Friday, April 10, 2015

Questioning Moral Equality

[Warning: the post below raises questions that may be morally corrupting.  Engage with them at your own peril!]

If there's one thing that pretty much all moral theorists these days agree on, it's that all persons are moral equals in some important sense.  Not that all people are equally morally good, of course -- there's as much variation in our ethicality as there is along any other dimension of human life.  But the thought seems to be that, nonetheless, we are all equally worthy of moral consideration, our interests should be counted equally, or something along those lines.  But is this platitude really so plausible, on reflection?

Suppose Gandhi and Hitler are both dying in agony before you, and you have but a single dose of pain-relief you can administer.  Is it really plausible that you should flip a coin to decide who to help?  Surely the fact that Gandhi was (let's suppose for sake of argument!) an all-things-considered good guy, whereas Hitler was a vicious monster, gives us reason to prefer to help the former. (One could even go so far as to suggest that virtue-welfare mismatches are intrinsically bad, such that it's a positively good thing for Hitler to suffer.  But for now I'm just appealing to the weaker claim that it's more important to relieve the suffering of good people than it is to relieve the suffering of bad people.)

This suggests that one can, through one's evil actions, void one's general right to others' good regard and beneficent treatment.  One might still hold that moral equality holds between all minimally decent persons.  But I'm still inclined to think that helping a saint is (plausibly) morally better than helping a morally neutral or minimally decent person, so I'm struggling to find any substantive sense in which it seems plausible that all persons should be treated equally.

Perhaps principles of moral equality are more plausible when applied to basic rights, such as the right to life?  But okay, revise my initial case so that the pain-killer is instead a fully-fledged cure, such that you can save the life of either Gandhi or Hitler.  I guess some particularly pious sorts might insist on the sanctity of coin-flipping here, but that sure seems wrongheaded to me!  Even when restricted to non-evil folks, the following forms of "preferential treatment" all strike me as morally right:

(1) All else equal, we should prefer to save the lives of people who will go on to get more (personal welfare) value out of their extended lifespan.

(2) All else equal, we should prefer to save the lives of people who will go on to help others more.

So far, these two principles are of course compatible with the utilitarian idea that each person counts equally, in the most fundamental sense.  It's just that we need to take into account (i) how much we are benefiting each candidate beneficiary when we save their life, and also (ii) to what extent we are thereby also benefiting others, who are in themselves equally important and worthy of consideration.

Departing from utilitarianism, one might add a principle of desert-adjustment:

(3) All else equal, we should prefer to aid (and to avoid harming) people in proportion to how morally good they are.  Or, as a weaker claim, we should at least give some priority to those who are genuinely morally better people.

There are obvious worries about implementing the principle correctly, and its acceptance may naturally lead people to make invidious comparisons or engage in other socially destructive behaviours, so it might not be a good principle to publicize.  But it nonetheless strikes me as a principle that may well be true, as a matter of fundamental normative fact.  And if so, that would seem to constitute a significant departure from the principle of moral equality.  It is to say, in effect, that some people really are inherently more important than others.  A distasteful thing to say, in our egalitarian culture, but of course to incur social disapproval is not yet to be given a good (epistemic) reason to think it false.

Once one starts thinking along these "elitist" lines, it's natural to ask whether other (i.e. non-moral) forms of excellence could also increase one's inherent worth as a person.  Again, a very discomfiting question. But if one engages it honestly, it doesn't seem crazy, as a matter of principle, to think that a more excellent person is ipso facto more "important". (Of course, if the person in question internalized this judgment, they may become a total jerk, which would quickly detract from their overall worth!)

Though perhaps the best way to capture the kernel of truth in this idea is just to recognize excellence as contributing to the welfare value of one's life, and hence as falling under principle (1) of preferentially saving the lives of those who will go on to get more out of it.  It's much less clear that we have any reason to, say, prefer some fixed boon of happiness be delivered to an excellent person over a couch potato.  (Maybe we do -- it's certainly not obviously wrong -- but I don't find myself with clear intuitions on that case.)

What say you?


  1. Are you talking about relieving pain (first example) or saving from death (later statements)?

    If you’re talking saving from death, what if a) we assume that death is something each individual knows and agrees to, and b) we live several lives? Or in other words, isn’t the case making assumptions about the nature of our reality that are all but understood and proven?

    (Note that I’m not taking position but merely asking. But I will say that I believe our model of reality to be narrow, and all but certain.)

    1. Either way. I am assuming that death is final and (in the relevant situations) unwanted. It would definitely change death's moral import if those assumptions are rejected!

  2. Is it really so clear that rewarding desert is a departure from utilitarianism? A policy of doing so would certainly incentivize pro-social behavior. A teleologically-motivated policy of rewarding desert is just the mirror image of the standard utilitarian teleological justification of punishment.

    1. Right, though here I'm talking about first principles rather than instrumental policies.

  3. For what it's worth, I think you are on to something with this. In fact I still quote a line of yours on this subject that I overheard you say back at Princeton.

    My guess is that the moral equality folks are interested in defending equal moral status of persons as agents, rather than as patients. So, perhaps the version of moral equality they would want to endorse would be compatible with the principles that you offer here. One example might be Darwall's principle of "equal second-personal authority." I'm not sure if I can get it right off hand, but something like: Each person's second-personally issued reasons are equally authoritative. Or, maybe: Wronging any moral agent gives that agent and other members of the moral community no less (and also no more) permission to blame the wrongdoer than had the offending agent wronged any other moral agent.

    I'm not putting this very well, but maybe you can see what I'm after.

    1. Hi Ryan! Those agent-centered variants sound interesting. I'm not sure I really understand degrees of permission, but if I feel like if I gratuitously kicked both Gandhi and Hitler in the shins, while they might both reasonably be peeved about it, Gandhi could more reasonably be peeved. Or maybe he could reasonably be more peeved. (I'm never sure what to do about those scopal ambiguities.) At any rate, if Hitler got too indignant about it all I could see somehow telling him, "Eh, quit whining, you've done worse." So maybe that's a counterexample. (Unless I'm just not understanding the intended principle quite right.)

      Out of curiosity, what's the quote?

    2. Yeah I agree about those intuitions, although I am think it might just be permissible to kick Hitler in the shins. In any case, moral equality might be best understood as holding over some range of agents, rather than over all agents. Rejecting a notion of degrees of permission might make the case easier for the defender of moral equality. If everyone is permitted to blame those who wrong them or others, and this permission is dichotomous, then there is a sense in which everyone is equally permitted to blame wrongdoers.

      Have you seen the variant of equal moral status favored by Ian Carter? His idea is that respecting people involves something like not attending to features that might give rise to certain kinds of moral inequality. So, respect involves regarding people as morally equal, roughly.

      Anyway as I mentioned I'm not a big fan of defenses of moral equality, generally. Oh, and quote was that "babies are morally over-rated."

    3. I can see why you didn't just come right out and give the quote initially, Ryan.

    4. Ha, sounds true though (in the context of discussing this kinda thing).

      Ryan - fair point about the questionable wrongness of kicking Hitler. Though once we allow for non-equality in the wrongness of causing particular harms to various people, the residual claim that everyone can equally protest wrongful treatment no longer looks so significant. It'd be like saying everyone is morally equal because everyone is equally entitled to receive what's due to them. Such formal equality doesn't seem to really rule out much, so long as it's left open that different people might be due different things.

      Thanks for the link -- I'll have to check that out.

  4. What is moral equality? It seems to moral equality can mean two things. Firstly moral equality might mean equal respect for the views of all persons. This would imply we should give equal consideration to the moral views of Hitler and Ghandi. Intuitively such a position seems nonsensical. It follows we do not respect all people equally because of their moral views and that some people are better than others because of their moral views. Moral equality in this sense does not exist. Secondly moral equality might mean equal entitlement to certain benefits. Hitler has as much right to pain relief as Ghandi. It appears if we accept that Hitler would not have had as much of a right to pain relief as Ghandi that Ghandi’s greater entitlement was due his superior moral views and actions. Moral equality in the second sense doesn’t hold because moral equality in the first sense doesn’t. However when considered logically the two meanings appear to be unconnected, I have argued in my blog that enhanced moral status should not affect moral entitlement, see posting on moral character enhancement in wooler.scottus . However if we give pain relief to Ghandi in preference to Hitler we are not simply benefitting someone, because he has a higher moral entitlement, we are commending him.


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