A Puzzle About Self-Sacrificing Altruism

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.

2021

Journal of Controversial Ideas

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

Contribution, Replaceability and the Meaning of Our Lives

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.

2021

Theoria

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

Overpunishment and the Punishment of the Innocent

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.

2021

Analytic Philosophy

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

The Idea of Moral Duties to History

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.

2021

Philosophy

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

Should We Sacrifice the Utilitarians First?

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.

2020

Philosophical Quarterly

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

A Hostage Situation

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.

2019

Journal of Philosophy

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

Free Will Denial and Deontological Constraints

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.

2019

Free Will Skepticism in Law and Society

"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.

The Nonidentity Problem: United and Unconquered

The nonidentity problem (henceforth NIP) is one of the great moral discoveries of the 20th century; and a philosophical classic. It is a single, simple, powerful, philosophical conundrum. It has in many cases a solution, but cannot be dismissed, and retains its paradoxical force. I will aim to present my own take on it, and defend the NIP from the original and challenging attack by Melinda Roberts and David Wasserman in "Dividing and Conquering the Nonidentity Problem" (this volume). In the process, I will reject the positions they offer on each of the two alleged problems into which they divide the NIP, offering some less familiar arguments, particularly about individual contribution and the special role of parenting. I will also explicate why I think that it is in any case a mistake to see the NIP as composed of two distinct problems, showing both its unity and the broadness of its manifestations; illustrate how my recent "historical" exploration of this problem is helpful; and will conclude by defending the idea that the nonidentity problem typically has a solution but is nevertheless a large and significant problem, an "existential paradox".

2017

Current Controversies in Bioethics

"The Nonidentity Problem: United and Unconquered", in S. Matthew Liao and Colin O'Neil, eds., Current Controversies in Bioethics. New York: Routledge, 2017.

free will: nonstandard views

TBA

2017

The Routledge Companion to Free Will

"Nonstandard Views", in Meghan Griffith, Neil Levy and Kevin Timpe, eds., The Routledge Companion to Free Will. New York: Routledge, 2017.

Free Will as a Case of 'Crazy Ethics'

I introduce the term �crazy ethics� (or CE), which I use in a semi-descriptive and non-pejorative way to refer to some views that we ourselves hold, or that we think might be true. I claim that some true ethical views are, in this interesting sense, crazy. After explicating what makes such views crazy, I explore the free will problem and show why viewing it as a case of CE is fruitful. I show that many of the prevailing positions in the debate are "crazy" in this sense, and that the views I hold to be most plausible are also so. I then reflect on what this means, particularly for morality, personal and social integrity, and the role of philosophy.

2013

Exploring the Illusion of Free Will and Moral Responsibility. Lexington Books

"Free Will as a Case of 'Crazy Ethics'", in Gregg Caruso, ed., Exploring the Illusion of Free Will and Moral Responsibility. Lexington Books, 2013.

The Paradox of Moral Complaint

In "The Paradox of Moral Complaint" I took up the question whether a person who has wronged others in certain ways may morally complain if other people then harm him illegitimately in similar ways. I argued that there are strong grounds for saying both 'yes' and 'no' here and, therefore, that our considered moral views are paradoxical. In her reply, Talia Shaham disagrees with the no part of my position. She presents two appealing philosophical arguments, and concludes that there is no 'paradox of moral complaint', seeking in particular to defend the unconditional moral 'right' of wronged wrongdoers to complain, as against my claims. I attempt to defend my position against her arguments.

2013

Utilitas: A Journal of Utilitarian Studies

"The Paradox of Moral Complaint", Utilitas 18 (2006 ): 284-290.

The Paradox of Moral Complaint: A Reply to Shaham

In "The Paradox of Moral Complaint" I took up the question whether a person who has wronged others in certain ways may morally complain if other people then harm him illegitimately in similar ways. I argued that there are strong grounds for saying both 'yes' and 'no' here and, therefore, that our considered moral views are paradoxical. In her reply, Talia Shaham disagrees with the no part of my position. She presents two appealing philosophical arguments, and concludes that there is no 'paradox of moral complaint', seeking in particular to defend the unconditional moral 'right' of wronged wrongdoers to complain, as against my claims. I attempt to defend my position against her arguments.

2013

Utilitas: A Journal of Utilitarian Studies

"The Paradox of Moral Complaint: A Reply to Shaham", Utilitas 25 (2013 ): 277-282.