Philosophy Colloquium – Dr. Alan Hájek: ‘Consequentialism, Cluelessness, Clumsiness, and Counterfactuals’

Tuesday March 12, 2024
12:30 PM - 2:00 PM
1866 Main Mall, Vancouver

Abstract: According to objective consequentialism, a morally right action is one that has the best consequences. (These are not just the immediate consequences of the actions, but the long-term consequences, perhaps until the end of history.) I will argue that on one understanding this makes no sense, and on another understanding, it has a startling metaphysical presupposition concerning counterfactuals. Objective consequentialism has faced various objections, including the problem of “cluelessness”: we have no idea what most of the consequences of our actions will be; they could be catastrophic, wonderful, or anywhere in between. I think that on these understandings, objective consequentialism has a far worse problem: its very foundations are highly dubious. Even granting these foundations, a worse problem than cluelessness remains, which I call “clumsiness”. Moreover, I think that these problems quickly generalise to a number of other moral theories. But the point is most easily made for objective consequentialism, so I will focus largely on it.

I will consider three ways that objective consequentialism might be improved:
1)    Appeal instead to short-term consequences of actions;
2)    Understand consequences with objective probabilities;
3)    Understand consequences with subjective/evidential probabilities.

I will argue that 1) still fails, but that 2) and 3) are the best prospects for consequentialism.

Bio: Alan Hájek received a BSc. (Hons) in mathematical statistics at the University of Melbourne, an M.A. in philosophy at the University of Western Ontario, and a Ph.D. in philosophy at Princeton University. He has taught at the University of Melbourne and Caltech, before joining the Philosophy Program at the Research School of Social Sciences, Australian National University, as Professor of Philosophy in 2005. He has been a Fellow of the Australian Academy of the Humanities since 2007. He was the President of the Australasian Association of Philosophy, 2009-10. He won the American Philosophical Association Article Prize for “the best article published in the previous two years” by a “younger scholar”, for “What Conditional Probability Could Not Be”, 2004. Two of his articles were selected by The Philosopher’s Annual as “one of the ten best articles in philosophy” in the previous year: “Waging War on Pascal’s Wager”, 2004, and “Degrees of Commensurability and the Repugnant Conclusion”, with Wlodek Rabinowicz, 2022.