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: Continue reading