Thursday, February 08, 2018

Morality and Moral Justification

I do not have time to read the whole of Derek Parfit’s on What Matters. So, in answer to a suggestion to compare and contrast my views with his, I have been looking for more convenient sources.

I found a podcast at Oxford University entitled, Prioritarianism, Leveling Down, and Welfare Diffusion where Professor Ingmar Persson (Gothenburg University) gave a presentation on something Parfit wrote, where Parfit was the commentator.

My view is that the whole discussion was off track, since both disputants appeared to share assumptions that I would reject.

The primary assumption was that moral value was some property that could be quantified. The two philosophers disputed over ways in which the moral value of outcomes for different (possible) people could be totaled in both an absolute and a weighted sense, averaged, equalized, and the like.

This discussion substantially concerned whether the principles governing the distribution of moral value units lead to the “leveling down problem”. The idea that moral value units should be equal suggests that, if 1 person had 100 moral units and another had 1 moral unit, then taking 99 moral units away from the first person would be good because the situation would be more equal. In other words, the principle of equality may need to be rejected because it implied that we should approve of a situation in which some people are made worse off and nobody better off because the distributions were more equal. They called this the Leveling Down Problem.

Parfit presented a view he called "Prioritarianism" that apparently avoided the leveling down problem. It said that the assignment of a unit of moral value to somebody who has lesser moral value (giving the person with 1 unit of moral value s second unit) was worth more than giving that unit of moral value to the person who already had 100 units. There was no "leveling down" on this option since it only concerned the distribution of additional units, and did not involve taking anything away.

I can well understand why somebody might think that such a discussion was a useful part of morality. It did seem to at least be talking about the right sort of subject and presenting solutions that seemed, in some sense, intuitively plausible.

However, I hold that the whole idea of moral values that can be summed, averaged, or weighted is false.

Compare and contrast what Parfit and Persson were debating with the way that desirism discusses choices.

Recall the thought experiment that involved Alph, with a desire to gather stones, deciding whether to give Bet a desire to gather stones or a desire to scatter stones. In assessing these options, I never spoke about moral value as some type of quantifiable entity to be maximized, averaged, or anything similar. Alph, with his desire to gather stones, had only one criterion to use in evaluating these two actions: "Which option would allow me to make or keep the propositions 'I am gathering stones' true?" And the answer was (under the assumption that there were a limited number of stones to gather) to give her the desire to scatter stones.

As I watch myself live through an average day, from going to the gym to going to work to buying flowers for my wife to not stealing or lying to anybody or vandalizing property to taking my proper place in line when I had a line to get into to doing the various tasks that meet my responsibilities at work to choosing a blog post topic and writing it and publishing it . . .

. . . in a whole days' activity a principle of distributing moral values to those who had the least did not influence any action.

I do argue for this at times. In fact, I have often defended the principle of Parfit's prioritarianism. However, I have not done so on the basis of asserting that there exists moral value units that have greater significance when they are provided to those who are the least well off. My arguments have followed the same pattern as used in the discussion of Alph and Bet - people generally have reason to promote universally an interest in helping those who are the least well off. What motivates the drive to promote this interest? It is the strong desires of those who are least well off that would otherwise be thwarted, balanced against the weak desires on those who have a great deal to add even more to their surplus.

In the mean time, in the real-world lives of real-world people, this remains one desire among many - and must be set aside the aversion to taking the property of others without their consent, aversion to lying or breaking promises, acts of affection and concern particularly for those who are important in one's life such as one's spouse, children, and friends, opposition to hate-mongering bigotry (which was the topic I selected to write my post on yesterday).

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