Nov 21, 2010

Philosophers' Carnival #117

Welcome to the Philosophers' Carnival #117. I'm Matt Hoberg, Ph.D. student at UC Berkeley. With (American) Thanksgiving coming up this week, we have a fine feast of philosophy to enjoy.

First, let's break the ice with some philosophy interviews.
Now let's flout the absurd maxim against talking politics and religion at the table.
  • Jules Evans explores an alternative to liberalism: virtue politics. 
  • In philosophy of religion, Mike Almeida argues that Plantinga's felix culpa theodicy has God violate the doctrine of double effect. 
  • And Kenny Pearce has a go at analyzing omnipotence. 
These last two posts about divine agency provide a nice segue to posts about human agency.
With all the brandied eggnog, tempers tend to flare. When Aunt Hilda calls Uncle Joe a jerk, Eric Schwitzgebel intervenes diplomatically to explain the phenomenology of being a jerk.

Uncle Joe's feelings are hurt, but he might benefit from thinking about the episode from another perspective. That much is suggested by Jules Evans' overview of cognitive re-appraisal.

Our meta-ethics course is provided by Jussi Suikkanen, who explores a meta-ethical dualism inspired by Chalmers' phenomenal property dualism in The Conscious Mind.

As we squabble over how to split the pumpkin pie, we turn to ethics. 
A row breaks out over the distinction between analytic and synthetic philosophy. Tom has a go, as does Dave Allen.

After dinner, conversation turns to the state of the profession. 
  • Brian Leiter asks readers how the APA can improve given the results of a poll on how the APA is doing
  • A post at Feminist Philosophers discusses evidence that letters of recommendation for women tend to use more 'communal' terms (like 'helpful' or 'tactful') than do letters for men, and that this difference is perceived negatively by those who read the letter. This effect might be related to the apparent fact that when a female academic is first perceived as likable, she is less likely to be seen as competent, and vice versa, according to another study discussed at Feminist Philosophers
  • A new blog shares some first-person accounts from female philosophers.
That's all for this edition, thanks for reading. Want to host a future carnival? 

Nov 19, 2010

Follow-up on Double Effect and Consequentialism

My last post argued that consequentialists can accommodate the principle of double effect in their moral theory: contrary to popular wisdom, double effect is not an anti-consequentialist principle. In this post, I want to touch on some important points that I left out of the first post.

1. It's generally true that my argument cuts against popular wisdom, though there are some exceptions. Amartya Sen agrees that consequentialists can't rule out, as a matter of principle, including actions from the way states of affairs are characterized.

2. I've suggested that consequentialists can accommodate double effect by thinking about the comparative disvalue of killing in order to save. What, precisely, gives rise to this disvalue? Broadly speaking, we can think of the disvalue as deriving from facts about the agent (an agent-centered view) or facts about the victim(s) (a victim-centered view), or both (a hybrid view). 

One victim-centered explanation would be that the five who are saved in the organ harvest case are comparatively worse off than they are in the trolley case in virtue of the fact that the agent killed in order to save in the first case but not the second. We might think, for example, that the dignity that each of the five possess is degraded because the one person’s life is ended as a means to saving their lives, and that dignity is in fact a relevant value in a consequentialist framework; it is worse to live having been saved impermissibly than to live having been saved permissibly, we might suppose.[1] Alternatively, or perhaps in addition, we might think that the value of justice is better preserved when the five are saved justly rather than unjustly. If any victim-centered or agent-centered account holds, we can explain why consequentialists ought to care about double effect. Further, since explanations for the value differential need not be rooted solely in the character of the agent, we can preempt the sort of objection to double effect that has been made by T.M. Scanlon, to the effect that it conflates certain kinds of agent evaluations with evaluations of actions.[2] I won't take a stand here on which explanation of the disvalue consequentialists should endorse.

3. While Sen doesn't think we can rule out the kind of consequentialism I'm considering here in principle, he does argue against what he calls "broad consequentialism," i.e. a consequentialist theory that takes into account the way outcomes are brought about, as I have been proposing, at least as a subject of discussion. Sen thinks it is implausible that there could be sufficient disvalue in someone’s killing one person in order to save twenty so that it would be better, in terms of broad consequentialism, not to kill the one in order to save the twenty. However, Sen’s consideration of broad consequentialism in this case is strictly limited to a theory on which there are agent-centered but not victim-centered sources of disvalue. Provided that there are some victim-centered sources of disvalue when some are killed in order for others to be saved, it is much more plausible to think that broad consequentialism should rule out killing a few to save many.

4. The kind of consequentialist theory I'm discussing here has an interesting feature. In many cases, as the number of those who would be saved unjustly if the agent killed in order to save increases, it becomes increasingly tempting (as some see it) to have one’s moral theory permit killing in order to save. One virtue of my proposed account is that, as the number of those who would be saved by the killing increases, it is plausible that the disvalue associated with the degradation of justice or dignity also increases or at least remains constant, so that the temptation to render killing in these cases permissible does not increase as the number to be saved grows. This means that killing a small number to save a large number can be ruled out, even on a consequentialist theory, without introducing explicit side constraints such as inviolable rights. This is a neat result. While I am not a consequentialist, I think the version of consequentialism I've discussed here is much stronger than some competitors and not prone to some of the more obvious objections. It becomes much more difficult to reject act-consequentialism, for example.

[1] Anscombe suggests something along these lines: “… In an attenuated sense it can be said that something that belongs to, or concerns, one is attacked if anybody is unjustly attacked or maltreated.” Elizabeth Anscombe, “Mr. Truman’s Degree,” in Ethics, Religion and Politics (Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 1981): 69.

[2] Scanlon makes this argument in Moral Dimensions: Permissibility, Meaning and Blame. Judith Thomson also makes an argument along these lines.

Nov 10, 2010

Double Effect for Consequentialists?

The principle of double effect is typically described as part of deontological, rather than consequentialist, ethical theories. Consider the classic trolley case, for example, where one encounters a trolley hurtling down a track toward a group of five people whom it will certainly kill; diverting the trolley down a side track would result in the trolley striking just one person who is standing on the tracks. For consequentialists, it seems the case looks like this: one can do nothing, in which case five people die, or one can divert the trolley, in which case one person dies. It is natural to think that this case has the same profile of consequences as a case in which one can kill one person (and, for instance, harvest his organs) to save five: in each of these cases, one can do nothing, in which case five die, or intervene, in which case one dies.

Continuing this line of thought, it looks as though consequentialists have no reason to care about double effect, or at least no reason that derives from the content of their moral theory. The pairs of cases to which double effect has been thought to apply, like terror bombing and strategic bombing, seem identical with respect to consequences by stipulation. This means that there is no distinction between them on consequentialist grounds, and the consequentialist can therefore ignore any differences between them.

This reasoning is suspect, however. We are asked to move from (1) to (2):
(1) two cases are identical with respect to their ultimate consequences
(2) the cases are identical with respect to all their consequences
And if (2) is true, then consequentialists can ignore the difference between the cases.  I think we should resist the move from (1) to (2).

When you choose to harvest the organs of the one to save the five, you have not just actualized a state of affairs in which one person dies and five live. In addition, you actualize a state of affairs in which you kill the one in order to save the five. Prima facie, these are not identical states of affairs, and it would seem open to a consequentialist to distinguish this pair on the ground that there is disvalue in a state of affairs in which an agent kills in order to save (in the organ harvest or bridge case) relative to a state of affairs in which an agent kills as a proportional side effect of saving (in the classic trolley case). If consequentialists think that states of affairs have value, and that this value determines what it is morally right to do, then perhaps they should take some interest in states of affairs that include the relation of moral agents to the outcomes they bring about, or at least give an account of why they do not. And, once these sorts of states of affairs are taken into account, the trolley case can be distinguished from the organ transplant case on purely consequentialist grounds.

The consequentialist will have to account for the value disparity due to the way agents relate to the outcomes they bring about, but it is at least open to the consequentialist, I have argued, to suppose that something like the principle of double effect figures in the correct moral theory. Peter Singer has argued that proponents of double effect may need to rely on some form of consequentialism to cash out the proportionality constraint [1]; it turns out that consequentialists may need to rely on some form of double effect if they want to take seriously the value of states of affairs that include agents’ relations to outcomes.

There are some important subtleties here that I'm overlooking for now, and will discuss in a follow-up post. See here for my follow-up.

[1]“Saving a life is a proportionate reason for bringing about the death of a fetus; saving a trim figure is not. Hence the doctrine of double effect has, after all, a consequentialist element…”
Peter Singer, “Do Consequences Count? Rethinking the Doctrine of Double Effect,” The Hastings
Center Report, Vol. 10, No. 2 (Apr., 1980): 29.

Nov 6, 2010

Philosopher's Carnival Submissions

I'll be hosting the Philosopher's Carnival on November 22. Please submit your posts here for consideration. Feel free to submit something from your own blog, or from someone else's. Cheers!