What is a moral paradox?

First let’s see what a paradox is. Broadly speaking, there are two opinions. One is lax; it is common among non-philosophers, but occasionally comes up in philosophy as well. According to the lax view, a paradox (or the paradoxical – there is a distinction, but I will not make it here) can be anything perplexing, unusual, unexpected, or ironic. The strict view closely connects paradoxes to the idea of a contradiction. Mark Sainsbury in PARADOXES defines it thus: “an apparently unacceptable conclusion derived by apparently acceptable reasoning from apparently acceptable premises” (1996:1).

Carbon Ethics
By Toby Ord

I have recently noticed a strange asymmetry between our attitudes to avoiding climate change and to eliminating poverty. Both are important moral concerns and both can be advanced through private donations. In the case of eliminating poverty, we can do so via donations to any of a wide number of aid organizations. In the case of climate change, we can do so via payments to carbon offsetting companies.

It is true that some such schemes are of dubious value, but we are beginning to get reliable authorities that check up on the companies (see the Gold Standard) and there are many ways in which they really can reduce carbon emissions. For example, many people in developing countries use highly polluting stoves and water pumps because they are a bit cheaper. Offset companies can pay the difference, thus achieving substantial carbon savings at a relatively small cost.

Intuitions are curious things. In chapter 12 as elsewhere, Kamm makes extensive use of hypothetical experiments meant to test our intuitions and lead us to particular results. Indeed, few are better than Kamm at providing so many illuminating imaginative cases. For the most part, I believe her efforts succeed. However, if I had a criticism to state up front, then it would be my worry that Kamm makes our intuitions do too much. For one thing, the hypothetical experiments are aimed at philosophers engaging with her book. What evidence do we have that (a) the intuitions academic philosophers hold are representative of the general public or (b) the intuitions academic philosophers hold are justified independently? What to do about those of us (like me) with very different, more consequentialism-friendly intuitions? And so on. Indeed, these issues of highly imaginative hypothetical cases and extensive uses of intuitions have creeped into a few of the previous discussions of Intricate Ethics. I simply wish to state up front that this issue appears to creep into the discussion here, too.

In Chapters 11 and 12, Kamm considers whether and how distance affects the duties we have to aid others. In Chapter 11, she is predominantly interested in some methodological issues about how we can use hypothetical cases to answer this question, though she does also offer some preliminary substantive conclusions.

Rather than following Kamm’s section headings, I have summarized the chapter in four sections based on the four main methodological points that she makes, with two additional sections to cover her preliminary substantive conclusions. My own comments appear in square brackets.

Just got notice of this intriguing event on Kamm’s book:

The Rutgers Institute for Law and Philosophy, based at the Law School in Camden, is pleased to announce a two-day symposium on F. M. Kamm’s Intricate Ethics: Rights, Responsibilities, and Permissible Harm (Oxford, 2007). The symposium will take place on Friday, February 22nd and Saturday, February 23rd, 2008.

Frances Kamm, Littauer Professor Philosophy and Public Policy in the Kennedy School of Government and Professor of Philosophy in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences at Harvard, will attend, and presentations will be given by Shelly Kagan (Yale), Jeff McMahan (Rutgers), Gideon Rosen (Princeton), T. M. Scanlon (Harvard), and Seana Shiffrin (UCLA).

We are delighted to announce the addition of Julia Driver to our list of contributors. Julia is a Professor of Philosophy at Dartmouth College, USA, and is currently interested in objective consequentialism and moral sentimentalism.

Here is a belated welcome to the other contributors as well, so that everyone knows who everyone else is. We would also like to take this opportunity to thank all the active commentators for your contributions.

Alison Hills – Tutorial Fellow and University Lecturer in Philosophy, Oxford University, UK

Andrew Reisner – Assistant Professor of Philosophy, McGill University, CA

The purpose of this chapter is to show that concerns focused on the agent can supplement concerns focused on victims in bolstering the conclusion that agents ought not to infringe negative rights, even when the consequences of doing so are clearly better than the consequences of not infringing negative rights. That is, agent-focused considerations can bolster the case against consequentialism.

The chapter focuses on examples originally due to Bernard Williams; Williams himself advanced them to a similar end. The first is the well-known case of Jim and the Indians:

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