Saturday, July 14, 2018

Acts, Attitudes, and the Separateness of Persons

My previous post discussed the first of Seth Lazar's two objections to my account of the separateness of persons. Here's the second:
Chappell thinks the objection has to do only with attitudes. His token-pluralistic utilitarianism can, in its deontic verdicts, be extensionally identical to token-monistic utilitarianism (according to which only aggregate well-being is non-instrumentally valuable), but preferable since it encourages us to adopt the appropriate attitude to the losses inflicted in the pursuit of the overall good. This misunderstands the separateness of persons worry. It has nothing to do with our attitudes: it concerns instead what we ought to do. We ought not assume that benefits to one person can cancel out same-sized costs to another.

I agree with that last sentence.  Indeed, that is the heart of my account of the separateness of persons: that we should not treat people as fungible, such that "benefits to one person can cancel out same-sized costs to another".  However, whether costs are cancelled or merely outweighed is precisely something that (I show) has implications for fitting attitudes rather than for what acts are ultimately most worth performing.

It's true that other philosophers have tended to assume that respect for the separateness of persons must be reflected in our account of right action (specifically, by our acceptance of deontic constraints).  The question is whether there's any good basis for this assumption.  In particular, I note that one had better not just stipulate that by "the separateness of persons objection" one means nothing more than "objecting to the lack of deontic constraints on action", or the objection would lack any independent force or interest.  Instead, the objection must start from an intuitive concern for fitting attitudes (specifically, what it takes to properly value separate persons as such), and show how appropriate valuing of persons somehow necessitates acceptance of deontic constraints on action.  That's the challenge I pose to proponents of the separateness objection.

Here's what Lazar has to say about it:
To see that attitudes are beside the point, notice that it’s often bad to treat costs and benefits as fungible, even when it is acceptable to treat an entity as a mere site for the realisation of value. Suppose, for example, you are managing a population of kangaroos in a nature reserve. It might be necessary to cull some to allow the remainder to flourish— perhaps overpopulation is causing starvation and disease. But it would be extraordinarily callous to feel no ambivalence about such an extreme endeavour. The deaths of the culled ‘roos are not ‘cancelled out’ by the good realised by the overall population. You shouldn’t care only about the net result. And yet these kinds of marginal intraspecies trade-offs are completely defensible, since kangaroos do not have the same kind of moral status as do humans, so treating them as mere sites for the realisation of value is acceptable. We may justifiably ignore the separateness of kangaroos.

If the badness of some kangaroo deaths is not 'cancelled out' by population-level benefits, then isn't that precisely to suggest that we cannot ignore the separateness of kangaroos, or treat them as "mere sites for the realisation of value"?  After all, if we recognize that the individual deaths matter -- creating "moral residue" and calling for pro tanto regret despite being for the best all things considered -- then we thereby ascribe moral significance to the individuals themselves, rather than treating them as "mere sites" for what matters (viz. aggregate welfare).

I take the point that the deontologist thinks that deontic constaints apply to persons but not kangaroos, but this just reinforces the point that deontic constaints have no essential connection to our intuitive notions of recognizing the moral significance of separate individuals vs. being a "mere site for the realisation of value".

Lazar continues:
Indeed, even when making intrapersonal trade-offs, it is often a mistake to regard costs and benefits as cancelling one another out. If I endure hardship now for the sake of a benefit later—getting up at all hours to take Moab, my Labrador, outside so that he’ll be housetrained—then the cost and benefit are not fungible with one another. I suffer a cost now—a deficit in non-instrumentally valuable well-being—for the sake of a later benefit. The benefit is great enough to justify the cost, but does not cancel it out. [] Chappell offers the ‘fungibility’ worry as an interpretation of the separateness of persons objection. But it is as much a mistake to consider intrapersonal costs and benefits fungible as it is to regard interpersonal costs and benefits in this way. Since the point of the objection is the difference between intrapersonal and interpersonal trade-offs, this cannot be an adequate interpretation of that objection.

I think it's an interesting fact that some intrapersonal tradeoffs plausibly involve conflicting, non-fungible values.  It's not clear to me that Lazar's example fits the bill -- that is, it's not obvious to me that present costs must only ever be outweighed rather than cancelled by future benefits. Suppose I have a mild headache now, and know that I'll have a similar headache tomorrow, but I only have one pain-relief pill (and no chance to replenish my stores between times).  Our diagnostic question is whether I should feel ambivalent or indifferent between the options of relieving today's pain or tomorrow's.  Plausibly, I ought to feel indifferent (regarding both days' hedonic states as part of the same final value), rather than torn in both directions by separate concern for each day's hedonic state.  That is, I'm inclined to reject the (putative) separateness of time-slices.

But we may find better examples.  Suppose an agent feels torn between two very different ways of life: becoming a struggling artist vs. a workaholic human rights lawyer, say.  And suppose they opt for lawyering.  They may take the advantages of greater material comfort and the sense of meaning from helping others to outweigh the lost opportunities for creative expression, whilst nonetheless reasonably retaining a degree of pro tanto regret for the loss of this distinctive value from their life.

I take this to show that the distinction between intrapersonal and interpersonal tradeoffs should not be overblown: even the former may contain genuinely non-fungible values.  Still, insofar as more prosaic intrapersonal tradeoffs often do involve fungible values (e.g. the simple example of left-foot vs right-foot pleasure in my previous post) it is understandable that proponents of the separateness of persons objection commonly use the comparison to intrapersonal tradeoffs as a foil.  So there's nothing here that undermines my suggestion that the best way to understand the separateness of persons is in terms of (non-)fungibility.

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