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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.


Journal of Controversial Ideas

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

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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.



Contribution, Replaceability and the Meaning of Our Lives. Theoria.

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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.



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

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Black Magic and Respecting Persons - Some Perplexities

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.

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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.


Philosophical Quarterly

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

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The Moral Evaluation of Past Tragedies: A New Puzzle

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.


Journal of Moral Philosophy

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

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We are all in this world together

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.

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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.


Journal of Philosophy

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

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Punishing the Dead



Journal of Value Inquiry

"Punishing the Dead", Journal of Value Inquiry, special issue on death, 52 (2018): 169-177.

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Gratitude: The Dark Side



Perspectives on Gratitude

"Gratitude: The Dark Side", in David Carr, ed., Perspectives on Gratitude. New York: Routledge, 2016.

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Reflections on Equality, Value and Paradox

I consider two difficulties which have been presented to egalitarianism: Parfit?s ?Levelling Down Objection? and my ?Paradox of the Baseline?. I show that making things worse for some people even with no gain to anyone is actually an ordinary and indeed necessary feature of our moral practice, yet nevertheless the LDO maintains its power in the egalitarian context. I claim that what makes the LDO particularly forceful in the case against egalitarianism is not the very idea of making some people worse off with no gain to others, but the disrespect for value inherent in egalitarianism; and similarly that the POB is a reductio of choice -egalitarianism because of its inversion of the intuitively correct attitude to the generation of value. I conclude that in the light of the absurdity and paradox so frequently lurking in moral and social life, and particularly with the complexity of modern life and obliquity of change, we need to be much more modest than egalitarians have been in putting forth ambitious moral and social models.


Res Cogitans

"Reflections on Equality, Value and Paradox", special issue in honor of Juha Raikka, Res Cogitans 10 (2015 ): 45-60.

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A Difficulty Concerning Compensation

We sometimes harm people legitimately, by standing in front of them in the queue at the cinema and buying the last available ticket, for instance, or by acting in self-defense. If we harm them illegitimately, however, we ostensibly have a moral obligation to compensate them for the harm done. And the more we harm them, the greater the compensation that, prima facie, we need to offer. But if the harm increases further, at some point we will need to offer less compensation. Yet more harm, and it is quite likely that no compensation at all will be morally expected. In such situations, the greater the harm, the better off we will be, morally, in one important respect. This is morally absurd but, I claim, true, and it does not appear to have received significant philosophical attention. I explore the issue.


Journal of Moral Philosophy: An International Journal of Moral, Political and Legal Philosophy

"A Difficulty Concerning Compensation", Journal of Moral Philosophy 10 (2013 ): 329-337.

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