SOPhiA 2018

Salzburgiense Concilium Omnibus Philosophis Analyticis

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Programme - Talk

Constraints and You (In This Action)
(Ethics, English)

A"Individuals have rights, and there are things no person or group may do to them." This quote captures an understanding of rights as side constraints that is widely shared among deontologists. It is impermissible to violate rights even if we thereby prevent more violations of the same right from happening. But this view is subject to a powerful criticism. Given that we care about the moral values behind side constraints, isn't it irrational to refuse to prevent as many violations as possible?

Almost all justifications of side constraints focus on the victim and what makes it impermissible to kill him. I defend however an agent-based justification that focuses on the agent and what makes it impermissible for her to kill. Imagine a sadist has pushed a trolley towards five persons who will die unless you push an innocent bystander in front of the trolley. By pushing you would minimize the amount of rights violations. However, if you push it is you who is violating the right, in the first case it is someone else. If we accept, as I argue we should, that there is a morally relevant difference between killing and letting die, then we can explain why we are not justified in killing the person.

There is a powerful objection to this view. Frances Kamm expressed this objection with her Guilty Agent Case. In this case you would prevent yourself from killing five people by killing one. It seems that you have the option between killing five and killing one. But at the same time the deontological constraint against killing does not suddenly disappear.

In my paper, I respond to Kamm's objection. I do not think that Kamm's interpretation of the case is the correct one. In her case there are two different actions that we perform. The first action is to initiate the threat against the five, the second is the killing of the one. If we fail to perform the second action, we would be letting the five die by omitting the action. Before the second action we therefore still face a problem of killing versus letting die. I argue further that the fact that in this situation the five will be killed by yourself is not morally relevant. While your past action puts you in a special normative situation, this does not give you license to kill the one. It is precisely the transgression of the constraint against killing that gave rise to the special situation in the first place.

Chair: Katharina Anna Sodoma
Time: 17:40-18:10, 12 September 2018 (Wednesday)
Location: SR 1.007

Bastian Steuwer 
(London School of Economics, United Kingdom)

Bastian Steuwer is a PhD student at the London School of Economics. His doctoral research revolves around the separateness of persons. He is mostly interested in moral and political philosophy, but also works on personal identity and philosophy of law.

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