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FINAL PAPER TOPIC           HUMAN RIGHTS            PHILOSOPHY 19A

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26. Too High A Standard

XXVI. John should save the child from drowning and to expect no less from John is to place no more than a reasonable demand on his conduct, but, as my previous concern makes plain, if I am to be judged negatively for tossing UNICEF's original appeal into my wastebasket that only goes to show that there is something very wrong with morality: that it is too highly demanding and what needs to change, then, is not my conduct, but our view of morality.

Peter Singer's position seems to commit us to the view that tobehave in a way that's not seriously wrong, even moderately well-off persons, like you and me, are going to have to contribute to vitally effective groups, like OXFAM and UNICEF, most of the money we now have, and most of what comes our way for the foreseeable future. And this is too demanding, too highly demanding. And insofar as what's demanded of John for John to be a good person in the case of the Shallow Pond is not highly demanding, but what's being demanded of me in the case of The Envelope is very highly demanding indeed, the level of the moral demands placed on John and on me mark a difference that makes a significant moral difference between the two cases, no? Well, take the two following propositions:

(1) The View that Ethics is Highly Demanding is the correct view of our moral situation.

And this other conditional proposition:

(2) (Even) if this View isn't correct, a strict judgment of my failure to respond in the case of The Envelope (still) won't do any more toward committing us to the View than will a strict judgment of John's behavior in the case of the Shallow Pond.

Now it is very liklely the case that ethics is highly demanding, highly demanding of all of us; that's the nature of the beast called "ethics." But, put this matter aside for the moment, and focus on the conditional proposition. The Conditional Proposition suggests, (2) suggests if a strict judgment of John's conduct in the case of the Shallow Pond doesn't commit us to anything very costly from a moral point of view, then neither does a strict judgment of the conduct of a person who tosses UNICEF's appeal into the wastebasket commit us to anything very costly. Is this so?

Consider the following relatively general principle:

Lessening (the Number of People Suffering) Serious Loss. Other things being even nearly equal, if your behaving in a certain way will result in the number of people who suffer serious loss being less than the number who'll suffer that seriously if you don't so behave (and if you won't thereby treat another being at all badly or ever cause another any loss at all), then it's seriously wrong for you not to so behave.

First, what is meant by "serious loss" here? well, even if it happens painlessly, when someone loses her life very prematurely, she suffers a serious loss. Next, some losses are less than serious: There's your losing just a tooth. And, there are financial losses from which you can recover. Anyway, there are all sorts of losses from which you might suffer: the loss of $100, the loss of the means to purchase a new bicycle, the loss of a life, the loss of a brand new pair of Gucci shoes, and so on. Now many may resist the idea that to bring in a concern for costs and losses on the one hand and benefits and gains on the other is not an appropriate set of considerations to include in any genuine moral principle. Some folks think see that such cares for costs conflict with any truly decent moral thinking. And they may, after all, be right, but put this caveat aside for the moment.

How might it be ensured that, even when followed fully, a precept won't ever mean a terribly burdensome cost? Of course, the best and perhaps the only honest way to do this is to see to it that, in the principle itself, there's a logical guarantee to this effect. So, consider the following maxim:

Pretty Cheaply Lessening Early Death
Other things being even nearly equal, if your behaving in a certain way will result in the number of people who very prematurely lose their lives being less than the number who'll do so if you don't so behave and if even so you'll still be at least reasonably well off, then it's seriously wrong for you not to so behave.

Before moving to an even less demanding specific maxim, notice two points about this one: First, complying with it can't have you be less than reasonably well off! And, second, your conduct in the case of The Envelope's conduct gets a severe judgment from the precept, as well as John's conduct in the case of the Shallow Pond.

Few truly rich folks, if any at all, will fully comply with Pretty Cheaply Lessening Early Death. So, for any particular billionaire, the cost of compliance will be very great: If the toll's not taken all at once, then a decently progressive sequence will soon turn any into someone who's just reasonably well off. So, for a maxim that's appealing even to the very rich, there must be a precept that's a lot like:

Very Cheaply Lessening Early Death
Other things being even nearly equal, if your behaving in a certain way will result in the number of people who very prematurely lose their lives being less than the number who'll do so if you don't so behave and if even so, you'll still be both (a) at least reasonably well off and (b) very nearly as well off as you ever were, then it's seriously wrong for you not to so behave.

Even for rich folks, this precept's full observance can't ever be very costly. And, since you're not very poor, you'll see clearly that, while it yields a strict judgment of your conduct in The Envelope case, it also yields a strict judgment of John's conduct in the case of the Shallow Pond. So, if we rely on this last precept as a guide for human conduct in the two cases, the case of the Shallow Pond and the case of The Envelope, aren't we then committed to the view that a strict judgment of your conduct in case of The Envelope is fully compatible with a View that Ethics is Highly Undemanding. (Adapted from Unger)

Louisiana Fishermen, USA




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February 14, 1998
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