Moral Obligations to Future Generations

The question about moral obligations to future generations is sometimes approached in a backwards manner. In those instances it is simply assumed that we must have some moral obligations to future generations, and if a moral theory leads us to think that we do not, then there must be something wrong with the theory in question. This is, as I said, a backwards way of doing ethics, since the question about about future generations is all about application. To apply a theory we must first know what theory we endorse, not the other way around.

Now some people reject utilitarianism, since – they claim – utilitarianism cannot account for our moral obligations to future generations. I think that is a bad reason to reject utilitarianism. If one wants to reject it, one should argue against the theory itself and not make it stand or fall with one particular application of the theory. But destroying utilitarianism as a theory does not, of course, establish that we do have duties to future generations, because that should be defended as an application of a different theory, and not simply assumed.

But is it actually true that utilitarianism does not entail obligations to future generations? My answer would be no, at least not when it comes to the type of hedonistic utilitarianism that I endorse. It is true that this kind of hedonism sees no value in maximizing the pleasure of people not yet born. I believe in maximizing the pleasure of people who live right now. This is, thus, a kind of average utilitarianism, and it differs from “total” hedonism in that we can’t just make more and more babies to raise the sum of happiness (provided that the new babies will have lives that are more on the pleasure than on the pain side of the spectrum – lives “barely worth living” as some would say). By the same token we do not have to care about the potential pleasures of those unborn people.

In theory, the average view might advice us to simply use up all the world’s resources to enhance the pleasure of the people living right now. And if this was the last generation living on earth this would surely be the right conclusion. But as soon as a new baby is born, its pleasure must matter to us. If we can expect that this baby will live to the age of eighty, then we must at least make sure that her or his quality of live does not diminish sharply when our own generation is gone. Right, you might say, but do we only have to care about one generation after us? I would reply that this is no small thing. Since new babies are born all the time the horizon of obligation keeps moving forward at the same rate. Whatever point in time we pick it seems that we must always make sure that the world will be a hospitable place to live 80-90 years from now.

So while it is wrong to claim that hedonism implies obligations to future generations (if by this we mean unborn generations), it still implies an obligation to provide a good future for newly born generations – which, as argued above, is a constantly moving target. And it does imply robust protection of our environment, at least until we all perceive that the planet is doomed and we deliberately stop procreating (or move to another planet). This should, however, not be a decisive reason for an environmentalist to endorse hedonism. As I see it, environmentalism is applied ethics (unless we are talking about “deep ecology” and  the like), which means that one should first decide which ethical theory is most reasonable, and then let the theory lead one to whichever conclusion on the environment that the original premises warrant. It seems kind of intellectually dishonest to start with the conclusion and then construct the premises.

Philosophical Hubris and Meta-Aggression

It is perfectly natural that people should disagree about philosophical issues. We all know that it is virtually impossible that total agreement will become reality when it comes to, for instance, moral questions. And I, for one, believe that there is no “truth” about ethical questions anyway (a position known as non-cognitivism). This non-agreement and pluralism of values is something that must be accepted as a fundamental fact, especially in modern societies. These conflicts must, thus, be solved by some procedure which produces winners and losers in the struggle of values (this is the case in every social context, regardless of whether a state exists or not). I think the most fair procedure is a majority vote, since if there is no objective truth about which values are correct, what other reasonable way could there be to determine collective decisions?

Nevertheless, some people would not accept this. They believe that some values are objectively better than others, so it would be unfair if every value would be able to compete on equal terms in a majority decision. This attitude I have named meta-aggression (for article reference, see the Author-page on this blog). It is fairly well established, at least in libertarian circles, what “aggression” is: to invade someone’s personal sphere by physically harming them or taking their possessions. The standard form of libertarianism is all about rejecting aggression (unless it is performed as retaliation for previous aggression).

This non-aggression principle is, however, only one of several possible values. Some people believe that aggression (as defined by libertarians) is sometimes justified, for instance by taxing people for purposes they have not consented to. Now those who endorse the non-aggression principle would claim that the second group is engaging in unjustified aggression if they proceed with the taxation. The second group may, however, claim that the libertarians are unjustified in resisting their aggression. It is this kind of resistance – if it is defended on the (false) grounds that non-aggression principle is “true”, while the opponents’ principles are “false” – that I would like to call meta-aggression.

It can also be called a sort of philosophical hubris, i.e., using a controversial (and, to my mind, false) metaethical position to claim some kind of political privilege. Of course, this kind of hubris is often expressed in less sophisticated ways than through explicit metaethical argument. One of the most insidious ways is to argue as if there is some self-evident “default” position in ethics. The burden of proof is, then, on those who want to argue for something else than this default position. Another way in which this hubris can be expressed is simply through ridicule or scorn (rather than dispassionate argumentation) against alternative positions. A third way is the silent treatment, i.e., simply not discussing other ethical positions, because they are simply not worth mentioning.

Of course, this kind of hubris is not always something dangerous or especially deplorable. But when it is used in the political arena (and turned into meta-aggression), then it becomes dangerous and deplorable, because it is often directed against the political procedure that I find the most fair, namely majority rule.

On Prostitution and Pornography

Although I admit that I have not studied the philosophical literature on prostitution and pornography much at all, I shall here venture to speculate on what a hedonist position on these matters might look like. The starting point must, as always, be a consideration of the consequences of these activities. However, the relevant consequences are somewhat different when we compare prostitution and pornography. So let’s start with prostitution and then see what conclusions can be transferred to pornography.

Can we, from a hedonist perspective, claim that the act of taking money (or paying) for sexual services is in itself immoral, regardless of the pain or pleasure connected to this activity? Obviously not. It seems hard to object to such a transaction between sane, adult people if the seller perceives that the pain of having sex in this unromantic fashion is less than the pain of going without the money being offered. But for this conclusion to hold we should also add that the sex worker in question is not in such a desperate position that this is a choice between two evils. If the sex worker sells his or her body in order not to starve or to get money for a destructive drug addiction, the solution to prostitute oneself might possibly be called the least bad option; but it can never be called a good, or satisfactory, option. It is, in other words, highly doubtful whether it can be good to buy sex from someone who we know (or can safely assume) will experience pain from the sexual act. Surely, we have a moral duty to make sure that this person is helped; but the best way to help, in this instance, is not to buy sex from this person, but to contribute to a welfare system that makes sure that no one will have to become a prostitute in order to get the basic necessities of life (and if people are drug addicts they can be offered programs to treat this).

Can we, then, draw the conclusion that in a state where there is such a welfare system in place we can safely allow prostitution, since those who are prostitutes will not be driven to this “occupation” by pure necessity? It might not be as easy as that. Even though a few people will freely choose to become prostitutes (i.e., choosing it not as a last resort to avoid starvation or homelessness), we can probably assume that the supply will not be enough to satisfy the demand. This, in turn, will probably lead to a situation where additional women (I’m assuming that this mostly happens to women) will be brought in from other countries (sometimes by force), where the “no-desperation” proviso is not satisfied. Again, these people should be helped in other ways than by getting paid for sexual services which they, presumably, derive great displeasure from performing.

The bottom line in all this is that one should not take advantage of a person’s desperation in order to have them do things they would never do under non-desperate circumstances. This principle can also be applied to the case of pornography, since there are no morally relevant differences between the circumstances of production in the cases of pornography and prostitution. If we are to find a morally relevant difference we must look to the circumstances of consumption. The rate of pornography consumption in a society might, for instance, be causally linked to the rate of rape or sexual abuse. It might also be the case that many couples have worse sex lives because their views on sex have been distorted by the fanciful scenarios depicted in pornographic films. These things may lead the hedonist to look skeptically at pornography. However, it is probably the case that reasonable social scientists can differ regarding the evidence of the purported societal consequences of pornography consumption.

So can the hedonist safely say that there is nothing wrong with prostitution or pornography, provided that we can be certain that those who participate are not doing it out of pure necessity and that there are no other indirect social consequences that offset the pleasure? Must we not also add that there is something inherently “degrading”, or the like, about treating a person’s body as a commodity (especially when it is men doing this to women)? I think this would be a problematic path upon which to embark, since people have very different views about what is degrading to them. For a few people it might, for instance, be more degrading to have to go to a factory at seven o’clock every morning, stand by some machine for eight hours and obey every command from the foreman, than to earn the same income by selling sex (which, I assume, would not involve as many working hours). Well, one might say, why don’t we abolish regular wage slavery as well as prostitution, since both may be degrading? No doubt, a world where no one would be compelled be neither a wage slave nor a prostitute would be a better world than the present; but “wage slavery” is such an established practice in our present society, so it would bring us too far into the utopian to discuss its wholesale abolishment.

Minority Rights You Should Not Fight For

I belong to a small minority, namely those who are interested in philosophy. Reading, and occasionally writing, philosophy (mainly political philosophy) is an important part of my life. One might even say that being a perpetual student of philosophy is a part of my “identity” (if we must use that concept). Yet it is not the easiest thing to be interested in. It is not easy to find particular books that you want to read at a reasonable price (unless you are a university professor or student, and even then you can only use the books for a short time), and it is hard to find people who are equally interested in philosophy in order to start clubs or the like. These things the state could do something about: they could lower the VAT on philosophy books or subsidize their printing in other ways; they could support philosophy clubs and associations financially; they could broadcast more philosophy programs in national radio and television.

However, as important as philosophy is to me, I don’t believe the state should do those things. I don’t believe the minority to which I belong should receive any special support. My view is that the state should uphold rights that are universally important, like the need for food, shelter, healthcare, education, etc. (of course, there will always be eccentrics who will reject, for instance, healthcare as a basic need, so let’s call these needs virtually universal). But special rights to advance lifestyle choices of minorities, no. And I see no difference if the principle is applied to the cases of ethnic or religious minorities. There are, for instance, certain ethnic groups who are used to making a living in certain specific ways, and who therefore believe that this lifestyle should be subsidized, lest their ethnic group will be dissolved. I do not see, however, why an appeal to historic tradition or the survival of a certain “culture” should be weightier than, for example, professed enjoyment (as in the case of the philosophy fans).

Nevertheless, as a consequentialist I must concede that this should only be taken as a rule of thumb. For instance, it may the case that certain special rights and subsidies are granted to people who are disadvantaged in other, more important ways (i.e., pertaining to universal needs). If people of one ethnic group face so much discrimination in the job market that it would be virtually impossible for them to leave their traditional (subsidized or protected in other ways) occupations, then these special minority protections would perhaps be better than nothing at all (but a robust welfare system and job opportunities for all citizens would, of course, be better).

Often these discussions relate to linguistic minorities. How will my views be applied to them? Well, if this group is disadvantaged in special ways, as described in the last section, then special rights for that linguistic group might be warranted. But I don’t see that the mere survival of a language is so important that the state should offer extra support (in addition to what people spend themselves) to keep it alive. Many many languages have already disappeared completely, and it is hard to view that as a big tragedy.

How could one argue for the opposite of what I am arguing for? The only way that the opposite view would be practicable would be to choose certain minority lifestyles as more “worthy” than others. But it is hard to see how one could make those decisions about “worthiness” without making very controversial moral statements (at least more controversial then the idea of universal needs discussed above). How could we, for instance, argue that religious or linguistic minorities deserve special rights, while other, more “secular” or “modern” (recently “invented”) lifestyles do not deserve it. Surely it cannot be that the members of the different groups view their lifestyles as more important to their “identity”. Some members of linguistic or religious minorities do not regard their religion or native language as especially important in their lives, and, conversely, some members of modern subcultures regard this membership as extremely important to their “identity”.

The Lack of Women in Philosophy: A Modest Contribution Towards a Remedy

It is often perceived as a problem that rather few women pursue philosophy. It appears that female enrollment in introductory courses is at least as high as male enrollment, but many more men than women end up with a major in philosophy. Thus, a lot of female students disappear along the way. Many reasons have been proposed for this. One reason that has been brought forward is that female students encounter few texts written by women in their philosophy courses.

I cannot say how big a factor this really is; perhaps there are other factors that are more important. But the least I can do is to give you a list of good articles on philosophical subjects written by women, some of which might be of use in philosophy courses, at least in courses focused on political philosophy and/or ethics (the list may also be used for courses in political theory). Note that in this context one does not have to agree with the arguments of an article in order for it to be a “good” article.

Since it is a fact that an overwhelming majority of papers published in most philosophy journals are written by men, it may appear as a valid “excuse” that it would simply be too exhausting to seek out interesting papers by women, simply for the purpose of making philosophy courses more enticing for female students. This list should remove at least some of the validity of that excuse.

  • Anscombe, G E M: “On Frustration of the Majority by Fulfilment of the Majority’s Will” (Analysis, vol. 36).
  • Cassidy, Lisa: “That Many of Us Should Not Parent” (Hypatia, vol. 21).
  • Denis, Lara: “Kant on the Wrongness of ‘Unnatural’ Sex” (History of Philosophy Quarterly, vol. 16).
  • Dimova-Cookson, Maria: “A New Scheme of Positive and Negative Freedom: Reconstructing T. H. Green on Freedom” (Political Theory, vol. 31).
  • Feagin, Susan L: “Mill and Edwards on the Higher Pleasures” (Philosophy, vol. 58).
  • Ferguson, Susan: “The Radical Ideas of Mary Wollstonecraft” (Canadian Journal of Political Science, vol. 32).
  • Foot, Philippa: “Moral Arguments” (Mind, vol. 67).
  • Fried, Barbara: “‘If You Don’t Like It, Leave It’: The Problem of Exit in Social Contractarian Arguments” (Philosophy and Public Affairs, vol. 31).
  • Fried, Barbara: “Wilt Chamberlain Revisited: Nozick’s ‘Justice in Transfer’ and the Problem of Market-Based Distribution” (Philosophy and Public Affairs, vol. 24).
  • Gardner, Catherine: “The Remnants of the Family: The Role of Women and Eugenics in Republic V” (History of Philosophy Quarterly, vol. 17).
  • Gibson, Mary: “Rationality” (Philosophy and Public Affairs, vol. 6).
  • Gill, Emily R: “MacIntyre, Rationality, & the Liberal Tradition” (Polity, vol. 24).
  • Hekman, Susan: “John Stuart Mill’s The Subjection of Women: The Foundations of Liberal Feminism” (History of European Ideas, vol. 15).
  • Heller, Agnes: “The Legacy of Marxian Ethics Today” (PRAXIS International, no. 4, 1981).
  • Holmgren, Margaret: “Wide Reflective Equilibrium and Objective Moral Truth” (Metaphilosophy, vol. 18).
  • Jarvis, Judith: “In Defense of Moral Absolutes” (The Journal of Philosophy, vol. 55).
  • Jeske, Diane: “Persons, Compensation, and Utilitarianism” (The Philosophical Review, vol. 102).
  • Lichtenberg, Judith: “Negative Duties, Positive Duties, and the ‘New Harms'” (Ethics, vol. 120).
  • Lovibond, Sabina: “‘Gendering’ as an Ethical Concept” (Feminist Theory, vol. 2).
  • McIntyre, Alison: “Guilty Bystanders? On the Legitimacy of Duty to Rescue Statutes” (Philosophy and Public Affairs, vol. 23).
  • Mitchell, Dorothy, “Are Moral Principles Really Necessary?” (Australasian Journal of Philosophy, vol. 41).
  • Nussbaum, Martha C: “Human Functioning and Social Justice: In Defense of Aristotelian Essentialism” (Political Theory, vol. 20).
  • Okin, Susan Moller: “Feminism and Multiculturalism: Some Tensions” (Ethics, vol. 108).
  • Philips, Anne: “Defending Equality of Outcome” (The Journal of Political Philosophy, vol. 12).
  • Schwartz, Adina: “Moral Neutrality and Primary Goods” (Ethics, vol. 83).
  • Schwartz, Adina: “Meaningful Work” (Ethics, vol. 92).
  • Smith, Tara: “On Deriving Rights to Goods from Rights to Freedom” (Law and Philosophy, vol. 11).
  • Stark, Susan: “Emotions and the Ontology of Moral Value” (The Journal of Value Inquiry, vol. 38).
  • Swanton, Christine: “The Concept of Interests” (Political Theory, vol. 8).
  • Whiting, Jennifer: “Eudaimonia, External Results, and Choosing Virtuous Actions for Themselves” (Philosophy and Phenomenological Research, vol. 65).
  • Wilson, Catherine: “Prospects for Non-cognitivism” (Inquiry, vol. 44).
  • Worley, Sara: “Feminism, Objectivity, and Analytic Philosophy” (Hypatia, vol. 10).

Taxed-Based Solidarity in a Global Economy

It is often said that it is hard to have high taxes when capital is easy to move. If, for instance, the corporate tax gets too high, companies can simply pack up and leave for countries where labor is cheaper and taxes are lower; and if dentists are forced to pay too much income tax, they can likewise move to another country. This is often framed in a language that invokes necessity and unchangeability. We simply can’t raise taxes.

It is, however, important to remember that, at bottom, this is more a question of “won’t” than “can’t”. If we “can’t” raise taxes, it is simply because some people do not want to pay higher taxes. In the same way, the problem of incentives to work is not a problem that necessitates one particular solution to the tax problem. It is not a “natural” given that the more you earn, the less willing you will be to pay more taxes. By the same token, it is not “logically” necessary that a society becomes poorer whenever you raise taxes. It all depends on whether people want to pay taxes or not, whether they believe in sharing their resources in this way; whether they believe that one ought to work not only for the benefit of oneself (or one’s family), but also for the benefit of total strangers.

So when people say that we cannot raise taxes, because people and businesses will leave (or avoid taxes by the means of tax havens and the like), the reason is not that taxes in themselves are bad or hurtful to the economy. The reason is that some people simply do not want to pay taxes. This fact is often obscured by the latter group’s way of framing the problem like a problem of the necessity kind, rather than as question of their own unwillingness. When businessmen (or the parties who represent them) say that we must lower taxes, we should not (at least not as a first reaction) simply say “oh well, I guess we have to do it then, because otherwise they will leave”. Our first reaction should be to ask those very businessmen why they are so unwilling to share their wealth. And if they stand for egoism, then let them stand for it openly and proudly in the public arena, instead of just pointing to some economic “necessity” that does not exist.

This may not alter the fact that the globalized economy makes it difficult for one country to have substantially higher taxes than other countries. But it is important to establish the right reasons for this – that globalization is not a “force of nature” or a historically inevitable process, but a result of people’s (moral) choices. By the same token, the reason that some people must work for starvation wages in sweatshops is not some natural necessity. People (who are very much richer than the sweatshop workers) can choose to pay more for the products they are making, and the companies can choose lower profits in favor of higher wages for their workers. These, more fair and just, choices are not made, because people do not want to make them. Globalization can be just and fair if we want it to be. If we don’t want it to be fair and just then it won’t be so. There are no natural necessities involved here. We decide how the world will turn out.

The Value of Knowledge

There are some sorts of “elitism” that most people find wholly unacceptable, like ranking people on the basis of race or sexual preference. There are other kinds of elitism that we may describe as semi-acceptable. We might, for instance, admire athletes or musicians greatly for their abilities, but we usually do not base our “total” assessment of that person on those specific abilities. Thus, most people would agree that an athlete who obviously outperforms everyone else is at least a better athlete than everyone else, and that is something one is “allowed” to admire.

It takes a lot more, however, to judge someone to be a better person than another. Perhaps there are a few in this world who refuse to judge anyone, but many would probably say that someone who rapes and murders children is a worse human being than those who refrain from this behavior. On the other hand, someone who always goes out of their way to help people we could call a better person than most of us (as long, of course, as this help is not of a misdirected and ineffectual kind).

But could we say that people who have much knowledge should be admired in the same way that we admire a morally upstanding person, and, vice versa, that an ignorant person should in some way be blamed for this shortcoming? Is, in other words, an “elitism” based on wisdom and knowledge an acceptable form of elitism?

There seems to be at least one sense in which we can call that kind of elitism justified. If we believe that it is our duty to do what we can do make the world better, being ignorant about how this can be done certainly does not help anyone. Even if we think that doing good can be left to professional people, we still need some knowledge to hire the right kind of professional do-gooders. This is especially important in a democracy, which is why there might be some grounds to truly blame a voter (with normal intellectual capacities) who chooses to remain ignorant about political matters (the case would obviously be different with someone who has, for instance, some cognitive deficiencies).

Of course, there are some cases where we might argue that more knowledge is not valuable. Sometimes, for example, people hide the truth from you to spare your feelings. In these cases knowledge about the truth might be worse than being ignorant about it. But these are probably rare cases. Most of the time it is valuable to know more rather than less about whatever you are doing.

Does an “elitism” about knowledge have any practical implications? Certainly, the implication should not be that present intellectual or academic elites should be favored even more than today. Political creativity should, rather, be directed to making sure that more people become interested in furthering knowledge, and not necessarily as a career. Especially important is probably to encourage young people who one would not expect to educate themselves to become interested in intellectual matters. Perhaps more generous scholarships and the like directed at poor neighborhoods could be one measure to take. Another measure could be to redirect some of the public spending that goes to, for instance, associations devoted to sports or religion to associations devoted to the advancement of learning. My own government spends a lot of money encouraging the youth to get healthy bodies and healthy “souls”, but not to get a healthy intellect.

But there are probably limits to what politics can achieve if there is no broader social acceptance of the worth of knowledge. I don’t really think that people in general admire scientists very much today; the feeling is probably something more like well-meaning indifference. I think they simply take for granted that scientists will keep working in the shadows to make sure that constant technological progress is delivered. When it comes to scholars in the humanities I think most people have no idea what they even do at work (which leads to complete indifference towards them). And some of the “intellectuals” that appear in the media are probably viewed as buffoons (or worse), rather than people to be admired (although it might be technically correct that some so-called intellectuals are buffoons, I believe most people dismiss them for the wrong reasons).

In short, it is important to discuss the consequences of people’s ignorance about the world, because one person’s ignorance usually has consequences for other people as well. When people refuse to learn about the suffering that goes on and the methods to alleviate it, the suffering will simply continue (or get worse). Even if one believes that suffering is best alleviated by doing less, this is a conclusion that should follow from serious reflection; it must not simply be a rationalization of one’s unwillingness to learn anything.