1. Works in Progress
  2. Statement of Research Interests

Works in Progress

Demandingness, Fairness, and Promoting the Good: Modifying the Collective Principle of Beneficence

Abstract: There are several kinds of tactics that a philosopher interested in defending a version of consequentialism from the Demandingness Objection might use. In this paper, I want to consider the course of action that consists in replacing consequentialism’s standard optimizing principle of beneficence with a principle of beneficence that incorporates the concept of a fair share of doing good that an agent is required to do. This is Liam Murphy’s view. His goal is to propose and defend what he believes is the most plausible candidate for a principle of beneficence: one that incorporates the concept of fairness. I present two arguments against Murphy’s view. First, I argue that Murphy’s view has been moderated so much that it will regularly fail to make appropriate, plausible demands of agents. Second, I argue that Murphy’s moderated principle of beneficence cannot escape the Demandingness Objection in the actual world, because it recommends that each agent’s fair share of responding to the problem of global climate change is extremely high. Finally, I explore a modification to Murphy’s view that can enable him to avoid both objections. I argue that Murphy should modify CP to incorporate two notions, which I argue are plausible. If I am uniquely situated to bring about beneficent effects, I occupy a place of optimal physical proximity and effective ability to the situation that no one else does, such that I am the only one who could bring about the good to be done. If I am particularly efficient at bringing about beneficent effects, my abilities or resources are such that a small sacrifice on my part brings about a beneficent effect that greatly outweighs my sacrifice. The resulting Modified Collective Principle (MCP) is plausible, consistent with common sense, and a little more demanding than CP, but not excessively so. I argue MCP is also a modification that Murphy can accept.

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Statement of Research Interests

Consequentialism and the Demandingness Objection

My dissertation is about how consequentialism ought to respond to the demandingness objection. The demandingness objection holds that consequentialism requires agents to give up all of their personal projects and pursuits in favor of the maximization of the impersonal good, and that this requirement is unacceptable. There are divisions among consequentialists on how demanding our obligations are. Some believe that morality is indeed very demanding, such that we may be required to sacrifice up to the point where we would be giving up something of moral value. But many other consequentialist philosophers believe that morality may demand that we all do our “fair share,” but no more than that is required of us. In my dissertation, I develop a type of collective action problem for moderate forms of consequentialism and show that several well-known versions of consequentialism have significant difficulty responding to this problem.

In my dissertation, I refer to the described type of collective action problem as a “Polluter’s Dilemma.” This dilemma is a case in which we may reasonably predict that, for any agent A, the opportunity costs of sacrificing A’s own projects, resources, and autonomy, assessed from A’s own perspective, would outweigh the cost to others because the cost to others is minimal. Repeated instances of the type of decision D that A makes, however, are incompatible with the maximization of the good, because repeated instances of D result in a situation that damages the interests of a large number of agents. An obvious example of such a case includes the decision of which mode of transportation to use during a day, where the relevant choice is between more-polluting forms and less-polluting forms of transportation. I argue in my dissertation that the Polluter’s Dilemma is a general problem for any consequentialist theory that allows agents to give extra weight to their interests to preserve what Bernard Williams calls their integrity.

The main project of my dissertation is not simply to demonstrate how pervasive the issue of the Polluter’s Dilemma is. I study features of several consequentialist theories which enable those theories to avoid generating the Polluter’s Dilemma. The scope of this study is limited, and I do not recommend one version of consequentialism over another in my dissertation. My goal in future research is to use these insights to develop a form of consequentialism which avoids both traditional objections and the collective action problems with which my dissertation is occupied.

Collective Responsibility

I see my dissertation research as relevant to central controversies in the philosophy of collective responsibility. In my dissertation, I suggest that the Polluter’s Dilemma is a phenomenon which is generated collectively and should be alleviated collectively. But I leave (mostly) unanswered the questions of how responsibility for solving the Dilemma is distributed across individuals, how much sense it makes to ascribe any responsibility for generating the Dilemma to ordinary agents who are merely seeking to live a good life for themselves, and when the act of holding a group or population responsible for generating a Polluter’s Dilemma is appropriate. Indeed, some philosophers believe that holding groups responsible for harms is generally problematic. I suggest in my dissertation that most agents have a limited responsibility to respond to the Polluter’s Dilemma, but there are some agents and groups which are better-positioned to respond to the Dilemma, and so responsibility for responding to the Dilemma falls more heavily on these better-situated agents. In future research, I aim to apply the project of my dissertation to these issues.

Environmental Ethics and Theories of the Good

There are two recurring issues in environmental ethics which I would like to work on in future research. One of these recurring issues concerns development and its effects on the global environment in economically less well-off nations. The other issue concerns the extent to which consequentialism can be an environmental ethic. As I mentioned above, I suggested in my dissertation that the responsibility for alleviating Polluter’s Dilemmas may lie more with better-situated agents and groups. This suggestion has implications for the ethics of development which I would like to explore in future articles. For the second recurring issue I have mentioned here, I am interested in the relationship between consequentialism and theories of the good which rely not on subjective states such as happiness or desire-satisfaction, but on objective criterion such as development and flourishing.

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