Re: [asa] Law, Mind, Free Will

From: Murray Hogg <>
Date: Thu Oct 16 2008 - 18:07:17 EDT

Hi David,

I think the rejoinder to the pragmatic consequentialist in your last paragraph should simply be: "at least my view of 'the good' isn't determined by blatant self-interest"!

And given the potential of self-interest to distort one's perceptions this is no small thing!

What strikes me at this point is the question of how a legal system based on maximal happiness for the greatest number would deal with the concept of "the victim." I'm thinking here that if the criterion is maximal happiness for the greatest number then the criterion of whether a crime had been committed wouldn't be whether one individual (or even many individuals) had suffered, it would be a more pragmatic question of consequences of actions on broader society - i.e. pragmatic consequentialist ethics!

On such a view something like the Roman gladiatorial games would be a "good" so long as the number enjoying the games is greater than the number of gladiators slain. And it wouldn't make sense to speak of the gladiators as "victim(s)" of such a practice as this would imply some "crime" had been committed against them. Indeed, it might be that the only potential "victim(s)" would be an audience who were insufficiently entertained by the demise of the performers. Unfortunately, the later would be past any attempts at behavior modification to render them incapable of such undesirable social consequences in future.

One might say the performers deserved their fate - except that if one WAS a pragmatic consequentialist one would be too humane to hold to the idea of "just punishment". Indeed, one could enjoy watching gladiators slicing each others guts out without bothering so much as to whether the hapless sods "deserved" better (or whether one was a "good" person for enjoying such bestial carnage).

My guess is that a pragmatic consequentialist would not like such a portrayal of their position but I don't see how they can escape it. Even their objection to such a portrayal, it seems to me, is REALLY based in some "obvious" immorality in the example such that a pragmatic consequentialist "obviously" couldn't uphold something THAT immoral as a 'good'! In other words, scratch an ethical pragmatist and you find the pragmatism is only skin deep. They simply DON'T believe that great social evils can be assessed on the basis of "maximal happiness for the greatest good" - except by some question-begging subterfuge such as arguing that Roman citizens weren't REALLY happy with gladiatorial games, or by morphing the issue into one of traditional morality; "what we really mean is the greatest GOOD for the greatest number."

Ultimately, I'm pretty much of the view that pragmatic approaches to ethics are pretty much just a ploy to justify gratuitous self-endulgence - the "good" is whatever the individual wants except in those cases where something is so obviously bad that one has to find some argument (regardless of how tendentious) as to why this was something the individual didn't really want anyway. Such lucky coincidence!

In all of this I'm sure I'm preaching to the choir, but even allowing as much, I do wonder if the sermon makes any sense?


David Opderbeck wrote:
> I think most people who take this approach subscribe to some version of
> pragmatic consequentialist ethics. They assume public policy should
> promote that which produces the greatest utility for the greatest number
> of people, without trying to justify why this is "good" in any abstract
> sense. It may be "good" simply because it makes people "feel good" and
> most people prefer to "feel good" rather than to "feel bad." At the
> very least, they might say, it on the whole gives me as an autonomous
> agent the best chance of maximizing my own utility, and therefore it is
> how I express my own preference.
> But of course, I agree that this is all circular, reductionistic
> nonsense. Yet, such a person would argue that my notion of "the good"
> is ultimately equally circular and reductionistic.

To unsubscribe, send a message to with
"unsubscribe asa" (no quotes) as the body of the message.
Received on Thu Oct 16 18:08:06 2008

This archive was generated by hypermail 2.1.8 : Thu Oct 16 2008 - 18:08:06 EDT