When Will Your Consequentialist Friend Abandon You for the Greater Good?

By Woodcock, Scott | Journal of Ethics & Social Philosophy, February 2010 | Go to article overview

When Will Your Consequentialist Friend Abandon You for the Greater Good?


Woodcock, Scott, Journal of Ethics & Social Philosophy


ACCORDING TO A WELL-KNOWN OBJECTION to consequentialism, the answer to the preceding question is alarmingly straightforward: your consequentialist friend will abandon you the minute that she can more efficiently promote the good via options that do not include her maintaining a relationship with you. Moreover, for consequentialists living in relatively affluent circumstances, this will apparently be a routine occurrence. Friendship is surely a good worth promoting, either for instrumental reasons or for its own sake, but the sum of goodness to be promoted at any particular moment through friendships among the affluent will presumably amount to less than the sum that can be promoted by diverting time and resources to persons in dire need of aid. Thus, the obligation to maximize the good creates a persistent source of tension for consequentialists caught between their commitment to their moral theory and the personal commitments that bind them to their friends. The tension is not exclusively related to consequentialism, but the teleological nature of the theory makes it a conspicuous target for critics to set their sights upon.

The most prominent response from consequentialists has been to emphasize the profound value of friendship for human agents and to remind critics of the distinction between a theory's criterion of tightness and what it recommends as effective decision-making procedures. (1) This is not the only way to respond to what I will refer to as the "friendship objection." Adopting rule-consequentialism, satisficing consequentialism or agent-centered prerogatives will also help to reduce the tension between friendship and the rigorous demands of consequentialism. (2) However, invoking the distinction between criteria of rightness and decision-making procedures is the most economical response to the friendship objection for those who prefer more generic forms of act-consequentialism, i.e. forms that do not involve modifications of the basic criterion that a right action is one which best promotes goodness given the alternatives available to an agent at a particular time. One simply recommends whatever decision procedures are most effective in terms of maximizing the good; then one relies on the empirical hypothesis that lives without friendship are so alienating for human beings that more goodness is promoted by agents with friends than agents who act on direct consequentialist decision procedures.

By emphasizing this feature of (sensible) act-consequentialism, the objection that consequentialists are incapable of maintaining friendships is defused, for such agents can be directed--to the extent that empirical details permit--to act preferentially for the sake of their friends instead of being exclusively motivated by their consequentialist criterion of rightness. In effect, the substance of the friendship objection becomes an upgrade instead of a liability. If friendship is so vital for human lives that its elimination is catastrophic for our integrity as moral agents, then this is all the more reason for consequentialists to ensure that their decision procedures (understood to include broad dispositions, character traits, virtues, motives, etc.) successfully capture this good and avoid the self-defeating results that arise when agents divest themselves of their personal relationships.

This response to the friendship objection has generated considerable interest, yet an important question remains curiously overlooked in the resulting literature. This is the issue of when a consequentialist will break from indirect methods of promoting the good and revert back to a direct form of decision-making. (3) It might seem as if this issue must be addressed before consequentialism's accommodation of friendship can be evaluated, but this has not been the case. Instead, the issue is often postponed because the objection tends to be stated as an in-principle objection to the way friendship is incorporated within consequentialism rather than an objection to any particular point when empirical details force consequentialists to act against the bonds of their friendships. …

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