Thursday, March 04, 2010

My Intuitions Can Whip Your Intuitions

Two of the most widely anthologized readings in applied ethics are Peter Singer’s “Famine, Affluence, and Morality,” and Judith Jarvis Thomson’s “A Defense of Abortion.” Both are superb examples of moral reasoning, eloquently defending, in Singer, the duty of those in the wealthy, industrialized West to assist people in distant countries who are suffering in absolute poverty and, in Thomson, a woman’s right to choose to terminate a pregnancy, even if we stipulate that the fetus is being with full moral rights, what philosophers refer to as a “person.”

What the essays also have in common is an appeal to what are commonly referred to as “moral intuitions;” both Singer and Thomson, in building their cases, offer an thought-experiment whose implications, from an ethical standpoint, are supposed to be essentially self-evident Any reasonably moral person will have to agree with the authors in the particular case, and so be drawn, by inference, to accept their overall conclusions.

What’s surprising, however, is that while the two thought-experiments have a very similar shape, the conclusions that each believes to be basically a slam-dunk directly contrast with one another.

Singer’s thought-experiment is his famous “drowning child” example. Basically, you are faced with the choice of saving a drowning toddler or getting your new shoes wet. Obviously, you should save the kid; to do otherwise is morally impermissible according to the principle, “If I can stop something bad from happening without sacrificing something of comparable moral worth, I should do so.”

Thomson’s thought-experiment asks whether you have the right to expect Henry Fonda to fly across country and lay his hand on your brow to keep you from dying; Thomson says that while it would be nice of Hank to do so, he is not morally required to do so, and you have no right to demand he does.

It seems, therefore, that Singer and Thomson have clashing intuitions about our duty of beneficence.

Who’s right?

Intuitively, I don’t know.


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