Sunday, March 29, 2009

What do philosophers agree on? A philosophical poll

At first glance, it is remarkably difficult to get philosophers to agree on anything—or so it seems to me. But is it really? I’d like to get your opinion on the subject, via this informal poll. On what philosophical issues do you think a majority of philosophers agree? Just name, or describe—briefly—the relevant issue, and what position you think the majority of philosophers take on it.

There are two things to keep in mind:

First, I don’t mean to restrict this poll to the opinions of contemporary philosophers—if the majority of philosophers throughout history have taken the same position on some issue, I count that agreement as the majority view, even if a majority of contemporary philosophers reject it.

Second, I’d like to include what I will call “Moorean agreements”; things that, based on your experience, a majority of philosophers believe or assume in practice even if some of them claim to reject it while doing philosophy. (I think the belief that people are, in general, morally responsible for their behavior is an example of a Moorean agreement.) Of course, it can be hard to determine what philosophers—or anyone, for that matter—“really believe” about some issue, so when it comes to establishing what the majority view is on some philosophical issue I regard (purported) examples of Moorean agreements as being less conclusive than examples of what philosophers have explicitly claimed to believe. Still, it will be interesting to see how much agreement there is on what the Moorean agreements are!

And that’s it. I anxiously await your contributions. ^_^

Thursday, March 12, 2009

A problem for consequentialism

I think one of the main problems with utilitarian theories is that they do not attribute any value to moral agents or moral patients as such. Their experiences might be valuable, as might the satisfaction of their desires, but moral agents and moral patients themselves are of no value at all. (From this point on, I will use the term “moral subjects” to refer to both moral agents and moral patients.) So if, for example, I kill Smith and somehow create a new individual whose well being is the same as Smith’s was, this state of affairs is, intrinsically, neither better nor worse than how things would be if I had left Smith alone. But this seems wrong. To borrow a term from W.D. Ross, it is our prima facie duty not to kill people, and this is so even if killing someone has no impact on the total amount of utility in the universe as a whole. Because utilitarian theories cannot discriminate between actions which result in the same overall amount of utility in the world, they are blind to the fact that one such action can be permissible while another such action is prohibited.

Consequentialists, more generally, could try to remedy this problem by assigning intrinsic value to moral subjects in themselves, apart from any value their experiences might have, and take this into account in their moral deliberations. After all, consequentialism in general requires that we try to maximize the good, but is silent on which things are good. But I doubt that consequentialists can acknowledge the intrinsic value of moral subjects without giving up on consequentialism or else failing to do justice to what we normally mean when we say that moral subjects are intrinsically valuable. In order to have a genuinely consequentialist theory, consequentialists would have to treat the value of a moral subject as being comparable with other sorts of value, such as happiness, or well being in general. But then we are faced with essentially the same problem we encountered above: Suppose Smith himself is worth 11 units of goodness (utiles), while his well being is worth 10 utiles, so that the total value of Smith’s life is 21 utiles. Why can I not kill Smith, provided that I also create 21 utiles through some other means to make up for the loss? If I do this by creating a new person, they would presumably be worth just as much as Smith was; so as long as their well being is also worth 10 utiles we have a life which is worth exactly the same as Smith’s. All the same, it is still wrong to kill Smith, even if I create a new person to “make up for it”. So a consequentialist theory has again given us the wrong result, even though we augmented it so that it assigns intrinsic value to Smith himself and takes this value into account in determining one’s permissible courses of action. What has gone wrong?

The problem is not that we have assigned Smith too little value—all persons are equally valuable, and so just as valuable as Smith is, and given this we can always concoct a new scenario in which we create enough utiles to make up for murdering Smith. This is so even if one thinks that moral subjects are of infinite value. And that view is problematic on its own: If moral subjects are infinitely valuable, one moral subject is worth just as much as a million. But if forced to chose, one surely ought to save a million rather than one.

If there is any hope for the idea that moral subjects are intrinsically valuable, I think it must lie in something like Kant’s Categorical Imperative, which says that moral subjects ought always to be treated as ends in themselves, and never merely as a means. One of the problems with the above lines of reasoning is that we have taken the term “intrinsic value” at face value and have falsely assimilated the value of persons to the value of sub-personal things like happiness or well being. Moral subjects are not merely valuable, but unique and irreplaceable. Instead of saying that moral subjects are intrinsically valuable, it would be better to say that moral subjects have moral dignity, and that this is something which cannot be measured in the same way that the value of happiness or well being can. Perhaps it cannot be measured at all. What is certain is that we cannot hold that moral subjects may be replaced by other beings whose lives have “equal value”, for a being which has moral dignity is by that very fact one which ought not to be disposed of, even if they are replaced by another being who also has moral dignity. Neither may we use moral subjects as a mere means to improve the general welfare. It might still be true, in general, that we may save the many rather than the few, but it will only be permissible for us to do so if the circumstances which force this choice on us are not of our own making.