Wednesday, February 6, 2008

The Role of Consequentialism and Respect for Personal Liberty in Discussing the Non-Identity Problem

I met with Dan Hausman again today to further discuss the Non-Identity problem, and several important things came out of it. The first was that Dr. Hausman agreed with my view that we can't legitimately say that climate change infringes upon the right of any individual to inherit an unspoiled Earth, because no individual has this right. And he pointed out that my use of the term "Emergent" to describe the rights possessed by a generation as an abstract entity might not be the best idea. He suggested that when we talk about Emergent Rights, we're not simply talking about rights possessed by groups, but rather rights that seem to "result" from groups of people coming together in some organized fashion. Since we don't want to say that the potential groups which make up the abstract entity of a generation are "coming together" or "organizing," it seems that we might want to find a different term. I foresee difficulties with the term "Group Rights," since it might be confused with the idea that people have new rights as members of certain groups, and I'm wondering whether "Cohort Rights" would be better. In any case, I'll need to think about it. But one thing is clear; if libertarians already object to Emergent Rights, then they're sure to really object to "Cohort Rights."

Another idea that came out of the conversation was that perhaps we have duties that don't correspond to rights that people have. This was a topic of some debate, and I want to think about it some more before I comment on it. So consider this as a note to myself to think about this.

The other main thing that came out of the meeting was a reference to an essay by James Woodward called "The Non-Identity Problem" (a truly audacious and edgy title, I must say). I've started reading it, and I want to just say that there's a really interesting feeling that comes with thinking about something for days, and then reading your ideas in an essay that was published over 20 years ago. But Woodward's essay has been really good so far, and it's giving me a lot to think about.

One thing that came up near the beginning was that on page 807, Woodward writes, "...while Parfit denies that an appeal to rights and fairness can explain what is wrong with certain choices in some Non-Identity cases...he explicitly allows for the possibility that an appeal to rights and fairness may be relevant in a wide variety of other Non-Identity cases. He does not endorse the claim I criticize below--that the Non-Identity Problem precludes an appeal to rights and fairness in general and forces us to adopt a purely consequentialist approach to large areas of population policy. At least in connection with the Non-Identity Problem, Parfit's usual claim is merely that the cases he discusses cannot be wholly solved by an appeal to nonconsequentialist considerations; that a principle of beneficience has some role to play in their solution."

I agree wholeheartedly with Woodward's intuitions, and that's why I've been trying so hard to explore the nonconsequentialist considerations Woodward describes. But I want to frame his point in the context of libertarian thought. Generally, libertarians don't like to think of the principle of beneficience as having direct justice implications. That is, beneficience is generally considered supererogatory in the sense that we would not be justified in forcing someone to act according to it.

Accordingly, there's a lot riding on whether we can find a nonconsequentialist reason for saying that causing climate change is unjust. In Anarchy, State, and Utopia, Robert Nozick famously wrote, "...there is no social entity with a good that undergoes a sacrifice for its own good. There are only individual people, with their own individual lives. Using one of these people for the benefit of others, uses him and benefits the others. Nothing more. What happens is something is done to him for the sake of others. Talk of an overall social good covers this up...To use a person in this way does not sufficiently respect and take account of the fact that he is a separate person, that his is the only life he has. He does not get some overbalancing good for his sacrifice, and no one is entitled to force this upon him--least of all a state or government that claims his allegiance (as other individuals do not) and that therefore scrupulously must be neutral between its citizens." What Nozick is arguing, and I think quite effectively, is that we aren't justified in forcing costs upon individuals for the benefit of others. We can still say that "It would be nice" or "It would be socially beneficial" for people to act according to some principle of beneficience, but we generally wouldn't think we could coerce someone into acting that way.

It's critical to note that sometimes, we might have reason to disagree with Nozick. In her book, Rights, Risk & Restitution, Judith Thomson argued convincingly that in certain extreme situations, we might have reason to infringe on rights for the greater good (I'll add the quotation later; I don't have the book with me right now). The idea was put best, I think, by Douglas Lackey in his essay, "Taking Risk Seriously," when he wrote, "I am far from squeamish about defeating rights with...appeals to utility, but the balance of good over bad must be considerable before rights violations become justifiable." In the absence of some kind of impending catastrophe, though, it would be difficult to justify coercively limiting people's freedom in order to prevent climate change, unless (and this is a big "unless") we could find some reason for saying that climate change was wrong for nonconsequentialist reasons (e.g., it violates rights). Hopefully, that explains why I've been so obsessed with finding such reasons.

With that said, I'm going to get back to reading.

No comments:

Philosophy Blogs - BlogCatalog Blog Directory Libertarian Blogs Add to Technorati Favorites Back to the Drawing Board - Blogged
"Rational philosophy is on the march. It will f--- up all of your sh-- and leave you without any teeth."