Prudence, morality, and the prisoner's dilemma
Parfit (Derek)
Source: Proceedings of the British Academy, vol. 65, (1979), pp. 539-564
Paper - Abstract

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Author’s Abstract

  1. There are many theories about what we have reason to do.
  2. Some of these theories are, in certain cases, directly self-defeating.
  3. What does this show?

Author’s Concluding Paragraphs
  1. Does this matter? Note that I am not asking whether this is all that matters. I am not suggesting that the achievement of our formal aim — the avoidance of wrongdoing — is a mere means. Though assumed by consequentialists, this is not what most of us believe. We may even think that the achievement of our formal aim always matters most. But this is here irrelevant. We are asking whether it casts doubt on M that it is substantively self-defeating. Might this show that, in such cases, M is incorrect? It may be true that what matters most is that we avoid wrongdoing. But this truth cannot show M to be correct. It cannot help us to decide what is wrong.
  2. Can we claim that our formal aim is all that matters? If that were so, my examples would show nothing. We could say, 'To be substantively self-defeating is, in the case of common-sense morality, not to be self-defeating.' Can we defend our moral theory in this way? In the case of some M-given aims, perhaps we can. Consider trivial promises. We might believe both that we should try to keep such promises, and that it would not matter if, through no fault of ours, we fail. But we do not have such beliefs about all of our M-given aims. If our children suffer harm, or we can benefit them less, this matters.
  3. Remember finally that, in my examples, M is collectively but not individually self-defeating. Could this provide a defence?
  4. This is the central question I have raised. It is because M is individually successful that, at the collective level, it is here directly self-defeating. Why is it true that, if we all do (1) rather than (2), we successfully follow M? Because each is doing what, of the acts available, best achieves his M-given aims. Is it perhaps no objection that we thereby cause the M-given aims of each to be worse achieved?
  5. It will again help to remember prudence. In Prisoner's Dilemmas, prudence is collectively self-defeating. If we were choosing a collective code, something that we will all follow, prudence would here tell us to reject itself. It would be prudent to vote against prudence. But those who believe in prudence may think this irrelevant. They can say: 'Prudence does not claim to be a collective code. To be collectively self-defeating is, in the case of prudence, not to be self-defeating.'
  6. Can we defend our moral theory in this way? This depends on our view about the nature of morality. On most views, the answer is 'No'. But I must here leave this question open.


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