Consequentialism: No Longer An Alienating Morality

People tend to believe that their special ties and projects are morally relevant considerations, but traditional consequentialism does not justify partial consideration as morally relevant. The problem with this as Peter Railton has pointed out is that this can have an alienating effect on and individual, and as Julia Driver has pointed out, has the potential to obligate benevolent “angels of the world.” However, when consequentialism is conceived of with a contemporary lens, taking into account of the value of the bonds all humans have to other humans, neither of these problems are intractable.

Consequentialism is a moral theory that is concerned with the consequences or outcomes or results of an agent’s actions, which are often times measured with some valuation of The Good that is produced by the action. Different moral theories, even within the consequentialist perspective measure the good by different standards, but it tends to be the case that Right Actions, or actions that an agent should perform in a given situation with a given set of circumstances is determined by the amount of the good that will result, i.e., the amount of the good that will be the consequence of the action. In other words, the action that maximizes the good is the right action for an agent to perform, impartially and without consideration of any special relations or projects. This tends to be the case with most consequentialist theories, regardless of whether it concerns act consequentialism wherein a calculus is to be performed to determine the good each action will produce, or it concerns rule consequentialism wherein a given type of action is prescribed because the result tends to produce the most good, e.g., not lying or telling the truth. An agent’s motivations tend not to be a relevant consideration in consequentialist theories because the reason for performing an act, whether good or bad does not change the results of the action, and the consequences are what are important when determining the rightness of an agent’s action.

Consequentialism, as it has traditionally been conceived and as a result of the maximizing principle can be perceived as being too demanding, i.e., it requires too much of those whom are morally responsible. The reason for this conception is that without qualification the maximizing principle does not place a limit to the obligations of the morally responsible agent to promote the good. Instead of a limit, when either the calculus is performed or the rule is observed, the right action or the moral act is to produce the greatest net good impartially considered. This means that the morally responsible agent is not entitled to value their special relations, such as their friends or families or selves, or their personal projects, such as life plans; more or prior to anyone else’s. The morally responsive agent, according to the traditional conception of consequentialism is not justified in favoring their special relations and ties above or more than those they do not share those ties with, regardless of how much their actions have promoted the net good. For example, in one moment the impartially right action that maximizes the net good is to donate to a charity, and the next moment the impartially right action is to volunteer at a soup kitchen, then to save a drowning child and so on; all the while there is a child at home who is well fed that could use attention, but is otherwise better off than those his parent is obligated to act for. Thus, a morally responsible agent may be required by traditional consequentialism to sacrifice their special ties and projects when selecting or deliberating the right action, i.e., the partiality to choose to act for one’s child is not justified according to the traditional conception of consequentialism, if the net good is not promoted by doing such. For these reasons and others like them consequentialism has been conceived of as being too demanding; it requires more of the morally responsible agent than is suggested by intuition. Notwithstanding intuition, it may very well be the case that to be a morally responsible agent much is required.

Conversely, if and when an agent does honor and respect all of their consequentialist obligations to promote the net good of humanity, there is the potential for an agent to become what Julia Driver calls, “the angel of the world” in the article Consequentialism and Feminist Ethics (2005).[1] The angel is derived from an excerpt out of Virginia Wolf’s Hampton and Driver develops the character in the passage into “the angel of the house” who she says “is not presented as a real person, but rather as a danger that someone caught in a benevolent ideal needs to be weary of.”[2]  The obligations placed upon the morally responsible agent by traditional consequentialism requires benevolence because that is of what promoting the net good is a description—which seems to be a contradiction given that benevolence is generally understood as a choice and not an obligation. Giving to charity is thought to be a benevolent act, and yet, it may not be thought to be benevolent if an agent’s only reason for donating was to avoid incarceration, then it may not seem as much like benevolence as self-interests. However, for the sake of argument, I will assume that benevolence can be justifiably obligated. As the argument continues, entailed in this benevolence is the almost complete disregard for agent, their special ties, and their special projects. In the home when this plays out, as Wolf identifies, the angel sacrifices nearly everything of herself to ensure others are cared for.  The “angel of the world” follows by corollary and is an agent “who gives her all to others,” throughout the world, “impartially considered.”[3] This means that she promotes the net good, as the right action, without any particular concern for her own welfare or those whom depend on her, such as her children or romantic partner because this is what morality requires. (The same example can be applied to males because consequentialism requires the same obligations of men as for women and the same results may obtain. So, this description and example is not to suggest that there is anything particularly different because I have used a woman in the example.) Two problems with the concept of the angel which stand out are that it seems very unlikely that most humans could live up to this standard, which seems obvious in that the angel does not represent a real person; and the angel does not seem to have any care for herself and is happy about this state of affairs.

The issue with the “angel of the world” is that the completely objective and impersonal decision making process that disregards the agent, their special ties and projects that is required is what Peter Railton terms “alienation” in the article Alienation, Consequentialism, and the Demands of Morality (1984).[4] Railton said that this alienation was from “one’s personal commitments, from one’s feelings or sentiments, from other people, or even from morality itself,”[5] which is precisely what has been being described as one of the major objections to traditional consequentialism. Railton argues that objective or general reasoning can cause an agent to forego considerations of the particular things and agent is bond to, which give the agent’s life point, value and purpose, i.e., meaning and instead to opt for a dissociated and impartial rational when determining or justifying their actions. Railton further argues that being concerned only with the consequences of one’s actions insofar as they promote the maximum net good may dislocate an individual from their social and historical connections to the people around them.[6] However, it is impossible to dislocate the individual from their historical and social contexts without thereby also destroying what it means to be moral, and as Railton asserts, it is the social and historical context which provides the right decisions with their meaning and value.[7] The “angel of the world” is a case of objective decision making procedures that overtly stresses this dislocation of social and historical context, and alienation from personal commitments, sentiments and other people, which echoes what Driver says, it’s “a danger that someone caught in a benevolent ideal needs to be weary of.”[8]

The foregoing should however, not be taken to mean that consequences are not an important moral consideration and that it is only the motivations for an action which should be relevant; it is the case that both are important. Driver argues that when evaluating the rightness of an action, especially when one is considering only the consequences, that the results that obtain are founded on moral luck.[9] However, I disagree with the statement that follows which argues that the only thing that can be evaluated are the intentions that the agent had in the selection of an action because it has been shown that people who intend to help those in need in foreign countries have sent money to oppressive and tyrannical regimes that cause a tremendous amount of harm.[10] In contrast, the body of Michael Brown was left in the street for four and a half hours, arguably with the symbolic intention to send a message to the African American population of St. Louis to stay in their place, and the outcome was a unified African American population nationwide stepping out of their consigned role fighting for systemic change. It must be noted, that while I believe there is probably much forethought and deliberation that goes into donating to a charity or foundation to help those in foreign countries, it is probably not the case that much forethought went into the police’s actions with Michael Brown’s body, in terms of the consequences of their actions. Nonetheless, both the intentions and the outcomes are important and by implication, so are the social and historical contexts from which the rightness of action derives. From the preceding it is clear that alienation of an objective and impersonal consequentialist perspective is inadequate.

To remedy the problems of alienation and the “angel of the world,” both Railton and Driver have proposed new formulations of the traditional consequentialism. Railton has proposed a theory called sophisticated consequentialism, and Driver has proposed that the bonds, which are the basis of partiality is perfectly consistent with consequentialism, so long as there are also impartial qualities incorporated into the determination of right actions. Railton argues that subjective consequentialism is primarily about the deliberation process for determining the right action; that objective consequentialism is primarily about the outcome of the right action; and that sophisticated consequentialism is about leading an objectively consequentialist life without being consigned to any one decision making procedure.[11] Furthermore, the sophisticated consequentialist may not do the right action and not be blameworthy because the disposition to act, given that the type of act promotes the good. This will still be the case even though sometimes the agent acts worse than if a calculation would have taken place. This type of consequentialism overcomes alienation as Railton’s example of Juan reveals, he does know and respect objective moral principles that guide his actions, but is more responsive to commitments, sentiments and special bonds when determining the right action.[12] Driver’s formulation of consequentialism, which incorporates some partiality in a moral theory mostly composed of impartial norms suggests that the relationships and agent has in their life is part of happiness; it does not contribute to happiness. Thus, it follows that because the relationships are a component of happiness that they must be respected and incorporated into deliberations of the right action. Furthermore, that an agent is completely justified, like Juan in Railton’s example in favoring and acting partially toward one he has a special tie with. As a result, the “angel of the world” is not an obligated identity of a morally responsible agent who has to disregard special ties and personal projects.

The impartiality of a moral theory such as traditional consequentialism, wherein partial sentiments tend not to be justified because partiality may lead to favoritism instead of the promotion of the maximum net good, and would thus form a contradiction of the objectives of consequentialism. To protect against this seeming contradiction of objectives, traditional consequentialism seeks to equate the good of everyone so that there is no hierarchy of value concerning particular agents. This seems to be counterintuitive however because proximity tends to heighten awareness and connection between particular agents. Furthermore, society and individuals tend to attribute varying levels of responsibility to different types of relationships because of the bonds characteristic of those relationships. A mother or father or both have a particular type of bond with their child that somebody, another agent who also happens to share with the parent(s) and child the bond of nationality, nonetheless does not share in the bond being a parent to the child with the requisite responsibilities and obligations inherent in those bonds. Thus, it is clear that intuitively, the bonds and by corollary partiality are important characteristics in moral or ethical decision making procedures. This is why the “angel of the world” seems to be unsettling and jarring. Now while it could or may be praiseworthy for an agent to sacrifice everything, i.e., their special ties and personal projects to maximize the good impartially throughout the world; there is still a sense that the agent may also either, be blameworthy for not being morally responsive to the needs of those the agents shares special bonds with; or that the agent though not blameworthy has been obligated by morality to sacrifice too much, i.e., the moral obligations were too demanding on the agent. It is also the case that the obligations and the decision procedure of traditional consequentialism alienate the agent from their personal commitments, sentiments, and other people which neither seems to promote the maximum good, nor account for human nature to behave partially. However, as it has been shown, consequentialism is not contradictory to some partial sentiment on a general level. This addresses some of the demandingness and some of the alienation of traditional consequentialism.

[1] Driver, Julia. Consequentialism and Feminist Ethics (2005), p. 187

[2] Driver, p. 187

[3] Driver, p. 187

[4] Railton, Peter. Alienation, Consequentialism, and the Demands of Morality (Princeton University Press, 1984)

[5] Railton, p. 134.

[6] Railton, p. 167.

[7] Railton, p. 167.

[8] Driver, p. 187

[9] Driver, p.  188

[10] Wenar, Leif. Poverty Is No Pond (   ), p.   .

[11] Railton, p. 152-153.

[12] Railton, p. 150.

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