Monday, August 31, 2015

Prospective vs. Retrospective Judgements & What Oughtn’t Happen

Should modernists treat rightness and shouldness interchangeably? What about praiseworthiness and goodness; any interchangeability taking place there?

To answer appropriately, the first step is to deflate the longstanding polarity between deontological and teleological accounts of wrongdoing. Much of this gets inflated by the arguers’ misstep in not homing in on ultimatums modeled after many-worlds thought experiments, ideally the sort I’ve set up here:


  •  World A: Tom has been boozing it up throughout the day. Aggravated that his final two-six has run dry, he chucks it out the window despite the intense likelihood of it falling on a random passerby and causing serious harm. Tom lives on the 20th floor of a high-rise in the heart of a metropolis, so the infliction of risk here is weighty. Dozens of passersby saunter by his building on a minutely basis, but he pays no mind to this. Impulsiveness has a way of getting the better of him whenever he’s agitated. Blowing off steam is all he cares for at the moment. By sheer luck, his irresponsibleness ends up harming no one. The two-six lands straight into a dumpster nearest to his building. No one saw or even heard the two-six clash with the squishy items in the dumpster, as the collision coincided with a short-lived lull in pedestrian presence and vehicular traffic. Tom is one lucky bastard. His act was inexcusably inconsiderate, despite not having harmed –– or so much as perturbed –– anyone. Even so, Tom’s unconcern for others ran so deep that he couldn’t have even bothered peeking out the window to check if the bottle had maimed someone’s cranium.


  • World B: Tom is enjoying an ordinarily relaxing evening on his balcony. Looking to unwind from a hard day’s work, he pours himself a drink from the same two-six, but is startled by an aggressive crow. The crow charges speedily at him and he instinctually swings his arms upward to protect his face, losing grip of the two-six in the process. The bottle flies past his balcony’s barricade and, after picking up considerable freefall momentum, collides with a random passerby’s exposed cranium. This lands the passerby in the intensive care unit with permanent disfigurements and brain damage. The accident effectively ruins this person’s life. Tom wastes no time following up and feels tremendous guilt once informed of the man’s condition.


These are useful for particularists or anyone fatigued by introductory “What is morality?” discourse. Once the moral agent/patient interplays are spelled out as plainly as above, consensus around normativity ceases to be illusive and attempts to puncture it come across as moral residue.

Theorists of the modernistic bent should be able to agree that, all else being equal, World A ought to have happened. That is, we should strive to bring about A if the only alternative is B, ceteris paribus. Taking this route doesn’t entail shying away from the fact that A carried all the makings of wrongness as pointedly as it did (with B carrying none). Recall that, after chucking the two-six in A, Tom goes about his business free of regret. His carelessness constitutes a moral blameworthiness of sorts, and yet, in and of itself, it tells us nothing about where A stands in relation to the moral fortunateness vs. unfortunateness axis. Traditionalistic ethicists have too often been incurious about the moral worth of this axis, whereas I allege that its displayed spectrum is what ultimately matters more.

You can refer to textbook-style thought experiments which are more intriguing and complex, but then you’d be obfuscating my endpoint. No one disputes that Tom acted improvidently in A, and blamelessly in B. Notable point being; the deployed ultimatum shares few (if any) characteristics with the breed of moral dilemmas that boomed in use around the Enlightenment, and now seem tritely prototypical. Seeing as not every telic vs. deontic vs. aretaic schism makes for a crowd-splitting moral dilemma, we can formulate rightness (praiseworthiness) and shouldness (goodness) separately and situationally.
Talks of “rightness” or “praiseworthiness” would still be gleaned by the acts, motives and characterological tendencies of the human agent privy to reason, compassion, deliberation, forethought, et cetera. I've no bones to pick with this, insofar as it only sets out to establish rightness or praiseworthiness at a practical, non-normative ground-level.

Goodness vis-à-vis shouldness, meanwhile, is to be discerned per the introduced fortunateness vs. unfortunateness axis. Once this takes hold, the modernist can actually start being modernistic with her ethical theorizing, noting that the “moral gridlocks” we keep hearing about (applied even to A vs. B) can be averted once the arguer explains how folk-judgements establishing “wrongness” and sentiocentric-judgements establishing events that “ought not have occurred” may function as isolated verdicts.

Just reflect on how rarely you’ve seen an "introduction to ethics" lecture astutely structured after examinations of many-worlds ultimatums. I’m still waiting on one to pop up in scholarly settings exported online, or even in middle-brow YouTube videos. If you’re a few steps ahead of me and have seen it, please link to some examples in the comments. I'll be right here, not holding my breath. We instead get lectures on (the triteness of) moral edifices and their (prognosticator-problem endowed) species of thought experiments where rightness/praiseworthiness/goodness/shouldness are lockstep and claims to the contrary are perceived as being distillatory of rightness, praiseworthiness, goodness and shouldness (or are simply unheard of).

In addition to downplaying the criterial role of moral fortunateness vs. unfortunateness, the trouble with rank-and-file introductions to ethics is their tendency to invite polemicists and disinvite conversationalists. Regular readers are already familiar with how disparagingly I view these presentations, so I won’t belabour the gripe. There’s reason to be confident in the conceivability of a “Master Key” presentation that sets out to reach modernist sensibilities regarding normativity (now centering on shouldness/goodness, not rightness/praiseworthiness). Nothing stops the modernist from conceiving prospective and retrospective wrongdoings as classificatory rather than as eliminatory. From there, the theorist is afforded the requisite room to tolerate more wrongness/blameworthiness under a state of affairs that ought to have occurred and less rightness/praiseworthiness under a state of affairs that oughtn’t have occurred (not unlike with A vs. B). This only sounds self-contradictory because, confusingly, moral verdicts have always been portrayed as eliminatory instead of classificatory, without justification. Because prospective and retrospective judgements have the cognitive capacity to operate as twofold judgements without the call for mutually-cancelling overridingness, we can ensure against catastrophic outcomes per sentiocentric overviews while accommodating innocuous components of folk morality into those same overviews. (Note: My use of sentiocentric is not a placeholder for Moral Naturalism any more than my use of folk is a plug for non-naturalism, but more on that in a future post.)

It should go without saying that consequentialists presented with A vs. B are concretely on board with the “B oughtn’t occur” adjudication. The ideal consequentialist arrives at this by stressing B’s moral unfortunateness overwhelming whatever shred of unfortunateness arose in A, while openly acknowledging the Tom-directed wrongness in A.

This is where absolutist theories latch onto outdated worries about the character of consequentialist thought, and how its grounding stands to undermine the role of prospective sordidness apparent in A. I see no basis for such inferences. Shouldness inciting A into effect doesn’t translate to a whitewash of the accompanying ill-will on the part of the agent, given the earlier point about classificatory (contra eliminatory) judgements.

Tom is quite the moral fool in A, but a lucky fool at that. He is 100% fool-proof in B, but unfoolishness here comes with the baggage of a mangled skull… surely there’s no slippery slope deluging that which privileges fortunateness over rightness through telic evaluations. I suppose one way to take umbrage with this is by believing that the central role of morality lies in agent-relative procurements of self-idolatry, which is as dubious as any Divine Command Theory. Third-person judgments run afoul of such setbacks and mesh with the 'equal-concern' practices of modernity.

So then, what of the non-consequentialists (or worse, those who identify as anti-consequentialists) and their treatment of an ultimatum like this? So far every deontologist –– or traditionalistic ethicist of aretaic persuasions –– I’ve encountered, when presented with A vs. B, did not push back against the “B oughtn’t occur” ruling despite emphasizing the prospective maleficence beamingly present in A. Wise move, but is it indicative of how most deontologists or aretaic traditionalists think about the ultimatum being toyed with? It could easily be true that the trend I speak of is just down to my not having had the opportunity to engage the big boys in the non-consequentialist tradition. I’m iffy on that though. It may be undue optimism on my part, but I’m unable to wrap my head around even the gratuitously ardent anti-consequentialist being presented with A vs. B and actually uttering something along the lines of: “Yes, World B contains no wrongdoing and should swing into effect if weighed against World A where the wrongdoing actually betides. Prospective and retrospective verdicts are eliminatory, not classificatory, and particularistic attempts to parse them are nonsensical. It’s moral ineptitude to even try.

By taking exception to final shouldness rulings in favour of A, one saddles one’s judgement with B as the follow-through, which should seem baffling to everyone. Can the reader point to anyone in the anti-consequentialist camp –– past or present –– who’d cite the lack of intentional agentic wrongdoing in B as the basis for why B should actually materialize… intensive care unit and all? I can’t, and this attests to the strength of consequentialist theories whenever noxiousness looms on account of unfortunateness.
Maybe I’m mistaken to think that inconveniencing deontologists or aretaic traditionalists with B’s fallout suffices in giving them cause to pause. If this is indeed my error, I’ll nod along to all charges of callousness levied at them going forward. I don’t consider this to be in the cards, because anecdotally, emphasis on B’s injurious outcome has led the ones I’ve bickered with to retreat from the catchall framing of deontology, in the vein of “It’s about the moral status of the act itself, not the consequences of the act”. Instead, the interlocutor, when put on the spot, adopts the refreshingly cautiousThat’s a straw man of deontology; deontologists can be pluralists and take into account some consequences”. (Examples @ 1:04:45 & 1:07:30 & 1:10:00 & 1:11:30).

If reverting to pluralism is as common as anecdotes suggest –– and as the hyperlinked podcast shows –– then pluralistic deontologists need to stop self-identifying as non-consequentialists (and esp. as anti-consequentialists), for if this newfound caveat is taken seriously, it severs ties with Kantian absolutism, which in turn earns them a title like quasi-consequentialist. I can’t in good conscience object too harshly to a quasi-anything, as I’m still heavily drawn to particularism, meaning quasi-consequentialism is fine in my book. Avoidance of absolutism and monism is what I’m really after, and new&improved deontic theories allowing for a give-and-take between outcomes and duties can manage this.

This give-and-take, however praiseworthy, does pose a potentially unanswerable question; where exactly on the continuum does a “deontic” theory with some telic adjustments blend into an otherwise “telic” theory with some deontic adjustments? The trickiness with planting such a flag in non-arbitrary ways only flatters the particularist’s framing of ethics, as I’ve come to find.

Whether a definitive line –– superior to all other lines –– is illusory or not, parting ways with absolutism remains an “all or nothing” move if I’ve ever seen one. There’s no such thing as “a little bit pregnant” and there’s no such thing as quasi-absolutism in ethics. Acts like murder, torture, rape are unwaveringly impermissible and should never be carried out irrespective of extenuating circumstances (absolutist view), or they are globally justifiable as a lesser-of-evils based on the morally understandable goal of securing against even more unfavorable outcomes (non-absolutist view). What can possibly be worse than murder, torture, rape? Well, the occurrence of murder, torture and rape tenfold, for starters. If ethicists are going to be serious about reconciling telic and deontic theories, the project will only takeoff by applying non-absolutist iterations of the latter. Absolutists objecting to this are moral fetishists looking to roadblock the project by tarnishing the consequentialist catalog altogether. Fuck ‘em.

As for the hyperlinked podcast; it's sophistic of Tamler to kvetch about straw while in the same breath drawing from absolutist versions of deontology –– which by definition disallow any weighing of negative outcomes against deontological commitments, no matter the severity of the outcome. Pluralism my foot. Guy wants to have his straw man accusation and eat it too.

Even when deontic theories are irreligious from head to toe, their traditionalistic advocates will not view, say, natural disasters luridly impacting sentient beings as events ripe for normative boos. This is our history in ethics, and it's why you get so many people who to this day cannot conceive of normative yays vs. boos unless “free will” (indeterminism/libertarianism) is embraced from the outset. “Ought implies can” and so on. The theorist who looked beyond Humancentrism 101 was the aberrant.

Enter determinism, and the Folk formulations begin to seem suspect (at least by modernists). Posit incompatibilism, and they look profoundly amiss, to the point where moral absolutism –– casting certain acts as verboten regardless of context weight –– is on par with DCT in its zealotry.

The explosion of sentiocentric consequentialism’s popularity as a rival theory to humancentric common-sense morality correlates with determinism gaining ground in public arenas. That’s not to say that determinism is a prerequisite for consequentialism (or indeterminism for non-consequentialism, for that matter) but to deny the correlative effects is to sport a blindfold.

I’m exultant over sentiocentric theories making headway in vital quarters; recognizing animals as moral patients in and of themselves, rather than as accessories through which we humans get to flaunt our moral merit or lack thereof. But the more folky attributions of wrongness can be preserved –– determinism and all –– even if they come at a cost to some categories of undesirable outcomes. I am in rare company when it comes to this, but viewed from an altered A vs. B ultimatum where the difference in B is that the two-six only startles the passerby (falling right in front of him rather than colliding with his head), it seems somewhat credible to contest “B ought not occur” as a ground-level given. Thus we can allow for some overridingness flattering to non-consequentialist theories if the consequence entails trivial levels of hardship (i.e. being startled) and never non-trivial levels (i.e. landing in the intensive care unit). There are admittedly epistemic issues with this, at least if we try hair-splitting the trivial and non-trivial.

So, to appropriately answer the original question with a resounding “No”, I'll freely remind myself that ethical value was traditionally measured not by establishing how the world ought to be for moral patients (sentient beings) and then endeavoring to bring about such a world. Rather, it was about the motives and virtues of moral agents (human beings). Accordingly, wrongdoings and concomitant oughtn't rulings could only be hurled at something a human said or did. Obviously this reads like moral myopia today, as non-human caused hardship (i.e. wildlife predation) is still hardship worthy of stoppage. Thus my pluralistic modernism and promulgation of “rightness =/= shouldness” reasoning.
[Add on 2015-09-23: The same is commonly referred to as Dual Consequentialism, already hyperlinked above]

Make no mistake, formulations of rightness [under Dual Consequentialism] would still be rooted in praiseworthiness, just as wrongness would remain rooted in blameworthiness. My purpose here was to explain how none of that has any bearing over goodness overlapping with fortunateness per se and badness with unfortunateness per se (dictated deterministically). This needs to be the baseline because goodness and badness are used, at least on my readings, to refer to general states of affairs, disconnected from agents' actions or motives. When discussing the latter, we'd do well to continue tracking rightness and wrongness as a sort of moral know-how. So even when causality is the name of the game, the case for social censure still holds, thus rightness merits praiseworthiness and wrongness merits blameworthiness. After all, we need to be dissuaded against acting improvidently, seeing as we're seldom bestowed with the sort of moral fortune Tom takes for granted in World A.

And no, this was not about Act vs. Rule Consequentialism, since Rule Consequentialism can either be:

  • (2) A rule so rigid to the point where it’s as uncompromising as moral absolutism. Rule Consequentialism that’s absolutist is hardy consequentialist; it’s crypto deontology.

Every “act vs. rule” debate I’ve seen has centred on moral tactfulness; a cost/benefit analysis regarding rigidity and flexibility in decision making. Strictly a “Human beings aren’t prognosticators, so how do we act?” scuffle, nothing more. And even this might not be a problem due to the oft-excluded middle; Two-Level Consequentialism. Some think that this synthesis makes the case for non-consequentialism operating as a refuter of unmodified Act or Rule consequentialisms, but at most it's an expander.


Endnote: Contrary to the vibe the post gives off early on, I wasn't trying to suggest that we can panoramically assert the existence of vindicatory moral dilemmas; conundrums wherein rightness, praiseworthiness, goodness and shouldness all happen to line up under solitary verdicts (contrary to overused ones about organ transplants or trolleys… telltale signs that, should a final ruling be paraded around a large enough swath of ethicists, bifurcation will follow and resolvability will die. Rinse and repeat. Yawn and repeat).