Tuesday, May 26, 2009

On Debunking III: A Surprising Concession from JJC Smart

(by guest blogger Tamler Sommers)

In my previous post, I suggested that recent attempts at “selective debunking” in metaethics—explaining away non-consequentialist intuitions while leaving the consequentialist ones intact—have been unsuccessful. The debunking either works for both sets of intuitions or it doesn’t work at all. In this post, I look for support from a surprising source: Mr. “Embrace the Reductio” himself, JJC Smart.

The classic debate about utilitarian approaches to justice—as we’re taught in textbooks—looks like this. The utilitarian argues that retributive approaches to punishment are incoherent and that punishing criminals is only justified when society as a whole benefits. The retributivist then mounts a reductio-ad-absurdum argument, claiming that the utilitarian approach could make it just to punish an innocent person (e.g. the magistrate and the mob case). The Utilitarian has two choices now: (1) claim (implausibly in my view) that in real life it could never benefit society to punish an innocent person or (2) embrace the reductio: claim that in those rare cases in which society benefits from punishing the innocent, it is morally right to do so. JJC Smart is associated with the latter response. When confronted by the fact that the common moral consciousness rebels against this conclusion, Smart famously replies “so much the worse for the common moral consciousness.” (p. 68 in Utilitarianism For and Against)

Smart goes on to say that he is inclined to reject the common methodology of testing general principles by seeing if they match our feelings about particular cases. Why? Smart writes: “it is undeniable that we have anti-utilitarian feelings in particular cases but perhaps they should be discounted as far as possible as due to our moral conditioning in childhood.” (68)

What I’ve never seen reproduced in books that lay out this dialectic are Smart’s parenthetic remarks that immediately follow:

“(The weakness of this line of thought is that the approval of the general moral principle of utilitarianism may be due to moral conditioning too. And even if benevolence was in some way a ‘natural,’ not an ‘artificial,’ attitude, this consideration could at best have persuasive force without any clear rationale. To argue from the naturalness of the attitude to its correctness is to commit the naturalistic fallacy.)”

This critique of his own strategy parallels my comments on Greene and Singer. The strategy one chooses for debunking anti-utilitarian feelings, if it works it all, seems to apply to utilitarian feelings as well. Selective debunking is treacherous business. Smart’s position here is more subtle and complex than it sometimes appears from secondhand reports.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...