Thursday, September 02, 2021

Tendentious Terminology in Ethics

Ethical theorists may sometimes engage in "persuasive definition": re-defining an evocative phrase for their own purposes, in a way that their opponent will reasonably regard as inaccurate and unfair.  Two examples that always annoy me are "treating someone as a mere means" and the "separateness of persons".  Opponents of consequentialism all too often trot out these phrases to indicate deep flaws in consequentialism. But it only works for them if they first redefine these terms to mean something that has nothing to do with the literal meaning of treating someone as a mere means or the separateness of persons.  You might as well redefine "terrorist" to denote adherents of the opposing views, and then complain that your opponents are all terrorists.  It's dishonest rhetoric, and ought to be avoided.  In this post, I'll explain my two examples, and why I consider them so misleading.  Others are welcome to comment with other examples -- especially any that you think consequentialists may be guilty of!

Treating someone as a mere means (rather than as an end in themselves) would violate the moral datum that each person has final (non-instrumental) value.  That sure would seem a straightforward moral blunder.  But Kantians redefine the phrase to instead mean something like acting upon someone without their consent.  Of course, it's fine to try to argue for the view that acting upon someone without their consent is incompatible with according them final value.  But such an argument is obviously going to be incredibly contestable, and so it will be question-begging in the worst sort of way to rely upon such a conclusion without argument in stating one's basic objection to other views.  What's in dispute is not whether it's okay to treat people as "mere means" (nobody endorses that!), but whether acting upon someone without their consent has this further feature (or is otherwise seriously objectionable).

Compare: Utilitarians, in counting each person's welfare equally, will claim that they are very obviously treating each person as an end in themselves and nobody merely as a means.  To literally be a mere means one would have to be excluded from moral consideration entirely, and again, it's just very obvious that utilitarians do not do this.  It's dishonest to use terminology that implies otherwise.  So it's dishonest to characterize utilitarianism as a view on which anyone may be treated as a "mere means". If you think it's objectionable to allow agents to act upon others without their consent, then just say that. Utilitarians will agree that this latter is indeed a feature of their view, and we can then argue about whether that's a problem or not.  But if you accuse them of treating people as mere means, they should simply reply, "We do no such thing."  And if you then clarify, "By that I just mean this other thing," they may reply, "Okay, terrorist."

The separateness of persons objection. One would clearly fail to appreciate the separate value of individual persons if one were to treat them as fungible, or replaceable without regret, like money.  And it's possible to imagine a (what I call "token-monist") form of utilitarianism that did this: that ascribed value most fundamentally to welfare in the aggregate, and saw each individual person as a constitutive means to this end.  But utilitarianism need not take this objectionable form.  It can instead ascribe intrinsic value to each being's welfare separately.  In so doing, it very obviously acknowledges the separate value of distinct individuals, and does not treat people as wholly interchangeable or replaceable without (pro tanto) regret.

So, to accuse utilitarianism of essentially disrespecting the "separateness of persons", one must redefine this latter term to mean something else.  Terrorist that you are, you may pick out some property of utilitarianism you find objectionable -- be it the violation of an individual's rights for another's greater gain, or allowing a multitude of minor interests to together outweigh a single larger interest -- and stipulate that this feature is what you mean by "neglecting the separateness of persons".  But it would be much clearer to use transparent, uncontested terminology to identify the feature of the view that you object to, and from there explain what you find objectionable about the identified feature.  At least, that strikes me as a better move than dishonestly implying that utilitarianism treats people as fungible.

Put another way: You can already object to rights violations or aggregation in those very terms.  What is gained by additionally describing what you here object to as "neglecting the separateness of persons?"   Answer: unearned rhetorical force, based on dishonestly tarring your opponent with a different, more clearly objectionable feature (that their view does not in fact possess).

Proviso: Of course, my complaint does not apply to anyone who explicitly argues that their targeted feature entails the further property of objectionably disrespecting the separateness of persons. If you can earn the rhetorical force, that's great!  I'm here just objecting to the (far more common) lazy invocation of these phrases to do rhetorical work without the slightest attempt to rebut the available utilitarian responses.  In particular, I argue that such rhetoric cannot be defended via stipulation that you "just mean" the uncontested feature.  To earn the right to use contested terminology, you should show that the uncontested features of the target view surprisingly entail some further (contested) property which warrants the emotional response evoked by the contested terminology. In sum: You have to earn it.

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That's my rant over.  What examples of tendentious terminology in ethics do you find especially aggravating?


  1. I dislike the phrase "Sadistic Conclusion" in population ethics. The term "Sadistic" means that you regard pain and suffering as a good and desirable thing. But the Sadistic Conclusion does not imply that adding negative welfare lives is a good thing. It merely implies that it can sometimes be a "less bad" thing then adding a very large quantity of extremely low, but positive welfare lives. To someone who accepts the Sadistic Conclusion, sometimes adding negative welfare lives is less horrible than the alternative, but it is still horrible. If there was a way to avoid the alternative without adding negative welfare lives, they would jump at the chance, because they are not sadists, and it is hugely misleading to imply that they are.

    All the Sadistic Conclusion is saying is that, if the addition of low-welfare but positive lives can occasionally be bad, that implies it is sometimes less bad to do some other bad thing in order to prevent it. If you regard different bad things as commensurate, and capable of being traded off against each other, that is only logical. Acting like one special instance of this general principle is some kind of horrible conclusion that implies sadism on the part of its adherents is baffling. Again, if you accept the Sadistic Conclusion you still think adding negative lives is bad, so it is unfair to call people who accept it sadists! I've also argued before that ordinary people seem to act like they accept the Sadistic Conclusion in their day to day lives, since they are willing incur costs to reduce the amount of children that are born.

    I personally think that framing this principle as some unacceptable "Sadistic Conclusion" has seriously harmed the field of population ethics. It has led ethicists to think that this conclusion is so unacceptable that it is impossible to find an acceptable population ethics. Even worse, it has led people to accept the Repugnant Conclusion and Total Utilitarianism, even though I think those are much worse, and much more counter to the human race's implicit population ethics that ethicists are trying to formalize.

    1. Agreed, "the sadistic conclusion" is an extremely misleading label.

  2. I think your claims on the separateness of persons may be strengthened if you can deliver a "conservative" utilitarian account of 1) population ethics and 2) weird personal identity cases.

    1. Despite your previous linked post, I don't think you have really give a theory of pop ethics.

    2. What do you have in mind? One does not need to be "conservative" in order to value persons separately. But see also my old post on Competing Claims and Separate Persons which touches on the non-identity problem.

  3. Hmm, maybe I'm off the mark on that. Will have to think more on that another time.

  4. the separateness of persons objection seems like the type of things educated/interested folks not steeped in utilitarian/ethical theory might throw out as an objection. In that case I don't know that it is so objectionable, as they might not be in a position to notice the distinction you make, and are likely raising it in a context where that level of attention to nuance is not expected. e.g. I don't expect the educated lay public to be attentive to the nuances of scientific discussion and it doesn't seem fair to impose that expectation outside of a setting like a scientific journal. I suspect that's not your target here, but I thought I'd throw out that potential qualification.

    Trying to think of an alternative explanation for what they might be trying to get at, I'm curious if anyone's argued for what I'll call a separateness of consequences type objection? I'm thinking that, if a person commits a wrong act at t0, and then many/a greater good act at t1, I don't think many would agree the later good act makes the earlier wrong act no longer wrong. There is a disanalogy I think in the sense that the act at t0 isn't necessarily/causally related to the good act at t1, but I think that gap could be filled, perhaps most simply by specifying that they intended to "make up for" the bad act at t0 with a later good act. I still don't think most would say the later good act make the earlier bad act permissible. But if we remove the time gap, don't we end up with a trolley like scenario? Maybe that's confused, and regardless I agree with your unearned rhetorical force conclusion.


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