Future, Present, & Past:

~~ Giving itself latitude and leisure to take any premise or inquiry to its furthest associative conclusion.
Critical~~ Ready to apply, to itself and its object, the canons of reason, evidence, style, and ethics, up to their limits.
Traditional~~ At home and at large in the ecosystem of practice and memory that radically nourishes the whole person.

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Friday, December 23, 2016

Against fake paradox

Over at Ombhurbhuva, I was pointed towards a post at Philosophy et cetera, by Richard Chappell, on deontology and consequentialism. On Ombhurbhuva I left a comment but deleted it when I decided I wanted to nuance it a bit, and when I tried to re-post, I got caught in an endless internet-reloading loop. Here is the slightly refurbished comment, with a bit of context.

Chappell's original post tries to give one a puzzle: suppose -- just posit this, don't trouble yourself about particulars -- that "unless you kill one innocent person, five other innocent people who you know and love will be killed." Open-and-shut case, supposedly, for the consequentialist (for whom things count as right or wrong depending on what follows from them) against the deontologist (for whom things just are right or wrong by definition.) (I'm leaving out all sorts of subtleties and qualifiers here in these positions, because I'm not really interested in them as abstractions.) The rationale proceeds along the following lines:
Impersonally: five murders are worse than one. Personally: there is a special moral cost to you in committing a murder, sure, but it is not so great a cost (we may suppose) as losing your five loved ones....
So the deontologist is supposedly left with an uncomfortable question: "if murder is so morally horrendous, why should we not be concerned to minimize its occurrence?" This is supposedly the puzzle which is called, in the post's title, the "Paradox of Deontology" (a paradox Chappell attributes to Samuel Scheffler, with reference to the his article "Agent-Centred Restrictions, Rationality, and the Virtues" [I found a pdf here.]). At least in this formulation, though, I am at a loss to see the "paradox" here. If this were all paradoxes were, one could have a steady diet of them and be none the weirder. (At Ombhurbhuva, Michael R. spun Chappell's thought-experiment in the direction of time-travel paradoxes, but it seemed to me that the family resemblance was more in the direction of the Trolley Problem, an impression which was reinforced when I read Scheffler's article and realized he was responding in large part to Philipa Foot.)

Chappell asks,
How do you think the deontologist might best respond to this challenge?
Hmmm. How about with something a bit more ... paradoxical? One could start by denying both premises. In what sense are five murders worse than one? And indeed, in what sense is the "cost" of losing five friends greater than the "cost" of becoming a murderer?

I'm not arguing that this reversal makes for a suddenly obvious open-and-shut case for the deontologist, just that the premises for the consequentialist's argument, as Chappell puts it, are so patently open to question that the word "paradox" is being abused in being applied here. This matters not just because we need precision in terms. Paradox is among the most potent of rhetorical and dialectical indices -- a sign that things are becoming really interesting. It's important to know what we mean by it. (To be fair, Scheffler speaks more often of "appearance of paradox" or of "something paradoxical," which seem less strong claims).

Chappell gives an interesting suggestion here:
the deontologist must hold that you are morally special (to override the impersonal verdict and get that your murdering one is morally worse than allowing five other murders to occur), but you're not so special that your interest in saving your loved ones overrides your putative moral obligations. It's an awkward combination of claims."
This strikes me as an infelicitous way of putting things, but if we dig a little, just here is where a kind of paradox could be rightly held up to sparkle. If we dropped the attempt to find just the right amount (or "type") of specialness and instead went for both absolutely special and entirely not, we might be getting somewhere.


  1. Happy Xmas to B. & A. in the city of S. That sounds like a Russian novel with rain instead of snow.
    I went towards the Back to the Future scenario because the trolleyite is a direct causal catenary. It wouldn't be beyond the ingenuity of a novelist to devise how murdering an innocent would save 5 friends or 5 anybodies or 5 Chinese miners. This is the philosophic Twilight Zone.

    1. Indeed. And such a novel might well be less contrived than the trolley. Would you push the fat man in front of the TARDIS?