University of Kansas, Fall 2002
Philosophy 880: Topics in Ethics

Class notes: the self-defeat and integrity objections

The following notes correspond roughly to what we cover, including at least a portion of what I put on the board or the screen, in class. In places they may be more or less comprehensive than what we actually cover in class, and should not be taken as a substitute for your own observations and records of what goes on in class.

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  1. Stocker, Kavka, and Wolf
    1. Our interest in these three authors is their expression of, inter alia, all or part of the following dialectic:
      1. Critics of consequentialist theories allege that they tend to be self-defeating in the following sense: agents who take consequentialist criteria of rightness as their decision procedures tend to bring about worse outcomes than do agents who act on non-consequentialist decision procedures.
      2. In reply, defenders of consequentialist theories maintain that consequentialist theories may enjoin agents to reform themselves—to turn themselves into agents who do not take consequentialist criteria of rightness as their decision procedures, so that they may bring about better outcomes.
      3. Critics, in turn, maintain that there is something objectionable about this self-modification: that it is irrational, undermines integrity, involves corruption, results in “moral schizophrenia,” etc. Note that although this last step sometimes has something to do with integrity, this is not all, or even the core, of what is commonly known as “the integrity objection” (to be considered at greater length below). This last step is just where the self-defeat objection tends to end up, regardless of what is commonly known as the integrity objection.
    2. Each of our authors, though, has his or her own agenda and terminological framework in which we find these ideas.
      1. Instead of criteria of rightness and decision procedures, Stocker speaks of reasons or values and motives. And his argument follows the foregoing scheme fairly closely: after claiming that consequentialist theories are self-defeating, he adds that even when agents fix this problem of self-defeat by adopting non-consequentialist motives (as consequentialist theories arguably enjoin agents to do), there is a resulting problem: moral schizophrenia, or a bifurcation between one’s motives and one’s values.
      2. Instead of criteria of rightness and decision procedures, Kavka speaks of evaluations of acts and evaluations of agents, or evaluations of acts and evaluations of intentions, or evaluations of object-acts (acts that are objects of intentions) and formation-acts (act that are formations of intentions). And he is concerned not just with consequentialist theories, but with all theories that allow consequentialist considerations to play a sufficiently prominent (in a way he specifies) role in the evaluations of acts (p. 287.8).
      3. Instead of decision procedures, Wolf speaks of agents’ motivations and concerns. She does not refer much to criteria of rightness per se (by this name or any other). And her argument does not really get into the self-modification reply or, thus, have occasion to explore the standard critics’ rejoinder to this reply.
    3. Before getting into each of these papers in turn, let us observe the most important (for our purposes) common thread running through them: the alleged self-defeat of consequentialist theories.
      1. In Stocker’s paper, see p. 455.8: “It is not possible for moral people, that is, people who would achieve what is valuable, to act on these ethical theories, to let them comprise their motives.” See also p. 457.5–6 also p. 466.6.
      2. In Kavka’s paper, see p. 291.9: “He is a captive in the prison of his own virtue, able to form the requisite intention only by bending the bars of his shell out of shape.”
      3. In Wolf’s paper, see p. 421.5: “the moral virtues . . . are apt to crowd out the nonmoral virtues.” See also p. 425.8, pp. 426.6–427.1, and p. 427.8. (But see also p. 428.3–5.)
    4. Stocker
      1. Stocker takes as foundational that having harmony between (1) one’s motives and (2) one’s reasons, values, justifications, etc. is important to having a good life (p. 453.9, p. 454.4). Actually he says that such harmony is a “mark” of a good life, but I assume that he means for the relation to be constitutive, not merely evidential.
      2. Stocker’s principal claim seems to be this: modern ethical theories make this harmony impossible (p. 455.5). To substantiate this claim, he goes through the following moves:
        1. showing the self-defeat of egoism (pp. 456.3–458.4). Of course Stocker does not mean to imply that some problem with egoism is ipso facto a problem with modern ethical theories; he’s just using egoism as an illustration. Stocker notes that egoists have a standard reply: if the best life for oneself can be attained only by acting from non-egoistic motives, then egoism tells one to adopt those motives, and forget about egoism, if necessary. But this, Stocker notes, only heightens, rather than solving, the problem of moral schizophrenia.
        2. showing the self-defeat of consequentialism (pp. 458.4–459.4). Again, moral schizophrenia results if one gets rid of one’s “consequentialist” motivations and replaces them with others. (All these issues are parallel to the ones about egoism.)
    5. Kavka
      1. Kavka’s aim is to show that the following principles, which he calls “bridge principles,” are false:
        1. Wrongful Intentions Principle (WIP): To intend to do what one knows to be wrong is itself wrong (p. 289.2).
        2. Right-Good Principle: Doing something is right if and only if a morally good man would do the same thing in the given situation (p. 294.7).
        3. Virtue-Preservation Principle: It is wrong to deliberately lose (or reduce the degree of) one’s moral virtue (p. 298.2).
      2. In the course of undermining these, Kavka shows that
        1. In some cases, it may be right for an agent to form the intention to do something wrong (P1—p. 288.9)
        2. In some cases, a morally good agent cannot rationally form the intention that it would (if it were possible for him to form it) be right for him to form (P2—p. 294.4).
        3. In some cases, a rational and morally good agent ought to corrupt himself (P3—p. 295.3); and in some cases, a rational and partially corrupt agent ought not to reform himself (P3*—p. 297.4).
    6. Wolf
      1. Wolf has two aims:
        1. to show that the ideal of a moral saint—a person whose life is as morally excellent as it could be—is, paradoxically, not an ideal that it is desirable for people to pursue
        2. to suggest that, again paradoxically, the foregoing result is not a strike against common-sense morality, utilitarianism, Kantianism, or any other theory from which one may derive the specifics of such an ideal; but rather, that it is not the case that any adequate moral theory will be such that “perfect obedience to its laws and maximal devotion to its interests [will] be something we can wholeheartedly strive for in ourselves and wish for in those around us” (p. 435.2)
      2. Our interest is in what Wolf has to say in the service of her first aim.
        1. To motivate her discussion, she mentions that in a certain context “it is generally assumed that one ought to be as morally good as possible” (p. 419.6). Notice the similarity here to Kavka’s Virtue-Preservation Principle.
        2. Wolf mentions the possibility of a utilitarian’s compensating by keeping his moral saintliness a secret, but then mentions that such an agent might be hypocritical or condescending (p. 428.7–8). Note that the reply she is proposing on the part of the utilitarian is less extreme than the self-modification reply.
      3. What Wolf says in the service of her second aim is less relevant to our agenda, because although she casts doubt on a certain way of criticizing utilitarian and other theories, she does so in a way that undermines the conception of morality around which those theories are organized. Specifically: those theories are organized around the idea that morality encompasses all that is important, and worth taking account of in choosing and evaluating conduct; in contrast, Wolf suggests that we not view morality in this way. So she rescues utilitarian and other “grand system” moral theories from the self-defeat criticism (or something related to it) only by demoting the enterprise in which they are engaged.
  2. Williams, Harris, (Wheeler,) and Carr
    1. Williams
      1. Williams says that “I shall try to show . . . that utilitarianism cannot hope to make sense, at any serious level, of integrity” (p. 82).
      2. In section 2, Williams says some things about what makes a theory a consequentialist one. A useful point he makes, though not one terribly important to our issues, is that the denial of consequentialism does not entail the view that there are some actions that are right regardless of the consequences of doing them.
      3. In section 3, Williams introduces the important (for his purposes, and ours here) notion of negative responsibility: “if I am ever responsible for anything, then I must be just as much responsible for things that I allow or fail to prevent, as I am for things that I myself, in the more everyday restricted sense, bring about” (p. 95).
        1. He illustrates this using two examples, those of George the chemist and Jim the traveler.
        2. He claims that according to utilitarianism, a certain answer in each case is not only (1) right, but (2) obviously right, and (3) appropriately reached by way of a certain set of considerations that may not, on reflection, seem adequate (p. 99).
        3. This third concern gets Williams into the idea of integrity. He refers to “the idea, as we might first and very simply put it, that each of us is specially responsible for what he does, rather than for what other people do” (p. 99).
        4. Before leaving section 3 it seems worth noting that Williams says that “the reason why utilitarianism cannot understand integrity is that it cannot coherently describe the relations between a man’s projects and his actions” (p. 100). Let us keep this in mind as something we expect further sections to illuminate.
      4. In section 4, Williams considers some considerations (pertaining to “[causally] remoter effects”) to which utilitarians might appeal in order to show that, contrary to Williams’s earlier claims, the verdicts of utilitarianism in regard to the cases of George and Jim are not what Williams claimed them to be. In a way this move on Williams’s part is unnecessary, since Williams is entitled to claim, and utilitarians obliged to concede, that cases such as those of George and Jim can be construed so that these “remoter effects” are insignificant or nonexistent. But it is sporting of Williams to at least consider these.
        1. One problem with Williams’s remarks is that he says that from a utilitarian point of view, there is nothing of utilitarian significance in, e.g., feelings of guilt that someone may feel upon having done the right thing (pp. 101–102). But this is wrong for two reasons.
          1. First, positive or negative feelings that someone has upon doing acts of a certain kind certainly matter, even if they are irrational. If they are strongly felt, then they count a lot—even if, as I said, they are irrational. The utilitarian does not rule out as “not to be counted” feelings that don’t meet some criterion or rationality or desirability or propriety or whatever.
            1. When Williams gets around to considering this reply (pp. 104–105), he says that it leads the utilitarian into a tight spot, as shown by Williams’s example involving the racial minority. He is exactly right about this being a tight spot. But it is where the orthodox utilitarian ends up, instead of discriminating among feelings on the basis of their “rationality.”
            2. One slightly tricky move that Williams makes in this discussion, which I think is worth noticing, has to do with the way in which he characterizes these feelings. He says that they are “based on views which are . . . irrational” (p. 106.4) and are held by their subjects “just because they hold views which are . . . irrational” (p. 106.6). Thus puts us in mind of Hume’s claim that although feelings usually cannot reasonably be called irrational, they may be called irrational when they are based on false beliefs (as when my hostility to you is based on the mistaken belief that you ate my lunch).  But in the case at hand, the “irrational” feelings are not necessarily based on true or false views or beliefs; they may be just there, to be dealt with as brute facts of agents’ psyches. They may be based on false beliefs (e.g., “I’ve just done something wrong”) but they needn’t be.
          2. Second, such “irrational” feelings need not be frowned upon by the utilitarian. On the contrary, it is perfectly open to the utilitarian to claim that it is good for agents to feel bad upon committing acts of certain kinds, even on those occasions when the acts in question are utility-maximizing, because it is good for people to have a general aversion to committing acts of certain kinds. We will return to this point in the work of Hare and, more explicitly, in the work of Hooker.
        2. Williams makes, I think, a strong case against the claim of “squeamishness” that some utilitarians are apt to make against Williams-style objections to the utilitarian verdicts in cases such as those of George and Jim (pp. 102–103). Utilitarians may, I think, rightly accuse Williams of this, but they cannot, I think, rightly view this as an argument or premise the logic of which can be seen from anywhere except perspectives that are already within the utilitarian framework itself.
        3. In connection with the “sqeamishness” discussion we get another couple of employments of the word ‘integrity’ (p. 104.2 and p. 104.5). We should note these for later.
      5. In section 5, we get into the meat of the integrity objection.
        1. We’ve seen some references to integrity in previous sections. Let’s note them anew here.
          1. p. 100: “the reason why utilitarianism cannot understand integrity is that it cannot coherently describe the relations between a man’s projects and his actions.”
          2. pp. 103–104: “to come to regard [one’s moral] feelings from a purely utilitarian point of view, that is to say, as happenings outside one’s moral self, is to lose a sense of one’s moral identity; to lose in the most literal way, one’s integrity.”
        2. a couple of side issues:
          1. Note, in connection with our reading of Stocker, Kavka, and Wolf last week, the self-defeat objection being briefly and ably rehearsed by Williams (pp. 112–113).
          2. I think Williams is right to accuse Smart of slipping (quite uncharacteristically) into a bit of inconsistency (p. 114).
        3. now, for the integrity objection itself:
          1. Williams says that “It is absurd to demand of . . . a man . . . that he should just step aside from his own project and decision and acknowledge the decision which utilitarian calculation requires. It is . . . to neglect the extent to which his actions and his decisions have to be seen as the actions and decisions which flow from the projects and attitudes with which he is most closely identified. It is thus, in the most literal sense, an attack on his integrity” pp. 116–117).
          2. How are we to understand this?
            1. To get more precise about the nature of this objection, let us distinguish some senses of integrity:
              1. the ‘principled-ness’ sense: Sometimes we say that a person has integrity when he or she adheres firmly to a certain set of principles (regarded by that person as moral principles). In this sense, the judgment of integrity does not really have much to do with the content of the person’s morality; rather, it has to do with the firmness of the person’s adherence to his or her principles. In this sense someone deeply opposed to the views of, e.g., John Ashcroft, might admit that he at least has integrity, because of the principled-ness of his positions and decisions.
              2. the ‘rightness’ sense: Sometimes we say that someone has integrity only if he or she has moral views we regard as defensible ones. On this use of the word, one might say that although Ashcroft is quite principled, he lacks integrity because his principles are all screwed up.
              3. the ’structural soundness’ sense: Sometimes we refer to the structural integrity of, e.g., a building. In this sense we say that something’s integrity consists in its solidity, or in its not having been broken down, or in all its parts still holding together securely.
            2. Now it seems that the sense of ‘integrity’ that Williams is using is closest to the third: that when someone is asked to set aside their projects and commitments, he or she is being asked to sacrifice the “structural integrity” of his or her life.
            3. If this is the right way to understand Williams’s objection, then the objection means something like, “Utilitarianism is putting a lot of pressure on this person. It’s being really demanding.” But then it seems like a red herring to call it a matter of integrity, since that notion is normally used (in ethics, at least) in one of its first two senses.
            4. Can the objection be taken in one of the first two senses of ‘integrity’?
              1. The objection might be read as claiming that the person is being asked to do something unprincipled, in the sense of something that goes against that person’s principles. But it is unclear what moral weight this should have, unless and until it can be shown that that person’s principles encompass all that is of moral significance. If that person’s principles are devoid of utilitarian considerations, and if utilitarian considerations matter, than maybe it’s not such a bad thing to ask the person to go against his or her principles. So, taken in this way, the objection basically just begs the question.
              2. The objection might be read as claiming that the person is being asked to do something immoral. But this just begs the question even more blatantly than the objection would if taken in the first sense. For whether the requirements of utilitarianism are immoral is precisely what’s at issue. The objector to utilitarianism doesn’t get to use the immorality of utilitarianism as a premise in his or her objection to it.
          3. In the end, I think Williams’s objection accomplishes less than it might at first seem. For it seems to promise to show that a utilitarian agent must lack the virtue of integrity, but presumably when integrity is a virtue, it’s being understood in one of the first two senses, or some combination of those. When taken in the third sense, the integrity objection may show that there is a problem with utilitarianism—i.e., that it’s too demanding—but not that utilitarianism cannot be an appropriate doctrine for, we might say, “a person of integrity.” But this is not the end of the debate, of course.
    2. Harris
      1. Harris, though somewhat sympathetic to Williams’s claims (p. 265.3), makes a significant observation about Williams’s position: namely, that it (Williams’s apparent prioritizing of integrity) is implicitly an attack on certain views involving positive responsibility just as much as it is an attack on certain views involving negative responsibility. That is, if Williams regards utilitarianism as objectionable because it may require the abandonment of a project engagement in which would constitute a certain kind of inaction that has bad consequences, then equally he should regard utilitarianism as objectionable because it may require the abandonment of a project engagement in which would constitute a certain kind of (positive) action that has bad consequences (pp. 266.8–267.2). This suggests that Williams is laboring under some kind of confusion in thinking that the problem with utilitarianism is it use of the concept of negative responsibility, since the problem has has with utilitarianism’s use of the concept of negative responsibility is also a problem he should have with utilitarianism’s use of the doctrine of positive responsibility.
      2. Harris’s next major effort in his paper, as I see it, is to criticize “Williams’s attempt to attack the causal connection between inaction and consequence” (p. 269.6). Although Harris’s critique (through the end of the section) appears a be a sound bit of close analysis, it does not seem, to me, to do a lot of damage against Williams, because it never seemed to me that Williams was putting much weight on this part of his argument in the first place. (But I could be wrong.)
      3. Of much greater significance, I think, is Harris’s section “Olfactory Moral Philosophy” (pp. 270.8–272.2), which draws attention to a possibly inconspicuous, but ultimately (I think) disturbing, feature of Williams’s approach to making moral decisions.
      4. Harris’s section “Other People’s Projects and Other People’s Needs” (pp. 272.2–273.4) contains an interesting observation: that in both of the “negative responsibility” cases about which Williams gets exercised (George and Jim), the agents are in tight spots because of the malevolent aims of others. One might wonder whether the claims that Williams makes, in connection with these cases and the supposed reasonableness of the agents’ declining to do the “best” thing, would be as reasonable if they were made in connection with cases in which other malevolent agents were not involved (e.g., rescuing people from natural disasters).
    3. (Wheeler)
      1. Wheeler points out that Harris may think that when Williams is rejecting “calculation” as a way of making moral decisions, he (Williams) is automatically privileging one’s integrity over other people’s needs, but that this may not be so (p. 251.5–7).
      2. Wheeler also claims that Williams can answer Harris’s objection by claiming that many of us have a “project” of saving human lives (p. 251.8). This seems to come to Williams’s defense a little too much. For Williams is, Wheeler has just plausibly argued, ready to concede that sometimes consequences such as saving others’ lives can override one’s own projects. He does not need to also throw in the extra, and unlikely, assumption that saving other’s lives is already part of the agent’s set of projects.
      3. A final point of Wheeler’s to note is that in rejecting the utilitarian perspective and arguing for the necessity of “moral-nose” decision-making, Williams is not necessarily advising that in all cases the relevant considerations not be entertained as thoughtfully as possible (p. 252.8).
    4. Carr
      1. Carr distinguishes the three senses of integrity I distinguished above (pp. 242.7–243.1), and points out that what Williams is accusing utilitarianism of it not requiring people to lack moral integrity, but to lack “personal integrity,” or a certain kind of wholeness in their lives they might otherwise enjoy.
      2. He concludes that Williams’s argument “will have come down to the claim that other considerations (that is, projects) are of greater moral worth than utilitarian ones” (p. 246.3), which is (I think) another way of saying that utilitarianism is excessively demanding.