Thursday, April 17, 2008

Could a perfect act-utilitarian make assertions?

I suspect in the end the answer to my title question may be positive, but I want to run through an argument that makes it problematic that a perfect act-utilitarian, i.e., someone who always figures out the maximum utility and acts in according to it, could make assertions. I am making no claims of soundness or validity for the argument.

Making assertions is a norm-governed practice. An essential part of what it is to engage in a norm-governed practice is to accept the norms as applicable to oneself. What exactly the norm of assertion is—what conditions are such that making an assertion that p is appropriately—is controversial. Proposals made have included truth, belief, justified belief and knowledge. All of these have something to be said for them. But the following does not: "The norm of assertion is the maximization of utility." The practice of uttering that which the uttering of maximizes utility is not the practice of assertion. The perfect act-utilitiarian is governed by the norm of utility-maximization in all actions. Therefore, she does not accept the norm of assertion. Therefore, she does not engage in the practice of assertion. Therefore, she does not make assertions.


Skeptical said...

To make assertions you don't have to accept the norms. You just have to put yourself forward as accepting the norms. So a full-fledged act-utilitarians can make assertions, just like a full-fledged act-egoist can make promises.

Alexander R Pruss said...

That would be a nice way out for the utilitarian. On your view, do you think the following further analogy holds? "Just as the full-fledged act-egoist cannot make sincere promises, so the full-fledged act-utilitarian cannot make sincere assertions"?

But I am not sure that it is enough to put oneself forward as accepting the norms. Suppose I don't believe that the norms of promising even exist. Can I make a promise? It seems to me that one of the things that goes on in a promise is that one deliberately gives another a right to expect a performance of one. One can't unconsciously promise something. But if I don't believe that the norms of promising exist (and there is no such thing as a norm of behavior that has no authority: if it has no authority, it's at most the appearance of a norm), then I don't take myself to be giving you any right, and hence I don't think I'm making you any promise. I can only take myself to be making you think you have a right, and that doesn't seem enough.

It seems to me that we can only hold someone responsible for keeping a promise if she has an idea of what the making of promises is. What is the making of promises? It is an action that places one under certain norms. If one does not believe this, one doesn't know what the making of promises is.

Objection: The act-egoist can believe that the making of promises places one under a norm that requires fulfillment, but does not believe that norm to be morally binding.

Response: It seems essential to taking something to be a promise that one take the norm to be morally binding. Suppose that I think that "I promise to do A" means "If I don't do A, you've got the right to write my name on the side of the ALICO building." There is a kind of norm, here though not a moral one. I then say: "I promise to do A". Have I promised to do A? Not at all--I've simply given you the right to write my name on the side of the ALICO building should I fail to do A. It seems that you need to get right the kind of norm that is at issue. Nor is it enough, I think, to get right what the promisee thinks the norm is.

But suppose your criticism works. I can still try to make two related cases that might be somewhat damaging to act-utilitarianism. First, suppose that act-utilitarianism is actually true, and not merely believed to be true. Then there is no such thing as assertions, since there is no thing whose norm is truth, or belief, or justified belief, or knowledge, or whatever the exact norm of assertion is. This seems damaging. Second, imagine that everybody is a self-conscious and perfect act-utilitarian, and everybody knows everybody else to be such, and suppose this is unchangeable. It is an interesting fact that then nobody can make assertions, since nobody can make anybody think that they are doing something that falls under the norm of assertion, since everybody unchangeably believes there is no such norm (or that it's not applicable to anything).