Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Impractical practical reasons

Further thoughts on the previous post. There's a question I've been kicking around for a while about the reasons associated with prime facie duties such as the duty of beneficence. What is it that such reasons demand of us? I want to argue that they give us reasons in circumstances where we do not necessarily have the potential to perform those actions. (They are impractical practical reasons.)

The thought was inspired by something Dancy said about Ross, the utilitarians, and beneficence and by something Foot wrote in her "Utilitarianism and the Virtues" on pretty much the same issue. Here goes.

First, our example:
Jones is asked to give alms to the poor. Fishing around in his pockets, he realizes that he is completely out of alms having spent the last of them on coffee and cigarettes. He does have a pocketknife and he knows that he could chase down a passerby and kill him for his alms. He could then give those alms to the poor. On the one hand, reasons associated with the duty of beneficence are reasons for him to give alms to the poor. On the other hand, considerations of justice and reasons associated with the duties of non-maleficence give Jones good reason to refrain from murdering the passerby. As conflicts of duty go, this one is not terribly hard to resolve. The hard question is not what Jones ought to do, the hard question and interesting questions pertain to the reasons he has and what those reasons are reasons for.


First, I'd like to say that it seems not entirely implausible to maintain that:
(1) In these very circumstances, there is a reason for Jones to give alms to the poor associated with the duty of beneficence.

Here's the justification. It is rational for Jones to regret that he did not help the poor even if Jones decides rightly to refrain from killing the passerby in order to acquire the alms to distribute. The moral residue is often regarded as an indication that there is a defeated reason rather than a canceled reason. That there is moral residue also suggests that we ought to reject the sort of view on which the duty of beneficence anticipates all of the possible circumstances under which it is not the case that the duty of beneficence is the duty that determines what ought to be done all things considered. If the duty of beneficence only gave us reason to act conditional on the absence of stronger reasons to pursue incompatible ends, the proper specification of the reason to give alms to the poor would say that there was in fact no reason to give to the poor when there are decisive considerations against doing what is necessary to do so. On that sort of view, (1) would be false. But, such a view is hard pressed to explain the rationality of Jones' regretting not giving to teh poor.

Second, it seems plausible to maintain:
(2) The reason Jones has for giving alms to the poor, which is associated with the duty of beneficence, is not a reason that has among its demands that Jones do whatever is necessary given the circumstances to give alms to the poor.

For example, it seems plausible to maintain:
(3) The reason Jones has for giving alms to the poor, which is associated with the duty of beneficence, is not a reason for Jones to murder the passerby and take his alms.

Someone might say that it is a reason but a defeated reason to murder the passerby, but this is where I think we need to listen to Foot. If there was a reason, albeit a defeated one, to murder the passerby generated by the duty of beneficence in this circumstance since there is no way to give alms to the poor without murdering the passerby, it would seem that Jones' decision to murder the passerby and distribute his alms would be all things considered wrong but would be a way of discharging the duty of beneficence. But, that seems wrong. As Foot notes:
Certainly benevolence does not require unjust action, and we should not call an act which violated rights an act of benevolence. It would not, for instance, be an act of benevolence to induce cancer in one person (or deliberately to let it run its course) even for the sake of alleviating much suffering.

Whereas the utilitarian might say that beneficence is simply a matter of promoting the welfare of others, I take it that part of what Foot is saying is that this is a perverse conception of beneficence and a warped view of what a benevolent action is. One way of putting the point is this. The reason writers such as Foot think the utilitarian view is repugnant is precisely because the reasons the utilitarian says we have to promote the welfare of others are the kinds of reasons that can, depending on the context, serve as reasons to perform unjust and brutal actions. If those were the kinds of reasons associated with the duty of beneficence, it seems that we would by the same token think that there could be no such thing as a duty of beneficence just as there can be no such thing as a duty to be chaste or a duty to refrain from being uppity as those alleged duties tell us we have kinds reasons we know there could not be.

Well, suppose one accepts (1), (2), and (3). If you do, you have an argument against the view that reasons are reasons only for potential actions. Here goes:
(4) There is no reason for Jones to murder the man in order to distribute his alms. Such an action is not demanded by considerations of justice (obviously) and is not demanded by reasons of beneficence either.
(5) There is a reason for Jones to distribute alms to the poor.
(6) Given the circumstances there is no potential action of Jones' that is his giving alms to the poor without his giving the alms to the poor by murdering another for his alms.
(C) Among the reasons Jones has are reasons that are not reasons for actions that are potential actions of his.

According to Vranas, the claim that all reasons for action are reasons for potential actions sounds like a tautology. Perhaps it does, but it is not obviously true. It is not, that is, when we think through the examples. According to Streumer, allowing for the possibility of reasons for action that are not possible action is the first step down a short path to crazy reasons. It does not take crazy reasons to provide counterexamples to the claim that reasons are reasons only for possible actions, it just takes the familiar reasons associated with prima facie duties. At least, that is how it seems.

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