Making Morality Work Holly M. Smith 2018 Print ISBN-13: 9780199560080 Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: May 2018 DOI: 10.1093/oso/9780199560080

Making Morality Work Holly M. Smith  2018


Holly M. Smith


Chapter 1 describes the central issue addressed by the book and then outlines the common philosophical responses to this issue and the type of solution for which the author will argue. The central issue is that we are epistemically limited agents who must contend with false beliefs or uncertainty in trying to ascertain and do what is right according to traditional moral theories. Common responses to this “epistemic problem” for morality include the “Austere” Response (sticking with traditional theories even though they are often unusable); the “Pragmatic” Response (abandoning traditional theories in favor of more user-friendly ones); and the “Hybrid” Response (seeking the advantages of both approaches in a two-tier structure that marries a traditional moral theory with more usable decision-guides). The advantages and disadvantages of all three responses will be assessed in subsequent chapters.

Keywords:   Austere Response, epistemic problem for morality, epistemically limited agents, Hybrid Response, Pragmatic Response

Using Moral Principles to Guide Decisions

Holly M. Smith


The Usability Demand is a demand that an acceptable moral theory be usable by those governed by it. For an inquiry into whether and how moral theories meet this demand, it is crucial to understand “usability.” Chapter 2 analyzes the concepts of what it is for a decision maker to use a moral principle to make a decision, and what makes a moral principle usable. It introduces the distinction between an agent’s ability in the core and the extended senses to use a moral principle as a decision-guide, and offers a formal definition of “usability” that tells us how a principle can prescribe an act under an “immediately helpful” description. The question of whether the Usability Demand requires extended or merely core usability is deferred to subsequent chapters.

Keywords:   core usability, decision-guide, extended usability, immediately helpful description, moral principle, usability, Usability Demand

Impediments to Usability

Error, Ignorance, and Uncertainty

Holly M. Smith


The Usability Demand requires all moral theories to be usable for decision-making, arguably by each agent and on every occasion for decision-making. Chapter 3 first examines the ways in which common human epistemic deficiencies can cause a moral theory to fail the Usability Demand (lack of understanding; error, uncertainty, and ignorance [lack of belief] about relevant nonmoral facts; cognitive computational constraints; error, uncertainty, or ignorance about moral facts; and meta-moral error and uncertainty). Among these problems the book will focus on error and uncertainty about nonmoral facts. The chapter then describes the three salient responses to these problems: the Pragmatic, Austere, and Hybrid Responses. Finally, it lays out both conceptual rationales (such as the claim that the concept of morality requires usability) and goal-oriented rationales (such as the claim that a moral system must enhance social welfare) for accepting the Usability Demand.

Keywords:   Austere Response, epistemic deficiencies, error, Hybrid Response, Pragmatic Response, moral facts, nonmoral facts, rationales for the Usability Demand, uncertainty, Usability Demand

Pragmatic Responses to the Problem of Error

Holly M. Smith


Chapter 4 examines ideal Pragmatic Responses to the problem of nonmoral error: responses which seek to identify a normatively acceptable moral code that is universally usable by all agents. Some proposed ideal codes are objectivized (an act’s rightness depends on its objective features), whereas others are subjectivized (an act’s rightness depends on the features its agent believes it to have). An ideal Pragmatic code would fulfill at least some of the conceptual and goal-oriented rationales for requiring a code to meet the Usability Demand. The most promising candidate code is the moral laundry list, which consists of a list of individual actions, each described in terms the agent can unerringly apply. However, since no agent has the knowledge to identify the correct moral laundry list, the chapter finds no Pragmatic Response that provides an effective remedy for the problem of error.

Keywords:   ideal Pragmatic Response, moral laundry list, objectivized code, problem of nonmoral error, problem of error, subjectivized code, Usability Demand

A Further Disadvantage of Subjectivized Moral Codes

Holly M. Smith


One important type of proposal (originally by W. D. Ross and H. A. Prichard) for an ideal Pragmatic code is a subjectivized moral theory, a code stating that one’s duty is (for example) to do X because one believes that doing so would fulfill a promise or compensate for a past wrong. Chapter 5 distinguishes between a free-standing duty to acquire information and a derivative duty to acquire information (the latter utilizing the concept of a duty’s deontic weight), and argues that subjectivized deontological codes cannot account for the widely accepted duty (whether free-standing or derivative) to acquire information relevant to one’s future actions before acting. Mixed deontological and consequentialist codes including such subjectivized deontological duties suffer the same problem. This fatal failure shows that subjectivized codes with deontological elements must be rejected, quite independently of their failure to meet the Usability Demand.

Keywords:   deontic weight, deontological code, derivative duty, free-standing duty, ideal Pragmatic code, mixed deontological and consequentialist code, subjectivized duty to acquire information

Non-Ideal Pragmatic Responses to the Problem of Error

Holly M. Smith


Having discovered that no ideal Pragmatic Responses to the problem of error are acceptable, Chapter 6 explores the more modest non-ideal Pragmatic Response. This response advocates seeking a moral code that may fall short of complete error-freedom but that achieves a greater degree of error-freedom, and thus a higher degree of extended usability, than rival moral codes. According to this view, if a code’s extended usability value is higher than that of another code, the first code is better than the second. To implement this strategy requires introducing key new concepts, such as concepts of the bare and code-weighted usability of a principle, the deontically perfect code, the deontic merit of a code, the weight merit of a code, and usability value of a moral code. Assessment of the strategy’s success is taken up in Chapter 7.

Keywords:   bare usability, code-weighted usability, deontic merit of a code, deontically perfect code, extended usability value, non-ideal Pragmatic Response, usability value of a code, weight merit of a code

Assessing Non-Ideal Pragmatic Responses to the Problem of Error

Holly M. Smith


The non-ideal Pragmatic theorist seeks the moral code whose usability value, if not perfect, nonetheless exceeds that of any rival code. Chapter 7 assesses the success of this approach, and concludes that it fails. Comparing codes in terms of their usability value requires more information than any agent or theorist can command. Moreover, the code with the highest usability value is shown to be the moral laundry list, which earlier chapters rejected. Finally, Chapter 7 shows that there is no guarantee that the code with the highest usability value fulfills the rationales supporting the Usability Demand. Such a code will not necessarily offer agents the basic form of justice, providing everyone with the opportunity to lead a successful moral life; nor will it necessarily better enhance social welfare than rival codes; nor will it necessarily lead to a better pattern of actions among well-motivated agents.

Keywords:   basic form of justice, moral laundry list, non-Ideal Pragmatic theory, pattern of actions, social welfare, successful moral life, Usability Demand, usability value

Hybrid and Austere Responses to the Problem of Error

Holly M. Smith


Chapter 8 explores the Austere and Hybrid Responses to the problem of error. The two types of response are described in both ideal and non-ideal versions. Both are found wanting, but the Austere Response emerges as best. Codes endorsed by the Austere approach cannot be shown to meet the “goal-oriented” desiderata of maximizing social welfare, facilitating social cooperation and long-range planning, or guaranteeing the occurrence of the ideal pattern of actions. But Austere-endorsed codes do satisfy the conceptual desiderata for “usable” moral theories in the core (but not the extended) sense of “usability.” They are usable despite the agent’s false beliefs, and they provide agents with the opportunity to live a successful moral life according to the modest conception of this life. This chapter concludes that the only remedy for the problem of error is an Austere code containing a derivative duty for agents to gather information before acting.

Keywords:   Austere Response, conceptual desiderata, duty to gather information, goal-oriented desiderata, Hybrid Response, moderate conception of successful moral life, problem of error

The Problems of Ignorance and Uncertainty

Holly M. Smith


Chapter 9 turns to further epistemic barriers for decision makers: the problems of (nonmoral) ignorance and (nonmoral) uncertainty. The concepts of “ignorance” and “uncertainty” are elucidated, the problem of uncertainty is defined, and it is argued that the problem of ignorance should be treated as a special case of the problem of uncertainty. The three salient attempts to solve the problem are the Pragmatic, Austere, and Hybrid approaches. Combined solutions to the problem of error and the problem of uncertainty are explored, and it is argued that the only feasible approaches marry the Austere Response to the problem of error with the Hybrid Response to the problem of uncertainty in a two-tier system. The top-tier code provides the correct theoretical account of right and wrong, while the lower-tier rules provide associated decision-guides. Consistency requires that different normative terms be used by the top-tier rules and by the lower-tier rules.

Keywords:   Austere approach, decision-guides, Hybrid approach, Pragmatic approach, problem of nonmoral ignorance, normative terms, problem of nonmoral uncertainty, two-tier system

The Hybrid Solution to the Problems of Error and Uncertainty

Holly M. Smith


Chapter 10 investigates whether the combined Austere and Hybrid two-tier system, now re-labeled the “Hybrid solution,” provides an effective response to the problem of uncertainty. Criteria of adequacy for a solution to this problem are articulated, and versions of the approach offering a single decision-guide at the lower tier are assessed. Popular guides, such as “Perform the act most likely to be obligatory,” “Maximize expected value,” and “Try to perform the obligatory act,” along with more sophisticated guides proposed by Fred Feldman and John Pollock, are each shown to be inadequate, partly because they demand a richer set of beliefs than many agents possess. The chapter concludes that a Hybrid system offering multiple decision-guides for uncertainty seems far better positioned to solve the problem of uncertainty.

Keywords:   Austere and Hybrid system, expected value, Feldman, Hybrid solution, multiple decision-guides, Pollock, problem of uncertainty, two-tier system

Multiple-Rule Hybrid Solutions to the Problems of Error and Uncertainty

Holly M. Smith


Chapter 11 argues that the best Hybrid system is one in which multiple lower-tier decision-guides are arranged in a hierarchy that prioritizes, on deontic grounds, the guides that are best to use in situations where an agent can use more than one guide in deriving a prescription. The system includes a theoretical account of right and wrong (Code C) that prescribes acts as objectively obligatory, together with a general decision-guiding principle (Code C*). Code C* prescribes as subjectively obligatory the act recommended as choice-mandated by the decision-guide, usable in the core sense by the agent, that is higher in the hierarchy of choice-mandating decision-guides than any other decision-guide usable by the agent and appropriate to Code C. This decision-guide need only be usable in the core, not the extended, sense. Sample consequentialist and Rossian Hybrid systems are outlined.

Keywords:   choice-mandated, Code C, Code C*, consequentialist, decision-guides, hierarchy, Hybrid system, objectively obligatory, Rossian, subjectively obligatory

Developing the Hybrid Solution

Holly M. Smith


Chapter 12 further develops the Hybrid approach to the problem of uncertainty. It begins by exploring definitions for an agent’s ability to indirectly use an objective moral theory by selecting an action that is prescribed by an appropriate decision-guide. Rejecting initial definitions which imply that an agent lacks this ability if she is uncertain which decision-guide is the best one for her to use, the chapter seeks alternative solutions. The first attempted solution, the Low Bar approach, is abandoned because it makes it too easy for such an uncertain agent to count as having the ability to indirectly use a moral theory’s Code C. The remedy is the Expanded Moral Theory approach, which includes more levels of guides (precepts, maxims, and counsels), each designed to issue prescriptions for agents suffering from uncertainty about available lower-level guides as well as about which act complies with Code C.

Keywords:   Code C, counsels, decision-guide, Expanded Moral Theory approach, Hybrid approach to uncertainty, indirectly using an objective moral theory, Low Bar approach, lower-level guides, maxims, precepts

Assessing the Hybrid Solution

Holly M. Smith


Chapter 13 completes the development and assessment of the Hybrid approach. Final developments involve introducing the concept of an action’s being “decision-mandated,” redefining “subjective obligatoriness” using this concept, and requiring (in order to avoid reemergence of the moral laundry list) that rankings of the guides at all levels be modally robust relative to the governing Code C. Nonetheless some agents may experience forms of sophisticated uncertainty about which act should be chosen according to this Constrained Standards Hybrid approach. In such cases, hopefully rare, there is no subjectively obligatory act and there is no way for the agent to indirectly apply her moral theory. Even so, the Constrained Standards Hybrid approach appears to be the best solution to the problems of error and uncertainty despite the fact that it cannot wholly solve the epistemic limitations that agents may confront.

Keywords:   Constrained Standards Hybrid approach, decision-mandated, Hybrid approach, indirectly apply a moral theory, modally robust, moral laundry list, problems of error and uncertainty, subjective obligatoriness, uncertainty


Holly M. Smith


Chapter 14 provides a summary of the book, describing the epistemic problem in morality, the rationales for seeking usability, and the three salient approaches to solving this problem (the Austere, Pragmatic, and Hybrid solutions). It assesses the strengths and weaknesses of each of these solutions as an approach to the problem of error and the problem of uncertainty. The book introduces a fully-worked out, novel version of the Hybrid solution—termed the “Constrained Standards Hybrid” solution—which is appraised in Chapter 13 as the best available moral system for accommodating the epistemic frailties human decision makers bring to their choices of how to act.

Keywords:   Austere solution, Constrained Standards Hybrid solution, epistemic problem in morality, Hybrid solution, Pragmatic solution, usability

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