Options Without Constraints
Richard Yetter Chappell
The paradox of deontology counsels against including constraints in our fundamental moral theory. Consequentialists are generally suspicious of the associated asymmetries, e.g. between doing and allowing, or killing and letting die. We say you should just bring about the best outcome, counting any harms done along the way just as we count any harms thereby prevented or averted. Without constraints, it is possible to justify acts that involve killing or otherwise harming as a means so long as the outcome is sufficiently good.
Ordinarily, though, we don’t think that people are strictly required to do only the very best of all the possible actions available to them. A more lenient approach, granting agents options to do less than the best, seems more reasonable. Suppose that you’ve already generously donated half of your income to charity. If you could save an additional life by donating $4000 more, it’d be great to do so, but surely isn’t strictly required. In this context, we’re inclined to think, you may reasonably prioritize your finances over another’s life (despite the latter being objectively more important).
Such options are awkward to combine with the rejection of constraints. If you can permissibly prioritize $4000 for yourself over a stranger’s life, and there’s no constraint against harming as a means, it would seem to follow that you could permissibly kill a stranger to get $4000. But that’s abhorrent. (Mulgan 2001; cf. Kagan 1984, 251)
Fortunately, I think the satisficing view defended in my 2019 provides us with the resources for a compelling response to this problem. The relevant feature of the view (for present purposes) is its sentimentalist understanding of obligation in terms of blameworthiness, which in turn is understood in terms of quality of will. Very roughly, acts are impermissible when they reveal an inadequate degree of concern for others.
Now, there are features of human psychology that can explain why (harmful) killing typically reveals a worse quality of will than merely letting die. The relevant psychological facts concern what we find salient. We do not generally find the millions of potential beneficiaries of charitable aid to be highly salient. Indeed, people are dying all the time without impinging upon our awareness at all. A killer, by contrast, is (in any normal case) apt to be vividly aware of their victim’s death. So, killing tends to involve neglecting much more salient needs than does merely letting die. (There are exceptions, e.g. watching a child drown in a shallow pond right before your eyes—but those are precisely the cases in which we’re inclined to judge letting die to be impermissible, or even morally comparable to killing.)
Next, note that neglecting more salient needs reveals a greater deficit of good will (Chappell & Yetter-Chappell 2016, 452). This is because any altruistic desires we may have will be more strongly activated when others’ needs are more salient. So if our resulting behavior remains non-altruistic even when others’ needs are most salient, that suggests that any altruistic desires we may have are (at best) extremely weak. Non-altruistic behavior in the face of less salient needs, by contrast, is compatible with our nonetheless possessing altruistic desires of some modest strength—and possibly sufficient strength to qualify as “adequate” moral concern.
Putting these two facts together, then, secures us the result that harmful killing is more apt to be impermissible (on a sentimentalist understanding) than comparably harmful instances of letting die. It’s a neat result for sentimentalist satisficers that they’re able to secure this intuitive result without attributing any fundamental normative significance to the distinction between killing and letting die. We thus find that consequentialists can allow for options without constraints after all.[The full version of this argument will appear in ‘Deontic Pluralism and the Right Amount of Good’, forthcoming in D. Portmore (ed.), The Oxford Handbook of Consequentialism. OUP.]