My top ideas of 2021

It is time to look back at 2021, to see what are my most important new insights. My two top picks for this year are both within moral philosophy. Interestingly, those two ideas have the same underlying structure. They both have two components, because in ethics there are always two parties involved: moral agents (e.g. decision makers) and moral patients (e.g. affected people). I consider these two ideas to be a unification or crystallization of my moral theory.

Deontological ethics, population ethics and the two rights that restrict utilitarianism

As a Forethought Foundation Global Priorities Fellow, past year I spend more time writing and thinking about population ethics. That resulted in a breakthrough: an argument for my new favorite population ethical theory called person-affecting neutral-range utilitarianism. There is more: that same argument can be unified with an older argument in deontological ethics.

The idea is to modify utilitarianism by introducing a special right that allows to avoid the most important counterintuitive implications of utilitarianism. Utilitarianism entails that we have to choose the state (situation, option) that has the highest sum of utilities, where the sum runs over all sentient beings in the past, present and future, and the utilities measure personal preferences, welfare or lifetime well-being of those sentient beings. Now we modify this utilitarianism by giving everyone a discount right, i.e. the right to discount the utilities of others. What if you had the right to determine that an increase of my welfare does not matter morally? What would happen if people have the right to exclude the utilities of other individuals from the utilitarian sum? Of course, in most cases, those other individuals whose utilities are discounted or excluded, may complain, because they do not want their utilities to be discounted.

But there are two exceptions where the discount right does not cause valid complaints. There are two cases where the discount right is complaint-free, due to the fact that a right involves two parties, a right holder (the person who claims the right) and an affected person. An affected person whose utility is discounted, cannot complain under two conditions:

  1. if the affected person would not have been better off in a counterfactual state where the right holder would not exist (i.e. in the absence of the right holder), or
  2. if the affected person would not have been better off in a counterfactual state where the affected person would not exist.  

In the first case, we can think about the situation where one person is sacrificed or exploited and used as merely a means to the benefit of others. This is the area of deontological ethics. The exploitation means that the benefited people use the body of the one person as a means for their own ends, against that one person’s will. Using that one person increases the utilities of the benefited people. Hence, those benefited people are affected people: their welfare is affected (increased) by the choice to use the one person. But suppose that one person has the right to discount the increased utilities of those benefited people. Those benefited people cannot complain, because if the one person, who now is the right holder, would not exist, the benefited people could not use that person’s body. Hence, those affected people would not have been better off if the right holder were absent or non-existent. In cases of exploitation, the complaint-free discount right becomes the right not to be used as merely a means. That right is special, because no-one can complain against everyone having this right. That right can also explain many other principles in deontological ethics that conflict with utilitarianism, such as the moral difference between doing and allowing harm (doing harm is worse than allowing an equal amount of harm), the difference between positive and negative duties (negative duties not to harm others are more important than positive duties to help others), the difference between beneficence and non-maleficence, and the permissibility of partiality in beneficence (when helping others, you are allowed to be partial towards people you hold dear).

In the second case, we can think of a situation where we can cause the existence of extra people and influence who will exist in the future. This is the area of population ethics. Those future people are possible people, because they do not exist in all eligible states that we can choose. We can choose a state where those people are never born. Hence, those possible people are affected people: their existence and hence their welfare is affected by our choice to bring them into existence. If the possible people are brought into existence and in that state they have a negative lifetime well-being (a net-negative welfare where negative experiences dominate positive experiences), they would rather choose non-existence. They can complain against our choice to bring them into existence. Causing their existence is harmful to them. Hence, we are not allowed to discount the negative utilities of possible people. But if the possible people have positive utilities, they cannot complain against their existence. If as a consequence of discounting their positive utilities, we choose the state where these potential people do not exist, their non-existence means that they cannot complain. The right to discount the positive utilities of possible people translates into some population ethical principles that conflict with classical utilitarianism, for example the moral difference between making people happy (which is always good) and making happy people (which is not always good), or the procreation asymmetry (causing the existence of unhappy people is always bad, causing the existence of happy people is not always good). Most importantly, this right allows us to avoid the most counterintuitive population ethical implication of classical utilitarianism: the very repugnant conclusion. This conclusion says that it would be good to make very happy people extremely miserable, by adding to the population a huge number of extra people who have lives barely worth living (i.e. with small but positive utilities), when the total sum of utilities of the extra people is larger than the decrease in utilities of the very happy people.

My first top idea of 2021, is the insight that due to the two exceptions, the complaint-free discount right translates into two rights that restrict utilitarianism: the right to bodily autonomy in deontological ethics (which is the right not to be used as merely a means against one’s will), and the right to procreation autonomy in population ethics (which is the right not to bring a happy person into existence). Those rights may not be absolute. If the second, population ethical right is not absolute, we end up with person-affecting neutral-range utilitarianism, where the utilities of possible people are discounted when these utilities are in a neutral range between zero and some positive value. I think this gives us the strongest possible justification for my new favorite population ethical theory of person-affecting neutral-range utilitarianism. 

Unwanted arbitrariness, non-dictatorship and non-discrimination

My second top idea of 2021 also involves moral philosophy, but it is more general or fundamental than a specific theory such as utilitarianism. It is a meta-theory, because it deals with conditions for good moral theories. The fundamental condition for all valid moral theories, is that they should avoid unwanted arbitrariness. Arbitrariness means selecting an element (or subset) of a set without using a selection rule. The set can be anything: the set of possible choices (the choice set), the set of moral rules, the set of conditions, the set of moral agents, the set of moral patients,… Unwantedness means being incompatible with someone’s largest consistent set of that person’s strongest subjective preferences. Or in other words: arbitrariness is unwanted when someone can validly complain against that arbitrariness. Your complaint is valid when it is based on your largest consistent set of your strongest subjective preferences. As with the complaint-free discount right, the unwanted arbitrariness principle is fundamentally based on the notion of complaints.

The anti-arbitrariness principle says that we have to avoid unwanted arbitrariness as much as possible. The challenge was to make this principle more precise. I ended up with four different versions of this principle.

  • 1a: If you do not avoid avoidable unwanted arbitrariness when making a choice, you are not allowed to make that choice.
  • 1b: If, when making a choice, you cannot give a justification rule of which you would accept universal compliance, then you are not allowed to make that choice nor follow that rule.
  • 2a: If you cannot avoid unwanted arbitrariness when making a choice, you are allowed to make that choice but other people may make other choices from the same choice set (i.e. you have to tolerate that other people make other choices).
  • 2b: If, when making a choice, you cannot give a justification rule of which everyone would accept universal compliance, then you must accept or tolerate that other people make other choices from the same choice set and follow other justification rules for making those choices.

As the anti-arbitrariness principle deals with choices and rules, we are confronted with two important questions. Who decides or chooses the choices and rules? And who is affected by the choices and rules? These two questions refer to the two parties involved in ethics: moral agents who make decisions, and moral patients who are affected by those decisions. As a consequence of there being two parties, the anti-arbitrariness principle reduces to two subprinciples: non-dictatorship and non-discrimination. This is very similar to there being two kinds of complaint-free discount rights mentioned above.

The non-dictatorship principle deals with the question of the moral agents who make choices. It says that no-one should have the unconditional power to always unilaterally make decisions that affect other people. The non-discrimination principle deals with the treatment of the moral patients, the people who are affected by the choices of the moral agents. It says that we should avoid arbitrary discrimination of individual (or group) A relative to B, where arbitrary discrimination is defined as a systematically different treatment of A and B, whereby

  1. B gets more advantages than A,
  2. A has a lower moral status than B (e.g. A has less intrinsic value or weaker rights than B) in the sense that one would not tolerate swapping positions (treating A as B and B as A), and
  3. there is no justification or the justification of the difference in treatment refers to morally irrelevant criteria (properties that are not acceptable motives to treat A and B differently in the concerned situation), whereas A and B both meet the same morally relevant criteria to treat and value them more equally.

Dictatorship and discrimination are immoral, because they involve arbitrariness and people can complain against the involved arbitrariness. In the case of dictatorship, a group of dictators is chosen out of the set of all moral agents, and this choice did not involve a justifying selection rule. Hence, the choice of dictators is arbitrary, and as other non-selected moral agents can complain against the dictators dictating their decisions, this dictatorship involves unwanted arbitrariness. In the case of discrimination, a privileged group of people is chosen out of the set of all moral patients, and this choice did not involve a justifying selection rule either. Hence, the choice of privileged people is arbitrary, and as other non-selected moral patients can complain against being disadvantaged, this discrimination involves unwanted arbitrariness.

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