John cares about nothing but making the most amount of money that he can. He comes to believe that the best way to do this is to start a new company, but also that companies are most likely to succeed when the founder is intrinsically motivated by the work of the company. So John immerses himself in a domain and cultivates an interest. When he finally starts his company, he does it out of a genuine obsession with the idea. He is successful and makes a lot of money.

This is a prosaic example of an agent modifying themselves to the point at which they are not longer explicitly pursuing their original goals (although the idea is to achieve them nonetheless). Before immersing himself in his field, John1 primarily pursues money. Afterwards, John2 primarily pursues his startup idea, and is willing to sacrifice other ways to make easy money in order to work on it.

Bernard Williams famously argued that consequentialism is self-effacing: as a theory it recommends that an agent not act according to it or even believe in it. But this is fine, and indeed really a sensible feature of goal-driven system. Believing in or acting according to a moral system is a feature of the world, and a such subject to assessment as to whether it furthers our goals. If an evil demon threatens to torture the world unless we all become Kantians, then we should by golly become Kantians. So we should not generally be surprised to see such “post-consequentialist” agents around.1

Reflective vs thorough

However, most consequentialists that I know adopt this as a kind of reflective non-consequentialism. That is, in your normal day-to-day life you act as a non-consequentialist, but when you reflect on your life you are a consequentialist. This is good, since it allows for ongoing correction of your non-consequentialist-but-supposedly-good-overall behaviours via meta-level consequentialist reflection.

But consequentialist agents can certainly turn into thoroughly non-consequentialist agents who don’t even think consequentially at the meta level. This could happen deliberately, or perhaps just accidentally: if you spend enough time acting non-consequentially you may come to believe it even reflectively. In comparison to a reflective non-consequentialist, a thorough non-consequentialist is an unguided missile: they will keep executing the behavioural strategy that they initially decided on, and can’t correct course later. This is a pretty hefty cost, and risky in a rapidly changing world. We should try and keep the ability to reflectively correct ourselves according to whatever we think the true moral theory is unless there are circumstances that really penalise that.

Layered reflectivity

That said, people can have several layers of reflectivity. There is a saying which I have heard (probably falsely) attributed to the Japanese:

A man has a false heart in his mouth for the world to see, another in his breast to show to his special friends and his family, and the real one, the true one, the secret one, which is never known to anyone except to himself alone, hidden only God knows where.

I think many people have different modes of assessment that they deploy in different circumstances. It feels very different to do everyday reflection on my life versus deeper or broader assessment of it. So maybe even an apparently thorough non-consequentialist may keep consequentialism in their secret heart.

  1. When I wrote this I was thinking about consequentialism the moral theory, but the same arguments really apply to any value-maximizing goal system. Consequentialism is in many ways just a special case of “expected-value rationality” but applied to particularly moral aims.