I agree that this highlights a problem with deontology. It seems bizarre to think that, while it would be great if you pushed the person off the bridge in footbridge by accident or while sleepwalking, nevertheless you shouldn't do it. It shouldn't be bad to allow perfectly moral people to choose which decision to make.

I don't, however, agree with the idea that it makes agency strange. The deontologists would agree presumably that it would be good (axiologically) if you pushed the person in bridge. Thus, their assessment is quite universal--they think it's good when good things happen. They just think that it's sometimes wrong to promote the good.

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Apr 16, 2023Liked by Richard Y Chappell

Deontologist here. Studied philosophy at Calvin University.

I agree that deontology is foundationally reliant upon the idea of human life being sacred. I'm ok with that as well, ethics is generally downstream of bigger questions.

But in the general: these types of questions are way overdetermined. Practically: most ethical theories will give you the same answer for your daily life questions (don't kill your neighbor, etc).

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"Deontological verdicts involve further seeing agency as transformative—changing what is desirable—in a way that seems entirely unmotivated to me."

Indeed. There's an explanation in this fascinating paper I just read by Henne, Niemi, Pinillos, De Brigard, and Knobe:


Basically, they think that we regard doing harm as worse than allowing harm because we regard doing as "more causal" than allowing is. But why? Well, their favoured explanation of why we think it's "more causal" is that we ignore counterfactuals in which no harm occurs when thinking about allowing, but take some such counterfactuals into account when thinking about doings. So yeah -- doesn't look good for the doing/allowing distinction. Indeed, even if the hypothesis that they reject -- the "force transfer" hypothesis -- is correct, that still doesn't look good for deontologists.

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I don't really hold people as sacred, so much as I hold my own qualia sacred. Cogito ergo sum is still the best jumping-off point I know about, even after all these years.

But other people are by most intuitive metrics very much like me, and so I strongly suspect they have their own qualia as well. But I can't be 100% sure about this, so that already invalidates me from being a cobsequentialist - if I'm only 99% sure someone is experiencing qualia like mine, then I can only give them at most 0.99 * my own sacred value.

It's intuitively obvious to me that other beings with qualia very different from my own should be viewed as very much lesser for it, though. This would be as true for a galactic supercomputer as it would be for a honeybee. Alas, I arrived at these conclusions too late (or maybe too early) for them to affect my own decision making much; instead of trying to tesselate the universe with copies of me, I just plan on having kids and having fun.

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I’ve always found resistance to the trolly problem to be a matter of uncertainty.

In reality, you cannot generally know for certain that five people will die from the trolley, some other actions or circumstances may yet save them, but you do know that your course of action involves deliberately killing someone.

It is not that life is sacred, it’s that your reasoning in a moment like that is uncertain, and a certain death of 1 is likely worse than the possible death of 5.

We should very much want a social norm of preferring possible to definite harm. If we were all perfect calculators perhaps that’s a different norm but to protect against humans that reason poorly (all of them) we prefer inaction.

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Some people are governed by reason, and some are governed by other things (f.ex. sacredness).

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I'll give you my take on "dignity".

Dignity = elevation (often in kind) of an object above another object along some particular dimension of philosophical significance, or in some philosophically significant respect.

Uses of "dignity" in moral philosophy of course refer to *morally* significant elevations. Typically, though not only, in terms of *moral standing*.

Hence, human dignity, or specifically human dignity, can be defined in terms of the elevation of human beings (=morally rational beings, beings capable of morality) with respect to non-human beings in general, in terms of moral standing.

Now, this special status of human beings has to be described precisely, to avoid confusion with the thought that human beings are "the only beings with moral standing". The claim, I think, should instead be reas as saying that human (morally rational) beings have a *special type of moral standing*. Which, again, needs to be described precisely.

Hence, we can also speak of the dignity of sentient beings in general, as there seems to be a specific, morally significant, sense in which sentient beings are raised above non-sentient beings in general *in terms of moral standing*. Namely, there's a specific type of moral standing that sentient beings in general have (including human beings, of course, now regarded in their capacity for happiness as such).

"Dignity" is also used in relation to realised states of the more basic dignities, e.g. the moral stature of a human being (how good of a human being they are, as opposed to the dignity they have by merely being capable of morality) or decent living conditions for a sentient being.

I hope this helps!!

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"Deontological verdicts involve further seeing agency as transformative—changing what is desirable—in a way that seems entirely unmotivated to me."

If the thing that you are trying to do with morality is assign praise and blame, then the difference between agentive actions and natural occurrences is important, and the difference between intentional actions and accidents is also important. If you are trying to do something else, such as simply obtain desirable outcomes, they might be less important. Different ethical systems have different conceptions of the purpose of ethics, which means they are not entirely rivalrous. Consequentialism is the system that's tuned towards desireability.

"...changing what is desirable..."

No, agency doesn't change what's *desirable*: it changes what's punisheable/blameable.

Do you want to level up or level down? Put sleepwalkers, non human animals and machinery in jail? Or put no one in jail, since all agentive acts are just natural occurences?

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My opinion of deontology is very dismissive.

I believe deontologists are just optimizing for having beliefs that simplify their lives and give them good vibes.

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Perhaps there are more than two options: consequential; sacred. Maybe the sacred is ordinary (Eliade) yet consequential. A person's life being sacred does not, for me, imply opposition to euthanasia if the consequences are living in pain and suffering.

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