Sunday, July 11, 2021

The Limits of Defective Character Solutions

In some cases, our intuition that an act is "wrong" may be better explained in terms of the action's revealing a defect of character (e.g. standard counterexamples to consequentialism involving the reckless performance of expectably-bad actions that could only prove optimal by unknowable fluke).  But this philosophical maneuver requires care.  A good test for its prima facie viability is to "naturalize" the case so that the outcome results from purely natural causes, without any agential intervention.  We can then ask: is this is an overall undesirable outcome?  If so, then that would -- contra the character strategy -- suffice to provide objective reasons for an agent not to act so as to bring about that bad outcome.  But if not, i.e. if the outcome itself -- absent any agency -- seems unobjectionable, then it's at least prima facie natural to expect that the act of producing that fine outcome should likewise qualify as unobjectionable.  If our intuitions rebel against an agent performing such an act, we may do better to look to the agent, rather than to the act, as being the true source of the problem.

With this diagnostic test in mind, Ben Bramble's 'The Defective Character Solution to the Non-Identity Problem' (forthcoming in J Phil) looks problematic.  Ben argues that "the actions in non-identity cases are wrong just when and because they result from, or reflect in those who have performed them, a morally dubious character trait" (namely, a certain kind of affective coldness).

But consider a naturalized version of Parfit's famous choice between conservation vs depletion.  Suppose that the pushing of a magic button will deplete natural resources in a way that mildly benefits current generations, while (i) changing who exists in future, and (ii) reducing quality of life for all future generations to being just barely positive (when the alternative is that [different] future generations would flourish while currently existing people have fine lives).

How should we regard the prospect of the magic button being pushed by a freak gust of wind or the like?  Clearly, that would be disastrous!  We've excellent humanistic reasons to strongly desire that the depletionist outcome be avoided (no matter how it is brought about).  So, on pain of moral monstrosity, we're all committed to impersonal (i.e., not "narrowly person-affecting") value. From that point, we might as well appeal to the very same reasons to explain why an agent shouldn't voluntarily choose to bring about this regrettable outcome.  So Defective Character Solutions don't appear to be viable here.

P.S. It's also worth noting, contra note 9, that this impersonal value solution to the non-identity problem does not by itself entail the repugnant conclusion.  That depends upon what other principles one accepts in population ethics.  (See chp 7 of Parfit's Ethics.)

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