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May 11, 2010

Comments

Clayton Littlejohn

I think Thomson has a reply to the first argument against SMP. You ask, "Why should having no permissible means to do Beta, make it impermissible to do Beta?" Suppose that the impossibility of eating a sandwich doesn't make eating the sandwich impermissible (although, not the worst bullet to bite). Can't Thomson say that if someone can't A, then it's not permissible for them to A and not impermissible for them to A? Why can't she say that whether A-ing is obligatory, permissible, or forbidden depends upon whether it can be done? I don't see the entailment from 'It is not permissible for S to A' to 'It is impermissible for S to A' as trivial. I think a similar response could work for the second argument against SMP.

Similarly, with argument 3 I think the distinction between impermissible and not permissible could be helpful. Now, there's a new element to that one. You write, "After all, B is doing more impermissible things that A, viz. He is saving those five people, which, according to SMP, is, in these circumstances, impermissible." I guess I don't find it counterintuitive to say, "In these circumstances, it is impermissible to save the five". It's harder to see how that comes out true without SMP. Saving five is, typically, the sort of thing you should do. The force of the point, however, is supposed to be that it's odd to think that B is doing more impermissible things than A. I think that _is_ counterintuitive, but probably because our intuitions about who is doing more impermissible things depends upon a way of counting actions on which it would be false to say that B is doing more impermissible things. It would be strange to say that B is engaged in more distinct/discreet actions that are impermissible than A. Indeed, that would be false. Both just pushed.

I think argument 4 is confusing pragmatics and semantics.

I think argument 5 can be dealt with by indexing to times and conditional obligation. Prior to their murder, it would have been wrong to distribute the organs. Post murder, it's not wrong--the distribution at that point doesn't involve murdering.


tomkow

Clayton. Thanks for your comment.

With respect to 1 you suggest that we say that if there are no means available to do something that renders doing it neither permissible or impermissible. It seems to me that this leaves my point untouched.

You are going to owe us an account of how it is that the advent of means for bringing about beta somehow turns it from a-- what?-- "value-valueless" option to something that is either impermissible or permissible.

Then too you need to explain why some things turn permissible when means are provided to do them and some things turn impermissible.

Thus here are two things I can't do right now (i) banish world hunger and (ii) kill everyone in Latvia. So, as you say, neither of these is permissible or impermissible. But given an otherwise innocent means to do either, (i) will turn permissible and (ii) will not. So there must be some difference between (i) and (ii) even now, when they are value-valueless. So maybe we should say that even when you can't do it (i) is-- say-- potentially permissible, but not (ii)?

But now having taken this, it seems to me, profitless excursion, the question becomes why should we say that the advent of an impermissible means to eat a sandwich, turns a value-valueless sandwich eating into something impermissible (as SMP would entail) rather than just failing to activate its potential permissibility. And , as before, the onus of proof is on the advocate of SMP to explain why permissibility flickers in and out in this way. After all the moral facts that would make (i) permissible and (ii) impermissible if you could do them, do not go away when you can't do them.

In respect to (3). I agree we can say that "in these circumstances it is impermissible to save the five". I understand that to say, correctly, that there is no permissible way to save them. Or if you like, that there is no way to save them without having done something impermissible. But SMP would require me to say something more. It requires me to say that both throwing the fat man and saving the five are impermissible. That seems to me very odd. There is a difference between throwing a fat man in front of a trolley as a means saving a life and throwing a fat man under a trolley as means to throwing a fat woman in front of a trolley. The difference I would say has to do with permissibility of the end. SMP doesn't seem to allow me to say that.

With respect to (5) you want to say that it is impermissible to save the lives right up till the moment at which the involuntary donor is killed, then it becomes permissible. But, as I asked in my post, how could the guy's dying render the impermissible thing permissible? Suppose A want's to harvest the organs to save lives and B wants to harvest them to feed unwitting customers at his restaurant. When A kills his end suddenly becomes permissible, not so B's. So there must be something about A's impermissible end which is different from B's impermissible end. If not permissibility, what? "Potential permissibility" again? And how can I tell what might not turn permissible once I take the impermissible steps towards it?

All of these moves seem to me wheels that turn no machinery.

And remember none of this makes any difference to what we recommend anyone actually do on any given occasion. All that is really at stake here is Thomson's method of arguing against principles like (r). I do not see why that powerful generalization should be sacrificed on the alter of SMP.

Clayton Littlejohn

"With respect to 1 you suggest that we say that if there are no means available to do something that renders doing it neither permissible or impermissible. It seems to me that this leaves my point untouched.

You are going to owe us an account of how it is that the advent of means for bringing about beta somehow turns it from a-- what?-- "value-valueless" option to something that is either impermissible or permissible."

I don't think it's non-standard for people to say that it is only options that are properly understood as having deontic status and that only things that can be done count as options. So, suppose in w1 it's physically impossible for someone to A and in w2 it is easy for an agent to A. It's not as if A-ing is an option in w1 that is impossible to exercise and w2 is an option that is possible to exercise, it is an option in only one of these worlds. Your comment above suggests that you aren't taking issue with the idea that only options can have deontic status, does our disagreement really turn on whether something is an option only if it can be done?

"But now having taken this, it seems to me, profitless excursion, the question becomes why should we say that the advent of an impermissible means to eat a sandwich, turns a value-valueless sandwich eating into something impermissible (as SMP would entail) rather than just failing to activate its potential permissibility. And , as before, the onus of proof is on the advocate of SMP to explain why permissibility flickers in and out in this way. After all the moral facts that would make (i) permissible and (ii) impermissible if you could do them, do not go away when you can't do them."

Didn't you just give the explanation? If we 'go' from a situation where a certain seemingly innocuous action can't be performed to a situation where it can be performed only if some wrong is commissioned, it is impermissible to eat the sandwich because the only way that can be done is engaging in wrongdoing. That looks like a good explanation, it looks like the explanation you give when you explain why it's wrong to save the five when the means by which you do it is pushing the fat man in front of the train.

"In respect to (3). I agree we can say that "in these circumstances it is impermissible to save the five". I understand that to say, correctly, that there is no permissible way to save them. Or if you like, that there is no way to save them without having done something impermissible. But SMP would require me to say something more. It requires me to say that both throwing the fat man and saving the five are impermissible. That seems to me very odd. There is a difference between throwing a fat man in front of a trolley as a means saving a life and throwing a fat man under a trolley as means to throwing a fat woman in front of a trolley. The difference I would say has to do with permissibility of the end. SMP doesn't seem to allow me to say that."

I don't follow. You say:
(i) It is impermissible to save the five.
(ii) SMP is problematic because it requires us to say both throwing the fat man and saving the five are impermissible.

If SMP requires you to say that saving the five are impermissible, it requires you to say something true. That's not the problem. Is the problem that SMP requires you to say that pushing the fat man in front of the train is impermissible. That's not the problem, that's just SMP requiring you to say something true. So the problem, I guess, is that SMP requires you to say two things that are true? Or is the problem really that it says that both things are impermissible when you just want to say that both are impermissible?

"There is a difference between throwing a fat man in front of a trolley as a means saving a life and throwing a fat man under a trolley as means to throwing a fat woman in front of a trolley. The difference I would say has to do with permissibility of the end. SMP doesn't seem to allow me to say that."

Agreed, but I don't see why someone who accepts SMP can't say this. The end of saving five is not permissibly pursued in the circumstances described, but it is permissibly pursued in different circumstances. The end of throwing a fat woman under a train isn't like that. That's the difference and nothing I've said requires denying SMP.

"But, as I asked in my post, how could the guy's dying render the impermissible thing permissible?"

Before he was dead, taking the organs requires murdering him. After he's dead, it doesn't. Suppose we had a division of labor. There's a killer and there's an organ distributor. Maybe both act wrongfully (if the victim didn't give permission to have the organs distributed), but I'd say that the killer's wrong is worse. If, however, the victim was a registered organ donor, we've hit upon our explanation as to why organ distribution becomes permissible post mortem.

"And remember none of this makes any difference to what we recommend anyone actually do on any given occasion."

I don't see that that's true or that it's a big deal if it is. I thought you were trying to show that Thomson's principle was false, not that it failed to alter our practice of advice giving in a way that is beneficial. I do think that Thomson's principle, however, can have a positive impact on how we give advice. Someone who says that it's okay to A in circumstances where A-ing leads to B-ing and B-ing is worse than A-ing is giving bad advice and the neat explanation as to why this is is contained in SMP.

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