘right’ for the one act-type that is at one end at the continuum whereas others at other times will use the word to apply to some broader range of act-types on that end.

    If you are developing these ideas it is worth figuring how to factor in the fact that sometimes people use right as equivalent to ‘permissible’ whereas on other occasions people use it as closer to ‘required’.

    It seems to me that debates about these issues are not just about how certain words work. (Though obviously how they work can figure in explaining some of our intuitions about cases.) They’re essentially practical – about what makes sense to do. One camp thinks it always makes most sense to aim for the very best or most right option. Others think it can make sense to do otherwise (and not just for strategic reasons).

  3. This is very interesting. In general, I’m extremely sympathetic to the view that (i) key evaluative notions (like ‘good’, ‘justified’, and so on) are fundamentally gradable terms, and (ii) when these terms are used in an absolute non-comparative way (e.g., ‘This is a good tennis racket’), the truth conditions of the relevant sentence are context-sensitive, in pretty much the way that Carrie describes.

    Moreover, Mark (aka mvr) is quite right to say that this suggestion has nothing to do with consequentialism (in the sense that is most common in ethical theory). The same issue would arise for any view on which actions can be ranked on a scale, with the ideally right actions at one end, and the most extreme cases of wrongness at the other end. (In fact, I believe that it can be shown that all coherent views will be of this kind, and that this ranking of actions can always be expressed by words like ‘better’. So I think that a teleological view of rightness is effectively a logical truth — although since the relevant notion of “betterness” may be an agent- and time-relative notion, not an agent-neutral notion, this teleological view need not be consequentialist in the ordinary sense. But perhaps I shouldn’t get into that right now…)

    However, I have to say that I’m not convinced by Carrie’s idea of applying this view to terms like ‘right’. My linguistic intuitions make me feel queasy about talking about one thing’s being “more right” than another. So I’m inclined to doubt that the English term ‘right’ is really a gradable term.

    Still, it could be that ‘right’ is context-sensitive in a slightly different way. Perhaps it is “right” to perform a given action if and only if the action is good enough for the relevant purposes. For some purposes, only the best is good enough, whereas for some other purposes, actions that aren’t quite as good as the best may still be good enough.

    One problem with this suggestion is that ‘right’ seems quite strongly to suggest uniqueness. It’s natural to talk about “the right thing to do“, but decidedly odd to talk about “a right thing to do”. I even find it a little odd to say about Buridan’s Ass, “It’s right for the ass to turn Left at this point, and it’s also right for the ass not to turn Left but to do something else — viz. to turn Right at this point instead”. On the other hand, it’s easy to hear ‘not right’ as implying ‘wrong’ (‘It’s not right to talk to your mother like that’).

    For this reason, my suggestion is that the use of ‘right’ or ‘not right’ conversationally implicates that the act-types that are being talked about are individuated sufficiently coarsely so that there is a unique act-type that is permissible. (So the “relevant act-types” in the case of Buridan’s Ass include turning either Right or Left but not either turning Right or turning Left.)

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