Intentions and consequences, continued.

Just to add to my last post, on the comparative value of various worlds with different combinations of good and bad intentions and effects:

It might help to consider a further thought experiment, this time courtesy of Joel Feinberg. He contemplates a place called Nowheresville, in which nobody may demand things as a matter of right. People cannot claim, for instance, recognition of their liberty and well-being as their due. All acts of goodness stem from coincidental, albeit entirely noble charity work, which is entirely voluntary but thereby supererogatory: it is not required, and so it is especially worthy of praise when performed.

Now it’s worth nothing that, despicably, this happens to somewhat reflect reality. The majority of rights are no doubt enshrined in law, and yet vast swathes of homeless people even and especially within Western states depend for their existence on the legally non-obligatory gifts of their fellow citizens. They do not have trump cards they can take to the state and play to insist that, as a matter of morality, they receive their daily bread.

And so the point is this: it is perfectly possible that in Nowheresville, everybody gets fed! People are so systematically sympathetic and generous that nobody goes hungry. As such, there is little human suffering.

So Crisp and the consequentialists rejoice. This is a world, they claim, that we can relish.

But would there not be something missing? Namely, precisely the characteristic that constitutes Nowheresville: the absence of rights. It seems that the right result is achieved for the wrong reasons. People get fed, but not because it is their due.

From which it seems to follow that: a world in which people are fed as a matter of right is superior simpliciter to a world in which people are fed as a matter of charity. So intentions do contribute to the absolute value of reality, and judgements shouldn’t exclusively concern consequences, contra Crisp.

Perhaps that shouldn’t be controversial. But the same, it seems, goes for a world in which the choice is between a Nowheresville in which nobody is fed because there is deficient charity work, and one in which all are fed due to sufficient charity, as in the previous example. Obviously the latter is preferable. And yet both fail to live up to the Kantian criterion of value: acting in accordance with a good will, giving persons their due.

So an exclusively Kantian story seems as bad as a purely consequentialist one. And we remain sitting on an awkwardly spiked fence where both thoughts seem to matter, but it’s not clear which one really does.


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