Sunday, November 25, 2012

Effective Giving

I encourage everyone who wants to make the world a better place to join Giving What We Can and pledge to give 10% of their pre-tax income to effective charities.  You can expect to save several lives each year (averaging over your lifetime earnings, if you're currently a student), which is pretty amazing when you think about it, and it's surprisingly easy too.  (A 10% change in income generally doesn't impose any drastic lifestyle changes!)  Some people give even more, and that's even cooler.  Some start with less, and every bit helps.  However much you give, for the remainder of this post I want to turn to the question of where to give.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Ethics as What's Worth Caring About

Ethical theories can be seen as attempts to track what is worth caring about.  This thought may naturally seem to support consequentialism, and especially utilitarianism.  After all, the utilitarian can simply say, "I care about people!  I want everyone to be as well-off as possible."  And that seems a pretty attractive goal!  There seems no doubt that people's welfare (and, more broadly, the welfare of sentient beings) is worth caring about.  Is anything else comparably important, or worth caring about?

General and Particular Moral Explanations

In 'Recalcitrant Pluralism', Philip Stratton-Lake draws on Korsgaard's Symmetry Thesis -- that the reason why a good-willed person does an action, and the reason why the action is right, are the same -- to argue against Consequentialism.  He's making the kind of character-based objection that I think is worth taking seriously, but I think that PSL goes importantly astray in how he understands the fitting (good-willed) consequentialist agent.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Direct vs. Indirect Beneficiaries

Suppose you save a doctor's life, and the doctor goes on to save the lives of a dozen other people (who would otherwise die -- suppose he's the only doctor in the region). You have then indirectly benefited the dozen others, by directly benefiting the doctor.  It's a clear enough distinction, though not, I think, a particularly significant one.  Kamm (in Morality, Mortality vol.1) places great weight on it, however.  She claims that a "distribution of our lifesaving drug would be unfair if we distinguished between candidates who directly need our resource on the basis of a personal characteristic unrelated to the distribution of our resource for saving lives." (p.110)  According to Kamm, it is somehow "unfair" to treat the interests of mere "indirect beneficiaries" equally, though such unfairness "could be overridden by significant utility".  But you should, apparently, prefer to save ten people directly rather than a dozen indirectly.

Wednesday, November 07, 2012

What if everyone did that?

People often appeal to "What if everyone did that?"-style moral arguments (e.g. for a putative obligation to vote).  While there's something to the underlying thought here, I think it is often misapplied.  If we're not careful, this "universalizing" reasoning can easily mislead us into accepting stronger conclusions than are actually warranted.

For example, advanced economies depend upon there being diverse and specialized professions.  So if everyone worked in (say) construction, we'd all starve; but that obviously doesn't make working in the construction sector immoral.  Even if construction work is widely regarded as permissible, there is no risk of everyone doing it, and hence no risk of disaster.  Similarly for choosing not to have children.  As these cases suggest, the relevant question turns out to be, not "what if everyone did that?", but rather, "what if everyone felt free to do that?"  The answer to this latter question will often be, appropriately enough, "no problem!"