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A Puzzle About Self-Sacrificing Altruism

2021

Journal of Controversial Ideas

I present a puzzle concerning individual self-sacrificing altruism (SSA) that, to the best of my knowledge, has not been considered before. I develop an argument that challenges the common sense attitudes towards self-sacrificial altruism in typical, paradigmatic cases. I consider SSA involving sacrificing one’s life for other human beings, focusing, for the sake of simplicity, on saving a single person. We have reasons to think that many paradigmatic acts of SSA may, on reflection, be irrational, that typical moral heroes are mistaken, that dispositional self-sacrificers should perhaps resist their good urges to keep saving people, and that the enchantments of heroism should regularly be resisted.

"A Puzzle About Self-Sacrificing Altruism", Journal of Controversial Ideas 1 (2021):  10.35995/jci01010007

Contribution, Replaceability and the Meaning of Our Lives

2021

Theoria

I explore some surprising results concerning positive individual contributions, focusing on those made in one's job or in the position one holds. The replaceability of most people on the job or in positions of influence threatens our common sense notion of contribution. Two concepts of contribution are distinguished, and help to limit the sense of paradox, but do not completely eliminate it. The ideal of making a contribution that would not be made were one not to make it is seen as both highly threatening and potentially very important for acquiring meaning in one's life. Finally, some hazards of our conclusions are seen to lead to thoughts about the dangers of open disclosure.

Contribution, Replaceability and the Meaning of Our Lives. Theoria. https://doi.org/10.1111/theo.12352

Do You Have to Reply to This Paper?

2021

Philosophia

I explore the question of whether one has to reply to a paper such as this, and consider what a positive answer (in any respect) would teach us. I argue for a qualified Yes. By "reply" I refer to an attempt to write a paper responding to the original one, which addresses (some of) the major claims made in it. I first ask what philosophical papers are for, and note the important role played by replies to them. I consider special obligations to reply to philosophical papers; and the weaker pro tanto obligations that might exist for most professional philosophers. Finally, I consider objections to my claims; and the broader implications if my case is plausible.

Do You Have to Reply to This Paper?. Philosophia 49, 1361–1368 (2021).

Overpunishment and the Punishment of the Innocent

2021

Analytic Philosophy

The deep, pervading sense is that punishing innocent people is abhorrent. We also have evidence indicating that the overpunishment of guilty people –
punishing them more than they morally deserve for the crimes they are convicted of – is a widely prevalent practice in many western countries, such as the US. Morally, overpunishment (OP) seems to be equivalent in terms of the injustice it involves to the punishment of the innocent (POI). This suggests a radical inconsistency: we acquiesce in and seem hardly troubled by practices (OP) that seem to be morally equivalent to other practices (POI) we hold to be abhorrent and go out of our way to prevent. So what are we to make of this? I explore the predicament, and conclude that, for strong and diverse moral reasons, the punishment of the innocent and the overpunishment of the guilty are not morally equivalent.

Overpunishment and the punishment of the innocent. Analytic Philosophy. https://doi.org/10.1111/phib.12235

The Idea of Moral Duties to History

2021

Philosophy

I argue that there exist duties that can be called "Moral duties due to history" or, shorter, "Duties to History" (DTH). My claim is not the familiar claim that we need to learn from history how to live better in the present and towards the future, but that history itself creates moral duties. There exist special obligations in response to the past; in addition to those obligations we currently recognise to the present and the future. If convincing, this means that our lives ought to be guided, in part, not only by our obligations to the living but by the DTH. This is a surprising result, with significant and sometimes perplexing implications. My focus will be on the obligations of individuals in the light of history rather than on collective duties.

"The Idea of Moral Duties to History", Philosophy 96 (2021):  155-179.

Three Kinds of Failure

2021

Iyyun

Failure has not been, as far as I know, philosophically analyzed in detail. I analyze three distinct kinds or ways of failure, and the relationship among them. I focus on prudential failure in what one has done or not done, in major aspects of one's life, such as romantic love and work. This exploration seems to shed new light on the notion of failure and on its complexity. The discussion has clear practical application, once we are clear about the three distinct kinds, in helping us to weigh our different interests in not failing, as well as our failure-related fears, against each other.

"Three Kinds of Failure", Iyyun 69 (2021): 299-313

Black Magic and Respecting Persons - Some Perplexities

2020

Ratio

Black magic (henceforth BM) is acting in the attempt to harm human beings through supernatural means. Examples include the employment of spells, the use of special curses, the burning of objects related to the purported victim, and the use of pins with voodoo dolls. For the sake of simplicity, we shall focus on attempts to kill through BM. The moral attitude towards BM has not been, as far as we know, significantly discussed in contemporary analytic philosophy. Yet the topic brings up interesting questions and poses challenges, raising perplexities and occasionally even reaching the level of paradoxes. Ideas of respecting persons, in particular, will be seen to be challenged by this form of magic. The notion of respecting persons will be treated here broadly and pluralistically. Indeed part of the interest in the discussion will be the unfolding of the diverse ways in which this term needs to be understood, and the contrasts between its various uses. Often, as we shall see, respect for persons and disrespect for them, in different senses, will co-exist, and the dilemma will be one where avoiding some forms of disrespect will involve us in disrespect in other senses.

(Saul Smilansky and Juha Räikkä) "Black Magic and Respecting Persons - Some Perplexities", Ratio 33 (2020): 173-183.

Should We Sacrifice the Utilitarians First?

2020

Philosophical Quarterly

It is commonly thought that morality applies universally to all human beings as moral targets, and our general moral obligations to people will not, as a rule, be affected by their views. I propose and explore a radical, alternative normative moral theory, "Designer Ethics", according to which our views are pro tanto crucial determinants of how, morally, we ought to be treated. For example, since utilitarians are more sympathetic to the idea that human beings may be sacrificed for the greater good, perhaps it is permissible (or, even under certain conditions, obligatory) to give them "priority" as potential victims. This odd idea has manifold drawbacks but I claim that it also has substantial advantages, that it has some affinities to more commonly accepted moral positions, and that it should be given a significant role in our ethical thinking.


Keywords: Designer Ethics, ethical theory, universality, integrity, moral complaint, utilitarianism.

Should We Sacrifice the Utilitarians First?", Philosophical Quarterly 70 (2020): 850-867.

The Moral Evaluation of Past Tragedies: A New Puzzle

2020

Journal of Moral Philosophy

The past is full of terrible tragedies, including slavery, World War I, and the Holocaust. Morality would clearly appear to support the preference that the victims of those calamities would have lived free and peaceful lives. And yet, a puzzle or even a paradox appears to be lurking here. Moral evaluation can be either personal or impersonal, yet neither one of these two perspectives, nor any other prevalent moral evaluation of events, appears to yield the morally expected conclusion. To the best of my knowledge this puzzle has not been discussed before. If there is no way to escape this surprising conclusion, then morality appears to be much more grim and unsympathetic than we normally think.

"The Moral Evaluation of Past Tragedies: A New Puzzle", Journal of Moral Philosophy 17 (2020): 188-201.

We are all in this world together

2020

Iyyun

Many people find themselves ruminating on the existence of others, and wishing that they had not been born. This may come about innocently enough, as when one is stuck in traffic and laments that there are so many other drivers on the road to where one is intending to go; but also exists in more ominous form, when people wish that whole groups had not been born or, at least, had not been in one’s vicinity: the poor or the rich, immigrants or locals, people of a certain ethnicity or religion. I call these thoughts "preferences for others' nonexistence" (PON). I show that the Nonidentity problem or effect by and large excludes PON thoughts, showing them to be (given plausible assumptions) irrational, and indeed self-defeating. The self is held hostage by the other. We come to exist together, or not at all.

"We Are All in this Life Together", Iyyun 68 (2020): 85-93.

A Hostage Situation

2019

Journal of Philosophy

Moral life sometimes involves life-and-death decisions, and philosophers often consider them by examining intuitions about ideal cases. Contemporary philosophical discourse on such matters has been dominated by Trolley-type cases, which typically present us with the need to make decisions on whether to sacrifice one person in order to save a larger number of similar others. Such cases lead to a distinct view of moral dilemmas, and of moral life generally. The case I present here, "Hostage Situation", is quite unlike them, and should generate intuitions that differ greatly from those brought forth by standard Trolley-type cases. The implications are surprising, and suggest that familiar and widely-prevalent perceptions of the normative field are inadequate.

"A Hostage Situation", Journal of Philosophy 116 (2019): 447-466.

Free Will Denial and Deontological Constraints

2019

Free Will Skepticism in Law and Society

Recent free will denialism (FWD) tends to be optimistic, claiming that not only will the rejection of the belief in free will and moral responsibility not make matters dreadful, but that we are indeed better off without them. I address the denialist claim that FWD has the philosophical resources to effectively safeguard human rights and respect for persons in the context of punishment, even without belief in free will, moral responsibility and desert. I raise seven reasons for doubt concerning the ability of FWD to maintain deontological constraints. Together they present a strong case for doubting the optimism of FWD.

"Free Will Denial and Deontological Constraints", in Elizabeth Shaw, Derk Pereboom, and Gregg D. Caruso, eds. Free Will Skepticism in Law and Society. New York: Cambridge University Press, forthcoming.