Thursday, August 23, 2012

Counterexamples to Consequentialism

I've never been much impressed by the standard "counterexamples" to Consequentialism.  They generally start by describing a harmful act, done for purpose of some greater immediate benefit, but that we would normally expect to have further bad effects in the long term (esp. the erosion of trust in vital social institutions).  The case then stipulates that the immediate goal is indeed obtained, with none of the long-run consequences that we would expect.  In other words, this typically disastrous act type happened, in this particular instance, to work out for the best.  So, the argument goes, Consequentialism must endorse it, but doesn't that typically-disastrous act type just seem clearly wrong?  (The organ harvesting case is perhaps the paradigm in this style.)

To that objection, the appropriate response seems to me to be something like this: (1) You've described a morally reckless agent, who was almost certainly not warranted in thinking that their particular performance of a typically-disastrous act would avoid being disastrous.  Consequentialists can certainly criticize that.  (2) If we imagine that somehow the voice of God reassured the agent that no-one would ever find out, so no long-run harm would be done, then that changes matters.  There's a big difference between your typical case of "harvesting organs from the innocent" and the particular case of "harvesting organs from the innocent when you have 100% reliable testimony that this will save the most innocent lives on net, and have no unintended long-run consequences."  The salience of the harm done to the first innocent still makes it a bitter pill to swallow.  But when one carefully reflects on the whole situation, vividly imagining the lives of the five innocents who would otherwise die, and cautioning oneself against any unjustifiable status-quo bias, then I ultimately find I have no trouble at all endorsing this particular action, in this very unusual situation.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Books I've Received

A number of authors and (in most cases) publishers have been kind enough to send me free books over the last year or so.  So I figure I should at least offer them some free advertising for their trouble:

Saturday, August 18, 2012

Guest Post: Famine, Affluence, and the Bystander at the Switch

[Guest post by BGSU's Bradley Gabbard...]

I would like to thank Richard for a chance to share a brief summation of one chapter of my dissertation.

In the classic Bystander at the Switch Case, roughly 90% of us have the intuition that it is morally permissible to divert a runaway trolley to save five innocent lives although it means that we will kill one innocent victim. Call the intuition that it is morally permissible to divert the trolley in the Bystander at the Switch Case the Trolley Intuition. I argue that the Trolley Intuition paired with three highly plausible moral principles justifies compulsory aid to innocent victims of famine and preventable disease across the globe.

Friday, August 17, 2012

Genetics and Moral Responsibility

In the NYTimes (via Leiter):
Judges who learned that a convicted assailant was genetically predisposed to violence imposed lighter sentences in a hypothetical case than they otherwise would have, researchers reported on Thursday, in the most rigorous study to date of how behavioral biology can sway judicial decisions.... Defense lawyers now commonly introduce brain scans of convicted clients as mitigating evidence in appeals of death sentences, experts said.

How in the world is "my brain made me do it" an excuse?! Obviously any difference in our cognitive dispositions (including, say, an immoral indifference towards others' suffering) will be reflected in our brains somehow. And learning that this difference has a partly genetic cause certainly shouldn't make any moral difference. ("No, your honour, he didn't have a traumatic childhood; he was born that way! Isn't that so much better?")

Really the only consistent positions to hold when it comes to the question of moral responsibility are that either (i) no-one is responsible, due to the impossibility of pure self-creation, or else (ii) bad people should be punished, regardless of how they got to be that way. In neither case is genetics relevant. (Brain scans may be, on the second view, if they can show the harmful behaviour to due to mere temporary insanity or the like, rather than a lack of good will on the part of the agent.)

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Immigration and the "right to exclude"

Michael Blake has posted an interesting review in NDPR of Kit Wellman and Phillip Cole's Debating the Ethics of Immigration: Is There a Right to Exclude?. I'm especially intrigued by Wellman's argument for the legitimacy of immigration restrictions. Blake sketches it as follows:

Monday, August 06, 2012

The "Necessary Being" Argument Tailor

Here's a fun "interactive survey" (ht: Joshua Rasmussen) that asks you about a bunch of general metaphysical principles, and constructs an argument for a necessary being out of your answers.

Though this probably isn't the intended purpose of the site, I find it nicely illustrates the methodological lesson that general principles that sound plausible at first (when we think of only paradigmatic instances, say) may no longer seem so plausible once certain (less "normal") instances of their use are brought to our attention.