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It's What Moral Philosophers Do

For a Polish translation see below
Intellectuals must sometimes venture into realms of the counter-intuitive – and it may be unpopular. When I was debating Cardinal Archbishop Pell in Sydney, he raised easy laughs from the studio audience by simply restating my beliefs, e.g. that a universe could spring from nothing. The partisan audience laughed because it was counter-intuitive: How could something come from nothing? But if intuition was enough, we wouldn't need clever physicists like Lawrence Krauss and we wouldn't need a clever book like A Universe from Nothing.

Similarly, if moral conclusions were intuitively obvious we wouldn't need moral philosophers. Moral philosophers devise difficult and uncomforable thought experiments, which sometimes lead to counter-intuitve and unpopular conclusions, and they are often scorned and vilified for doing what they do. Peter Singer is violently threatened because he dares to ask questions like "Do all humans, no matter whether embryonically young or vegetatively old, deserve more moral consideration than a cow in its prime in a slaughterhouse?" Other moral philosophers ask uncomfortable questions like "When miners are trapped underground, should resources needed to rescue them be diverted to feeding starving children?" As it happens, I would rescue the miners, but I can see that there is a serious argument to be had. Like it or not, that is what moral philosophers do. If all moral questions had intuitively obviously, self-evident answers, we wouldn't need moral philosophers.

Good moral philosophy often requires hypothetical counter-factual examples, thought experiments to push the envelope. A nice example appeared recently in a blog by the scientist and polemicist PZ Myers. He was talking about abortion, and he wanted to make the point that the mother's rights are sovereign, and would be so even under extreme, hypothetical, counterfactual circumstances:

We can make all the philosophical and scientific arguments that anyone might want, but ultimately what it all reduces to is a simple question: do women have autonomous control of their bodies or not? Even if I thought embryos were conscious, aware beings writing poetry in the womb (I don’t, and they’re not), I’d have to bow out of any say in the decision the woman bearing responsibility has to make.

Myers is here doing exactly what a good moral philosopher should do. He is clarifying the point he wants to make (a woman's decision over what happens to her own body is absolutely sacrosanct) and he is clarifying it by a thought experiment – an obvious counterfactual. The counterfactual is an embryo who was fully conscious and could write poetry in the womb, and he is saying that EVEN THEN he would listen only to the woman.

Now a reasonable person could disagree with him here. A humane rationalist could be pro-abortion under existing conditions, but anti-abortion under the counterfactual condition of the Myers thought experiment – the conscious, poetry-writing embryo. That is the whole reason why Myers found it worthwhile to invent his excellent thought-experiment.

No doubt PZ would come back with good counter arguments and my point is not to have those arguments here. My point is that this is a legitimate argument to have, that it is the kind of argument moral philosophers have all the time, and you cannot have such arguments unless you are prepared to take seriously, and respectfully, counterfactual, counter-intuitive thought experiments of exactly the kind Myers here does, and Peter Singer does, and other moral philosophers such as Jonathan Glover do. The Myers counterfactual of the conscious, poetry-loving embryo is an excellent thought-experiment because it serves to sharpen and clarify a genuine and serious moral disagreement.

That is what Sam Harris was doing in his notorious discussions of torture and of profiling in airport security. He was doing what moral philosophers do, and he does not deserve the vilification and viciousness that he has received in consequence. He is not a gung-ho pro-torture advocate, he was raising precisely the hypothetical, thought-experiment type of questions moral philosophers do raise, about whether there might be any circumstances in which torture might be the lesser of two evils – thought experiments such as the famous "ticking hydrogen bomb and only one man in the world knows how to stop it" thought experiment. I am not coming down on one side or the other in that argument. Only saying that it is a serious moral philosophic argument. Merely to take it seriously and engage in it, as moral philosophers do, should not be grounds for pillorying and personal insults.

To robią filozofowie moralności

Autor tekstu: Richard Dawkins

Tłumaczenie: Małgorzata Koraszewska

Intelektualiści muszą czasami zapuszczać się w dziedziny, które są sprzeczne z intuicją — i może to nie być popularne. Kiedy dyskutowałem z kardynałem Pellem w Sydney, z łatwością wywoływał on śmiech widowni w studio po prostu powtarzając moje przekonania, np., że wszechświat mógł powstać z niczego. Stronnicza publiczność śmiała się, ponieważ jest to sprzeczne z intuicją: jak może coś powstać z niczego? Gdyby jednak intuicja wystarczała, nigdy nie potrzebowalibyśmy takich mądrych fizyków jak Lawrence Krauss i nigdy nie potrzebowalibyśmy takich mądrych książek jak A Universe from Nothing.

Podobnie, gdyby wnioski moralne były intuicyjnie oczywiste, nie potrzebowalibyśmy filozofów moralności. Filozofowie moralności konstruują trudne i niewygodne eksperymenty myślowe, które czasami prowadzą do sprzecznych z intuicją i niepopularnych wniosków, i często wyszydza się ich i szkaluje za robienie tego. Peter Singer otrzymuje groźby przemocy, ponieważ odważa się stawiać pytania takie jak: „Czy wszyscy ludzie, niezależnie od tego, jak szybko po poczęciu, lub do jakiego stopnia w stanie wegetatywnym, zasługują na większą troskę moralną niż krowa idąca w pełni sił do rzeźni?" Inni filozofowie moralności zadają niewygodne pytania, takie jak: „Kiedy górnicy są uwięzieni pod ziemią, czy środki potrzebne na ich uratowanie nie powinny być raczej skierowane na nakarmienie głodujących dzieci?" Tak się składa, że ja ratowałbym górników, ale rozumiem, że można tu poważnie dyskutować. Czy nam się to podoba, czy nie, to właśnie robią filozofowie moralności. Gdyby wszystkie pytania moralne miały intuicyjnie oczywiste, ewidentne odpowiedzi, nie potrzebowalibyśmy filozofów moralności.

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