Consequentialism and the Standard Story of Action

The Journal of Ethics 22 (1):25-44 (2018)
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I challenge the common picture of the “Standard Story” of Action as a neutral account of action within which debates in normative ethics can take place. I unpack three commitments that are implicit in the Standard Story, and demonstrate that these commitments together entail a teleological conception of reasons, upon which all reasons to act are reasons to bring about states of affairs. Such a conception of reasons, in turn, supports a consequentialist framework for the evaluation of action, upon which the normative status of actions is properly determined through appeal to rankings of states of affairs as better and worse. This covert support for consequentialism from the theory of action, I argue, has had a distorting effect on debates in normative ethics. I then present challenges to each of these three commitments, a challenge to the first commitment by T.M. Scanlon, a challenge to the second by recent interpreters of Anscombe, and a new challenge to the third commitment that requires only minimal and prima facie plausible modifications to the Standard Story. The success of any one of the challenges, I demonstrate, is sufficient to block support from the theory of action for the teleological conception of reasons and the consequentialist evaluative framework. I close by demonstrating the pivotal role that such arguments grounded in the theory of action play in the current debate between evaluator-relative consequentialists and their critics.
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