October 2012 Archives

"Realism" by Michael Smith

| No Comments

Michael Smith examines whether moral realism, the belief in the existence of objective moral facts, is true in this article. His first argument can be summed up as follows:

P1. In order for moral realism to exist, moral practices must be both objectively true and have the ability to psychologically motivate us.
P2. Beliefs represent the actual world whereas desires represent the world as it should be.
P3. Only desires motivate action.
C1. Therefore, in order for moral realism to meet the motivational demand, all moral
prescriptions would need to be represented as desires.
P4. Only beliefs can be assessed for truth or falsehood.
C2. Therefore, in order to for moral realism to be objective, moral prescriptions would
need to be represented as beliefs.
C3. C1 and C1 contradict one another; therefore, realism is not compatible with human
psychology.
C. Therefore, moral realism does not exist.

I find the chain of Smith's reasoning to be valid, but I'm not sure I agree with P1. I think it might be possible for moral truths to exist even if they are inaccessible to us and are therefore unable to motivate us. Thus, in this view, Smith's contradiction would fall apart and moral prescriptions would be represented as beliefs. However, this is not a good argument to prove realism, this would only show that it is possible in terms of psychology.

Next, Smith attempts to rescue realism by denying the two demands, which would change our intuitive perception of morality. His approach to this is to argue that moral facts are not the reasons-for-action but are statements about social stability, and thus right acts are those that tend towards social stability. Smith suggests, however, that this cannot be the case because when we think about moral arguments, reasons-for-action are clearly a necessary component. Then, Smith tries to rescue realism once more by challenging basic psychology and attempting to show that desires are not the same as reasons-for-action. Through this course of reasoning, Smith finds that idealized conditions of reasoning may allow for objective agreement about the appropriate desires one should have, which would salvage the realist belief. But, this just shows that realism is possible, not that there will be definitive agreement about the content of moral prescriptions.

I certainly would find the world be be a nice and convenient place if there were actually moral truths, else so much of ethics and the writing in this blog are pretty much just wasted time. Of course, as a society we could still decide what should be considered lawful but but not what is fundamentally good or bad. But then, breaking the law could not really be fundamentally morally wrong either. In all, besides my hoping and cheering for moral relativism, I'm not sure if I remain a moral relativist, skeptic or something else.


Smith, Michael. "Realism." Ethical Theory: An Anthology. Ed. Russ Shafer-Landau. Blackwell Publishing Ltd, 2007. 72-76. Print.

"Normative Virtue Ethics" by Rosalind Hursthouse

| No Comments

In "Normative Virtue Ethics", Rosalind Hursthouse says that many believe that a problem with virtue ethics is that it does not distinguish the right action from the wrong one(s) when facing a dilemma; instead they think virtue ethics merely identifies the traits of having good or bad character. However, Hurtshouse says that those facing a moral dilemma simply need to determine how a person with a virtuous character would choose to act in the same situation. Her argument can be summed up as follows:

P1. A person may choose between different courses of action.
P2. An action is right if and only if the action is what a virtuous agent would characteristically do under the circumstances according to virtue ethics.
P3. A virtuous agent is one who acts virtuously, that is one who has and acts according to the virtues.
P4. A virtue is a character trait that an agent needs for eudaimonia (or to flourish and live well, or is useful and to its possessor or others)
C. Therefore, virtue ethics allows a person to determine how to act rightly in a situation.

Hursthouse says that a criticism of this argument is that when determining the right course of action there can potentially be conflict between virtues. For instance, honesty can direct one to telling a hurtful truth while compassion and kindness directs to keeping quiet and possibly lying. Hurtshouse maintains that this conflict is only arises from a lack of moral wisdom. I don't think that this 'solution' really satisfies the conflict because it does not give much help to someone actually facing a moral dilemma who is trying to decide between different courses of action. Hursthouse suggests that one facing this situation ought to consult someone wiser and more virtuous for advice on the right choice. However, I think that this seems to assume that 'the more virtuous people' are always readily available and are always or nearly always perfectly correct in all of their moral decisions. Since few to none are truly morally perfect and even the 'morally better' may be difficult to locate, this could lead the person facing the moral dilemma to choose the wrong course of action, which means that virtue ethics does not truly help them to be virtuous.

Truthfully, I have an instinctual reaction that virtue ethics is complete hooey. I think that it seems like virtues would be drawn out of a hat and some people would believe in completely different virtues than others. For example, many people feel that maintaining traditions is virtuous, but I feel that they are often a waste of time and often subjugate groups of people- so who is right? Both of us can probably find someone who we feel is a relatively good 'moral example' so looking to the morally wise doesn't really help us. At the same time, I tend to think that traits like loyalty are good, and I don't really have a good reason for feeling so. For instance, in many cases loyalty can lead people astray from the morally right such as being loyal to your home country even when they commit atrocities abroad. Thus, loyalty shouldn't always be considered a good, virtuous trait. Yet, I still fundamentally feel that it must be a good thing to be loyal to my family even when they (some might say frequently) make mistakes. So, overall I remain on unfriendly terms with virtue ethics, but in some cases I'm not sure I do so justifiably.


Hursthouse, Rosalind. "Normative Virtue Ethics." Ethical Theory: An Anthology. Ed. Russ Shafer-Landau. Blackwell Publishing Ltd, 2007. 701-708. Print.

Thomson's 'Health Pebble' Continued

| No Comments

I just cannot get the Health Pebble out of my mind from Judith Jarvis Thomson's "Killing, Letting Die, And The Trolley Problem." In the last blog post I stated that "Even if the Health Pebble could first be used by the one person who has claims of ownership over it, and then be sent onward to the five others, if the one person objected to lending the pebble to the others I still probably think it would be wrong to forcefully take it from the one, saved person to help the others." However, what if the owner of the health pebble could save one hundred people, or five thousand? Is there some point that a third party would be justified in taking from the one person to save the many? What if this were a real life scenario without magically health pebbles, and instead the one person was buying up food sources in an impoverished nation and selling the food at such high prices that all the poor were starving to death- would it then be okay for perhaps another country to step in and take food back from the individual? I feel that in these cases for the third party to step in and take from the one person, assuming the one's health pebble or food source accumulation was acquired in a justifiable way, that it would be wrong to do so because it would still amount to stealing even though many would be saved. In order to do a good act, i.e. saving many people's lives, a bad act, i.e. the stealing, would have to be done first that I don't think could be considered right.

Whether a third party has the right to steal from the rightful owner seems to be a completely separate issue from whether the owner is a bad person from withholding life saving food and health pebbles. To me it seems that if the owner of all of the food sources in the impoverished nation is making food prices insanely high for the pure purpose of wanting people to starve, then the owner is a bad person. However, I would not consider the owner of the health pebble to be a bad person if his or her reason for withholding it from the others was not with the intention of having the others die, but perhaps because the owner worked hard to earn the pebble and wanted to make sure to have it on hand in case the owner or family member became ill again. Thus, even with the same horrible outcome of many people dying the intentions of the one 'owner' person are very different and are important for deciding whether the person was 'bad' or not. So, if Bill Gates were to decide to stop giving millions of dollars to charity simply because he decided that he'd rather see poor people suffer, I could easily conclude that he is a unethical, bad, evil person. However, if Gates decided to stop giving away his wealth (and it was all gotten without harming anyone) because he wanted to start new enterprises, or guarantee that his family for generations would be well taken care of, then I don't think that any third party should label him a 'bad' person even though he could be saving many many people, and the third party should certainly not forcibly take his money from him to save those people. I don't mean this in any politically charged way, and in the case of the government taking tax money from wealthy individuals and from the non-wealthy I think there is more room for discussion. One thing I think is difficult with what I have said is that it is very hard for a third party to know the intentions of any other person, and if that is the main determining factor for whether a person is good or bad, then it is possible that only the person themselves may be able to know.

In this article Thomson questions whether killing is always intrinsically worse than letting die. Thomson presents a number of scenarios, including the Trolley Problem (where a trolley is headed toward five people, but you can flip a switch so that instead it turns and hits only one) that appeal to different intuitions as to whether it is permissible, or even morally obligatory, to kill or save the one over saving or killing a greater number of people. A Utilitarian view would simply and straightforwardly assert that it is morally obligatory to save the greater number over the life of the one pretty much not matter what because the more people that are living the more pleasure or happiness that could be experienced. However, in some of the scenarios that Thomson presents it seems that the one person has some sort of prior ownership or claim that would make it okay to let the greater number of people die or even to actively kill them. For instance, in the Health Pebble scenario there is one ill person on an island and a group of five ill people at the shore and a pebble, owned by the one person, that can restore health floating in the water in the direction of the one person. Since the one person justifiably owns this pebble it would generally be considered wrong for someone to intervene and push the pebble toward the group of people even though it would end up saving more lives. Based upon general moral intuitions in these scenarios, Thomson's conclusion is that it is acceptable to kill the one in order to let the larger number live only if the one has no prior claim, such as being owner over the pebble or being owner of one's own body.

I agree with Thomson's conclusion that having ownership or prior claim does make a difference in whether or not it is acceptable to kill or let die in a given scenario. I think that having ownership or prior claim does make a difference because it comes down to stealing, which many will agree is wrong even if there are good intentions involved. So in the pebble scenario, if you push the health pebble to the five people even though the one is the owner of it, you are stealing it from the one person, and thus doing a preliminary wrong even though you wanted to do right by the other people. Even if the Health Pebble could first be used by the one person who has claims of ownership over it, and then be sent onward to the five others, if the one person objected to lending the pebble to the others I still probably think it would be wrong to forcefully take it from the one, saved person to help the others.

As a quite a personal note, years ago I found the Trolley Problem and similar thought experiments to be so interesting that they were the driving force behind choosing philosophy as my major. I still find my intuitions about what moral decisions I would make to be rather uncanny and horrible, and completely justifiable. Furthermore, my stance on whether killing is worse than letting die was sadly put to the test recently with the illness of my beloved kitty cat, Singapore. Putting him out of pain and misery was the hardest thing I think I've ever had to decide and I hope I chose the right thing. Although that might mean my life has been pretty easy and carefree to date, I hope I don't have to put my ethics into action on a regular basis.

Thomson, Judith Jarvis. "Killing, Letting Die, And The Trolley Problem." Ethical Theory: An Anthology. Ed. Russ Shafer-Landau. Blackwell Publishing Ltd, 2007. 543-550. Print.

"What is Wrong with Slavery" by R. M Hare

| No Comments

In "What is Wrong with Slavery" R. M Hare maintains that we ought not take human rights, even noncontroversial ones, for granted. So, even though the United States has reached a consensus that slavery is detestable and should not be legal, Hare argues that there should be some solid argument for why liberty is a human right. In the remainder of the article, Hare tries to justify liberty via a utilitarian argument, using facts about human behavior and psychology as supporting evidence. The utilitarian argument essentially argues that slavery is wrong because happiness in the world ought to be maximized and the misery caused to slaves is not and could not be outweighed by whatever happiness is brought to the slave-owners. Hare says that opponents of this argument could construct scenarios where slavery would have to be accepted by Utilitarians because it could be possible for the pleasure to the slave-owners to be greater than any displeasure to the slaves, such as when a slave is well-treated and highly esteemed by the family who owns him or her. Hare admits that although such scenarios do exist, they do not happen in reality. Furthermore, facts about human behavior need to be taken into account because, for instance, people in positions of power tend to abuse that power and the lack of personal freedom, even under good conditions, tends to make individuals less happy than they otherwise could be.

I agree with Hare's argument as applies to the modern world because those who would be slaves generally have the freedom to pursue opportunities and generally better their own lives, so any misery they might endure would generally be from their own doing. However, I don't know if Hare's argument would hold up as well in times like the Middle Ages where peasants were more free than slaves would have been, yet slaves could typically rely on daily meals, a roof over their head, etc. that a layperson could not, and this consistency thus could contribute to greater happiness than the misery of hunger pangs and exposure to the elements. Hare's response might be that all such persons, both peasants and slaves, should really be considered as slaves because of the overall lack of freedom in those times. I probably agree with Hare's hypothetical response, however, where then is the line drawn between free person and slave? How many freedoms does a person need to lack before being considered a slave to someone else? For instance, could those living in communist societies where they lack freedom of speech and the freedom to choose their career be considered slaves to their own government? I don't have the answers to these questions, but I think they are also interesting to ask in light of Hare's stance that we should not take human rights for granted because the justification for freedom of speech or the freedom to choose a job would also need to be constructed.


Hare, R. M. "What is Wrong with Slavery" Ethical Theory: An Anthology. Ed. Russ Shafer-Landau. Blackwell Publishing Ltd, 2007. 496-504. Print.

"The Experience Machine" by Robert Nozick

| No Comments

In "The Experience Machine" Robert Nozick makes a case against hedonism, which says that seeking pleasure or happiness is intrinsically good, by providing a scenario in which other things beside pleasure intuitively matter to us more. He constructs a thought experiment where one could be placed in an 'experience machine' and program in any experience, such as reading a book or traveling to the moon, that one could desire and conceive of. The experience machine is supposed to allow someone to have all and any of the pleasures in the world. However, Nozick argues that even if such a machine could be constructed no one would use it, which shows that there are more important things than pleasure; his argument can be summed up as follows:

P1. If the only thing that mattered to us was pleasure, then we would plug into a machine that could any simulate experiences we desired- the experience machine.
P2. Even if the experience machine existed, we would not plug ourselves into it for a number of reasons:
1. We want to actually do certain things, not just experience them.
2. We want to actually be certain people, not just a blob in a tank with questionable
status.
3. We want to be limited by reality as it actually is, not just a reality that we as
humans can conceive of.
C. Therefore, other things matter to us besides pleasure.

I think that Nozick's argument is very forceful at first glance- since I certainly would not plug myself into this machine (at least not for months or years on end) and I think that most other people would feel the same way. However, I do think I would be willing to try out such a machine and I have to wonder if it is really any different from the reality escaping devices that we have, and use, now. For instance, Nozick mentioned psychoactive drugs as a way people currently experience differing realities, but we also use books, tv and movies, and video games to simulate other experiences. I'm not sure if these types of things are all that different from the experience machine, except that they are usually not used long term. I think it could be said that if you use any one thing for too long- whether reading or using an experience machine- that it would not be good for you, and in general doing these things for long periods of time is not seen as desirable

Furthermore, it is possible that Nozick's argument would completely fall apart if one simply argued that experiencing reality is also a pleasure. Thus, we don't find living our lives in the experience machine desirable and pleasurable because experiencing reality is a more powerful type of pleasure.


Nozick, Robert. "The Experience Machine" Ethical Theory: An Anthology. Ed. Russ Shafer-Landau. Blackwell Publishing Ltd, 2007. 264-266. Print.

In "On Licentious Licensing: A Reply to Hugh LaFollette," Lawrence Frisch makes an interesting and direct reply to to the argument made by LaFollette that I examined in the last blog post. LaFollette's argument had previously stated that the licensing of parents is analogous to other societal licensing, such as the regulation of drivers and doctors. In response, Frisch methodically deconstructs this argument by analogy to show how it is not only invalid, but impractical.

Frisch maintains that societies undertake licensing in order to exert control over risks, which fall into four categories: 1. "risks arising out of ignorance;" 2. "risks arising through physical or mental incapacity;" 3. "risks arising from willful misconduct;" 4. "risks arising through negligence or inability to exert self-control over behavior."

Frisch says that licensing to avert risks of ignorance (risk 1) supposes that there is a body of knowledge that could be learned in order to prevent errors. However, in terms of licensing parents, there is no knowledge of parenting that would reduce child abusing in the same way that licensing drivers reduces road errors. Hence, societal and parental licensing are not analogous in terms of preventing risks out of ignorance.

In the case of preventing risks to society because of physical or mental incapacity (risk 2), societies would, for example, disqualify those with uncorrectable visual handicaps from obtaining driver's licenses. However, the maltreatment of children by parents with mental or physical disabilities is a small portion of the total amount of child abuse, and thus licensing is unlikely to prevent abuse in any significant way.

Willful misconduct (risk 3) is defined as "purposive violations of accepted modes of behavior... in which there is no reason to doubt the wrongdoer's ability to act in accord with reasonable... standards." Frisch argues that although no licensing procedure would actually licence someone who would blatantly engage in willful misconduct, those persons do not blatantly announce their intentions to violate the accepted standards. Laws already call for the removal of children from harmful environments, so the licensing of parents to prevent wilful mistreatment would not offer any new advantage over the current system.

Frisch says that most cases of child abuse likely result from negligence (risk 4) in which a parent may, for example, lose control and inflict injury when only meaning to punish the child. However, he argues that it is likely impossible to construct a testing situation that can duplicate the extreme emotional situations that may arise in parent's lives, such as divorce or death of a family member, in which the parent may be uncharacteristically negligent. Thus, this form of licensing would likely be ineffective in preventing child abuse.

Although LaFollette's intentions were to make sure parents are competent in the same way that society makes sure that doctors, drivers, and lawyers are capable to perform their jobs, Frisch demonstrates that LaFollette does not seek to license parents in the traditional way and instead merely seeks to determine whether people are going to abuse their children, which, of course, is not easily done. Frisch goes on to discuss how licensing parents would also be highly impractical, in much the same manner that I discussed in the last blog entry. I think Frisch's argument is highly interesting because although I argued about the outcomes of licensing, I didn't truly pick apart the argument itself as the author did, thereby presenting a much stronger and more convincing critique. I agree that LaFollette's argument by analogy fails for all of the reasons that Frisch discusses. Truly the only issue I have with Frisch's article whatsoever, is at the end he suggests alternative ways to prevent the incidence of child abuse and suggests that society should possibly implement family monitoring in order to check that the progress and development of the children within a family is in accordance with societal norms to produce capable, well-adjusted adults. At minimal levels of 'family montering,' I don't understand how his suggestion is really any different than the system that we already have where children are overseen part-time by other caregivers, including teachers, counselors, doctors, or extended family members who would and do note to child services if a child appears to be in an abusive situation. However, at higher levels of 'family monitoring' where perhaps a social services member regularly comes into contact with the family to judge how smoothly things are running, problems similar to those of parental licensing come into play. Each time the family is monitored would be similar to a licensing test and Frisch's risks 1-4 would still have the same issues. Furthermore, the regular intrusion into the family's private life could cause undo stress that could cause the abusive situations themselves. I think in order to determine how effective this family monitoring could be, it would be interesting to look at any studies that show differences between abuse rates between potential-adoptee parents who had some form of family monitoring before adopting their child and those that did not have this form of testing- if such studies exist. Perhaps if such studies could show that adoptive children whose parents underwent family case testing do have fewer cases of abuse, then Frisch's idea may have some warrant. However, If Frisch is correct in that most abuse seems to happen during untestable stressful, emotional situations it seems unlikely that family monitoring would prevent any abuse, but may merely detect it sooner than we already do.


Frisch, Lawrence E. "On Licentious Licensing: A Reply to Hugh LaFollette." Philosophy & Public Affairs, Vol. 11, No. 2 (1982): 173-180. JSTOR. Web. 7 Oct 2012.

"Licensing Parents" by Hugh LaFollette

| No Comments

In most modern, industrialized nations governments seek to protect their citizens by controlling potentially dangerous activities through licensing. Licenses are required before one can legally drive, practice medicine, or become a lawyer. In the article "Licensing Parents," Hugh LaFollette controversially takes licensing one step further and concludes that the State morally ought to require people to obtain a license before becoming parents. The State's decision to license these types of activities lies in their potential to be harmful to others and the best way to limit this possible harm without entirely sacrificing an individual's freedom is to require demonstration of minimal competence in performing the activity. Based upon this, LaFollette's first criterion for the permissibility of licensing is that any activity that is potentially harmful to others and in which successful mastery can be demonstrated is subject to regulation. If there is also a moderately reliable procedure for determining competence, LaFollette's second criterion for the permissibility of licensing, then the activity ought to be State regulated. Furthermore, LaFollette maintains that parenting is, indeed, an activity that is potentially very harmful to the children involved because of the possible occurrence of physical and psychological abuse, which aligns with his first criterion. He says that the second criterion he presented is also satisfied because a parent can demonstrate competence in avoiding harm to children. Since both criteria are met, licensing of parents is not only theoretically desirable, but ought, morally, to be mandated.

In the beginning of his argument, LaFollette uses cases of licensing drivers and doctors because he assumes that most people will agree that these types of regulations are needed and are beneficial to society. Thus, those who do not believe in any type of (or very little) government regulation are unlikely to be persuaded by LaFollette's argument. Another assumption in his argument concerns the definition of 'harm.' He says that those activities that are 'harmful' to others should be regulated. However, LaFollette does not establish, in a given activity, what comprises the minimum amount of harm that makes the activity acceptable to be regulated. This does not hinder LaFollette's argument in favor of parental licensing in terms of child abuse because abuse is well understood to be detrimental. However, he also cites parental harm when children fail to become happy, well-adjusted adults, which could be a cause for concern given that a number of factors may contribute to this. A third assumption in LaFollette's argument is that a procedure to determine parental competence could be developed and properly administered. This is an assumption because, currently, there is no such test for competence and also because LaFollette does not really explain what such a test would consist of.

LaFollette's case applies the argumentative technique known as inference to the best explanation. This type of argument attempts to resolve a controversial issue by forming a general lesson from a group of uncontroversial cases and then applying the general lesson to the controversial case. Thus, LaFollette examines a group of generally uncontroversial, regulated activities, i.e. licensing of drivers, physicians, and psychiatrists, in order to determine what it is that makes the regulation of these activities morally permissible. He comes to the conclusion, that licensing is permissible in the uncontroversial cases because the activities are potentially hazardous to others and that there is a moderately reliable procedure for determining adequate competence. Once he has established this general lesson from the uncontroversial cases, he can apply the lesson to the controversial issue at hand. So, LaFollette argues, since bad parenting is potentially hazardous to children and there is a conceivable way to determine parental competence, licenses ought to be issued to prospective parents after demonstrating competence in the same way that they are issued to drivers or doctors.

There are three options for criticizing an argument for inference to the best explanation. The first would be to disagree with the judgment constructed from the uncontroversial cases and the second is to agree with the judgment made but argue that it fails to provide a satisfactory explanation of the cases. Finally, the third method,in which I think LaFollette's fault lies, is to agree with the judgment constructed from the uncontroversial cases but deny that it has the said implications to the controversial case. My objection to LaFollette's argument stems from the author's undefined use of parents causing 'harm' to their children in such a way that the children fail to become 'happy well-adjusted' adults. Child 'abuse' is generally uncontroversial in regards to the established harm it causes children, except maybe in cases of spanking children. However, many factors can cause a child to fail to become a happy, well-adjusted adult, some of which are cause by the parents but are unintended and not commonly considered to be 'harms.' But these concerns need to be considered because LaFollette says that any potential harms that that could cause a child to fail to become well-adjusted and happy should be regulated. One such factor could be the parent's genetics which lead to the child being unable to become well-adjusted as an adult, such as in the case of genetic disorders, like Down syndrome, which cause severe physical and mental disability. Since the child's unfavorable genetic characteristics are caused by the parents, does this mean that certain couples would be prevented from reproducing because of a strong likelihood of producing these types of children? According to LaFollette's idea of regulating any potential harms to children, it would certainly seem so. But, this concept seems preposterous- a form of eugenics, weeding out those with genes that would lead to unhappy, poorly-adjusted children. I and most others would agree that this is morally wrong for the government to do. This means that the 'harm' LaFollette speaks about needs to be qualified in some manner. But something that harms one child, perhaps a certain parenting technique, may be extremely helpful to another because all children are different. This leaves the entire concept of licensing parents to prevent 'harm' impossible to fairly enforce, and thus wrong for for the government to mandate.


Hugh LaFollette "Licensing Parents" in What's Wrong: Applied Ethicists and Their Critics, ed. David Boonin and Graham Oddie (New York: Oxford University Press 2010), 314-322.

About this Archive

This page is an archive of entries from October 2012 listed from newest to oldest.

September 2012 is the previous archive.

November 2012 is the next archive.

Find recent content on the main index or look in the archives to find all content.