Obligation vs Opportunity

Julia Galef has begun an interesting series called Open Questions. Here’s a sample:

1. When is overconfidence useful (if ever)?

2. Can we intentionally improve the world?

3. Are you motivated by obligation or opportunity?

I want to talk about the last of those questions. There are at least two interesting questions here:

1. Are we obligated to make the world a better place?
2. Is it better to be motivated by obligation or by opportunity?

These questions are largely independent, though Galef seems to blur them a bit. Both could be true. Perhaps 2 is true, but 1 is false.

I’m going to deny an understanding of 1 here and discuss 2 in a following post. However, there will be consistent thread through both posts as we’ll see. 

What do I mean by moral obligation? Let someone, S be morally obligated to X if it is the case that S morally should X or S is morally required to X. Here ‘morally’ just signifies the domain of moral actions. What fruit one should eat, what shirt one should wear, what movie one should watch are (typically) not in the moral domain. Maybe one should wear the appropriate dress to an interview, but that’s not a ‘moral’ should. On the other hand, when we say one should not lie, not kill, but should fight off existential risks, those claims are in the moral domain. Maybe there’s nothing fundamental in the division between the moral part of the normative domain and the pragmatic/prudential domain, that’s probably so, but let’s leave that aside for now.

There is no deep sense in which we are ever required to do anything. Sometimes it may be better to believe that one is required to X, at other times or stages in one’s life it may be better to not have that belief. Let something be morally useful to the degree that that something contributes to moral betterness. It may be better for Alice to believe that she is required to help others because that motivates her to help others more than the alternative. That belief would then serve a moral purpose for Alice, it would be more morally useful than its opposite. But perhaps Charles feels terribly guilty when he inevitably fails to help others as much as he could. Maybe this guilt brings about negative thought spirals that he finds difficult to escape  it would be better for others if Charles didn’t believe that he was required to help them. Claim: there’s no sense in which one is required to X, independent of how morally useful the belief that one is required to X is. Some states of affairs are better than others, sometimes it is better to think of ourselves as required to bring about those states of affairs, sometimes it may not be better to not so believe. Whether this is so will be an empirical matter, contingent on individual’s psychological profiles and the environment that they are in.

Here’s a sketch of an argument for this view. The argument is a reductionist one. In a flashback to the past, suppose we have a few grains of sand, 3 to be precise. We do not have heap. If we add 1 more grain, we will still not have a heap. Same for another grain.

Question: by transitivity, it seems like we will never have a heap, even after continuing this process until we have quite a lot of sand – but surely there are heaps of sand?

One view on this sort of issue, the issue of vague predicates, is that there is a strict cutoff between a heap and not a heap, being dry and wet, being bald and not bald. This view is wrong for the reason that there’s nothing in the world that could make true. Just what is it, what could possibly it be, about some additional grain of sand n that makes its addition to the collection of heaps transform the collection into a heap? Why n grains of sand rather than n + 1? These questions have no answers, which is illuminating.

Here the obnoxious skeptics of philosophy in undergrad intro to philosophy classes have something like the right answer – this paradox reveals tensions in our linguist or conceptual scheme, nothing more. Moreover, whether or not x amount of grains compose a heap at all is not a deep issue that goes beyond linguistic or conceptual matters. Calling certain collections of grains, heaps, is useful but not a deep ontological description of those grains.

A similar paradox applies to value. We think that genuinely helping people is better than not helping them. By genuinely, I mean to avoid cases where we “help” someone, say make them feel comfortable or giving them a handout, in a way that’s bad for them in the long term – I’m talking about cases where we genuinely help another. We aren’t obligated to help other’s in a very small way, we are not morally required to dispense grains of benefit. We can generate a similar sorites paradox here. If we aren’t obligated to dispense n amount of benefit or n + 1 benefit, then it seems like we are never obligated to dispense n + m benefit. One could also run this argument in the opposite direction, asking at what point does the supererogatory become the obligatory?

Just as we denied epistemicism, for heaps we should do it in the moral domain. Once we do this we should ask what makes it true that one is required to do anything at all. What the sororities paradox reveals, or ought to reveal, is that the question about heaps concerned merely conceptual and/or linguistic matters to begin with, empty ideas. Similarly, if it were true that we are morally obligated to give to charity, the idea’s truth would be due to the fact that it would be better if we believe that we have that moral obligation. Whether or not it is better that we believe that we have that moral obligation is due to that beliefs moral use.

Note that this argument doesn’t deny value realism or objectivity (though I’m not convinced that that’s an issue that matters much), but it does deny the idea that moral obligation is a part of the furniture of this world in any substantive way. At the bottom, the moral world is a matter of betterness or worseness. Talk of moral requirements add conceptual and emotional complexity to that picture, a picture of the world that is probably initially useful, though eventually, worse than other pictures.

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