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Having received training mostly as an economist, I wonder whether why

Having received training mostly as an economist, I wonder whether why utilitarianism has a such a strong grip on thinking. Yet, while I do not fully like neither what goes into utilitarianism nor what comes out of it, I have not been able to find any other school that would be equally appealing. Just now, I have come across the preface to "A Theory of Justice" by John Rawls, who, at the time, claimed that there was not equal player to match utilitarianism and that intutition would be the only way out. According to your expertise, are there such schools, and which ones would you recommend? Apart from Rawls himself, I have the feeling that Kant and non-anthropocentric ethics might be possible candidates, is that so?

Utilitarianism makes the sum-total of happiness or average happiness the final end of human activity, what we should maximize.

Nearby competitors may disagree about the aggregation part, holding, for example, that we should maximize not the average happiness but rather the lowest level of happiness, or that we should equalize happiness. Or they may disagree with the happiness part (may hold, for instance, that love or knowledge have an importance that is not reducible to their contribution to happiness).

All such "consequentialist" views can be applied to human agents (to the question of how they ought to conduct themselves) and also to human societies (to the question of how these should be structured and governed). So utilitarianism is one of many consequentialist views.

There are also non-consequentialist views. In regard to human agents, there are views that guide them not toward making the world better but rather toward making oneself the best one can be (virtue ethics) or toward doing one's duties (deontological ethics). In regard to societies, too, there are non-consequentialist views, for example ones that give more weight to harms a society's rules mandate or authorize than to equivalent harms that these rules merely foreseeably but contingently bring about.

Rawls's theory is about how societies should be structured and governed. He is not a utilitarian; but I would classify him as a consequentialist: he holds that society should be governed by whatever public criterion of justice will best fulfill citizens' higher-order interests, especially those of the people whose higher-order interests are least well fulfilled.

Utilitarianism makes the sum-total of happiness or average happiness the final end of human activity, what we should maximize. Nearby competitors may disagree about the aggregation part, holding, for example, that we should maximize not the average happiness but rather the lowest level of happiness, or that we should equalize happiness. Or they may disagree with the happiness part (may hold, for instance, that love or knowledge have an importance that is not reducible to their contribution to happiness). All such "consequentialist" views can be applied to human agents (to the question of how they ought to conduct themselves) and also to human societies (to the question of how these should be structured and governed). So utilitarianism is one of many consequentialist views. There are also non-consequentialist views. In regard to human agents, there are views that guide them not toward making the world better but rather toward making oneself the best one can be (virtue ethics) or toward doing...

Hi all,

Hi all, In his response to a question on the justice on mercy on December 6, 2012(http://www.askphilosophers.org/question/4957), Dr. Thomas Pogge argued that he does not necessarily equate mercy with a deprivation of justice and gave three reasons for justifying his argument. I understand the reasons he gave, but am confused by the example he uses and how that example which functions to illustrated the third reasons actually illustrates the point of the third reason itself; if "the absence of this excuse is very difficult to prove beyond a reasonable doubt," how does that lead to the recognition that a, "rare, morally valid excuse in the law might be a bad idea? And how does recognizing that a "rare, morally valid excuse in the law might be a bad idea" lead to greater opportunities for criminals to escape punishment? I find the entire issue of justice and mercy particularly topical given the recent tragedies of the shootings in the United States and the gang rape situation in India and how an argument...

The three reasons I gave were meant to establish the intermediate conclusion that the criminal law cannot perfectly anticipate all realistically possible cases, cannot be designed so that it always yields the correct result by declaring guilty all and only those who really are guilty.

As my third reason for this I adduced the example of rare but morally valid excuses that should nonetheless not be recognized in law. Here is a concrete case. I was caught by a speed camera going 47 mph in a residential area with a 30 mph speed limit. I was going so fast because I was trying to get back home quickly because I had this sudden fear that, lost in thought, I had somehow turned on the gas dial of my kitchen stove without igniting the gas. I feared that gas was filling my apartment, posing a substantial risk to people living above and below. So I drove faster than legal in the reasonable belief that the risk posed by my speeding was very much smaller than the risk posed by my possibly gas-releasing stove. When I got home, I found that all my stove's dials were in the "off" position. Nonetheless, I had done the right, responsible thing by getting home quickly to avert possible danger from my neighbors. So I should not be punished for my speeding violation; I have a really good excuse.

But now suppose the law recognized this excuse, exempting people like me from punishment. Many speeders would then invoke this excuse in order to avoid punishment. And it would be next to impossible to identify those who are lying and to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that they are lying. It is better, then, morally better, not to recognize that excuse in the law. This leads to a few undeserved punishments (of people for whom speeding really was the right and responsible thing to do) but it also avoids a very much larger number of false acquittals of people who are willing to lie their way out of a speeding ticket. It is much better that a few people like myself pay an undeserved fine than that our speed limits become all but unenforceable.

The upshot is then that I do get punished pursuant to a law that is exactly as it should be. And yet, my punishment is undeserved. In this context, an exceptional act of mercy (on the part of a police office or judge) makes sense. I am then spared a legally warranted punishment, but not unjustly so. Rather than coming at the expense of justice, mercy here actually promotes justice.

The three reasons I gave were meant to establish the intermediate conclusion that the criminal law cannot perfectly anticipate all realistically possible cases, cannot be designed so that it always yields the correct result by declaring guilty all and only those who really are guilty. As my third reason for this I adduced the example of rare but morally valid excuses that should nonetheless not be recognized in law. Here is a concrete case. I was caught by a speed camera going 47 mph in a residential area with a 30 mph speed limit. I was going so fast because I was trying to get back home quickly because I had this sudden fear that, lost in thought, I had somehow turned on the gas dial of my kitchen stove without igniting the gas. I feared that gas was filling my apartment, posing a substantial risk to people living above and below. So I drove faster than legal in the reasonable belief that the risk posed by my speeding was very much smaller than the risk posed by my possibly gas-releasing stove....

Should it be permissible, both legally and ethically, for governments to censor

Should it be permissible, both legally and ethically, for governments to censor material either in print or online that instructs how to commit violent crimes (e.g. "How to Make Plastic Explosives" or "How to Poison the Water Supply")? Are such materials really considered to be "Speech?" Many Western democratic societies allow hate speech, and incitement is only ever prosecuted if it calls for direct violence against a particular group or individual; instructional manuals need not call for violence against people or any action at all. But at the same time, people like Timothy McVeigh have carried out acts of mass violence by using such manuals.

The legal question varies from country to country, and with regard to the US there is a case to be made that the kinds of instructions you have in mind are speech and therefore protected by the First Amendment. Morally speaking, the case for considering it permissible to prohibit the publication of such instructions seems overwhelmingly strong. There is no legitimate public interest in having such information widely available, and there is a considerable danger to the public from such wide availability. So the public is better served if such publications are prohibited. Here it is important to formulate the prohibition narrowly and with some precision because a broad or vaguely worded statute can easily be used to criminalize or intimidate legitimate political opposition.

The legal question varies from country to country, and with regard to the US there is a case to be made that the kinds of instructions you have in mind are speech and therefore protected by the First Amendment. Morally speaking, the case for considering it permissible to prohibit the publication of such instructions seems overwhelmingly strong. There is no legitimate public interest in having such information widely available, and there is a considerable danger to the public from such wide availability. So the public is better served if such publications are prohibited. Here it is important to formulate the prohibition narrowly and with some precision because a broad or vaguely worded statute can easily be used to criminalize or intimidate legitimate political opposition.

Is mercy on an offender a lack of justice? That is, if an offender is treated

Is mercy on an offender a lack of justice? That is, if an offender is treated mercifully, as in, given less punishment than is warranted, doesn't that mean the offender is given less justice than is warranted?

One straightforward way to see that this is not so starts from the realization that the criminal law cannot perfectly anticipate all realistically possible cases. This is so for at least three reasons. First, human powers of anticipation are limited. Second, a criminal law doing justice to all realistically possible cases would be too complex for citizens and officials to comprehend. Third, such a criminal law would also be impossible to administer fairly because it would give criminals too many opportunities to escape punishment. Example: recognizing a rare, morally valid excuse in the law might be a bad idea if the absence of this excuse is very difficult to prove beyond a reasonable doubt.

We can expect, then, that in some cases punishments warranted under even the best-designed and -administered criminal law are excessive. In those cases, at least, mercy would not be unjust. For example, we may pardon an offender because we are convinced that he has a morally valid excuse that the law, for good reasons, fails to recognize (i.e., does not allow judges and juries to take into account).

One straightforward way to see that this is not so starts from the realization that the criminal law cannot perfectly anticipate all realistically possible cases. This is so for at least three reasons. First, human powers of anticipation are limited. Second, a criminal law doing justice to all realistically possible cases would be too complex for citizens and officials to comprehend. Third, such a criminal law would also be impossible to administer fairly because it would give criminals too many opportunities to escape punishment. Example: recognizing a rare, morally valid excuse in the law might be a bad idea if the absence of this excuse is very difficult to prove beyond a reasonable doubt. We can expect, then, that in some cases punishments warranted under even the best-designed and -administered criminal law are excessive. In those cases, at least, mercy would not be unjust. For example, we may pardon an offender because we are convinced that he has a morally valid excuse that the law, for good...

It seems generally accepted that the human race has a social responsibility to

It seems generally accepted that the human race has a social responsibility to eradicate poverty; however, doesn't every economic system benefit in some way from the most impoverished element of society, or the people that are most exploited? What is the value of money if everyone has (approximately) the same amount? Is there any viable system where the economic playing field is more level? What might that system look like?

I don't know what it means for an economic system to benefit. But it seems plausible that some people benefit at the expense of those who are most exploited. I don't see how this benefit is supposed to defeat the proposition that the human race has a responsibility to eradicate poverty -- typically the cost of the exploitation to the exploited is much greater than the benefit of the exploitation to the exploiters and typically, moreover, the assignment of roles is deeply unfair (e.g., tarnished by historical wrongs that led to some being born privileged and others disadvantaged).

Currently, the poorest quarter of humanity has about 0.78 percent of global household income. This means that these 1.8 billion people, on average, have about 1/32 of the global average income. More than half of them are chronically undernourished, and most suffer one or another severe deprivation. Had the poorest quarter maintained its 1988 share of global household income, its share would now be greater by about half -- 1.16 rather than 0.78 percent of global household income -- and most of today's extreme poverty would then not exist (figures from Branko Milanovic, World Bank, reflecting market exchange rates). Had we allowed the poor to participate proportionately in global economic growth, the world would be much like it is today: still very unequal (with the poorest quarter, on average, at 1/21 of global average income). But the death toll and suffering from poverty would be much lower than they in fact are today.

For a viable system where the economic playing field is more level, you might look at the European Union, which displays only mild inter- and intra-national inequalities. The top fifth of EU citizens have about five times as much income as the bottom fifth -- the corresponding ratio for humankind is 162:1. A crucial cause and effect of lower income inequality is a fairer distribution of starting positions: in the EU, even those born into the bottom quarter have a fair chance to receive a decent education and to work their way into a satisfying job or even into a leadership position. As the percentage of those who have good educational and employment opportunities increases, the market premium for the more challenging jobs tends to diminish.

Some countries have considerably lower income inequality than the EU. In Sweden, Slovenia, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Finland, Austria and Japan, for instance, the ratio between the richest and the poorest fifths is below 4:1. What is the value of money in such a low-inequality environment, you ask. When inequality is low, then money has little value as a marker of hierarchy. You cannot feel very special on account of being able to afford things when very many others can afford them as well. But the institution of money is valuable in other ways: as a rough indicator of what people contribute to society and what they take from the social product, for example. Money is also extremely useful for facilitating exchanges and thereby for communicating demand and supply information throughout an economy so as to enable market participants to adjust their conduct toward better coordination and fulfilment of their individual preferences.

While greater equality would massively increase efficiency by allowing many more people to develop their talents and then to compete for the more important social roles, the abolition of money would greatly reduce efficiency in any modern economy above the size of a village.

I don't know what it means for an economic system to benefit. But it seems plausible that some people benefit at the expense of those who are most exploited. I don't see how this benefit is supposed to defeat the proposition that the human race has a responsibility to eradicate poverty -- typically the cost of the exploitation to the exploited is much greater than the benefit of the exploitation to the exploiters and typically, moreover, the assignment of roles is deeply unfair (e.g., tarnished by historical wrongs that led to some being born privileged and others disadvantaged). Currently, the poorest quarter of humanity has about 0.78 percent of global household income. This means that these 1.8 billion people, on average, have about 1/32 of the global average income. More than half of them are chronically undernourished, and most suffer one or another severe deprivation. Had the poorest quarter maintained its 1988 share of global household income, its share would now be greater by about half --...

Back in 2010, somebody asked a question about group rights, and mentioned the

Back in 2010, somebody asked a question about group rights, and mentioned the right to transmit one's language. Thomas Pogge replied by saying: "You have a right to speak to your children in the language of your choice; but do you also have a right that they be taught this language in school? Not, presumably, if you're the only speaker of this language far and wide. But if thirty percent of the adults in your town speak Spanish as their native language, then that could be a very compelling reason for requiring that Spanish be taught in the local schools." My question is: Isn't this what democracy is for? If a sufficiently large proportion of a community has an interest in one thing or another, deliberative democracy ought to provide them with a way to satisfy that interest (opening their own schools; mandatory Spanish classes in all schools; extra funding for schools with Spanish classes; etc.). Is that all group rights are, then? People negotiating situations favorable to their interests within a...

It would be nice if democracy delivered this outcome. But in some cases the thirty percent may not have enough bargaining power to achieve it. In this case, Spanish-language classes may not actually happen. If so, I would think, the minority's group right would be violated by the majority.

Like in many other cases, the right outcome here is not whatever results from a democratic process. Rather, the right outcome is the one that accommodates any large minority's expressed desire in the preservation of their language; and that's what members of the majority ought to support and vote for, even if there's nothing valuable they can extract from the minority in exchange. This is not meant to reject democracy -- which may well be the best feasible procedure for reaching the right outcome. It's meant to reject a certain conception of democracy according to which any decision is right merely because it has resulted from a certain democratic process. What has been successfully negotiated in a democratic process may assume the status of a legal right but may nonetheless be morally wrong. And many non-democratic regimes are violating human rights even though there is no democratic process in which these rights so much as could have been successfully negotiated.

It would be nice if democracy delivered this outcome. But in some cases the thirty percent may not have enough bargaining power to achieve it. In this case, Spanish-language classes may not actually happen. If so, I would think, the minority's group right would be violated by the majority. Like in many other cases, the right outcome here is not whatever results from a democratic process. Rather, the right outcome is the one that accommodates any large minority's expressed desire in the preservation of their language; and that's what members of the majority ought to support and vote for, even if there's nothing valuable they can extract from the minority in exchange. This is not meant to reject democracy -- which may well be the best feasible procedure for reaching the right outcome. It's meant to reject a certain conception of democracy according to which any decision is right merely because it has resulted from a certain democratic process. What has been successfully negotiated in a democratic...

Can a nation have an official religion and be a democracy?

Can a nation have an official religion and be a democracy?

I would consider Norway and the UK to be examples of this. Here the fundamental equality of citizens is not seriously undermined because the role of the state religion is largely ceremonial. In other countries, of course, citizens who do not share the state religion suffer severe discrimination which can be grave enough to defeat, by itself, the claim that the state in question is democratic.

It makes sense here to think of "being a democracy" as a matter of degree. Most of the states we call democracies fail fully to live up to democratic principles in one way or another. Having a state religion is a shortfall, but can be a relatively minor one if any resulting discrimination is not too severe.

I would consider Norway and the UK to be examples of this. Here the fundamental equality of citizens is not seriously undermined because the role of the state religion is largely ceremonial. In other countries, of course, citizens who do not share the state religion suffer severe discrimination which can be grave enough to defeat, by itself, the claim that the state in question is democratic. It makes sense here to think of "being a democracy" as a matter of degree. Most of the states we call democracies fail fully to live up to democratic principles in one way or another. Having a state religion is a shortfall, but can be a relatively minor one if any resulting discrimination is not too severe.

Is democracy a just form of government because it leads to the fairest results,

Is democracy a just form of government because it leads to the fairest results, or because it is inherently most fair to let everyone have an equal say in the decision-making process? In a situation where the population overwhelmingly makes a decision that will harm them in the long-term and reduce everyone's standard of living (for example, when the population votes for parties whose policies lead to individual freedom in the short term but collective suffering via environmental decay, financial crisis, war and poverty in the long term), are we witnessing a failure of democracy to do what it is supposed to do (i.e. create the fairest possible society), or are we witnessing democracy doing exactly what it is supposed to do (i.e. let everyone have a fair say in the decision-making process)?

Both extreme views seem patently implausible: we should not be indifferent either to the procedure of political decision-making (e.g., to the disenfranchisement of women and African-Americans) nor to the outcome (e.g., collective suffering via environmental decay, financial crisis, war and poverty). So in specifying, institutionally embodying and adjusting democratic procedures we should be guided by both: the concern to enable citizens fully to participate in political deliberation and decision-making and the concern to achieve just and otherwise morally good outcomes. This requires some balancing, a willingness to compromise one or both of these concerns for the sake of better realizing the other. Different political philosophies will differ in how they formulate and balance these two concerns. But I don't think any democratic theorists are dismissing one of these concerns entirely.

Both extreme views seem patently implausible: we should not be indifferent either to the procedure of political decision-making (e.g., to the disenfranchisement of women and African-Americans) nor to the outcome (e.g., collective suffering via environmental decay, financial crisis, war and poverty). So in specifying, institutionally embodying and adjusting democratic procedures we should be guided by both: the concern to enable citizens fully to participate in political deliberation and decision-making and the concern to achieve just and otherwise morally good outcomes. This requires some balancing, a willingness to compromise one or both of these concerns for the sake of better realizing the other. Different political philosophies will differ in how they formulate and balance these two concerns. But I don't think any democratic theorists are dismissing one of these concerns entirely.

In his answer to question 2275 (from Sep 7th 2008), Thomas Pogge wrote: “Most

In his answer to question 2275 (from Sep 7th 2008), Thomas Pogge wrote: “Most political leaders do not act well, morally, and in most cases this is because they are not moral persons, not serious about morality. To be serious about morality, one must try to integrate one’s considered moral judgments through more general moral principles into a coherent account of morally acceptable conduct; one must work out what this unified system of beliefs and commitments implies for one’s own life; and one must make a serious effort to honour these implications in one’s own conduct and judgments. Those who are not serious about morality typically do not act well, morally...” I am very interested in the notion of ‘moral seriousness’, and would be interested to know what the other panelists think about the nature of ‘being morally serious’, as opposed to that of merely ‘being moral’ – and whether they agree with Prof Pogge’s account. I would also be grateful if you – Prof Pogge – could elaborate on your previous...

Moral judgments are often distorted by self-interest. A morally serious person must try to combat this danger by thinking beyond the particular case. A very simple way of doing this is to contemplate analogous situations in which roles are reversed (the Golden Rule). By extending one's judgments to a larger set of cases and then aiming for a coherent way of judging these cases, one is beginning to do what I was asking. Philosophers may take this sort of exercise quite far and, as you surmise, I don't think that every morally serious person needs to do this. But a morally serious person will question her or his moral judgments in the ways I sketched, especially when they are "convenient", that is, in accordance with her/his own self-interest.

Moral judgments are often distorted by self-interest. A morally serious person must try to combat this danger by thinking beyond the particular case. A very simple way of doing this is to contemplate analogous situations in which roles are reversed (the Golden Rule). By extending one's judgments to a larger set of cases and then aiming for a coherent way of judging these cases, one is beginning to do what I was asking. Philosophers may take this sort of exercise quite far and, as you surmise, I don't think that every morally serious person needs to do this. But a morally serious person will question her or his moral judgments in the ways I sketched, especially when they are "convenient", that is, in accordance with her/his own self-interest.

Are rights ranted to us by government? (Is saying that "I have a right to free

Are rights ranted to us by government? (Is saying that "I have a right to free speech" simply a way of saying that my government permits me to speak freely?) Or do we have rights independently of government, such that institutions like freedom of speech amount to a recognition by government of such rights?

Some rights are granted to us by our government, such as the right to drive a car for example. But there are others which governments themselves agree are not granted by them but exist independently. Various governmental documents (such as the Declaration of Independence) speak of "unalienable" or “inalienable” rights, for example. An inalienable right is a right that its holders cannot lose, not through anything they do themselves (waiver or forfeiture), nor through anything others do, for instance through an alteration of the law. In a similar way, the human rights that have emerged in the last 65 years are conceived as not merely part of the law but also a moral standard that all law ought to meet and a standard that is not yet met by much existing law in many countries. Law has incorporated human rights in a way that points beyond itself: to a normativity that does not depend on the law for its existence and cannot be revised or repealed by legislative or judicial fiat or by other law-making mechanisms such as treaties or international custom. This point is prominently expressed in many legal documents, for instance in the very first words of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which call for the “recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family.” With this formulation, echoed in frequent appeals to “internationally recognized human rights,” governments present themselves as recognizing certain rights in law rather than as creating these rights from scratch. Human rights law is not declaring itself the source of human rights, but, on the contrary, asserting that all human beings have certain human rights regardless of whether these are recognized in their jurisdiction or indeed anywhere at all. Human rights are set forth in the law in a way that implies that these rights have an independent existence and thus existed before they were codified and would continue to exist even if governments were to withdraw their legal recognition.

Some rights are granted to us by our government, such as the right to drive a car for example. But there are others which governments themselves agree are not granted by them but exist independently. Various governmental documents (such as the Declaration of Independence) speak of "unalienable" or “inalienable” rights, for example. An inalienable right is a right that its holders cannot lose, not through anything they do themselves (waiver or forfeiture), nor through anything others do, for instance through an alteration of the law. In a similar way, the human rights that have emerged in the last 65 years are conceived as not merely part of the law but also a moral standard that all law ought to meet and a standard that is not yet met by much existing law in many countries. Law has incorporated human rights in a way that points beyond itself: to a normativity that does not depend on the law for its existence and cannot be revised or repealed by legislative or judicial fiat or by other law-making...

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