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Why Wear Blinders? Boonin and the Narrow Approach to the Non-identity Problem

Roberts, Melinda A. | 2019

Law, Ethics and Philosophy vol. 7, 102-126

Abstract

Boonin endorses reasoning that leads to what he calls the Implausible Conclusion regarding when future-directed choices that at first glance seem to impose substantial burdens on future people are permissible. According to the Implausible Conclusion, such choices – provided they serve as “but for” causes of the future person’s coming into existence, and provided they don’t harm still other people – turn out to be permissible. That’s so, according to Boonin, since those same choices don’t in fact impose the substantial burdens on future people that we at first glance think they do and on the assumption (an assumption not questioned here) that any plausible moral theory will be person-affecting in nature and thus limit wrongdoing to choices that harm existing or future people. The purpose of this paper is to argue that the reasoning Boonin urges us to accept fails to establish the Implausible Conclusion, on two closely related grounds. First, Boonin ignores some of the morally significant factual details of many of the cases he wants his Implausible Conclusion to hold for, including some of their critically important modal details. And, second, at least one principle that Boonin endorses – a principle that governs when a future person is harmed by a prior choice – is clearly false, even on the assumption (also not questioned here) that harming a person is a matter of making that person worse off. The combination of those two mistakes results in an inappropriately narrow approach to the non-identity problem. Jettisoning that approach means that we are free, thankfully, to say what we thought we should say about at least many versions of the non-identity problem to begin with: that the Implausible Conclusion is false, and that future-directed choices that seem at first glance to impose substantial burdens on future people are indeed often wrong. 

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Law, Ethics and Philosophy vol. 7, 102-126

Abstract

Boonin endorses reasoning that leads to what he calls the Implausible Conclusion regarding when future-directed choices that at first glance seem to impose substantial burdens on future people are permissible. According to the Implausible Conclusion, such choices – provided they serve as “but for” causes of the future person’s coming into existence, and provided they don’t harm still other people – turn out to be permissible. That’s so, according to Boonin, since those same choices don’t in fact impose the substantial burdens on future people that we at first glance think they do and on the assumption (an assumption not questioned here) that any plausible moral theory will be person-affecting in nature and thus limit wrongdoing to choices that harm existing or future people. The purpose of this paper is to argue that the reasoning Boonin urges us to accept fails to establish the Implausible Conclusion, on two closely related grounds. First, Boonin ignores some of the morally significant factual details of many of the cases he wants his Implausible Conclusion to hold for, including some of their critically important modal details. And, second, at least one principle that Boonin endorses – a principle that governs when a future person is harmed by a prior choice – is clearly false, even on the assumption (also not questioned here) that harming a person is a matter of making that person worse off. The combination of those two mistakes results in an inappropriately narrow approach to the non-identity problem. Jettisoning that approach means that we are free, thankfully, to say what we thought we should say about at least many versions of the non-identity problem to begin with: that the Implausible Conclusion is false, and that future-directed choices that seem at first glance to impose substantial burdens on future people are indeed often wrong. 

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