Friday, 8 February 2008

Gregory S. Kavka (1947-1994) on Consequentialism

Consequentialist moral theories evaluate acts or kinds of acts according to the value of the outcomes (i.e., actual or expected effects) of such acts. Utilitarian and egoistic variants of consequentialism differ in terms of how specified outcomes are valued. Egoistic theories evaluate outcomes in terms of the well-being or preferences of the acting agent. Utilitarian theories evaluate them in terms of the well-being or preferences of all affected individuals, with each person’s well-being or preferences being given equal weight. Thus, utilitarian and egoistic versions of consequentialism differ in their answers to the question “Consequences for whom?” Act and rule variants of consequentialism differ in terms of what outcomes (consequences) are evaluated. Act-consequentialist theories evaluate particular acts in terms of the value of their (actual or expected) outcomes. Rule-consequentialist theories evaluate types of actions (or rules requiring them) in terms of the (actual or expected) outcomes of certain agents performing, or trying to perform, acts of that type as a rule (i.e., the outcomes of the relevant agents following, or trying to follow, rules requiring acts of that type). Act and rule consequentialists differ in their answers to the question “Consequences of what?”

(Gregory S. Kavka, Hobbesian Moral and Political Theory [Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1986], 357-8 [italics in original])

Note from KBJ: The two distinctions—utilitarian/egoistic and act/rule—cut across one another, creating four types of consequentialism: (1) Act-utilitarianism; (2) rule-utilitarianism; (3) act-egoism; and (4) rule-egoism. Kavka interprets Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) as a rule-egoist.

Note 2 from KBJ: The first distinction—between utilitarian and egoistic—is not exhaustive. There are intermediate positions, such as tribalism and nationalism. The tribalist evaluates outcomes in terms of the well-being or preferences of all affected members of one’s tribe. The nationalist evaluates outcomes in terms of the well-being or preferences of all affected members of one’s nation. A better distinction is between impartialism and partialism. Utilitarianism is impartialism. Egoism is one type, but not the only type, of partialism.

Note 3 from KBJ: The second distinction—between act and rule—is not exhaustive, either. Any of a number of things can be evaluated in terms of their consequences: motives, acts, rules, even entire moral codes. A better distinction is between direct and indirect. Act-consequentialism is direct consequentialism. Rule-consequentialism is one type, but not the only type, of indirect consequentialism.


Charles Krauthammer confirms something I said the other day: that Bush and McCain are peas in a pod.

Addendum: What is the most important issue to you? The war on terror? The economy? Immigration?

Twenty Years Ago

2-8-88 . . . Richard Gephardt and Robert Dole won the Iowa caucuses, the first tangible results of the 1988 presidential campaign. I’m surprised by Gephardt’s victory, but not Dole’s.

From the Mailbag

Been chewing on this one this morning—would I vote for McCain if he picked Fred as his running mate? Although this would clearly be a sop to the Republican base, I’m not sure that’s good enough for me. I can’t see McCain outsourcing a significant portion of his presidency to Thompson the way that Bush has with Cheney, and even if McCain were to die in office and be succeeded by Thompson, that really is quite a long shot. First, I wouldn’t want to premise getting something I’d want, i.e., a President Thompson, on the demise of a President McCain. Second, there’s no reason to think that Thompson at 65 is in that much better condition than McCain at 71. Although Thompson’s lymphoma is in remission, there’s always the possibility that it might come back, so there’s no comparative advantage regarding health.

What are your thoughts?

Michael L. Murdock


Here is Peggy Noonan’s latest column. Here is Peg Kaplan’s latest post.

A Year Ago


From Today’s New York Times

To the Editor:

Among the many things to contest in William Kristol’s column is one that I hope will not slip by unnoticed: the claim that political conservatism is “not easy” in “a modern liberal democracy.”

On the contrary, it is far too easy to create and win favor for a domestic policy that does little more than eviscerate government programs while cutting taxes for wealthy donors and others who are encouraged to pursue nothing more than their own self-interest. Even Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush could get their minds around that.

It is liberals who do the difficult work of formulating effective programs to address serious problems that the market economy and private gain do not resolve. Conservatives appoint themselves to the easy job of tearing these efforts down.

And it is liberals who do the often thankless work of asking our fellow citizens to rise occasionally above their own self-interest.

Stuart Blumin
Ithaca, N.Y., Feb. 5, 2008

Note from KBJ: The function of government is to provide a framework of rules within which individuals pursue their various interests. It is to keep us from each other’s throats, not to force us to provide for one another.


Dr John J. Ray has some thoughts about authority.

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