My Doctoral Thesis

Utilitarianism, prioritarianism and other varieties of consequentialism.
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TobyOrd
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My Doctoral Thesis

Post by TobyOrd » Fri Sep 25, 2009 10:37 am

A number of people on Felicifia have asked me to share the thesis I wrote on consequentialism. I am happy to oblige.

http://www.amirrorclear.net/academic/pa ... action.pdf

Here is the abstract:
It is often said that there are three great traditions of normative ethics: consequentialism, deontology, and virtue ethics. Each is based around a compelling intuition about the nature of ethics: that what is ultimately important is that we produce the best possible outcome, that ethics is a system of rules which govern our behaviour, and that ethics is about living a life that instantiates the virtues, such as honesty, compassion and loyalty. This essay is about how best to interpret consequentialism. I show that if we take consequentialism beyond the assessment of acts, using a consequentialist criterion to assess decision making, motivation, and character, then the resulting theory can also capture many of the intuitions about systems of moral rules and excellences of character that lead people to deontology and virtue ethics.

I begin by considering the argument that consequentialism is self-defeating because its adoption would produce bad outcomes. I take up the response offered by the classical utilitarians: when properly construed, consequentialism does not require us to make our decisions by a form of naïve calculation, or to be motivated purely by universal benevolence. Instead it requires us to use the decision procedure that will produce the best outcome and to have the motives that lead to the best outcome. I take this idea as my starting point, and spend the thesis developing it and considering its implications.

I demonstrate that neither act-consequentialism nor rule-consequentialism has the resources to adequately assess decision making and motivation. I therefore turn to the idea of global consequentialism, which assesses everything in terms of its consequences. I then spend the greater part of the essay exploring how best to set up such a theory and how best to apply it to decision making and motivation. I overcome some important objections to the approach, and conclude by showing how the resulting approach to consequentialism helps to bridge the divide between the three traditions.

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Arepo
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Re: My Doctoral Thesis

Post by Arepo » Mon Sep 28, 2009 8:37 pm

Great, thanks Toby! I'll sticky this, at least for a while. About time we had an open access book for util online.

Are you planning to keep it up indefinitely, subject to no publisher telling you to take it down?
"These were my only good shoes."
"You ought to have put on an old pair, if you wished to go a-diving," said Professor Graham, who had not studied moral philosophy in vain.

TobyOrd
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Re: My Doctoral Thesis

Post by TobyOrd » Tue Sep 29, 2009 9:25 pm

Unfortunately, I'll probably remove it soon, as this is intended to be a private distribution of my thesis to the members of the Felicifia Forum rather than to the general public. This is annoying, but is required by some publishers. Hopefully when I get the thesis published, I will be able to arrange for a contract which at least allows me to distribute it from my personal website.

TobyOrd
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Re: My Doctoral Thesis

Post by TobyOrd » Tue Sep 29, 2009 9:31 pm

Of course, if someone finds this thread after I have taken down the thesis, they can always email me and I'll gladly send a copy.

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Arepo
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Re: My Doctoral Thesis

Post by Arepo » Fri Oct 02, 2009 10:56 am

Well, I'll keep the sticky up as long as the link works, at least.
"These were my only good shoes."
"You ought to have put on an old pair, if you wished to go a-diving," said Professor Graham, who had not studied moral philosophy in vain.

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faithlessgod
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Re: My Doctoral Thesis

Post by faithlessgod » Wed Dec 30, 2009 10:28 am

Toby

What is your current view on Richard Chappell's objections to your thesis?
Do not sacrifice truth on the altar of comfort

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Arepo
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Re: My Doctoral Thesis

Post by Arepo » Wed Dec 30, 2009 1:19 pm

Link to the commentary, for me to read when I've read Toby's thesis, and in case anyone else is interested - I notice Toby's written a reply there.
"These were my only good shoes."
"You ought to have put on an old pair, if you wished to go a-diving," said Professor Graham, who had not studied moral philosophy in vain.

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RyanCarey
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Re: My Doctoral Thesis

Post by RyanCarey » Thu Dec 31, 2009 1:28 am

Richard's objections to global consequentialism are thoroughly boring. His position is semi-global consequentialism. He argues that acts should be evaluated using a different terminology to motives, states of affairs or events. The former can be called "right" whereas the latter can only be termed "best". His act utilitarian system permits him to evaluate anything in the world so global utilitarianism adds nothing to it. He objects not to the substance of Toby's thesis, just to his word use. Richard says that acts alone can be regarded "right" because they have reasons. He understands that we can have 'reasons for action'. In his words, 'There is no such second substantive question when considering... the climate. We have reasons to desire that the climate be temperate, say. But the climate does not have reasons to be temperate.'

My response would be 'so what'? If we slot 'act' into the preceding sentence, we arrive at 'acts have reasons to be right'. it might look like we've proven a distinction between acts and mere events. But that distinction only arises in this case because the concept of a 'reason' is so fuzzy. It conflates the ideas of being good, being deliberately planned and being caused. Acts can be good, deliberately planned and caused. Mere events, like acts, are caused. They may be deliberately planned by agents in some instances, and they arise by fluke in others. Acts and events, then, resemble each other in some respects whereas they differ in others. However, there is no discontinuity between the two terms in any morally important respect. It is ridiculous that Richard should get any mileage by agreeing with the substance of GC (global consequentialism) while dragging his heels on the topic of semantics.

Toby Ord has said
I want to say that my main claim is that GC is true. I am not claiming that it is difficult or profound, and thus I don't think I mind it being 'trivially true'
Toby has been modest in suggesting that GC might even be true, only trivially. I would adjust this statement. What GC shows should have been obvious many years ago, but it has only become so recently. Consequentialists have continually disputed whether we should bring about good consequences by acts or rules, or a layered arrangement of the two. If Toby's result only stops this dispute and does nothing else, it will have succeeded. The disagreement between consequentialists can be resolved by recourse to the principle that is shared by all consequentialits. We ought to do whatever will bring about the best consequences. Or more generally, what will bring about the best consequences ought to occur. Where two layer-utilitarianism works, use it. Where benevolence works, be it. If an event has good consequences, intentionally or otherwise, we can be thankful that it occurred. Pedants may argue that such an event is not 'right', only 'best', but having observed the shakey foundations on which this distinction is drawn, we will do best to ignore it.
You can read my personal blog here: CareyRyan.com

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Arepo
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Re: My Doctoral Thesis

Post by Arepo » Thu Mar 11, 2010 6:24 pm

Started reading the thesis. I'm just gonna use these posts as a placeholder for my criticisms as I go, not to be taken too seriously until I've reached the end. (this is coming out pretty negative - i pretty much agree outright with everything i'm not commenting on)

1) the definition of a right act on p1 (iff it generates the best possible consequences) seems like a less convincing one than scalar consequentialism - which toby introduced me to (at least in a codified form), so it's seems odd he hasn't mentioned it

2) discussing naive calculation, it occurs to me that in many of the examples it's not clear without some sort of (naive?) calculation that calculating will lead to a worse outcome than not calculating (eg a racer who we know in hindsight came third appraising himself too pessimistically beforehand - why is he justified in his pessimism given that we know he was capable of coming third?). In the 'clearer' cases like trivial payoffs (choosing biscuits in the supermarket) or huge costs of calculation (contemplating whether to help someone as they're drowning), the clearer they are, the simpler the calculation should be, so it's still not completely obvious that you shouldn't run it. In the latter case you almost certainly should run some version of it - if you dive straight in without thinking, you might fail to notice that there's a nearby lifejacket, or that they're about to pass an easy to grab branch, or that you can't swim yourself!

p11 'Bales treats... law.'
I think a lot of physicists (perhaps less than half, though) would deny this is how they think - they'd prefer to think in terms of useful models rather than fundamental facts.

p16 I feel like the kind of act util you're talking about here is a pretty naive version that primarily (only?) exists in the minds of critics. I don't think that's a problem in itself, but maybe would be better to make it clear that you don't particularly object to AU per se, you just want to clarify different possible formulations of it. (I suspect that what you're going to call Global Utilitarianism will be a good description of what some of people who'd call themselves act utils' ethical views)
"These were my only good shoes."
"You ought to have put on an old pair, if you wished to go a-diving," said Professor Graham, who had not studied moral philosophy in vain.

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