Multi-Act Consequentialism?

I used to be a Mill-style utilitarian, and continue to admire many aspects of his moral philosophy. That said, the theory eventually seemed too logically messy for me to endorse. So I abandoned it maybe a little less than a decade ago.

I started to come back around to Millianism a few months ago after discovering Mendola’s (2006) “Multiple-act consequentialism” (MAC). Mendola points out that “act-consequentialism” usually refers only to individual actions, and makes no sense of group actions (or relegates such actions to the status of remoter effects). But once you admit that there are such things as group actions (as many now do), it follows that one and the same behavior can involve multiple actions: the one that proceeds the individual’s intention, and the ones that proceed from the group’s intentions. So a moral theory needs to have some kind of choice-procedure for weighing between the individual act and participation in the group.

But then you start to learn the details of Mendola’s choice-procedure. For Mendola, we might say that the right thing to do is to conform to group actions so long as the benefits of the group activity as a whole are greater than the individual benefits of defection. That is the theory.

Now suppose that you are a cop and discover corruption in your police department. Suppose also that if you rat on the corruption, you risk sending the department into chaos. Finally, suppose the status quo produces a lot of good — more good than would be achieved by defection alone. What do you do?

On first blush, MAC should ask us not to defect. But I do not see that as an especially compelling moral result. Not just because it is unintuitive, but because it violates an internally held conviction I have held for some time: when you’re in a no-win scenario, go with your integrity.

(To unpack that a little. If you’ve got any morals at all, you’ve got to try to make a better world — but along the way, you can’t undermine your capacity to choose to make a better world. This owes to the fact that there is no such thing as a ‘better world’ without people there to fight for it. Goodness is a property both ascribed and aspired, if it is anything at all.)

That is not to say that Mendola’s MAC cannot be defended. We might be engaged in still other group projects that might recommend snitching. Still, even if his choice-procedure did turn out to be a dud, I do like the idea of MAC. Though I am not for the moment sure that my parenthetical principles do it any justice.

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