Imagine if John, an electrician, were injured while working on a transmitter. At the same time, a thousand people were greatly enjoying their time watching the world cup through the same transmitter. Now suppose that we had to interrupt the transmission for a few minutes in order to alleviate John’s pain. Intuitively, it seems obvious that one should help John out. Well, guess what? “Nay,” says one of our most important modes of normative ethics. Utilitarianism rests on the idea one ought to maximize the overall utility of all sentient beings. This contradicts with our nobel intuition from earlier. As a response to such dilemmas, a new variation of consequentialism surfaced – prioritarianism. A prioritarian would not encounter much trouble with John’s dilemma, since he or she believes that one must prioritize suffering over unease or bringing more happiness.

When I first encountered prioritarianism through reading Derek Parfit, I found it solid. It successfully evaded John’s dilemma by shifting its focus from maximal utility to priority. Nonetheless, when I dug deeper, I found its own set of unique problems. Suppose that a doctor is put in a dilemma, where he or she must attend to A) the pain of a patient who suffers from unimaginable pain or B) a dozen patients who suffer excruciatingly but a bit less than patient A. Prioritarianism doesn’t seem to have a very clear answer. If the doctor chooses A, then he or she fails to alleviate the suffering of dozens. If B, then he or she becomes a classic utilitarian. Does this suggest that–like rule utilitarianism[1]–any form of utilitarianism can be reduced to classical utilitarianism when push comes to shove?

As a remedy to both, I propose a third option, which is an interesting mix of virtue ethics, deontology, and consequentialism. The third option is called moral desert. I first encountered this concept through Shelly Kagan, who claimed that “it is desirable that each person should gain good fortune corresponding to her virtue (deservingness). [2]” This mode of ethics is preferable 1) since it ushers in intuitive moral arbiters such as intentions, virtue, character, past wrongdoings, etc. 2) doesn’t fall into the trap of John’s dilemma 3) escapes the doctor’s dilemma. I will subsequently explain each of these.

So why is it good to usher in intentions, virtue, character, and past wrongdoings? Well, let’s bring in Peter Singer’s famous thought experiment of a drowning child.

To challenge my students to think about the ethics of what we owe to people in need, I ask them to imagine that their route to the university takes them past a shallow pond. One morning, I say to them, you notice a child has fallen in and appears to be drowning. To wade in and pull the child out would be easy but it will mean that you get your clothes wet and muddy, and by the time you go home and change you will have missed your first class.

I then ask the students: do you have any obligation to rescue the child? Unanimously, the students say they do. The importance of saving a child so far outweighs the cost of getting one’s clothes muddy and missing a class, that they refuse to consider it any kind of excuse for not saving the child. Does it make a difference, I ask, that there are other people walking past the pond who would equally be able to rescue the child but are not doing so? No, the students reply, the fact that others are not doing what they ought to do is no reason why I should not do what I ought to do.

Surely, this is a good thought experiment, but now suppose that the person drowning were not a child, but a dictator who accidentally fell in the water before heading back to the capitol to issue torture. Should we save this dictator? Some may say that we should prevent bad consequences, or that he doesn’t deserve to be saved when he harbors such malicious character and intentions. At this point, Prioritarianism seems to still hold some grounds. Here comes the stab: what if those who were awaiting torture were a group of rapists and kidnappers whose victims we have not yet found? Prioritarians would say it is wrong to make them suffer, even at the cost of finding the victims. Surely, now that the wrongdoers are imprisoned, we cannot say with certainty that the victims would continue to suffer the way they did. But, do these rapists deserve more attention and moral consideration than the victims? One may argue that the victims may still suffer from trauma, but could one actually argue that trauma is more painful and insufferable than ruthless torture? I cannot make up my mind. But, I can make up my mind on who deserves more attention. This is how the theory of desert’s appeal to some of our intuitions prevails over utilitarianism and prioritarianism. It’s clear as to whom we should give our attention.

The theory of desert evades John’s dilemma easily, since it is obvious that a hardworking person who’s hurt on duty deserves more attention than drunk alumns.

Desert also escapes the doctor’s dilemma, for one must satisfy as many deservingness as one could. If so, then the doctor’s duty would be satisfying the maximum number of deservingness; reluctantly choosing B.

Although Desert’s interesting mix of virtue ethics, deontology, and consequentialism makes it quite formidable, eminent philosophers like John Rawls have raised some worries over this theory. Rawls claimed that a person cannot claim credit for being born with greater natural endowments (such as superior intelligence or athletic abilities), as it is purely the result of the ‘natural lottery’. This is certainly true. Thus, the concept of moral luck exists. [3] This criticism seems valid at first, but I believe it is not apt for the kind of desert I refer to.

One’s deservingness does not come from qualities outside of one’s control. Rather, one’s deservingness comes from traits that are universally agreeable by rational agents. For instance, it is irrational to consider someone as virtuous due to their height; it is rational to consider someone virtuous for charity and kindness.This type of rational universality would evoke Rawls’s veil of ignorance, since it is reasonable that one shouldn’t merely deserve more if he or she is better looking or more intelligent.


[1] Criticism that rule utilitarianism collapses into act utilitarianism:
Read #8 Old Objections to Rule-consequentialism

[2] Moral Desert

[3] Moral Luck

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