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In the first two volumes of On What Matters, Derek Parfit argues that three major normative theories – Kantianism, Contractualism and Rule Consequentialism – are, in their most defensible forms, compatible, and can be reconciled in what he calls ‘Triple Theory’. This has led many to assume that Parfit does not believe that Act Consequentialism is a defensible form of Consequentialism. We draw on correspondence with Parfit to show that this assumption is incorrect. We then consider Parfit's efforts, in the third volume of On What Matters, to narrow the differences between Act Consequentialism and the triple theory, in part by treating impartial rationality as an external rival to morality, in much the same way that egoism is an external rival to morality. We argue that Parfit's attempts to bridge the gap between Act Consequentialism and Triple Theory meet with only limited success.
It has become in vogue for leaders to argue that one of the lessons of the last decade of war is that “technology doesn't matter in the human-centric wars we fight”, as one four-star general put it; but that assumes a definition of technology as the exotic and unworkable. To paraphrase the musician Brian Eno, citing the inventor Danny Hillis, technology is the name we give to things that we don't yet use every day–when we use it every day, we don't call it technology any more. Whether it is a stone or a drone, it is technology, a tool that we apply to a task.
More challenging than the tools themselves in today and tomorrow's strategic context may be the pace of technological change. Many are familiar with Moore's Law, the notion first expressed by Gordon Moore, the cofounder of Intel, that the number of transistors on integrated circuits doubles approximately every two years. Moore's Law was originally intended to describe a phenomenon in the realm of computer hardware, but the broader exponential trends he outlined (where technology multiplies upon itself) have been found to have broader historic patterns, also described as the Law of Accelerating Returns.
Dying before one’s time has been a prominent theme in classic literature and poetry. Catherine Linton’s youthful death in Wuthering Heights leaves behind a bereft Heathcliff and generations of mourning readers. The author herself, Emily Brontë, died young from tuberculosis. John Keats’ Ode on Melancholy captures the transitory beauty of 19th century human lives too often ravished by early death. Keats also died of tuberculosis, aged 25. “The bloom, whose petals nipped before they blew, died on the promise of the fruit” is how Percy Bysshe Shelley expressed his grief over Keats’ death. Emily Dickinson wrote So Has a Daisy Vanished, being driven into depression by the early loss of loved ones from typhoid and tuberculosis.
At the end of the last chapter, we looked beyond abortion to the issue of infanticide, thus confirming the suspicions of supporters of the sanctity of human life that once abortion is accepted, euthanasia lurks around the corner. For them, that is an added reason for opposing abortion. Euthanasia has, they point out, been rejected by doctors since the fifth century BC, when physicians first took the Oath of Hippocrates and swore ‘to give no deadly medicine to anyone if asked, nor suggest any such counsel’. Moreover, they argue, the Nazi extermination programme is a terrible modern example of what can happen once we give the state the power to kill innocent human beings.
It is true that if one accepts abortion on the grounds provided in the preceding chapter, the case for killing other human beings, in certain circumstances, is strong. As I shall try to show in this chapter, however, this is not something to be regarded with horror, and the use of the Nazi analogy is utterly misleading. On the contrary, once we abandon those doctrines about the sanctity of human life that – as we saw in Chapter 4 – collapse as soon as they are questioned, it is the refusal to accept killing that, in some cases, is horrific.
When the first edition of this book appeared in 1979, no country had legalized euthanasia, although in Switzerland a physician could prescribe lethal drugs to patients seeking aid in dying.
In the previous chapter, we briefly considered the argument that the only obligation we have to strangers is not to harm them. For most of human existence, that view would have been easy to live by. Our ancestors lived in groups of no more than a few hundred people, and those on the other side of a river or mountain range might as well have been living in a separate world. We developed ethical principles to help us to deal with problems within our community, not to help those outside it. The harms that it was considered wrong to cause were generally clear and well defined. We developed inhibitions against, and emotional responses to, such actions, and these instinctive or emotional reactions still form the basis for much of our moral thinking.
Today, we are connected to people all over the world in ways our ancestors could not have imagined. The discovery that human activities are changing the climate of our planet has brought with it knowledge of new ways in which we can harm one another. When you drive your car, you burn fossil fuel that releases carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. You are changing the chemical composition of the atmosphere and, hence, the climate. What does this do to others?
Previous chapters of this book have discussed what we ought, morally, to do about several practical issues and what means we are justified in adopting to achieve our ethical goals. The nature of our conclusions about these issues – the demands they make on us – raises a further, more fundamental question: why should we act morally?
Take our conclusions about the use of animals for food, or the aid the rich should give the poor. Some readers may accept these conclusions, become vegetarians, and do what they can to reduce absolute poverty. Others may disagree with our conclusions, maintaining that there is nothing wrong with eating animals and that they are under no moral obligation to do anything about reducing absolute poverty. There is also, however, likely to be a third group: readers who find no fault with the ethical arguments of these chapters yet do not change their diets or their contributions to aid for the poor. Of this third group, some may just be weak-willed, but others may want an answer to a further practical question: if the conclusions of ethics require so much of us, they may ask, why should we bother about ethics at all?
UNDERSTANDING THE QUESTION
‘Why should I act morally?’ is a different type of question from those that we have been discussing up to now. Questions like ‘Why should I treat people of different ethnic groups equally?’ or ‘Why is abortion justifiable?’ seek ethical reasons for acting in a certain way.
A river tumbles through forested ravines and rocky gorges towards the sea. The state hydro-electricity commission sees the falling water as untapped energy. Building a dam across one of the gorges would provide three years of employment for a thousand people, and longer-term employment for twenty or thirty. The dam would store enough water to ensure that the state could economically meet its energy needs for the next decade. This would encourage the establishment of energy-intensive industry thus further contributing to employment and economic growth.
The rough terrain of the river valley makes it accessible only to the reasonably fit, but it is nevertheless a favoured spot for bushwalking. The river itself attracts the more daring whitewater rafters. Deep in the sheltered valleys are stands of rare Huon pine, many of the trees being more than a thousand years old. The valleys and gorges are home to many birds and animals, including an endangered species of marsupial mouse that has seldom been found outside the valley. There may be other rare plants and animals as well, but no one knows, for scientists are yet to investigate the region fully.
Should the dam be built? This is one example of a situation in which we must choose between very different sets of values. The description is loosely based on a proposed dam on the Franklin River, in the south-west of Australia's island state, Tasmania.
The period since the end of World War II has seen dramatic shifts in moral attitudes on issues like abortion, sex outside marriage, same-sex relationships, pornography, euthanasia and suicide. Great as the changes have been, no new consensus has been reached. The issues remain controversial, and the traditional views still have respected defenders.
Equality seems to be different. The change in attitudes towards inequality – especially racial inequality – has been no less sudden and dramatic than the change in attitudes towards sex, but it has been more complete. Racist assumptions shared by most Europeans at the beginning of the twentieth century have become totally unacceptable, at least in public life. A poet could not now write of ‘lesser breeds without the law’, and retain – indeed enhance – his reputation, as Rudyard Kipling did in 1897. This does not mean that there are no longer any racists, but only that they must disguise their racism if their views and policies are to have any chance of general acceptance. The principle that all humans are equal is now part of the prevailing political and ethical orthodoxy. But what, exactly, does it mean and why do we accept it?
Once we go beyond the agreement that blatant forms of racial discrimination are wrong and raise questions about the basis of the principle that all humans are equal, the consensus starts to weaken.
In the previous chapter, I gave reasons for believing that the fundamental principle of equality, on which the idea that humans are equal rests, is the principle of equal consideration of interests. Only a basic moral principle of this kind can allow us to defend a form of equality that embraces almost all human beings, despite the differences that exist between them. (The exceptions are human beings who are not and have never been conscious and therefore have no interests to be considered – a topic to be discussed in Chapters 6 and 7.) Although the principle of equal consideration of interests provides the best possible basis for human equality, its scope is not limited to humans. When we accept the principle of equality for humans, we are also committed to accepting that it extends to some nonhuman animals.
When I wrote the first edition of this book, in 1979, I warned the reader that the suggestion I was making here might seem bizarre. It was then generally accepted that discrimination against members of racial minorities and against women ranked among the most important moral and political issues. Questions about animal welfare, however, were widely regarded as matters of no real significance, except for people who are dotty about dogs and cats. Issues about humans, it was commonly assumed, should always take precedence over issues about animals.