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May 7, 2018 | by  | in Opinion Philosoraptor |
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Philosoraptor

We can reject theories about morality for many reasons. One potential reason is that it produces results which conflict with strong intuitions that we have. For example, many philosophers reject the moral theory of utilitarianism, which says that we ought to do whatever maximises total happiness, because it provides very counterintuitive answers to a variety of moral dilemmas. For example, utilitarianism implies that we are morally justified in torturing an innocent child to save two other people’s lives, which is a result that conflicts with our commonsense intuitions.

But commonsense intuition is, on some level, an unsatisfying reason to reject a theory. After all, there will always be people whose intuitions disagree with ours — are we really so sure that our intuitions are the correct ones?

Fortunately, there are stronger tools available to the moral philosopher. Another reason to reject a theory about morality is to argue that the theory is internally inconsistent or self-defeating. If we can show that a theory fails “on its own terms”, then it seems like we can safely reject that theory.

The philosopher Derek Parfit uses this strategy to argue against two popular theories, one of morality and one of rationality. He first takes aim at what he calls “commonsense morality”: the cluster of commonsense moral beliefs that most people in society hold. Among the tenets of commonsense rationality is that we ought morally to care more about people proximate to us – like our children, family members, or close friends – than about complete strangers.

Parfit points out that this principle, if adopted collectively, is self-defeating. If everyone in society focuses selfishly on caring for their own children, at the expense of other people’s children, then almost everyone’s children will end up worse off. This would be a society much like the one in which we live — where resources were unequally distributed, and many children are denied basic goods due to the selfishness of other children’s parents. It would be better for almost everyone’s children if everyone acted impartially, without a special regard for their own children.

Of course, the fact that a certain principle is self-defeating when adopted collectively does not necessarily mean that the principle is internally inconsistent.

Consider standard theories of individual rationality, which tell us to do whatever maximises our expected individual benefit. In certain cases, these principles are collectively self-defeating. One example is the famous case of the Prisoner’s Dilemma: there are two prisoners who cannot communicate with one another. They are each given two options, to betray the other person by confessing, or to remain loyal to each other by staying silent. If one betrays and one stays silent, the one who stays silent is imprisoned for three years and the one who betrays is set free. If both betray, each serves two years, and if both stay silent, each serve one year. The fact that standard theories of individual rationality give collectively self-defeating advice does not mean that that those theories are flawed.

But there is a difference, Parfit says, between the example of the Prisoner’s Dilemma and the case of commonsense morality. Theories of individual rationality only seek to advise one person about how best to pursue their individual goals. By contrast, moral theories purport to be collective standards of behaviour. It is therefore problematic for a moral theory if the advice it gives is collectively self-defeating, which gives us a reason to reject commonsense morality, or at least to revise some of its principles.

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