Tuesday, 3 January 2012

How much should act-consequentialists pay for a Radiohead album?

An old objection to act consequentialism is that it conflicts with honesty. The basic structure of the argument runs like this:

(1) An honest person must accept certain constraints on their behaviour – there are certain actions which are off-limits to them, such as telling a lie or breaking a promise.

(2) Act consequentialists cannot accept such constraints, since they must be open to performing any act which has the best consequences. It may well be the case that telling a lie or breaking a promise has the best consequences.

Therefore: (3) Act consequentialists may be morally obligated to act dishonestly.

Act consequentialists usually respond by demonstrating two forms of bad consequences that flow from dishonesty. Firstly, they object that dishonesty undermines important social institutions, such as promising. Being able to trust one another is a necessary requirement for cooperation, and without cooperation, we would lose many important benefits. Yet if people regularly lie to one another and break their promises, trust breaks down, and these benefits are lost. Therefore, we ought to be honest in order to preserve trust and social cooperation.

The trouble with this argument is that while it rules out regular dishonesty, it seems insufficient to ensure that dishonesty is never the best policy. One lie or broken promise is unlikely to make that much difference. As we see, people lie and break promises all the time, and yet trust still exists. The key is that they do not do so too often. The only constraint that this argument places on the act consequentialist is that they must choose their exceptions carefully – they ought not to be dishonest all the time, but only when it is really necessary.

The second type of consequence brought forward by act consequentialists are the effects of a loss of personal reputation. Even if I lie all the time, it is unlikely to have a significant effect on how much other people trust each other. Yet all it takes is a few lies to greatly reduce people’s trust in me. Thus act consequentialists have a good reason to be honest because of the need to maintain their own reputations for integrity.

Of course, this raises the question of whether act consequentialists still have any reason to act honestly in cases where their reputation is not on the line. The increasingly popular phenomenon of ‘honesty boxes’ puts this to the test. Under an honesty box system, payment for a good or service is not enforced, but depends on the conscience of the consumer. Yet this neglects the possibility that the consequentialist’s conscience might tell them something entirely at odds with common-sense morality. Since honesty boxes are anonymous, and so consequentialists need not worry about their reputations, what other reason do they have to respect them?

In the case of small-scale institutions, the non-compliance of even a single individual may undermine the whole project. For example, if an office operates a coffee machine where everybody is expected to pay a set amount for every coffee they consume, the failure of even one person to pay up could make the scheme unviable. Nobody would know whose fault it is, but the consequentialist’s actions would ruin mutually beneficial arrangement for everyone.

Other honesty box systems involve making a promise, and so consequentialist objections to breaking a promise become relevant. For example, last week I found a copy of Paul Story’s novel Dreamwords left at a bus stop, with a note from its author attached. The note asked people to people to take the book only if they promise to pay its full price if they enjoyed the, and only £1 if they did not. Essentially, this sort of promise is a novel form of the ‘desert island problem’, which has exercised many moral philosophers - a case where a person makes a promise to a person who has no way of knowing if the obligation is discharged. Interestingly, Story labels the scheme ‘An experiment in honesty’, which means that breaking this promise is likely to be more consequential than breaking your average promise. The results from ‘experiments’ like these are likely to receive a fair amount of attention, and to feed back into people’s perceptions about how trustworthy their society is. Therefore consequentialists have a stronger reason to fulfil these sorts of promises, as their social consequences are greater than average.

It is harder to justify contributing to large anonymous honesty boxes that don’t involve promising, like Radiohead’s famous ‘pay what you like’ policy for the album In Rainbows. In these cases, the only consideration I can think of in favour is that if we believe that this is a good model for others writers and publishers to follow, then consequentialists should contribute to its success by paying money that will support it an encourage its extension.

While all of these are possible reasons in favour of paying into an honesty box, good act consequentialists need to consider the other side of the equation: possible alternative uses of the money. Inevitably (this is the consequentialist response to so many moral dilemmas), the best way to spend your money is almost certainly to donate it to an anti-poverty charity.

This conclusion, that we should donate all our money to charity, with its implication that this dilemma is an essentially frivolous one where we try to choose between two equally sinful alternatives, is unsatisfying. It shows the limitations of absolutist, as opposed to scalar, consequentialism. Consequentialist ought to have the resources to explain that ideally we should give our money to charity, but that if we don’t it may be better to contribute to honesty boxes than to spend money on our selves.

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