Thursday, February 08, 2007

Are the Following Sorts of Situation Possible?

So, I talked about this with Joshua and Andrew a bit yesterday on th way to Syracuse, but I thought it might be interesting to post about it here and get reactions from all of you.

Is it possible for there to be someone such that he should perform each of actions A1-An, but shouldn't perform all of those actions? That is, is it possible for there to be an agent S and actions A1-An such that all of the following are true?:
(1) S should perform A1.
:
(n) S should perform An.
(n*) S should not perform A1, ..., and An.

Alternatively, is it possible for there to be someone such that he should perform all of actions A1-An, but shouldn't perform each of these actions? That is, is it possible for there to be an agent S and actions A1-An such that the following is true:
(n**) S should perform A1, ..., and An.
but one of the following is false?:
(1) S should perform A1.
:
(n) S should perform An.

Let me make these questions a bit more pressing by mentioning a slight variant on a principle employed by Peter Singer in "Famine, Affluence, and Morality":
(PS) If it is in one's power to perform an action A and if one is able, in performing A, to prevent something bad from happening without thereby sacrificing anything of comparable moral significance, then one should perform A.
Now it seems possible that there be two actions, A1 and A2, such that (i) it is in one's power to perform A1, (ii) it is in one's power to perform A2, (iii) it is in one's power to perform both A1 and A2, (iv) one is able, in performing A1, to prevent something bad from happening without thereby sacrificing anything of comparable moral significance, (v) one is able, in performing A2, to prevent something bad from happening without thereby sacrificing anything of comparable moral significance, and (vi) one is not able, in performing both A1 and A2, to prevent something bad from happening without thereby sacrificing anything of comparable moral significance. It seems that, if (PS) is true, then one should perform A1 and one should perform A2. However, it is plausible (although (PS) doesn't have this consequence) that, in such a situation, that one should not perform both A1 and A2. So, assuming the truth of (PS) and assuming the plausible judgment just mentioned, this is a case of the first sort mentioned above.

Anyway, what do you guys think?

3 Comments:

Blogger Chris Tillman said...

So what if you have competing obligations? You should fulfill the first and you should fulfill the second, but if you can't fulfill both, then it's not the case you should fulfill both. Pushing the negation through seems okay here. So you should not (fulfill obligation one and obligation 2).

The second is easier to think about if we're allowed to assume a rough moral account. Like futilitarianism, say. Then it might be that doing any one of A1-An is non-utility-maximizing, but doing all of them is. Would that work?

10:16 AM  
Blogger rock* said...

Chris,

Your suggestion for the second type of case will only work if you can push the negation through here, too. Although it's true that it seems to be a consequence of utilitarianism that if each of A1-An is non-utility-maximizing, then it is not the case that you ought to do A1,..., and it is not the case that you ought to do An. However, in the case you're discussing in which doing all of A1-An is utility-maximizing, it is not clear whether a utilitarian should say that for each of A1-An, you ought not to do it. If a version of utilitarianism has this consequence, then I take it that's a reason to reject that version of utilitarianism.

10:43 AM  
Blogger Chris Tillman said...

What if the odds of your completing A1-An were sufficiently low? Then given the disutility of not completing all of A1-An, perhaps you should not do A1 and you should not do An, etc. But doing A1&A2&. . An is utility-maximizing, so you should do it. It seems like a coherent version of utilitarianism could have this as a result. Whether the account would be otherwise acceptable is surely another issue. I defer to the experts on that one.

10:59 AM  

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