Ron Sandler

Ethical Theory and the Problem of Inconsequentialism

Why Env Ethicists should be Virtue-Oriented Ethicists


1.      Many env problems are longitudinal collective action problems (LCAP)

2.      LCAP

         a.      Arise from cumulative unintended effects

         b.      Of a vast amount of seemingly insignificant decisions and acts of individuals

         c.      Unknown to each other and distant from each other

         d.      LCAP effectively addressed only by enormous # of individuals each making a nearly insignificant contribution to resolving them

3.      Problem of inconsequentialism arises with LCAPs

         a.      When making a contribution to solving LCAP appears to require a sacrifice or cost to person

         b.      Given that contribution (“needed, but not necessary?”) is nearly inconsequential to addressing the problem

         c.      Why should person make effort, especially when uncertain/unlikely others will?

4.      Examples of env problems that are LCAP and not

         a.      CC, some pollution problems, fisheries depletion, human population growth, ozone layer degradation

         b.      Takes lots of people, almost all of whom act w/o env malice (though often with env ignorance or indifference) to cause the problem

         c.      Examples of env problems that are not?


5.      Main argument of the paper:

         a.      Justification for making the effort (in such cases of inconsequentialism) best supported by “virtue-oriented normative theories”

         b.      Kantian or act utilitarian theories don’t do as well



7.      Virtue oriented normative theory

         a.      Character traits evaluated as virtues/vices based on consequences or ends (teleologically)

         b.      Acts are evaluated in terms of virtues/vices

8.      Act utilitarian normative theory

         a.      Acts evaluated by whether they produce the best good consequences

9.      Kantian normative theory

         a.      Acts evaluated by whether they are “universalizable” and whether they treat beings with inherent value as ends in themselves and not as mere means

         b.      Consequences don’t matter (intention does?)


10.    Political solution response to LCAP (and problem of inconsequentialism) fails as it faces same problem of inconsequentialism

         a.      According to the “political solution”

                   i.       Need political activism on part of individuals

                   ii.      To develop political arrangements and compliance incentives and mechanisms

11.    Problems with political solution response to inconsequentialism

         a.      Inconsequentialism again: But activities of vast majority of individuals are inconsequential to bring about national and international agreements required

         b.      Ignores that we still have to decide if make the effort

                   i.       Further, that we should actively politically support solutions to these env problems, does not tell us how we should act in our own lives concerning our (inconsequential) contributions to these problems, especially in the absence of the policies

         c.      Problem of inconsequentialism arises even with political solution in place

                   i.       Even if political arrangement in place to address env problem the problem of inconsequentialism arises if costs to agent of contributing are greater than those of not complying

                   ii.      Why should I make an effort (even if collective action in place) given that my contrition is insignificant to whether it will succeed

                   iii.     Note that in this case others are doing their part but issue still arises

                            (1)    Perhaps not as forcefully

                            (2)    Since there is no unfairness in putting forward the effort (as there was when others weren’t contributing)



         a.      Virtue-oriented normative theories support these responses (to inconsequentialism) better than Kantian and act utilitarian theories

13.    One: Appeal to agent benefit

         a.      Responding to the problems not as costly as might think; it is actually beneficial to person acting, especially in long run

14.    Two: Appeal to duty (responses Sinnott-Armstrong calls into question)

         a.      Shift focus from cost and benefits of acting (consequences) to a focus on the act itself

         b.      Person required to do your duty regardless of what others do

         c.      Person required to act in ways that would resolve the problem if others were to act similarly

         d.      Person required to do their fair share to address the problem, no matter how small the share

15.    Three: Appeal to amplifying effects

         a.      Individual’s acts not as inconsequential as they appear

         b.      Person can set an example that leads to widespread participation to address the problem

         c.      Sum of persons acts over a lifetime is not inconsequential

         d.      Systematic changes require that some committed individuals take the lead

16.    Four: Appeal to character

         a.      Shift focus away from cost/benefits involved in acting to focus on the agent herself

         b.      Making an effort is a matter of personal integrity

         c.      Failing to make effort is to be complicit (participating in a questionable action) with those who do not make the effort

         d.      Failing to make an effort is to be indifferent or insensitive to the problem



18.    Act utilitarianism

         a.      Act right to extent it brings about best (or good enough) consequences (considering all acts available)

19.    Act utilitarianism clearly shows problem of inconsequentialism

20.    Except for folks like President Obama or the Catholic Pope (who have significant political and social influence over others)

21.    Almost any act performed by any agent will have vanishingly small effects

22.    Many of these acts have costs to agent

23.    So local disutility of actions that contribute to env. problems, will outweigh inconsequential global utility of those actions

         a.      Costs are greater than benefits so should not make effort

24.    Worry: Tiny contribution to large effects can be significant

         a.      If we assume efforts have some tiny, tiny effect and we multiply this tiny contribution by the incredibly great good it contributes to, we might get a benefit sufficient to outweigh our personal cost

         b.      This assume there are some positive benefits of our action on solving the global problem (LCAP)

         c.      If Sinnott-Armstrong is right, there often is not

25.    If act utilitarians appeal to amplifying effects (by setting an example for others and a trajectory for one’s own life, one’s effects are not inconsequential)

         a.      But a single person’s act are not likely to effect others, especially when others not motivated and even a whole lifetime of efforts likely to be inconsequential



27.    Seems less susceptible as evaluates acts on their maxim (the principle from which they are performed or that they express) (intention?) rather than on what they bring about (consequences)

28.    That agent’s acts are inconsequential in resolving/creating env problem is not relevant to evaluation of the action

29.    Kantian ethics: One’s duty is to act on principles that

         a.      Can be consistently willed to be universal law

                   i.       Inconsistent principles: false promises, cutting in line

         b.      Don’t treat something with inherent worth as a means only (treat them as an end in themselves)

         c.      W/o regard to consequences

30.    Kantian ethics seems to reject type of reasoning that leads to problem of inconsequentialism

31.    Problem Sandler finds with Kantianism: Many env problems are caused unintentionally and don’t obviously treat people as means

         a.      Because Kantianism focuses on the intention of the action (the principle behind the action) and avoiding treating individuals as mere means

         b.      Since the negative env consequences of actions (like GW) are not intended and since they don’t use individuals as mere means to the ends sought (convenience, comfort, recreation)

                   i.       Driving a gas guzzling vehicle for fun does not intend any harm or treat people as mere means

         c.      Kantianism has trouble explaining what is wrong with acts that give rise to them

         d.      No problem universalizing the maxim

                   i.       Yes bad consequences if everyone did it

                   ii.      But no contradiction in universalizing it

32.    Evaluation of acts must be sensitive to consequences even when they are unintended by products

         a.      Kantianism ignores such consequences

33.    Worry: If one’s act does not intend to hurt anyone but has the unintended side effect that it does hurt them (and one knows this) then one is failing to treat individuals as ends in themselves (and using them as a mere means)

         a.      Does causing CC that threatens the lives of future people not treat those people as means to one’s own ends?




35.    Virtue oriented ethical theory can support reasons offered in response to inconsequentialism

         a.      Appeal to character

                   i.       Failure to act on these problems manifests indifference and this is a vice

                   ii.      Shows a lack of personal integrity & is complicit in a wrong

         b.      Appeal to duty

                   i.       It is one’s duty/obligation to act rightly and this is determined by whether one is acting virtuously

                   ii.      This does not depend on if other people are so acting or if they are doing their fair share

         c.      Agent benefit responses

                   i.       One of the goods virtue promotes is the well being of the agent (happiness)

                   ii.      Empirical evidence suggests that it is detrimental to a person to be highly materialistic (one who highly values material goods, desires to possess them, is emotionally invested in their presence/absence, orients their life to accumulate them)

                   iii.     So a person who acts on virtues is not going to be highly materialistic

                   iv.     Such a person prioritizes relationships and self-realization

                   v.      Will not see reducing consumption as a sacrifice

                   vi.     Virtuous person will see herself as benefitting from these efforts

         d.      Amplifying effects

                   i.       While setting an example and one person changing their lives not likely to have much effect

                   ii.      Virtuous persons are likely to try anyway and to extent these effects are possible, virtue ethics makes them more likely



         a.      Virtue oriented theories satisfy all 6, Act utilitarianism (fails 1-5) and Kantianism (fails 6)

37.    (1) Discrete acts should not be evaluated entirely on basis of outcomes of action

         a.      Act utilitarianism fails

         b.      VOE evaluates virtues on this basis but not acts, so VE satisfies 1

38.    (2) Should evaluate patterns of behavior throughout a person’s life or patterns among people or communities

         a.      Act utilitarianism fails (global utilitarianism meets?)

         b.      VOE does this

39.    (3) Attitudes or perspectives of people need to be evaluated

         a.      Act utilitarianism fails

         b.      VOE does this

40.    (4) Evaluation of attitudes/perspectives relevant to evaluation of action

         a.      Act utilitarianism fails

         b.      VOE evaluates acts in terms of virtues, so VE does this

41.    (5) Evaluation of agent’s act should not depend too much on acts of others.

         a.      Utilitarian can’t account for duty to do one’s fair share, even when other’s are not (as have no good consequences)

         b.       VOE says act evaluated to extent virtuously and this does not depend on what others do or if they are virtuous

42.    (6) Evaluation of acts must be sensitive to consequences even when they are unintended by products

         a.      Kantian ethics fails

         b.      VOE evaluates character traits in terms of consequences (not only directly intended consequences)

Questions on Sandler’s Problem of Inconsequentialism

1.      Give an example of a environmental problem that is “longitudinal collective action problem” and now an example of one that is not.

2.      What is the problem of inconsequentialism?

3.      What does Sandler mean by “virtue-oriented ethical theory?” How does it specify a virtue? How does it specify right action?

4.      What is the “political response” to the problem of inconsequentialism and what problems does Sandler see with it?

5.      Why does Sandler think a problem of inconsequentialism still arises even if a collective action scheme is in place?

6.      Explain the four types of responses to problem of inconsequentialism that Sandler describes (viz., appeal to agent benefit, duty, amplifying effects, and character). Which make most sense to you?

7.      According to Sandler, why can’t act utilitarianism respond well to problem of inconsequentialism? Is he right?

8.      According to Sandler, why can’t Kantian ethics respond well to problem of inconsequentialism? Is he right?

9.      Explain why Sandler thinks Virtue oriented ethical theory responds well to the problem of inconsquentialism.