A little while ago, I wrote about the paradoxes of hedonism and consequentialism: if you try too hard to be happy, it may stop you from being so; more generally a belief in always achieving the best consequences may itself stop you from achieving the best consequences. I said a little bit in the earlier post about Peter Railton‘s defence of consequentialism in spite of this paradox, but there’s more to be added. I’ve talked before about how consequentialism requires us to lie to ourselves; Railton is rightly concerned with the further problem that consequentialism requires us to lie to ourselves about consequentialism.
Railton distinguishes between “subjective” and “objective” consequentialism, which works something like the distinction between act- and rule- utilitarianism. A subjective consequentialist examines each decision according to the question “which action in this case will bring about the best overall consequences?” and acts accordingly. The subjective consequentialist, according to Railton, can be subject to a paradox: a person who always thinks this way may actually end up with worse consequences. (A possible example: each time one lies to murderers at the door may individually seem like it produces a better consequence, but if one does it repeatedly, one may no longer be believed, in a way that makes one less likely to achieve future good results.) An objective consequentialist tries to get around the paradox by following the pattern of behaviour that would on the whole bring about the best consequences, even if that means not thinking about each action in consequentialist terms.
Railton gives a helpful example of a simpler case that, I think, both illustrates and undermines his point:
A highly competitive tennis player comes to realize that his obsession with winning is keeping him from playing his best. A pro tells him that if he wants to win he must devote himself more to the game and its play as such and think less about his performance. In the commitment and concentration made possible by this devotion, he is told, lies the secret of successful tennis. So he spends a good deal of time developing an enduring devotion to many aspects of the activity, and finds it peculiarly satisfying to become so absorbed in it. He plays better, and would have given up the program of change if he did not, but he now finds that he plays tennis more for its own sake, enjoying greater internal as well as external rewards from the sport. Such a person would not keep thinking — on or off the court — “No matter how I play, the only thing I really care about is whether I win!” He would recognize such thoughts as self-defeating, as evidence that his old, unhelpful way of looking at things was returning. Nor would such a person be self-deceiving. He need not hide from himself his goal of winning, for this goal is consistent with his increased devotion to the game. His commitment to the activity is not eclipsed by, but made more vivid by, his desire to succeed at it. (144)
Railton uses this example to illustrate how a “sophisticated” consequentialist could face a “problem rather than a paradox”: how to achieve the best consequences even when doing so is a matter of not carrying out consequentialist deliberations. Doing so would be analogous to the tennis player’s adopts goals other than the goal of winning, in order to achieve the goal of winning.
But here’s the thing: at this point the player’s goal no longer is winning, in the singular. He still wishes to win, but he also wishes to engage in the other pleasures of tennis. He has changed his goals. He has changed them for the sake of his earlier goal, but he has nonetheless changed them. In practice, if not in theory, he has refuted his earlier worldview. He has shown himself that his earlier worldview, according to which winning was all that mattered, was false. If the analogy holds (and that is a big if), then one who adopts non-consequentialist goals in order to achieve consequentialism has effectively acknowledged that consequentialism is false.
In practice, the “objective consequentialist” does not seem to get around the paradox at all. The logic of the bare idea of objective hedonism might theoretically remain in place; but the whole point of the objective hedonist view was that it was supposed to be applied in action, in practice, in life. It’s not just a theory about how the world is but about how we should act. And if it is the case that thinking in consequentialist ways takes us away from the best consequences, then once we act according to objective consequentialism, we effectively reject it. It strikes me as a very Hegelian sort of process: the tennis player has realized that the goal of winning by itself was simply not good enough, and acknowledged that other goals must exist alongside it. The consequentialist too must acknowledge that there are other purposes of action besides their consequences.
Railton’s defence against such an accusation is to distinguish between truth and justification, between “truth-conditions” and “acceptance-conditions” for an ethical theory. Even though we might never be justified in believing consequentialism, it could still be true. Such a view at first suggests a pure externalist approach to knowledge: things can be true independently of whether we can know they’re true. But then one needs to ask what makes them true, if their truth cannot be known. (In Railton’s case there is a further wrinkle that one might first believe the true thing, and then forget it and reject it. I’m reminded of Ch’an views that true awakening involves “forgetting.”) I suppose this is where the distinction between Railton and Hegel would lie: the latter acknowledges a closer connection between what is true and what we should believe.