Normative Ethics
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Agency and the Paradox of Deontology

Lest our readers begin to think that this blog will turn out to be some sort of consequentialist love-fest, here’s something from the deontology corner of PEA Soup.

I recently gave a paper at UNC-Greensboro, in which I defend deontology against Samuel Scheffler’s objection that its restrictions are paradoxical. Among the many helpful comments offered by the audience, one point that received some healthy discussion was whether the case that supposedly generates the putative paradox is actually possible. The case is this (there are other versions of it, but this is the one I focus on): either Agent 1 kills Victim 1, or Agents 2-6 will kill Victims 2-6. Deontology (let’s grant) obligates Agent 1 to not kill Victim 1, so this means that five other killings will occur, and as such deontology fails to minimize the overall number of killings. But if killing is so wrong, it seems paradoxical to require more, rather than fewer, overall violations of the duty to not kill.

Now early on, I was tempted to say that the case itself could not occur, but given that it doesn’t seem logically impossible, and it’s otherwise hard to prove a universal negative, I instead worked up a solution (I think) that renders deontology non-paradoxical given that such a case could arise. So I simply grant the case. Some of the comments from folks at UNC-G, however, got me reconsidering the idea that maybe the case itself is problematic.

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Why Most Moral Theories Are Deficient

I recently wrote a paper entitled “Why Most Moral Theories Are Deficient.” I welcome comments and criticisms. Here’s an abstract:

“In this paper, I present an argument that poses the following dilemma for any moral theory: either reject one or more of our most firmly held moral convictions or accept that non-moral reasons can counterbalance moral reasons and thereby affect the moral permissibility of our actions. Furthermore, I argue that, given this dilemma, we should conclude that most, if not all, of the moral theories currently on offer are deficient in that they either fail to comport with our considered moral judgements or fail to provide us with the requisite account of non-moral reasons and how they affect the permissibility of our actions. I conclude the paper both by suggesting that we take a new approach to normative ethics and by taking the first step in this new direction.”

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Consequentializing: Part III

This entry is the final installment of a three-part series on consequentializing non-consequentialist moral theories. As noted in Part I, a number of philosophers accept what’s called Dreier’s Conjecture: For any moral theory M, there is some conceivable theory of the good that, when combined with the consequentialist principle “φ-ing is morally permissible iff φ-ing would produce the best available state of affairs,” yields moral verdicts that are, in every instance, identical to those of M. And, as also noted in Part I, philosophers such as Brown, Louise, and Pettit believe that if this conjecture is true, then the consequentialism/non-consequentialism distinction is an empty distinction. In this entry, I argue, to the contrary, that even if Dreier’s Conjecture is true, the consequentialism/non-consequentialism distinction is still an important and meaningful distinction.

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Consequentializing: Part II

This entry is the second installment of a three-part series on consequentializing non-consequentialist moral theories. As noted in Part I, a number of philosophers accept what’s called Dreier’s Conjecture: For any moral theory M, there is some conceivable theory of the good that, when combined with the consequentialist principle “φ-ing is morally permissible iff φ-ing would produce the best available state of affairs,” yields moral verdicts that are, in every instance, identical to those of M. In her forthcoming article, Jennie Louise concludes from this conjecture that all moral theories are consequentialist (forthcoming, pp. 2 & 33). In this installment, I argue that this can’t be right since analogues of Dreier’s Conjecture are true of most moral theories, including Kantianism, contractualism, virtue ethics, and divine command theory. Thus, if Dreier’s Conjecture establishes that we’re all consequentialists, then these analogues establish that we’re all Kantians, contractualists, virtue ethicists, and divine command theorists as well, and this is just absurd.

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Consequentializing: Part I

A number of philosophers (e.g., Brown 2004, Dreier 1993, and Louise forthcoming) have hypothesized that most, if not all, non-consequentialist theories can be “consequentialized.” More precisely, the conjecture is this (paraphrasing Brown 2004): For any moral theory M, there is some conceivable theory of the good that, when combined with the consequentialist principle “φ-ing is morally permissible iff φ-ing would produce the best available state of affairs,” yields moral verdicts that are, in every instance, identical to those of M. For example, suppose that M includes an agent-centered constraint against the commission of murder, such that agents are prohibited from committing murder even for the sake of minimizing the number of murders committed overall. To accommodate such a constraint, the consequentialist need only adopt a theory of the good that holds (1) the value of a state of affairs in which a murder has been committed is agent-relative such that its value varies according to whether or not the evaluator is the murderer, and (2) the disvalue in an agent committing murder herself is, from her position (that of the agent), greater than the disvalue in numerous others committing comparable murders. What’s more, if M prohibits an agent from committing murder for the sake of minimizing the number of murders she herself commits, then the consequentialist need only adopt a theory of the good that holds (3) the value of a state of affairs in which a murder has been committed is temporally-relative such that its value varies according to whether or not the murder in question would take place in the present or the future, and (4) the disvalue in an agent committing murder now is, from her present position, greater than the disvalue in her committing numerous other comparable murders in the future. Thus, by incorporating certain agent-relative and temporally-relative values in its theory of the good, the consequentialist can, it would seem, yield moral verdicts identical to those of any other moral theory.

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