Agents, Patients, and Obligatory Self-Benefit

In: Journal of Moral Philosophy
Author: Michael Cholbi1
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  • 1 California State Polytechnic University, USA

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Consequentialism is often criticized for rendering morality too pervasive. One somewhat neglected manifestation of this pervasiveness is the obligatory self-benefit objection. According to this objection, act-consequentialism has the counterintuitive result that certain self-benefitting actions (e.g., investing one’s money for maximal expected return) turn out, ceteris paribus, to be morally obligatory rather than morally optional. The purposes of this paper are twofold. First, I consider and reject four strategies with which consequentialists might answer the obligatory self-benefit objection. Despite the apparent consequentialist credentials of these answers, none of these strategies is adequate because each fails to justify agents failing to benefit themselves when benefiting themselves would be otherwise required by the imperative that overall good meet a certain threshold. Second, I argue that no plausible consequentialist response to this objection is forthcoming because consequentialism denies the central axiological fact propelling this objection, namely, that the self possesses a normative architecture relating the self as agent and self as patient. This architecture, I propose, justifies the option not to benefit oneself.

  • 4

     See Frances Howard-Snyder, 1993. “Rule consequentialism is a rubber duck,” American Philosophical Quarterly 30 (1993): 271–78. For skepticism about identifying consequentialism with agent-neutrality, see Douglas Portmore, “Can an act consequentialist-theory be agent-relative?” American Philosophical Quarterly 38 (2001): 363–77.

  • 5

    Daniel Jacobson, “Utilitarianism without consequentialism: The case of John Stuart Mill,” Philosophical Review 117 (2008), pp. 171–72.

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  • 8

    As Portmore puts it, “Position-relative consequentialism, agent-centered options, and supererogation,” Ethics 113 (2003), 313–14: “the moral duty that some have to develop certain talents is not derivative of a duty to promote one’s self-interest.”

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  • 9

    Similarly, Jean Hampton, “Selflessness and the loss of self,” Social Philosophy and Policy 10 (1993)135–165, suggests that some self-regarding conduct may be morally demanded by the requirements of self-respect.

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  • 11

    Scheffler, p. 8.

  • 12

    Scheffler, pp. 61–62.

  • 13

    Scheffler, p. 19.

  • 14

    Scheffler, p. 56.

  • 16

    Eric Wiland, “How indirect can indirect utilitarianism be?”, Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 74 (2007): 275– 301.

  • 17

    Diane Jeske, “Special obligations,” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/special-obligations/), accessed 17 June 2011, depicts Railton’s sophisticated consequentialism as a form of indirect dispositional consequentialism.

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  • 18

    Richard Arneson, “Consequentialism vs. special-ties partiality,” The Monist 86 (2003), p. 394. See also Wiland, “How indirect,” pp. 290–295.

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  • 19

    Railton, “Alienation,” p. 153, emphasis mine.

  • 20

    Railton, “Alienation,” p. 152. See also Wiland, “How indirect,” pp. 284–85.

  • 22

    In addition to Portmore, “Can an act consequentialist-theory be agent-relative?” and “Position-relative consequentialism, agent-centered options, and supererogation,” see James Dreier, “The structure of normative theories,” The Monist 76 (1993): 22–40; Jennie Louise, “Relativity of value and the consequentialist umbrella,” Philosophical Quarterly 54 (2004): 518–36; and Amartya Sen “Evaluator relativity and consequential evaluation,” Philosophy and Public Affairs 12 (1983): 113–32, and “Positional objectivity,” Philosophy and Public Affairs 22 (1993): 126–45.

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  • 23

    Mark Schroeder, “Teleology, agent-relative value, and ‘good’”, Ethics 117 (2007), p. 272.

  • 24

     See Schroeder, “Teleology, agent-relative value, and ‘good’”, and “Not so promising after all: Evaluator-relative teleology and common-sense morality,” Pacific Philosophical Quarterly 87 (2006): 348–356.

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  • 27

    Ross, The Right and the Good (Oxford: Oxford UP, 1930), p. 19.

  • 28

    Ross, The Right and the Good, p. 22.

  • 33

    Diane Jeske, Rationality and Moral Theory (New York: Routledge, 2008), pp. 29–42.

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