Friday, 6 December 2013

Adopt no point of view and you still have reasons to act.

This is a paper I wrote, (am writing?), for Rob's 2000 level class were you learn the truth about ethics.  Tell me what you think.

One of Sidgwick's tests for the highest certainty of a proposition is that no two people who are of equal intelligence, who also have the same body of evidence, disagree on the truth of the proposition. Sidgwick claims the proposition that, “The good of any one individual is of no more importance, from the point of view (if I may say so) of the Universe, than the good of any other; unless, that is, there are special grounds for believing that more good is likely to be realized in the one case than in the other”, passes this test for highest certainty. This is the the axiom of irrelevance. Sidgwick takes as his epistemic peers the Egoist and the Common Sense Moralist. The axiom as stated must be modified slightly so that the Egoist and the Common Sense Moralist do in fact agree with it. I will argue that a single modification to the axiom, addressing the worries of both the Egoist and the Common Sense Moralist, is preferable to adding two separate modifications, dealing with the worries of each position separately.

According to the Egoist, what she ought to do is that which will bring about the most good, or happiness, in her life.  One way to modify Sidgwick's axiom of irrelevance so that the Egoist agrees with it is to have it be a conditional, having as its antecedent the adoption of the point of view of the universe, or put another way, the point of for which I have no special concern for my self. The axiom would then be: if the point of view for which I have no special concern for myself is adopted, then I ought be indifferent between distributing x to A or x to B unless more good would be produced by one distribution over the other. So the Egoist will accept this axiom because she will not adopt the point of view of the universe, though if she did, her duties would be different. Rather she will take the point of view of her self, according to which, she ought to be partial to A when A is her.

According to the Common Sense Moralist there is a prima facie duty, or reason, to keep ones promises. If I have promised to give you some cheese, but by breaking the promise I could bring my self more happiness than I could bring to you were I to keep the promise, then according to the Common Sense Moralist I ought to keep my promise. This contradicts irrelevance thus far stated, since keeping my promise is a reason to be partial to your happiness over mine. If the Common Sense Moralist is to accept the axiom of irrelevance, then it must be stated so as to give a reason, not the only reason, for distributing goods in a particular manner, allowing for other reasons to trump it in the relevant cases. So the axiom secondly modified becomes: if the point of view for which I have no special concern for myself is adopted, then there is a reason to be indifferent between distributing x to A or x to B unless more good would be produced by one distribution over the other.

If the Egoist does in fact refuse to adopt the point of view according to which she has no special concern for her self, and thereby takes up the view on which she only has concern for herself, then she will have the wrong thing to say in the following case:

Sue is on the last three days of her life, yet it will be her happiest, indeed it could not possibly be any happier. Sue knows this. Sue also knows that she could give her excess money to a person, thereby saving their life.

If the Egoist is right, Sue should not take up the point of view on which she has no special concern for herself.  Given that all she should aim at, according to the Egoist, is already guaranteed to be the case, the Egoist concludes that Sue has no reason to give the money that would save a life. Given that Sue ought to give the money, this is the wrong result.

At least for cases like Sue's, the Egoist could respond by adopting the point of view according to which she has no special concern for herself, given that no self interested reasons would be sacrificed. Sue really does not have any special concern for herself, since her greatest happiness is already determined. But in cases that are not like this, when an individuals own good is not so well secured, the Egoist will think their is reason to depart from distributing goods impartiality.

One way the Egoist could get the desired results, both in cases such as Sue's, as well as the normal cases, would be to argue that whatever point of view one adopts, its adoption is conditional on certain morally relevant features, such as the actual distribution of good. For Sue, she has reason to adopt the point of view of the universe on her last three days because the good in her life, determined to be as great as it could, does not give her any reason to have special concern for her self, and so, no reason to distribute good partially. On this picture, different distributions of good give correspondingly different reasons to adopt alternative points of view, where the adoption of each alternative point of view gives rise to a different reason to act.

Alternatively, the Egoist could insist that that, even if one adopts the point of view according to which I have no special concern for myself, I have a reason to be partial in distributing x to A rather than x to B when x will bring about some good to A and I am identical to A. On this picture, what one has reason to do is not conditional on which point of view is adopted, at least if it is the point of view of the universe.

Both options open to the Egoist will parallel the Common Sense Moralists contention that there is a reason to keep ones promises, as well as a reason to distribute goods impartially. Both the Egoist, and the Common Sense Moralist, will claim that there is more than one reason to act, placing different importance on what those reasons are and how strong each one is.

At this point, insisting that Sidgwick's axiom be conditional on the impersonal point of view is unnecessary. On the first option open to the Egoist, what ever reasons there will be to adopt one point of view over another, thereby leading to a reason to act in specific way, just is a reason to act in that specific way. As for the second option open to the Egoist, given that what reasons one has to act are reasons irrespective of what point of view one adopts, there is no need to specify that there is a reason to be impartial between different distributions of good only when the point of view of the universe is adopted, for one may adopt the point of view of ones self, yet still have this reason.  For the Common Sense Moralist, the prima facie duty to keep promises is a reason to keep ones own promises, not any other persons promise. The point of view of the promiser need not be adopted for me to have this duty. For the Egoist, the prima facie duty to aim at ones own good is a reason for you to aim at your own good, not everyones own good. Again, the point of view for which I have special concern for my self need not be adopted for me to have this duty.

The axiom of irrelevance now becomes: there is a reason to be indifferent between distributing x to A or x to B unless more good would be produced by one distribution over the other. If I am right, the Egoist and the Common Sense Moralist agree with this axiom and it passes one of Sidgwick's tests for highest certainty.


7 comments:

  1. Hey David,

    This is a really awesome paper! Rob will love it. I've always found the 'point of the universe' clause unclear at best. So, I admire the attempt to modify Sidgwick's axiom of irrelevance in a manner that rids it of this clause.

    Call the version of the axiom of irrelevance you end up with at the end of the paper 'R'. I think there is a decent argument against R that the common sense moralist would accept. It is based on the following case:

    John is faced with choosing to give a piece of candy to either Sue or Bill, both of whom he is babysitting. Giving the candy to Sue will produce some good, but giving the candy to Bill will produce more good. Both Sue and Bill are equally deserving of the Candy.

    My argument against R is as follows:

    John has some reason to be indifferent between distributing the candy to Bill or the candy to Sue. But, if this is the case then R is false. So, R is false

    The major premise of the above argument is as allows: John has some reason to be indifferent between distributing the candy to Bill or the candy to Sue. I find this claim intuitive. Additionally one might argue for it as follows: John has a reason to be fair in his distribution of the candy. If John has a reason to be fair in his distribution of the candy, then John has some reason to be indifferent between distributing the candy to Bill or distributing the candy to Sue. So, John has some reason to be to be indifferent between distributing the candy to Bill or distributing it to Sue.

    Even if the common sense moralist will reject R on the basis of the just given argument, R still seems to me better than the initial version of irrelevance in virtue of failing to have the unclear 'point of view of the universe clause'.

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  2. Hi David, welcome to the blog!
    I was thinking that in response to Greg, you could just drop the unless clause. The unless clause o Sidgwick's principle was around because he stated it as 'the only reason'. When you weaken it to 'a reason', you can drop the clause without much trouble.

    In terms of the Egoist, I'm not sure that the Egoist will want to accept your solution to the Sue case. While the resulting view may be defined as 'Egoism', it doesn't seem to be in the spirit of the Egoist view (since it accepts the existence of non-egoist reasons). Instead, an Egoist might want to bite the bullet and say that Sue has no reason to save a life. If so, then the Egoist will reject irrelevance.

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  3. Thanks a lot for the compliment greg. I guess I may be confused about your case. Is it not the case that there is is another prima facie duty hat is relevant, namely the duty to distribute goods to those who deserve them? This is Ross's duty of justice. It seems to me that in your counter example to R the prima facie duty for justice out weighs R. Indeed R is very week.

    Thanks Damian. I think you are right. As far as I can tell the only way the Egoist has out of this argument is to say that in the Sue case, Sue has no reason to save the life. The thought is that this is irrational. Other points of view's can be adopted, such as the point of according to which I have special concern for only those who are citizens of Canada. We can make a Sue case for the Moralist who adopts this point of view; the excess money Sue could give would save the life of a non-canadian. Of course, we think that adopting the Canadian point of view is irrational because Sue has a reason to save the non-canadians life. This reason exists, at least in part, because happiness is good in and of itself (irrespective of who or what it is had by). So the question for the Egoist is: why is your position not irrational like the Canadians-first-ist? A partial response could be that they indeed do think that Sue has a reason to give the excess money, thereby saving the life, because R is true. Then they are stuck with the same task both the Utilitarian and the Deontologist have, giving arguments for and against which reasons there are, what they are reasons for, and, what are their strengths.

    Whatever reasons the Egoist gave to support their claim that adopting their point of view is rational will now just be arguments for the existence and strength of certain prima facie duties, one being the prima facie duty to make oneself happy.

    Thanks for the comment guys.

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  4. I'm worried about the kind of response you are giving to the Egoist. This is not because your reply is bad, but because it seems to stray away from the dialectic. It seems that you are offering reasons to think that Egoism is false. But I thought that Sidgwick's goal was to find a principle that even the Egoist (in all the falsity of her view) could accept. So there may be something dialectically inappropriate about saying "I don't need to make my principle compatible with Egoism because Egoism is false".

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  5. Hey David,

    I might be confused in what R amounts to. I was thinking it meant something along the following line: there is a reason to use some impartial method (like flipping a coin) to determine whether x gets A or x gets B, unless one of the options produces more good than the other. This interpretation of R is logically equivalent to the following claim:

    1) If (giving x to A produces more good than giving x to B or vices versa), then there fails to be a reason to use an impartial method in determining whether to give x to A or x to B.

    If Ross's duty of justice is true, then my case (as far as I can tell) is a counterexample to (1). In my case, the the duty of justice gives John a reason to choose some impartial method of choosing who gets the candy, for if he doesn't then he fails to distribute the candy according to what the kids deserve (the kid's are equally deserving). Or to put the general point differently, if John chooses to give the candy to one of the kids over the other on the basis of something other than an impartial method, the kid who doesn't get the candy can lodge a justice complaint against John. So, it is true that giving the candy to Bill will produce more good than giving it to Sue. But, it's false that John has no reason to use an impartial method of picking between giving it to Sue and giving it to Bill. If the previous two claims are true, then (1) is false. So, (1) is false.



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  6. Greg: This is an interesting point. I think you are right that R is logically equivalent to (1). I did not notice this before.

    It seems plausible to say that, with regards to the prima facie duty to keep ones promises, you have a reason to keep your promise unless (just one of the "unless" clauses for this duty) the promisee relieves you of your duty. Consider a situation where the promisee has relieved you of your duty, but in which, by keeping the promise you will make all your friends happy, seeing as they expect you to keep the promise. Here, there is a sense in which you have a reason to keep your promise, but merely in a derivative sense. What the relevant reason is really for, is to bring about happiness, yet this requires that you keep your promise. I think this is what is going on in your case. John has a reason, though not a reason all things considered, to distribute impartially to the children, because he has a reason to distribute goods to those that deserve them. What the normative force is really directed at, to be hand-wavy, is deserved good, though in this situation that means distributing impartially.

    So Sidgwick says, I did not mean that, if a partial distribution leads to greater good, then there could be no reasons to act which lead to an impartial distribution, just look at the case you are raising. If this simple reason/derivative reason distinction is not a good one, then I think Sidgwick should slightly modify the axiom stating that, "unless..., then you don't have this reason (though you may have others)". I mean, all of this hinges on the notion of a prima facie dutie, which Sidgwick did not, at least explicitly, think in terms of. He thought there was only one reason, what you ought to do, and he thought the common sense moralist thought this too. What do you think Greg? Oh, what I said earlier about thinking of desert as a good was wrong, so I will delete the post.

    Damian: I guess one issue here is that we don't actually know what the Egoist's intuition is in the Sue case (or if they hate intuitions, then what they want to say about the sue case). Sidgwick thought that it was reasonable to ask why one should adopt one point of view over another. When he considers adopting the point of view on which one has special concern for their Nation-mates, he concludes one should not adopt this point of view because there just is no reason to privilege ones Nation-mate when distributing goods. This strategy will will not work on the Egoist, because Sidjwick thinks the Egoist does have a reason to privilege themselves when distributing goods. Indeed, this last claim is, I find at least, the most perplexing claims Sidgwick makes. But I offer a different strategy, again using the notion of a prima facie duty, which Sidgwick was not using. The strategy is to show, not that the Egoists has no reason for privileging distributions of happiness favouring them selves, but that there are other reasons to privilege other distributions of happiness as well.

    My thought is that, if the Egoist denies the existence of these other reasons, specifically irrelevance, or R, then Sidgwick can very well claim that their view is irrational. But, if the Egoist does accept the existence of these other reasons, then they will be peers of Sidgwicks, and in turn will have to provide arguments for their duty being the strongest just like the Utilitarian and the Common sense moralist must for their favorite reasons.

    I guess you are right if Egoism really is the one-reason-only-ist version, but I am un-aware of a good argument for that position that is not also an argument for the position on which there are multiple reasons, but the self-interest reason always trumps the others when they conflict. What do you think?

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