A Problem for the New Consequentialism

In a previous post, I outlined a non-deontic form of consequentialism that was supposed to avoid what I called the extension problem. The extension problem plagues deontic consequentialism, which is the view that the rightness, wrongness, permissibility, and impermissibility of actions are determined by their consequences. So, a simple hedonistic act utilitarian will say that there is one categorically binding duty, and that is to maximize pleasure when we act. But such a view suffers from intuitively compelling counterexamples. So it seems like hedonistic act utilitarianism gets the extension of our deontic concepts wrong.

Non-deontic consequentialism is designed to avoid the extension problem, because it defers how those concepts are applied by a society at a given time. By doing so, the theory allows for the extensions of our deontic concepts to pick out what our society takes them to be, which seems to preserve our intuitions about particular cases, like the drifter being killed by a surgeon for his organs. Hedonistic act utilitarianism requires that, if the surgeon is in the epistemic situation where he can rule out negative consequences, and he knows that he can use these organs to save five patients, then he is duty-bound to kill the drifter and harvest the organs. Non-deontic consequentialism avoids this because your typical person who is not a thoroughly committed act utilitarian would not agree that the extension of DUTY covers the surgeon’s organ harvesting endeavor.

An alternative that avoids the extension problem is scalar utilitarianism, which does without deontic concepts like RIGHT and WRONG. Instead, we judge actions as better or worse than available alternatives. The problem with this view is that it just seems obvious that it is wrong to torture puppies for fun. But a scalar utilitarian cannot give an adequate account of what makes that act wrong, so she must explain why it seems so obvious to say that it is wrong to torture puppies, even though it’s false.

Setting aside both of these forms of consequentialism, I want to discuss the non-deontic consequentialism I outlined in my other post. On the view I described, the rightness and wrongness, along with other deontic properties, of actions are a function of the social conventions that obtain at a given time in a given society. The consequentialism comes in at the level of critiquing and improving those social conventions.

Moral progress occurs when we adopt social conventions that are better by consequentialist standards. So, for instance, it used to be a social convention in the United States that we could have property rights over other human beings, and transfer those rights for currency. Those conventions are no longer in place in the United States, and at the time they were, they could have been critiqued by consequentialist standards. Those conventions were not better than available alternatives at the time, so it would have been better not to have the institution of chattel slavery. But these facts about betterness do not determine what is right or wrong. Rather, they should guide efforts to improve social conventions, and thereby change the extensions of our deontic concepts.

This seems all well and good, but I am a bit worried. This view entails that social conventions have normative force, no matter what. So, just because something is a social convention, we thereby have at least some moral reason to abide by it. Take slavery again; such an institution was once enshrined in many social conventions. Does it follow that at the time, everybody had at least some moral reason to abide by the conventions that said we ought to return escaped slaves to their so-called owners? It seems to me that slavery is and always was wrong. There was never a time at which it was right to own another human being. I think that the basis of my concern is that deontic judgments, especially when applied to important things like slavery, are not indexed to times and places. Just because a human being is sold in a marketplace in 1790 Virginia does not change the deontic status of the situation. What exactly is the morally relevant difference between that time period and today? Why is it wrong now to sell another human being but it was not in 1790s Virginia?

One potential response to my worries is to point out that I’m making these judgments from a particular time period when the extension of our deontic concepts rules out slavery being permissible. So, perhaps I find the entailment of this theory appalling because my intuitions are shaped by the extension of the deontic concepts I use. Since 1790s Virginia, we have undergone moral progress, and now it is wrong to own slaves because of the shift in social conventions. It could even be that according to our deontic concepts’ extensions now, it was wrong in the 1790s to buy and sell slaves.

I think these considerations certainly make my concerns less worrisome. But I’m experiencing a residual anxiety. It still seems counterintuitive to say that, if we had grown up in 1790s Virginia, our claims about the rightness and wrongness would be flipped. We would have an inverted moral spectrum when it comes to deontic judgments about slavery. That is what I find counterintuitive. The theory was developed to explicitly address the extension problem, which was that deontic consequentialists seem to get the extensions of our deontic concepts wrong. The reason I think that they get those extensions wrong is because their theories entail counterintuitive results. They end up having to bite a lot of bullets, such as the organ harvesting surgeon. But if non-deontic consequentialism also generates counterintuitive entailments, like slavery being permissible in 1790s Virginia for people at that time, then is it any better than its deontic consequentialist competitors?