Friday, August 10, 2018

RoME 2018 01: Resisting Oppression

Rocky Mountain Ethics Congress Session 01: Tamara Fakhoury (UNC Chapel Hill)
“Forbidden Projects and Harm Independent Grounds to Resist Oppression”

Abstract: Oppression is a serious injustice and everyone ought to resist it if they can. But what are the moral grounds of this obligation for oppressed persons, and what does fulfilling it entail for each one of us, given that we are differently situated in our means, abilities, and knowledge of oppression? On one consequentialist view, the only reason people morally ought to resist oppression is in order to lessen its unjustifiable harms. For them, only acts that are reasonably likely to lessen the harms of oppression count towards fulfilling the obligation to resist. I argue that we should recognize additional grounds to resist oppression that are independent of reducing its harms. Insofar as relationships of love might also generate obligations to resist, victims of oppression can fulfill those obligations through acts that do not aim to primarily to reduce oppression’s overall effects and that may even increase the oppressiveness of their individual situation.

From the point of view of desirism, the very claim that, “the only reason people morally ought to . . . “ is problematic. No person exists with only one desire - one motive. So, there is no possibility that an agent can ever act on only one reason.

The closest we can get to this is for our many and various reasons to motivate us to adopt a rule that has only one criterion. In making investments, a person can adopt a rule that says, “Invest only in that mutual fund that has the highest 10-year rate of return.” Such a person can still be motivated by such things as care for the environment, love for her spouse and children, a fondness for pumpkin pie, and still judge that this principle is the best expression of her desires. These provide the motives for adopting a rule that examines only one criterion. These motives include concerns over the efficient use of her time, and evaluation as to the effectiveness of researching other options as opposed to using her time elsewhere better fulfilling those other desires. All of these may recommend, in a specific case, a rule with only one criterion.

However, the only way in which this can justify the thesis that the only morally legitimate reason to resist oppression is reduction of harm, it must be the case that, for each person, a consideration of all of his or her desires suggests a practical rule having only one criterion. Even then, this is a practical rule, not a moral. rule.

Even if we further qualify the input to consider only morally legitimate reasons, those reasons concern not only good desires and bad desires but morally neutral desires - the desires that motivate optional choices such as what to eat, what to read, where to shop, who to befriend, and what to do for entertainment.

All of this goes to say that the thesis that Fakhoury is arguing against is an implausible thesis to begin with, so she begins with a significant advantage.

Fakhoury argues that a love for a forbidden project also provides a morally praiseworthy reason to resist oppression. This is true, she claims, even if it is not likely to be effective in reducing material and psychological harms.

I could apply this to a case of somebody such as David Hume, who studied moral philosophy in a culture where his disregard for religious morality had a negative impact on his ability to get a job at a university. One can embellish Hume's case and make it one where official retaliation against him for his work could have brought about even greater harms to others as well, as it increases the diligence of enforcement. Consequently, his pursuit of this passion would not reduce the harms of oppression. Yet, somebody like Hume may continue to pursue the project precisely because he has a passion for understanding morality.

Please note, I am not saying that this Humesque person is acting out of a project of maximizing social utility. It is his love for moral philosophy that motivates his action, not any concern for the public good. This is his project.

The position that this is not morally permissible - that the only motive that is morally permissible is to reduce the harm of oppression - implies not only that the agent must not act on such a passion, but is not permitted to have such a passion. To even have a desire to understand morality is to be in a state where, if the harms of pursuing the project versus the harms of not doing so are nearly balanced, but the harms of not pursuing the project are slightly greater, the love of the project will tilt the motivational scales in favor of engaging in the forbidden project anyway. The only way to prevent this type of situation from arising is to have no interest - no passion - for anything other than the reduction of harm from oppression. This conclusion seems to reduce the original position to absurdity.

Once again, I want to make clear that I am siding with Fakhoury against the harm-minimizing ethicist.

Another part of the thesis that Fakhoury argues against states that one ought to weigh one's own interests equally to those of others. Fakhoury accurately claims that this is not possible. For my part, an agent can only act on his or her desires. Insofar as an interest or desire that is not one's own causes an intentional action, then that action belongs to the person whose interests motivated it. If I were to hook up a machine that allows me to control your body through remote control, the actions that your body engages in would be my actions, not yours. I would be culpable for any wrongdoing committed by your body, not you.

So, to consider all interests equally would require that an agent himself have only one desire - a desire to fulfill all interests impartially considered. This is an unreasonable conclusion for any moral theory.

In her response to the paper, Amy Berg (Rhode Island College) argued that a consequentialist can understand consequences in terms of the fulfillment of any desire, and not just a desire to reduce the harms of the oppression. Thus, the thwarting of a project would, itself, count as a harm, and the pursuit of the project would count as reducing the harms of oppression.

To be fair, this objection was not applicable to Fakhoury, who was arguing against a specific view identified above. However, this does not imply that it lacks merit.

Yet, this would still require that the agent have only one project - a project of maximizing desire (project) fulfillment. For this to be the only motivating force is for this to be the only desire or interest or project that the agent has. This is not only a non-human ethics, it is not even coherent.

So, in short, the motivation to fight oppression can come from any morally legitimate desire. Hatred of oppression, love for one's children and a desire to secure a better future for them, and even a desire for fame and reputation. The latter, though not the most noble of desires, is still legitimate.

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