For the Record - December 12, 2017

‘For the Record’ is a feature where our Fellows-in-Residence have a chance to present some research ideas informally, reflect on their experience at the Center, or report on Center events.

This month's post is from Brendan de Kenessey, who received his PhD in Philosophy from MIT. De Kenessey is a moral philosopher whose research aims to show how we can illuminate a wide range of moral phenomena by appreciating the pervasive role that the activity of joint decision-making (or joint practical deliberation, as he calls it) plays in our social interactions. His dissertation argues that several speech acts that have the power to change our moral obligations - promises, offers, commands, requests, and consent - are all best understood as moves within the activity of joint practical deliberation.
 

Can I make the world a better place?
Brendan de Kenessey

It is all too easy, as a professional academic, to stop asking questions one doesn’t know how to answer. We are busy trying to convince others of answers we’ve already discovered for ourselves, packaging and polishing our favored theory of X to sell on the market of ideas. One important benefit of a research fellowship – such as the one I have this year at the Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics – is having the time to reconnect with puzzling questions. In that spirit, I thought I would share a question I have no idea how to answer, one that has left me genuinely and delightfully stumped: can I make the world a better place?  

The question is prompted by a paper titled “Consequentialism and Cluelessness” by the philosopher James Lenman. The paper poses an objection to consequentialism, the view that one always ought to do whatever action will lead to the best consequences overall. But you don’t have to be a consequentialist, I think, to find Lenman’s argument troubling.

Lenman argues that we are hopelessly ignorant of the very long-term consequences of our actions. He makes his point with an example:

Imagine we are in what is now southern Germany a hundred years before the birth of Jesus. A certain bandit, Richard, quite lost to history, has raided a village and killed all its inhabitants bar one. This final survivor, a pregnant woman named Angie, he finds hiding in a house about to be burned. On a whim of compassion, he orders that her life be spared. But perhaps, by consequentialist standards, he should not have done so. For let us suppose Angie was a great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great grand-mother of Adolf Hitler. The millions of Hitler's victims were thus also victims of Richard's sparing of Angie (Lenman 2000: 344-345).

If Richard had not spared Angie, then Hitler would never have been born, and so the Holocaust would never have happened. So, Richard’s apparently good action – sparing the life of an innocent woman – turns out to have horrific consequences two thousand years later. Do these consequences imply that Richard ought to have killed Angie, by the consequentialist’s lights? Lenman answers:

They do not. For Hitler's crimes may not be the most significant consequence of Richard's action. Perhaps, had Richard killed Angie, her son Peter would have avenged her, thus causing Richard's widowed wife Samantha to get married again to Francis. And perhaps had all this happened Francis and Samantha would have had a descendant 115 generations on, Malcolm the Truly Appalling, who would have conquered the world and in doing so committed crimes vastly more extensive and terrible than those of Hitler (345).

Lenman’s point is that Richard is in no position to know which of these far-reaching consequences his actions will have. The case is a bit contrived, but Lenman’s argument is more general. Any choice we make is almost certain to have far-reaching and unknown ramifications for the long-term future. By chatting with my recently married friends for just five minutes longer, I could inadvertently affect which child they end up conceiving later that night. If that happens, then everything their child does in her life is a consequence of my chattiness. And since my friends’ child will herself affect the identities of future children, everything those future children do is also a consequence of my action - and so on for innumerable future generations. The upshot is that, for any choice you might face, the unknown consequences of your choosing one way or another are likely to be orders of magnitude greater than the known consequences of your choice. Thus, Lenman concludes, we are all in the same position as Richard: utterly clueless as to whether our actions will make the world better or worse overall.

The natural response is to say something like this: “Okay, but those unknown consequences for future generations are out of our control. So, we should focus on the effects of our actions that we can know about. We should try to make the world better in the ways we know how, and leave the unknowable future to fate.”

One way of making this response precise is to adopt what is called subjective consequentialism. On this view, we ought to perform the action that has the best expected consequences given what we know, rather than the action that will have the best consequences in fact. So, for example, the subjective consequentialist will say that I shouldn’t take a very risky bet even when, as a matter of fact, I would win it if I took it, since given what I know, I am very likely to lose. On subjective consequentialism, then, the unknowable consequences of your actions are irrelevant to what you ought to do; you just ought to do whatever action is best in light of what you know. So, if subjective consequentialism is true, we can know what we ought to do, even if Lenman is right that most of the consequences of our actions are beyond our ken.

While I’m sympathetic to this response, it doesn’t get to the heart of Lenman’s worry. Rather, it just changes the target: instead of challenging the possibility of following subjective consequentialism, Lenman’s objection undermines the motivation for doing so.

To see what I mean, consider another example. Suppose I am choosing between two ways of living my life: the Selfless Life, in which I dedicate myself to providing the most effective forms of humanitarian aid, and the Selfish Life, in which I dedicate myself to sitting on my couch and playing video games. I feel genuinely torn: on the one hand, I really like playing video games; but on the other hand, I care about making the world a better place. Intuitively, by choosing the Selfless Life, I could make the world a much better place – with a lifetime of hard work, I might be able to save hundreds, even thousands, of people from suffering and death. Doing so might involve a great deal of personal sacrifice, including giving up my love for video games. However we think I should weigh my personal happiness against the greater good, though, it seems obvious that the greater good strongly counts in favor of choosing the Selfless Life over the Selfish Life.

But now Lenman comes in and reminds me that my choice between the Selfish and Selfless Life will have many unknown consequences for the long-term future. By living my life in these two very different ways, I will indirectly influence the identities of many future children. These effects will lead to further effects, which will spawn still more effects, multiplying across the millennia. Thus my choice will trigger one of two extremely different possible futures. Given how different these futures are likely to be, I have every reason to think that one will be much, much better than the other. The difference between the futures may well be that billions or trillions or trillions of trillions more people will suffer or die prematurely in one future than in the other. The trouble is this: I have no idea which of these two possible futures will be the better one. And that means I have virtually no reason to believe that the world will be better overall if I choose the Selfless Life over the Selfish Life. Sure, I know that my choosing the Selfless Life will make the world better in one respect: the couple thousand people whom I save from death or suffering will be better off than they would be if I chose the Selfish Life. Since that’s all the information I have to go on, the subjective consequentialist would recommend that I choose the Selfless Life. But for all I know, the future I trigger by choosing the Selfless Life will contain a trillion trillion more people living lives of utter misery than the future I would trigger by choosing the Selfish Life. Of course, it could also be the other way around. The point is that I don’t know which future will be better overall. So, suppose I follow the subjective consequentialist’s advice and choose the Selfless Life. Then when I am old, having endured a lifetime of personal sacrifice for the sake of helping others, I look back and ask, “Is the world a better place than it would have been if I had stayed home and played video games instead?” Lenman’s depressing answer is: you have no clue.

Armed with this conclusion, we can give an even-more-depressing argument for a kind of fatalism: “The unknown consequences of your actions so greatly outweigh the known consequences of your actions that you will never be in a position to confidently predict that anything you do will make the world a better place. So, you shouldn’t try to make the world better at all. Doing so would be a futile endeavor: by striving to improve the world, you are just as likely to make it worse. You should just play video games – or do whatever you like to do – and leave the future of the world to fate.”

I don’t accept the conclusion of this argument. Of course we ought to try to make the world a better place. But that’s why I’m stumped: I can’t figure out where the argument goes wrong.

Some of the most timeless problems of philosophy take the form of apparently watertight arguments for abhorrent conclusions. When a bunch of premises that seem obviously true entail a conclusion that seems obviously false, we know that something has gone wrong somewhere. The philosopher’s task is to diagnose the breakdown: what is it that led us astray? But my interest in this question is more than academic. Living in a position of relative privilege, I often worry that I am not doing as much as I ought to help those in need. (Working at a Center for Ethics has a way of amplifying this anxiety). Knowing how many people out there are suffering, it seems self-indulgent to spend my career pondering abstract philosophical questions. That’s my version of choosing the Selfish Life. But when I imagine taking a different course - say, applying for a job at Oxfam, or making as much money as possible so as to donate it all to humanitarian aid - one of the things that holds me back is Lenman-style uncertainty. I worry that my best efforts to help would turn out to be counterproductive. Now, is that just an excuse I give myself to rationalize my selfishness? Or is it a realistic assessment of the limits of my ability to influence a staggeringly complex world?

I don’t have any answers. This year, I’m asking questions.

 

References

Lenman, James. 2000. Consequentialism and Cluelessness. Philosophy & Public Affairs, 29(4): 342-370. <http://www.jstor.org/stable/2672830>