October 11, 2008
By Toby Ord
Psychological hedonism (PH) is the view that each person is motivated so as to maximise his or her pleasure and minimise his or her pain. Thus, according to psychological hedonism, acts which appear to be altruistic are in fact performed for self interested reasons, such as making the agent feel less guilty, or giving the agent a ‘warm glow’. It is important to note that PH is a theory about motivation, rather than about ethics per se, but is of considerable relevance to ethical discussions.
Many people have attacked PH for not fitting the evidence: it seems that there are many situations when the benefits from the relief of guilt do not plausibly outweigh the actor’s sacrifice. For example, an atheist soldier choosing to die a painful death to protect his comrades. However, I wish to point out a different problem with PH which I have not heard before: that it has an incoherent conception of a person’s pleasure.
September 21, 2007
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.
July 13, 2007
By Toby Ord
Chapter Two examines the question of ‘whether the numbers count’. Suppose that we can either save the life of one person, A, or the life of one other person, B. Let us assume for this and each other example that everything else of moral relevance is kept equal (they are all strangers, there is no pre-exisitng promise to save any of them etc.). Kamm holds that in such a case we should give each of them maximal equal chances of being saved: that is, we should flip a coin giving them each a 50% chance of being saved. Now suppose that the choice is between saving A or saving both B and C. Should we continue to decide by flipping a coin, or should we directly choose to save B and C? This is the question at the heart of Chapter Two.