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On Wishing Your Mom Had Aborted You: The Wish Test

Can you think of a direct and intentional action done by someone to someone, aside from abortion, that is morally wrong to wish happened, but would not be wrong for someone to have done it to them?


“I wish someone robbed you!” is an immoral thing to wish, and if someone were to rob that person, the robber would be acting immorally.

“I wish someone murdered you!” is an immoral thing to wish, and if someone were to murder that person, the murderer would be acting immorally.

“I wish someone raped you!” is an immoral thing to wish, and if someone were to rape that person, the raper would be acting immorally.

I think we have an intuitive sense that it would be morally wrong to express this wish to someone:

“I wish you had been aborted in your mother’s womb”.

Yet, some of us think that had someone aborted your life-stage as a fetus, that person would be acting in a morally permissible way.

Other examples? Aside from abortion? If not, then it may be that abortion isn’t really an exception to the rule, this wish test.

I think you could construct the following argument:

P1) If it is morally wrong to express a wish that someone directly and intentionally act upon a person, then the act, itself, is morally wrong.
P2) It is morally wrong to express a wish that a mother or abortion doctor should have been aborted a person.
P3) Abortion is a direction and intentional action.
C) Abortion, itself, is morally wrong.


Now, it is important to note that we are talking about wishing for a person to actively do something to you.  This would preclude the assessment of events or other counterfactual circumstances as being “morally wrong”.  In other words, it may be hurtful and even immoral to wish that certain events had occurred in someone’s life, or that some events of circumstances had occurred in one’s parent’s life, which would have resulted in a state of affairs wherein one does not exist.  So, for example, to express “I wish your parents had never met” or “I wish your parents fell in love with other people and were subsequently prevented from consummating at the appropriate time to bring you about” is not a wish that someone act upon the person directly.  They may be hurtful and even immoral wishes, but they are wishes about circumstances and events rather than actions one wishes to have happened directly to the person in question.  So to clarify, the “Wish Test”, as we might call it, is a test about moral actions done to members of the moral community.

The Golden Rule and Physicalism

[Philosophical Musing Alert… the following is an idea that I have had, which I would like to expose to the light of day, feel free to find the flaws and point them out.]

In a previous post, I considered Plantinga’s modal argument for dualism.  The argument is essentially a refinement of the those put forward by Descartes, though perhaps a bit more rigorous in its appeal to the principle of the indiscernibility of identicals along with some modern notions of modality.  However, the whole argument really comes down to the intuition that if something is conceivable, then it is logically possible.  Some of my commentators countered Plantinga’s argument by saying that while it might be prima facie  conceivable that I inhabit another body, it may in fact be logically impossible for this to occur.  I countered with Chalmers‘ discussion of the conditions by which conceivability would entail logical possibility and that conceiving one could inhabit another body would fit those conditions.  Here I would like to offer a slightly different argument for the logical possibility of inhabiting a different body.  Basically, this is a reductio based upon one of the most universal moral intuitions there is: the Golden Rule.  Since the Golden Rule is accepted by almost every culture and religion, I would say that it is intuitively known to be an objective truth.  I think this insight goes far to dispel physicalism, but we have to consider what the Golden Rule entails.

The Golden Rule states something like, “one should love and treat one’s neighbor as oneself.”  It seems to me that the Golden Rule depends upon the conceivability of thinking that I could inhabit the position relative to my neighbor and/or that my neighbor could inhabit my position.  So, for instance, I determine that I ought not to steal my neighbor’s food, since I could conceive of myself as standing in my neighbor’s position and that his food is my food.  Since, I would not want my neighbor to steal my food, I can imagine that if I were him, I’d not want it to be stolen either.  So, the underlying empathy that the Golden Rule appeals to hinges on counterfactually conceiving oneself in another person’s position.  It is not enough to say “I don’t want my food to be stolen”.  That doesn’t get you far.  Nor can you say, “If I were my neighbor, I wouldn’t want my food to be stolen” because you don’t really know what your neighbor wants or desires.  The key to the Golden Rule is maintaining the “how you want to be treated” clause with a consideration for your neighbor’s situation.  You must bring yourself into his position not by imagining that you ARE him, but that you could be where he is.

But now consider this: ought I to cut my neighbor’s arm off?  If I apply the Golden Rule, I must be able to conceive of the possibility that I inhabit my neighbor’s body.  I certainly would not want the arm to be cut off were I to inhabit such a position, so I cannot cut his arm off. The issue then comes down to this point: when the Golden Rule is be applied to questions of the body, it seems that one must be able to conceive of the possibility of inhabiting one’s neighbor’s position, and in many cases this means his body.  This conception is certainly prima facie conceivable.  But if the conception is ultimately logically incoherent, then the application of the Golden Rule depends upon a logical impossibility.  This means that one cannot really conceive of what it would be like to be a neighbor’s body and so the empathy evoked is unjustified.  Thus, the appeal to how we want to be treated is improperly assumed to apply to our neighbor, since nothing really must be the case once an logical impossibility is admitted.

However, it is plainly obvious that the Golden Rule can be applied in moral considerations considering the treatment of the human body.  And it would be absurd to think that a rule to which so many often appealed when justifying non-violence against another person’s body is,within its core assumptions, logically impossible. Therefore, it must be conceivable and also logical possibility.  But then, if I could be my neighbor’s body, then I am not my body.  This is because while it is possible that I could be me and in a different body at the same time, it is logically impossible that I could be me and also a different me at the same time.  Thus, the empathy that lies at the core of the Golden Rule requires a discernible difference between myself and my body.  Since physicalism posits that I am my body, it must be false.

There are a couple of objections that I could anticipate to this argument:

1.  The most obvious objection is that the empathy that lies at the heart of the Golden Rule needn’t depend upon the logical possibility of counterfactually conceiving oneself in another person’s position.  A physicalist might give an entirely naturalistic account of empathy which avoids such reasons.  For instance, a man stubs his toe and screams and moans.  Those sound waves evoke brain states in me whereby I  come to believe that I understand that there is a person other than myself experiencing pain and I feel bad about that belief.  No mystery, no ghosts in the machine, nothing “spooky” is going on at all in this account.  Furthermore, it seems that we have not applied counterfactual thinking to explain empathy.  And indeed, I would agree that we could explain empathy without appeal to counterfactuals.  But an explanation is very different from a justification.  If the Golden Rule can be explained, but not justified, then it is not an adequate ground for moral reasoning.  So often in debates between physicalists and non-physicalists the distinction between explanation and justification is missed.  The physicalist claims only to be able to give an account for something purely physically.  The non-physicalist demands not a physical explanation, but a physical justification for something like empathy or the Golden Rule.  At least to me, there can be no justification of the principle unless it is assumed that there are not just other bodies, but other minds and that it is at least possible to think of minds as separate from bodies so that a switching of positions is conceivable.  The Golden Rule requires a “bringing-together” of “how I want to be treated” with the other.

2. It could be objected that it is logically possible to imagine that I am my neighbor’s soul.  In other words, shouldn’t the Golden Rule apply to cases where I consider whether I ought to cause harm to the soul of my neighbor.  I’d have to be able to conceive that I am my neighbor’s soul, which would mean, by an analogous argument, that I am not identical to my soul.  So it seems that I must argue that the Golden Rule only prima facie  applies to cases where harm might be caused to a neighbors soul, but that it is really logically impossible to apply the Golden Rule in such cases.  I think this would mean that, ultimately, the Golden Rule could not be applied to cases where one might directly harm a neighbor’s soul.  Why might this be?  Perhaps it is because it is impossible for one  to harm another person’s soul directly–one can only harm one’s own soul and only another person’s soul indirectly.  But this does not mean that one cannot cause harm to another person’s soul in another sense.  For instance, suppose I were to tempt my neighbor into stealing an automobile.  We might suppose that becoming a  thief is damaging to a person’s self, or soul, rather than to his body.  But, am I really causing harm directly to my neighbor’s self or soul when I tempt him?  No.  What I am doing is making use of my neighbors ears, by whispering tempting words into them.  I am using words to alter my neighbor’s emotional states, or passions.  I am altering my neighbor’s body in an attempt to influence his will.  In such a case, I am responsible for affecting my neighbor’s body in a way that I would not want my own body to be affected, so I have done my neighbor wrong–but it is a wrong to his body.  Thus, if the Golden Rule applies to cases of harm to the soul, it is only insofar as one can do harm to a body, which affects the soul.  I cannot harm another person’s soul directly, but only through the other person’s cooperation.  So in the case of temptation, I only take the position of my neighbor’s body.  If I were also to take the place of his soul, then I am really not imagining the situation properly to derive reciprocity.  For if I were to imagine that I were his soul too, then I could not use any of my own intuitions about how I would want to be treated so as to apply those intuitions to his case.  Deriving reciprocity depends upon keeping some aspect of myself while counterfactually exchanging some non-essentials between neighbors.

3.  A physicalist friend of mine has prompted me to consider a third possible objection.  Though perhaps practically infeasible, suppose a complete brain transplant were possible.  One might be able to imagine oneself as “conscious” in another person’s body if one were to imagine that one survives a brain transplant into a new body.  Thus, the counterfactual imaginings central to the Golden Rule need not be anti-physicalistic at all, if physicalists can meaningfully speak of a person being conscious at all.  I think this is an important objection because it gets at the heart of the physicalist problem for me.  Suppose I were to imagine that such a surgery took place–that my brain has been transferred into my neighbor’s body.  Is the result a switch of position?  Is my conscious-self in a new body?  I would say no.  The result is far from my possessing or inhabiting my neighbor’s body.  Rather, the result of the surgery seems to be some sort of chimerical Frankenstein’s monster, at least that is how the thought strikes me.  Thus, the result of such a thought experiment allows for no application of my intuitions as to how I want to be treated if I were in my neighbor’s position.  Instead, given the veridicality of physicalism and a successful brain transfer, two humans are destroyed and something new has been made.  The Golden Rule question is lost and instead one is mired in a sorties paradox of how much of you is necessary for you to remain yourself.  I don’t think there is a good answer to this question under physicalism, so the paradox cannot be resolved.  Rather than providing a good counter-example as to how a physicalist might counterfactually imagine him or herself in another person’s position, such thought experiments reveal only deeper metaphysical problems for the physicalist.  Rather than pumping our moral intuitions about how we ought to treat our neighbors, we are left scratching our heads without a good account of what makes a person self-same.  No, I don’t think a brain transfer thought experiment will help us to be able to appeal to the Golden Rule and also be physicalists.

To sum up, my argument would run something like this:

(1)  The Golden Rule is moral principle that can truly be applied to a case if and only if counterfactually conceiving myself in another person’s position is logically possible.

(2)  If the Golden Rule can truly be applied to cases of the human body, then conceiving myself in my neighbor’s body is logically possible.

(3)  If I am my body, then it is not logically possible to conceive myself in my neighbor’s body.

(4)  If physicalism is true, I am my body.

(5)  The Golden Rule can truly be applied to cases of the human body.

(6)  Conceiving myself in my neighbor’s body is logically possible. 3,5 MP

(7)  I am not my body.  3,6 MT

(8)  Physicalism is not true. 4,7 MT

It all comes down to the price you have to pay.  If you want to maintain physicalism, you have to deny the logical possibility of inhabiting a body other than your own.  This means that you cannot coherently apply the Golden Rule to cases of the human body.  Since nearly every ethical and religious moral theory appeals to the Golden Rule on some level, this is a very high price to pay.  I have to give up on physicalism so that I can continue to use a moral principle that has not only served me well, but I think lies at the core of any conception of morality.

Fishy Moral Relativism and the Importance of Philosophy

In a recent opinion piece in the New York Times, Does Philosophy Matter? (8/1/2011), Stanley Fish  argues that philosophical debate over moral absolutism and moral relativism is of little import to the non-philosopher.  There are a couple of issues that I think are worth addressing.  The first has to do with the way Fish distinguishes the kinds of moral relativism. But also, I would like to consider his primary contention, that philosophical concerns, at least in the case of ethical theories, have little to no consequence in everyday life.

First, Fish distinguishes between two kinds of moral relativists:

. . .[T]here are (at least) two ways of denying moral absolutes. You can say “I don’t believe there are any” or you can say “I believe there are moral absolutes, but  (a) there are too many candidates for membership in that category and (b) there is no device, mechanical test,  algorithm or knock-down argument for determining which candidates are the true ones.”

It is the second sort of relativism to which Fish subscribes.  But is that really a form of relativism at all?  He is NOT denying moral absolutes.  He is denying our ability to know which “candidates” for moral absolutes are the true ones.  Fish goes on to say that one might call such a person an epistemological relativist rather than a moral relativist.  But that doesn’t make much sense either.  After all, he is not saying that the epistemological justification for deciding absolute moral truth is relative to a person, culture, etc. Rather, he is taking an agnostic position about moral absolutes.  This position is quite different from any variety of moral relativism.  Some might say that Fish would like to stipulate that agnosticism about moral absolutes is a variety of moral relativism, that it is his prerogative.   However, I’m a bit perplexed that he accepts the definition of moral relativism as the denial of moral absolutes while his variety of agnosticism cannot deny that such absolutes exist.  In fact, agnosticism stands starkly at odds with relativism, as the agnostic cannot know if  there are only relative conditions by which moral truths are determined.  The agnostic about moral absolutes only shrugs and asks, “Maybe?”

As for his main contention, we have little more than a bald assertion. Fish writes:

Let’s suppose that either of  two acts of persuasion has occurred in that arena: a former moral absolutist is now a relativist of some kind, or a former relativist is now a confirmed believer in moral absolutes. What exactly will have changed  when one set of philosophical views has been swapped for another? Almost nothing. To be sure you will now give different answers than you once would have when you are asked about moral facts, objective truths, irrefutable evidence and so on; but when you are engaged in trying to decide what is  the right thing to do in a particular situation, none of the answers you might give to these deep questions  will have any bearing on your decision.

How does he know that this is so?   Sure, it is possible that no change would occur.  The relativist might go on believing the same values are true as when she was an absolutist.  She would just have a different justification for why she thinks some moral principle is the case.  But the relativist is generally much more open to the possibility that there are contrary values to her own, which are also morally right relative to some other set of conditions.  What’s more, she must accept that her values will change if whatever it is her values are based upon changes.  The absolutist is far more rigid, only changing her moral values so as to refine and perfect it.  So even if the absolutist and relativist can possibly behave in the same manner, it seems much more likely that they won’t always coincide, especially over time.

Fish goes on:

You won’t say, “Because I  believe in moral absolutes, I’ll take this new job or divorce my husband or vote for the Democrat.” Nor will you say, “Because I deny moral absolutes I have no basis for deciding since any decision I make is as good or bad as any other.” What you will say, if only to yourself, is “Given what is at stake, and  the likely outcomes of taking this or that action, I think I’ll do this.”  Neither “I believe in moral absolutes” nor “I don’t”  will be a reason in the course of  ordinary, non-philosophical, deliberation. . .

In short, the conclusions reached in philosophical disquisitions do not travel. They do not travel into contexts that are not explicitly philosophical (as seminars, academic journals, and conferences are), and they do not even make their way into the non-philosophical lives of those who hold them. . .

What’s lacking in Fish’s argument is. . . well. . . an argument.  It doesn’t seem like Fish has any evidence that his conclusion is true. So he gives us no reason to think that high philosophical reflection is not at least sometimes necessary when making certain moral decisions.  Sure, one can go about one’s day without thinking about the categorical imperative, the greatest happiness principle, or some other such standard and still make moral choices as if one was thinking of them.  Even a blind squirrel will occasionally find a nut.  But I think moral education is essential for living a consistent and stable moral life.  A person who is aware of moral theory can reflect on a situation, strive toward moral improvement, and develop her virtues.  Furthermore, most people do operate with moral principles ingrained within them, at least in my experience.  Let me explain.  On the first day of an ethics class, whenever I teach the subject, I am assured of two things.  1) Most of my students will avow moral relativism, and 2) Most of them are not really moral relativists at all.  The vast majority are “tolerantists,” believing tolerance and respect for autonomy to be among the highest absolute values that exist.  Many of these students live by high ideals that they think are true no matter what.  They tell me that they volunteer their time to serve the community, they are concern with issues of social justice, poverty, political equality, and the environment.  When I ask why, they give me reasons.  They reflect on why they ought to take action.  Their moral choices are not haphazard in any way.  The point is that many of these students come into class with clear conceptions of moral principles and duties.  Sure, they can’t give me all three formulations of the categorical imperative.  But they already have something like it in their hearts.  They pick up utilitarianism so quickly because they’ve already been applying the principle of utility without even knowing its name.  They understand virtue ethics, because they’ve been affected by virtuous people in significant ways.  My job is to clarify the principles and discuss implications that may not be readily apparent to them–to push them into uncomfortable areas.  By the end, I think my students will think twice before telling a white lie (perhaps first to Kant, and then to Mill).  The animal lover reconsiders whether it is moral to eat that juicy hamburger.  The theist might consider whether “Because God says so” is an adequate response to a moral quandary. Learning abstract moral theories affects moral behavior, I’ve seen it in action.

It was the study of moral theories that led to men like Madison, Jefferson, and Hamilton to formulate an entirely different form of government based upon a social contract and natural rights.  So how could it be that the deeper underlying theories are irrelevant?  Could a moral relativist have written the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution?I have my doubts.

The next question is whether studying moral theories changes us for the better.  The moral relativist doesn’t believe in moral progress, only moral change.  Likewise, the AMA, e.g. Fish, doesn’t know whether there is moral progress, so he can’t say for certain if learning and embracing a moral system  improves a person’s morality in any significant way.  For Fish, you just make choices. . . they are correct for you, but who knows if they are correct full-stop.

Fish is clearly confused about what relativism is.  And he certainly gives us no reason to think philosophy doesn’t matter. So yes Virginia, philosophy does matter.  More specifically, studying ethical theories matters.