Knowledge, Reality, and Value: Rejoinder to Huemer, Part 2
At long last, here’s my final entry!
Rejoinder to Huemer’s Response, Part 4
Suppose A does not consent. A wants you to perform only the action that benefits him while harming B; he won’t consent to the action that harms him while benefitting B (not even conditional on your doing the other action simultaneously). Now what? It looks to me like we still have the original problem.
How is this different from a person who foolishly refuses to consent to a vaccination, even though he admits that the benefit of the vaccine greatly exceeds the pain of the needle? As you explain in The Problem of Political Authority, we have no right to benefit him given his explicit refusal to consent.
BC: If true, this is probably the best consequentialist argument against alleviating world poverty. After all, most poor people are happy to be alive. If saving the lives of the most miserable of the world’s poor causes their total population to greatly shrink, how is that a win?
Because the living standards will be higher.
That’s why I said “greatly” shrink. I see why a consequentialist would favor slightly lower population and massively higher happiness per person. But I’d also think a consequentialist would favor massively higher population and slightly lower happiness per person.
Consider: If you had the chance to go back in time and somehow sabotage the industrial revolution, so that Europe and America (etc.) would never have industrialized and never have become fabulously wealthy as we are today, would you do it? Before answering, note that our population today would probably be much larger, though also more miserable.
Unlikely. Without the Industrial Revolution, we couldn’t support a modern-size population.
Rejoinder to Huemer’s Response, Part 5
Bryan gives the example of building a swimming pool, and in the process causing a den of mice to “horribly suffer”. Why are the mice horribly suffering instead of just running away? I guess for some reason they can’t get away, and somehow they get tortured by the bulldozer rather than dying quickly. Apparently, we’re supposed to think that this would be fine. But, again, I think that’s obviously wrong. If I were building the pool, I would certainly take the trouble to move the mice first. No vegan would hesitate to say the same thing. None of them would answer as in Bryan’s imagined dialogue.
The scenario that I’m picturing is that the mice lose their home due to your pool construction, then slowly die of starvation and exposure while they hunt for another home. And it’s hard to “move the mice” because finding dens of mice on a pool-sized construction site is challenging. These seem like totally realistic premises to me. And unless you’re doing a “No True Vegan” thing, I really doubt that even many vegans would actually consider this a morally strong reason not to build a pool.
Bryan cites the permissibility of killing banthas and the impermissibility of killing Ewoks. But the issue I raised was about pain and suffering, not killing. So change it to “it’s okay to torture banthas.” All vegans would say that it is not permissible to torture banthas for minor reasons. Furthermore, I bet lots of other Star Wars fans would agree.
The word “torture” has strong negative connotations. But if people consider a creature OK to kill, they also normally consider it OK to cause it a lot of pain for minor benefits. And reasonably so. “Causing a healthy creature severe pain for a week is less bad than actually killing it” is highly intuitive.
BC: “The suffering of beings who will normally develop intelligence is much more morally important than the suffering of beings who will never develop intelligence, though probably not as important as the suffering of beings who are already intelligent.” [emphasis Bryan’s]
This, again, strikes me as arbitrary and obviously false.
Gee, it makes perfect sense to me. Does it even slightly reduce your confidence to learn that only 10% of respondents to this survey say that I’m definitely wrong?
"The suffering of beings who will normally develop intelligence is much more morally important than the suffering of beings who will never develop intelligence, though probably not as important as the suffering of beings who are already intelligent."
— Bryan Caplan (@bryan_caplan) September 30, 2021
The way to philosophical truth does not start with impugning your interlocutor’s sincerity, or otherwise starting a debate about their psychology. Those things virtually never help.
As I think you’ll agree, almost nothing helps resolve deep-seated philosophical disagreements. And whenever there is a deep-seated philosophical disagreement, at least one side is not “on the way to philosophical truth.” What then is the least bad way to get moving in the right direction? Perhaps the psychological route is not so ineffective compared to the alternatives. Consider your chapter on “The Psychology of Authority” in The Problem of Political Authority. It’s one of the strongest parts of a very strong book.
Attacks on sincerity seem more futile, but how about a direct appeal to sincerity, a la my Argument from Conscience?
(7) Jefferson Caplan
We’re back in the slavery era. Thomas Jefferson is against slavery; Jefferson Caplan is pro-slavery. They talk about it:
As you might guess, I find this thought experiment unpersuasive. Since we’re at a severe impasse, let me switch from the futile goal of changing your mind to the more reasonable goal of helping you understand how things seem to me (and, I think, most non-vegans).
Imagine a conversation between you and someone who believes in the rights of plants. You tell him, “Plants don’t feel pain,” and he says, “That’s an arbitrary difference. Plants are still alive. They have interests, and we shouldn’t do immense harm to their interests to slightly advance our own.” You probably consider this an obtuse position – and I agree.
My point? To me – and virtually every non-vegan – the moral difference between humans (and Vulcans, Ewoks, etc.) and other animals seems almost as vast and blatant as the moral difference between animals and plants seems to you. I know that must be frustrating – if not horrifying – for you, but that’s where things stand.
It turns out that spontaneous abortion (where the embryo dies of natural causes, usually due to failure to implant in the womb) is much more common than medically induced abortion. In fact, that’s what happens to most embryos. But pro-life activists aren’t going around worrying about all the embryos that die in this way. They’re not, e.g., campaigning for medical research to figure out how to stop it. This proves that the pro-life people are lying: they don’t really think embryos are people, and they don’t really care about the lives of the unborn.
When I heard that, I thought it was terrible. I don’t find it plausible or helpful to suggest that pro-lifers don’t believe their position.
The argument is overstated, but still seems probative to me. If you really think that embryos are human, why aren’t you interested in saving them from accidental death?