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John Oberdiek
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The Rutgers Institute for Law and Philosophy is soliciting applications for its Visiting Fellows program. This program is intended to attract scholars in law and philosophy who can contribute to the life of the Rutgers law and philosophy community. We... Continue reading
Posted Feb 22, 2013 at PEA Soup
Thanks very much, Jussi, I appreciate the clarification and I'll be sure to read your paper on the issue. I'm certainly open to embracing a more thoroughgoing contractualism than my post suggests. I'll just have to spend some more time thinking this through.
Thanks for your response, Jussi. You write "[i]f the risk is higher in plane 2, there will be more fatalities in world B than in world A." But this is not the case unless you build the number of people affected into your assessment of the risk, which is just what I'm trying to avoid in distinguishing between individual and population risk. (I'm of course guilty of presenting a convoluted hypothetical -- sorry.) The individual risk to any given passenger is identical whether plane 1 or plane 2 is selected, but the population risk is higher if plane 2 is selected, such that there will be more fatalities in world B. Although contractualist reasoning applies to principles of conduct, and so assesses what Kumar helpfully calls "social worlds" and not individual acts, I don't believe that move is sufficient to address this case. First, one's personal reason in rejecting the principle that prevails in world B cannot of course be "there will be more fatalities", as that would be an impersonal reason. Second, the move also cannot be "but I am more likely to die in world B than world A", which is what I take you to be saying when you write "there will be some individuals in the world B who will have stronger personal objections...", precisely because the individual risk is held constant in the two worlds. So I remain worried about trying to handle all cases of numbers using only contractualist resources. It seems to me that a more modest contractualism, one which provides something akin to side constraints in certain numbers cases, is not a contractualism we should be embarrassed to uphold.
Thanks very much for your comments Brian and Jussi. And I apologize to Jamie for posting so closely on the heels of his post. Brian, I would want to embrace something akin to the proposed solution you suggest (but reject) to the single arm/hand loss or the 1000 arm loss case. I don't think, however, that the basis for that tack has to do with contractualist reasons being "coarse-grained" per se. Its due rather to what Kamm calls the principle of irrelevant utilities (Scanlon follows her on this point). Now, admittedly, your example is a closer call than the standard one that's given to substantiate this principle -- we're not choosing between an arm plus a headache, on the one hand, or a million headaches, on the other, for example. I'm not sure what else to say other than to admit that a Sorites argument can indeed be deployed that puts a lot of pressure on the principle of irrelevant utilities, but say that I think Sorites arguments in general are dodgy. Maybe a clarification is in order here though: in making that move, I wouldn't be denying the relevance of losing a hand tout court in the way that one could plausibly deny the relevance of a having headache tout court; rather, I'd be denying its relevance when coupled with the much more severe loss of one's arm. Jussi, as a general matter, I think I probably believe that contractualism's individualist or personal reasons restriction is more robust and also more essential to the theory than you do. But here's a risk hypo that will test that prediction and which, in any case, motivates my concern: an airline can use one of two planes to transport their passengers from A to B, Plane 1, which is a super jumbo jet like the new double-decker Airbus, or Plane 2, which is a standard jet that carries half as many people. Now, as take-offs and landings are the riskiest part of air travel, it follows that choosing Plane 2 would be the riskier option, as more flights -- and thus more take-offs and landings -- would be needed to get everyone from A to B. Now, from the perspective of any given passenger, their individual risk would be the same whether they fly on Plane 1 or Plane 2, because taking either plane involves only one take-off and landing -- the risk to them would be the same in either case. On the assumption that the individualist restriction permits only individual risk to be taken account of, then, contractualism must be indifferent between the planes used to get people from A to B. And yet if Plane 2 is selected, the population risk will be higher -- that is, more people are likely to die being transported from A to B because using Plane 2 will necessitate more risky take-offs and landings. For this reason, it seems to me that we should certainly opt for Plane 1, but it seems no less clear to me that contractualism itself says that we should flip a coin to choose between the planes. And so I find myself wanting to take up Scanlon's claim that the morality of what we owe to each other does not account for all of our moral reasons, paving the way for appeal to population risk, which in this case tips the balance in favor of Plane 1.