Which principles of conscience should the law make exceptions for?

2012-02-15 (Wednesday) § 8 Comments

At first glance I was sympathetic to the position of the Catholic Church in this recent issue about requiring Catholic employers to include contraception among the benefits covered in health care plans that they subsidize for their employees. But on further thought it seems wrong to me that principles of religious conscience should be respected in this matter in a way that irreligious conscience wouldn’t be.

Furthermore, if there’s to be any force in the idea of government requirements on employers to include certain benefits among those covered in health care plans that they subsidize for their employees, then how can exceptions be made for the employers’ conscientious principles?

It seems to me that there are only the following possible positions to take on this:

  1. Government should be able to place requirements on employers to include certain benefits among those covered in health care plans that they subsidize for their employees.  No exceptions.  Catholic employers have to cover contraception if they cover anything.  This forces Catholic employers to choose between offering no medical benefits or subsidizing services that they consider immoral.
  2. Government should not be able to place any requirements on employers to include certain benefits among those covered in health care plans that they subsidize for their employees. Catholic employers don’t have to cover contraception.  This could have a lot of dangerous consequences by allowing employers to select what benefits they cover based on interests other than the medical needs of those covered.
  3. Government should be able to place requirements on employers to include certain benefits among those covered in health care plans that they subsidize for their employees.  Exceptions for benefits that violate the conscientious principles of the employers.  Any employer can refuse to cover anything on this basis.  So the requirements have force only insofar as a) the government can show that a given employer really doesn’t have the conscientious principles they say they have (burden of proof on the government), or b) the employer fails to show that they really have to the conscientious principles they say they have (burden of proof on the employer).  It might be pretty hard to come up with any reasonable way of showing either thing.
  4. Government should be able to place requirements on employers to include certain benefits among those covered in health care plans that they subsidize for their employees. Exceptions for benefits that violate the religious principles of the employers, but not for principles outside of religion.  This strikes me as a government endorsement of religion.  It implies that religious moral principles are more important than irreligious ones.  I’m definitely not okay with this on the basis of my own conception of how government should work, and I think it also violates the 1st Amendment as the Supreme Court has so far interpreted it.

Comparing the downsides of each of these, I’m inclined to go with #1.  Maybe #3 if a workable test could be devised.

WINCS: A retreat

2012-02-04 (Saturday) § Leave a comment

Okay, I was wrong.  Suffering isn’t the only thing that matters to me morally.  Happiness does too.  But not as much as suffering.  The thing that made this clear to me was the thought experiment about a button that would instantly and painlessly wipe out every suffering-capable entity (including me).  I couldn’t get myself to say I would push that button.  If worst individual non-consensual suffering is my only moral metric, then I should push that button even if only one entity somewhere is suffering just a tiny bit.  It would guarantee a WINCS of zero henceforth and forevermore.  That’s as low as it goes.  Since I don’t feel like a universe with no conscious entities at all is morally better even compared to one with a really low but nonzero WINCS, it can’t be that WINCS is the only relevant moral metric for me.

Below is a representation of how much each thing matters to me, using my favorite intellectual tool, the indifference curve.  The curved line here represents all the outcomes that are equally morally acceptable to me.  The idea is that as the WINCS increases, it requires a higher and higher greatest individual happiness to compensate for it morally.  Any point under the curve is morally acceptable to me, and any point above it is morally unacceptable.

Suffering vs happiness indifference curve

I made this graph with an awesome open-source vector image editor.

Now one thing left to specify is how much suffering and happiness (in vague terms) is represented by a given length on each axis.

Another is whether the curve approaches a horizontal asymptote as GIH increases and continues to rise indefinitely even if at a continually decreasing rate, or it actually reaches a 0 slope (flattens out).  If it does reach 0 slope, that means there’s some amount of individual suffering such that no amount of individual happiness makes it okay to me.  I’m inclined to say there is.

Now about that universal euthanasia button.  With the graph the way I’ve set it up, the origin point (zero WINCS, zero GIH) is morally equivalent to any point on or below the curve, but morally better than any point above it.  That means if I have the button in front of me and I’m in a situation represented by any point above the curve, I should push the button, since doing so will result in a morally better situation.  I think I’m okay with that.  I can imagine a situation where some entity is suffering so badly that I’d rather instantly extinguish all conscious life than allow that suffering to continue.

John Rawls: Everyday morality isn’t simple to explain

2012-02-04 (Saturday) § 8 Comments

A useful comparison here is with the problem of describing the sense of grammaticalness that we have for the sentences of our native language.  In this case the aim is to characterize the ability to recognize well-formed sentences by formulating clearly expressed principles which make the same discriminations as the native speaker.  This undertaking is known to require theoretical constructions that far outrun the ad hoc precepts of our explicit grammatical knowledge.  A similar situation presumably holds in moral theory.  There is no reason to assume that our sense of justice can be adequately characterized by familiar common sense precepts, or derived from the more obvious learning principles.  A correct account of moral capacities will certainly involve principles and theoretical constructions which go much beyond the norms and standards cited in everyday life; it may eventually require fairly sophisticated mathematics as well.

from A Theory of Justice by John Rawls (revised edition), pp 41-42.

I like this comparison, although I think familiar common-sense precepts are more useful for moral theory than the ad-hoc precepts of our explicit grammatical knowledge are for syntactic theory.  Telling people not to split infinitives or end sentences with a preposition does nothing to explain why  “the go store I need” is a sentence of English you’ll never hear from a native speaker.  Telling people to do to others what they want done to them will go some distance to explain why we judge physical assault as immoral in most cases.  Of course that’s just some raw material for a theory.  There’s lots and lots of work to be done after that.

WINCS: A difficult consequence

2012-01-18 (Wednesday) § Leave a comment

Something just occurred to me that may force me to abandon the idea of using suffering as my sole moral metric.  It seems obvious now that I’ve thought of it.  If the morally better of any two situations is the one where the conscious being suffering most in that situation is suffering less than the being that occupies that position in the other situation, then the morally optimal situation is one where no one is suffering at all.  So far so good.  But if every being capable of suffering actually is suffering to some extent (even if just a tiny bit), then I should favor, if it’s available, an instant euthanasia of all suffering-capable beings, in preference to any situation in which any being is suffering at all.  (I say “suffering-capable” in order to eliminate the possibility of causing survivors’ suffering to beings that have zero suffering now but might suffer as a result of all the other beings being dead.)

That euthanasia isn’t available, but I’m not sure if I can accept that it’s desirable in principle.  Maybe I can.  I’ll have to let that question swirl around for a while and see what my intuitions produce.

WINCS: More tweaks

2012-01-05 (Thursday) § 2 Comments

Comments here and on Facebook have raised some points of ambiguity in my Worst Individual Non-Consensual Suffering metric for morality (described here and renamed here).  I’ll try and resolve them.

Here goes

Addendum to my moral metric

2011-12-28 (Wednesday) § 1 Comment

In a Facebook discussion about my previous post, a friend pointed out the issue of consent in suffering.  I neglected to build that in, but I meant to exclude consensual suffering from the metric.  My next task will be to define consent.  In the meantime, I’m changing the name to the even-catchier Worst Individual Non-Consensual Suffering.

Criticize my morality

2011-12-25 (Sunday) § 5 Comments

On this blog I’d like to not only consider and criticize other people’s ideas, but put forward a few of my own for the same treatment.  Here goes on the subject of morality. « Read the rest of this entry »

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