Agency as a Force for Good




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One fundamental reason for favouring consequentialism is the basic teleological intuition that the primary purpose of agency is to realize preferable outcomes. If you have a choice between a better state of affairs and a worse one, it’s very natural to think that the better state of affairs would be the better option to choose.A slightly different way to put it is that if it would be good for something to happen, then it would be good to choose for it to happen. Our agency is itself part of the natural world, after all, and while it is distinctive in being subject to moral evaluation — misdirected exercises of agency may be wicked in a way that unfortunately directed lightning strikes are not — it’s far from clear why this should transform an otherwise desirable outcome into an undesirable one. There’s nothing obviously misdirected (let alone “wicked”) about straightforwardly aiming at the good, after all.Consequentialism thus fits with an appealing conception of agency as a force for good in the world. Left to its own devices, the world might just as easily drift into bad outcomes as good ones, but through our choices, we moral agents may deliberately steer it along better paths.This suggests to me a (possibly new?) argument for consequentialism. For it seems a real cost to non-consequentialist views that they must give up this view of agency as a force for good. Instead, on non-consequentialist views, it could well be a bad thing for outcomes to fall under the control of — even fully-informed and morally perfect — agents.For example, consider a “lifeboat” case (with a choice between saving one or saving five others) where the non-consequentialist insists on flipping a coin rather than simply saving the many. Imagine a variant of the case where, if the captain of the lifeboat hadn’t been steering it, it would have naturally drifted towards the five — resulting in the best outcome. It’s. . .

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