Thursday, October 19, 2006

Ethical Holism

I'm a holist about rationality. That is, I agree with Julian Nida-Rumelin that it would be "perfectly rational to refrain from point-wise optimization because you do not wish to live the life which would result." Rationality involves abstraction. In particular, the rational decision is one that you would endorse from a timeless perspective. The answer to what you should do at any given moment derives from the broader question of how you want your whole life to go. Now, I want to defend an analogous holism about ethics.

The essence of ethical holism, as I conceive of it, is that individual rights and duties derive from the broader facts about what is desirable for society as a whole. This holistic approach to ethics is exemplified by my "institutional" theory of rights. It extends beyond merely legal rights, however -- indirect utilitarianism may likewise lead us to promote various social norms or duties that cannot be legally enforced.

An interesting application of ethical holism is to the question of 'boycotting the needy'. Let us assume that the institutions of prostitution and sweatshops make the world a better (i.e. slightly less miserable) place. The desperate people employed there are better off than they would be if deprived of this option. But then ethical holism suggests the following principle deriving permissibility from good institutions:

(PGI): If an institution is desirable, then people do not have a general obligation to refrain from participating in (or otherwise supporting) it.

This seems a very plausible principle. There is something incoherent about the views of someone who grudgingly approves of the institution of prostitution (because it makes the women involved better off than they would otherwise be) and yet insists that it is morally impermissible for Johns to do business with them. You know, "he who wills the end, wills the means," and all that. If you support a general policy, you must allow people to implement it. Hence, to condemn the participants, you must first denounce the general policy. It is this broader level that the holist asks us to focus on.



  1. You are on about sweat shops again, eh? Why stop there? The same rationalizations can be used for child labor or slavery. After all, those poor Africans found themselves in America without a job and the slave owner gave them one. I know this is not a very “philosophic” argument, but better philosophers than you – starting with Aristotle – have used their philosophy to rationalize cruelty. Nor should I add, do I believe that you are deliberately trying to rationalize away the crime of sweat shops, but merely engaging in speculation, however, this sort of philosophical speculation can be used to justify inhuman activity. And, by the way, my world view has always been holistic, which is why I oppose sweat shops....

  2. Larry, are you sure you read my post? I used those examples because I find them engaging, but if you are instead distracted by them, do set them aside. What I'm really interested in here is the PGI principle. Do you agree with it? (It's perfectly consistent with opposing sweatshops, of course. What it's not consistent with, as I explained, is approving of the general institution whilst denying the permissibility of participating in it. Since I gather you also oppose the former anyway, I don't think the present argument is any problem for you.)

    P.S. While I welcome critical arguments, I don't appreciate being preached at. I've previously offered reasons that, it seems to me, really do justify the offering of horrible jobs to people who want them. Perhaps my arguments are mistaken, in which case I invite reasoned refutations to be posted to the appropriate thread. But my intellectual honesty should not be in question, so it is simply disrespectful for you to preach at me about "rationaliz[ing] cruelty". If you're not going to offer any genuine reasons to think that I'm mistaken, then such claims on your part amount to nothing more than a brute assertion of disagreement -- which is grating enough without the gratuitous insults and "holier than thou" attitude.

    (Perhaps your intended counterargument was that mine "can" also justify slavery? But of course that's simply bad reasoning -- “philosophic” or not -- because slaves are not offered jobs, they are forced into them. I was quite clear in my earlier post that my defence only applied to voluntary exchanges.)


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