Dual moral theory

Morality always involves two parties: the perpetrator versus the victim, the helper versus the beneficiary, the rights-holder versus the duty-bearer, the moral agent versus the moral patient, or most generally: the decision-makers versus the affected people. Due to the two sides of morality, there are dualities. This article presents two basic moral principles that show dualities.

Duality in a procedural moral principle (the anti-arbitrariness principle)

The first moral principle is perhaps the most fundamental principle in ethics, because it is procedural and therefore very general. Procedural means that it tells us how we should make decisions (the procedure for making right decisions) and not what decisions we should make. This principle comes down to avoiding unwanted arbitrariness: “You are only allowed to choose an option when you are able to formulate a justifying rule that justifies the choice of that option such that you can want that everyone follows that rule in all possible situations.” (A more technical description can be found in this paper.)

When you make a decision, there are two parties: the decision-maker (you) and the people who are affected by your decision. As a consequence, other people can complain in two ways against your decision. They can complain against you making the decision and against the consequences of your decision for people who are negatively affected by your decision.

Consider the first complaint. Suppose that you make a decision that someone else does not want. You can try to justify your decision by claiming that you are the one who is allowed to make decisions. But by doing so, you make a second decision: you decide that you are the prime decision-maker or the only person who may make decisions. Basically, you decide to be a dictator. To make that choice for your dictatorship permissible, you have to be able to give a justifying rule such that you can want that everyone follows that rule in all possible situations. There are so many possible decision-makers who could be prime decision-makers. What rule did you follow that selects you as the prime decision-maker? You cannot find such a rule, which means you are not allowed to declare yourself as the prime decision-maker. Hence, the first complaint results in a non-dictatorship principle: no-one should have the unconditional power to always unilaterally make decisions that affect other people. 

The second complaint results in the anti-discrimination principle. Suppose you make a decision that benefits a group of people and harms or disadvantages another group of people. Those disadvantaged people can complain against your decision. But again you make a second decision: you decide to divide the whole population of sentient beings in two groups, the advantaged versus the disadvantaged individuals. There are so many possible ways to divide the population in two groups. What rule did you follow that selects your chosen division of the population? If you cannot give such a rule, then your choice for distinguishing between two groups is arbitrary. People who belong to the disadvantaged group can reasonably complain against you making that arbitrary distinction. You cannot want that everyone else is allowed to make arbitrary distinctions between people such that you belong to the disadvantaged group. Hence, neither you nor anyone else is allowed to make arbitrary distinctions between people such that some people are disadvantaged. This basically means no-one is allowed to discriminate. No-one may discriminate people from group A against people from group B. To be more precise: no-one may give B more advantages than A in such a way that one would not tolerate swapping positions (treating A as B and B as A) when 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).

Duality in a substantive moral principle (the complaint-free discounted utilitarianism)

Next we move to a substantive moral principle, where substantive means that the principle tells us what decisions we should make. Every sentient being has subjective preferences for each situation that they can experience. These preferences express positive or negative evaluations of the situations. These evaluations can be measured in terms of utility (or expected utility in the case of situations having uncertain outcomes). A high preference for a situation means a very positive evaluation and hence a high utility. Utility is an increasing function of welfare: if someone’s welfare increases, that person’s utility increases (all else equal). The principle of complaint-free discounted utilitarianism states: “We should make the choice for the situation that maximizes the sum of everyone’s expected utilities, whereby everyone has a (limited) right to discount the utilities of others (i.e. exclude a part of their utilities from the sum) when those others cannot validly complain against that discounting.” (A more technical description can be found in this paper.)

The first part of the principle, i.e. maximizing the sum of utilities, comes down to classical utilitarianism. The second part is a rights-based extension of utilitarianism (moving the theory towards a deontological ethic). There are basically two extensions, because there are two types of valid complaints, because a right involves two parties: rights-holders versus the duty-bearers. A right becomes morally relevant only when both the right-holder and the duty-bearer exist and are present in the situation. Suppose right-holders invoke their right to discount the utilities of others. If this right has to be respected, those other people become duty-bearers in the sense that they have to respect the decision of the right-holders to have their utilities discounted. As a result of this discounting, situation A is chosen. The duty-bearers can validly complain against the choice for situation A only when they would be better-off in another situation B where either the right-holders or the duty-bearers themselves do not exist. Hence, the existence of two parties implies two types of valid complaints.

Consider the first type of valid complaints, that occurs when the duty-bearers are better-off in a hypothetical situation where the right-holders would not exist. Imagine a situation where duty-bearers are in need and right-holders can help the duty-bearers. Receiving help increases the utilities of the duty-bearers. But suppose the right-holders do not want to give the help, because that requires a too large sacrifice (consider the case of organ transplantation where people sacrifice themselves by letting themselves be killed by surgeons who will use their vital organs to save patients in the hospital). Or it requires going against strong preferences (consider the case of a burning house where people cannot save their own children when they have to save other children in another room). The right-holders could invoke their right to discount the utilities of the duty-bearers who are in need. In particular, they discount the utility gains of the duty-bearers, i.e. the extra utility that the duty-bearers get when they are helped. In this case, the duty-bearers cannot validly complain against such discounting, because if the right-holders would not exist, then the duty-bearers could not be helped and hence could not be made better-off. As a consequence, the right-holders may discount those utility gains, which means they may choose not to help the duty-bearers (in the organ transplantation case they may choose not to sacrifice themselves). And they may choose to be partial when it comes to offering help: they may offer more help to people they hold dear (in the burning house case they may choose to save their own children instead of the other children). But this right to discount utility is not necessarily absolute. We can impose a limit, in the sense that when the sacrifice is very small and the benefits for the duty-bearers are very large, the right-holders may not fully discount utilities and hence have at least some obligation to help.

People have the right to discount utility gains of others when those others are not made better-off in the hypothetical situation where the people who discount their utilities would not exist. This right translates into many deontological principles (i.e. principles that violate the utilitarian principle to maximize the sum of utilities). It corresponds with the ‘mere means’ principle, where people have the right not to be used against their will as a means to someone else’s ends (someone is used as a means when the existence of that person is necessary to achieve the ends, and someone is used as merely a means when the use as a means is against that person’s will). It corresponds with the priority of negative duties over positive duties, where negative duties (not to harm someone) are more important than positive duties (to help someone): victims of harm can reasonably complain against being harmed, but not against not being helped. It results in the doing versus allowing principle, where doing harm is worse than allowing harm (not helping someone who is harmed). And it results in the permissibility of partiality, where you may choose to help those who are most dear to you even when that does not maximize total utility.

Finally, consider the second type of valid complaints, that occurs when the duty-bearers would be better-off in a situation where the duty-holders themselves would not exist. Here we enter the realm of population ethics, where people’s decisions determine who will exist in the future. It is not permissible to give birth to children who will have lives not worth living, i.e. lives with a predominance of negative over positive experiences. Those children would have been better-off when they do not exist. But what about causing the existence of people who have lives worth living? Before they exist, these people are possible people: their existence depends on the decisions of necessary people, i.e. people who exist in all eligible situations (currently living people are necessary people, because we cannot choose a situation where they do not exist). Do we have to choose the situation in which a huge number of extra people are brought into existence, all with small but positive utilities, at the cost of our own welfare, if that would increase the total sum of utilities? No, we, as right-holders, can decide to discount the positive utilities of possible people. When we discount their utilities, we can choose the situation in which those possible people do not exist. As they do not exist, those non-existent possible people cannot validly complain against our decision to discount their positive utilities. Hence, we do not have a duty to sacrifice ourselves by causing extra people to exist. But once we decide to bring someone into existence, that person’s utility can no longer be discounted, because that existing person can validly complain against such discounting. That existing person is no longer a possible person. The right to discount the positive utilities of possible people is not necessarily absolute. We can impose a limit, in the sense that when we can cause the existence of a huge population of extremely happy people, we may have a duty to choose their existence, even at the cost of a little bit of our own welfare.

The right to discount the positive utilities of possible people translates into many population ethical principles, such as the procreation asymmetry: it is always bad to cause the existence of a life with negative utility (all else equal), but not always good to cause the existence of a life with positive utility (all else equal). Or: we should make people happy, rather than make happy people.

Without the right to discount utility, classical utilitarianism becomes very demanding, where people can face situations where they have to make extreme sacrifices for the greater good. This demandingness is avoided in complaint-free discounted utilitarianism. This theory is compatible with most of our strongest moral intuitions, because it avoids many counter-intuitive implications of classical utilitarianism.

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