Where do moral paradoxes come from?

In the first post we asked what is a paradox, and in the second how to distinguish moral paradoxes from non-paradoxes (such as curiosities or puzzles). But where do moral paradoxes come from? I will examine this question through a quick survey of a few of the paradoxes in 10 MORAL PARADOXES.

Most writers think that there are two fundamentally different concepts of reasons, though some maintain that there is only one concept and the appearance of duality is misleading, and is due to a failure to properly analyse the role of reasons in our thought. Among those who accept the duality thesis, there are disagreement about the nature and relations between the concepts. It is not always easy to tell where terminological differences end and substantive ones begin.

Chapter 14, entitled ‘Moral Intuitions, Cognitive Psychology, and the Harming/Not-Aiding Distinction’, engages with well-known empirical studies by Kahneman and Tversky that are thought to cast doubt on the reliability of our judgments about what ought to be done in particular cases. Kahneman and Tversky argue that such judgments are unreliable because they are susceptible to ‘framing effects’. A person’s judgments are subject to a framing effect if he comes to a different conclusion about what ought to be done in a given set of circumstances when presented with a different true description (i.e., framing) of the available options. One and the same policy can, for example, be described as protecting against losses or as yielding gains. According to Kahneman and Tversky, people tend to regard the sacrifice that is justifiable for the sake of preventing losses as greater than the sacrifice that is justifiable for the sake of securing equivalent gains. Hence their judgments shift if one and the same policy is (accurately) described (a) as protecting from losses or (b) as yielding gains:

How can we tell moral paradoxes from non-paradoxes?

In my previous post I proposed that we follow a fairly clear understanding of what a paradox is. A paradox needs to have premises we agree with, leading through argumentation that seems impeccable, to an unacceptable (or reluctantly acceptable but truly absurd) conclusion. I shall assume this understanding of paradox henceforth. But in practice, deciding whether we have a paradox at hand is often not so simple. One reason is that the paradoxicality depends on substantive moral beliefs. Recall the paradox about justice and the severity of punishment that I outlined in the comments to my previous post: if (say) someone does not think that we ever need to mitigate the punishment of those from underprivileged backgrounds, or denies that deterrence is effective, then he or she will not accept all the premises that go into making the paradox. The only thing we can do then is to engage in discussion and try to show that those premises are plausible, and that our discussant should not really reject them.

[This is intended as a rapid, rough blog response. It is unedited and unrevised and no doubt contains many errors of spelling, grammar and argument.]

In this chapter, Frances Kamm contrasts her own non-consequentialist ethical theory with Peter Singer’s version of consequentialism, utilitarianism. She examines his general ethical theory and its implications for killing/letting die, treatment of the disabled and animals, and famine relief. I will only offer a skeletal summary of the first half. I will focus on the second half, which for me is incredibly rich and stimulating and more oriented to practical ethics. I will attempt to give a consequentialist response to her arguments in the latter half of the chapter. The first half, however, is of great interest to those involved in normative theory and its foundations. For those interested in more detailed analysis and response to Kamm’s arguments, please move straight to the section 1. The Principle of Irrelevant Goods.

The Overseas Case Poll
By S. Matthew Liao

The Overseas Case is from Peter Singer, as is the

The Pond Case: I am walking past a shallow pond and see a child drowning in it. If I wade in and pull the child out, my $500 suit will be ruined.

See, e.g., Singer, P. Practical Ethics. 2nd ed. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press).

These cases are here by popular demand (John Alexander and Tom Douglas). Comments on these cases are welcome here. See also Kamm Chapter 11 for some discussions of these cases. Happy voting.

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