Is Morality about Persons or States?

I’ve recently found out that there are several people reading this blog whose judgment and opinions I greatly respect. This isn’t to say that I didn’t respect the qualities of  those who have been my readers up until this point, but I’m quickly finding that given who’s reading this blog, I need to be more careful about what I’m saying.

I’ve been thinking about equality again lately, which is kind of funny, because it’s the topic that I started this blog writing about.

But here’s the issue. People who believe that equality is intrinsically valuable must believe that LEVELING DOWN is in some sense good.

Pretend there are two civilizations living on far remote planets. They can communicate with each other, but cannot reach each other with any technology that they possess. Pretend also that 0ne civilization is much better off than the other. The person who think equality is intrinsically valuable must say that it would be in ONE RESPECT good if the better off civilization destroyed some of its buildings/capital/wealth and made some of its citizens worse off. This would make the gap between the better off civilization and the worse off civilization SMALLER and so alleviate inequality.

Now I emphasize “one respect” because of course someone defending equality could say that OVERALL, the cost of making its own citizens worse off would outweigh the benefits to equality from making them that way. So, all things considered, the civilization should not level itself down.

Still though, I can’t understand why it is better IN ANY RESPECT to level down.

The reason it seems so wrong is that it challenges the notion that morality is about PEOPLE. It says that we should desire situation A rather than B, even though the people in B are just as good off as they were in A or BETTER!

If morality is for people and their welfare, then it seems that the leveling down objection is not decisive.

But AHA! says the defend of equality. There are other moral values that seem to work in the same way — namely, to be insensitive to the welfare of people.

Take justice. Pretend that there are two situations. One in which criminals are put in jail and one in which criminals are actually, unbeknownst to the populace,  put in very well guarded tropical paradises. In the second case more people are better off, and so, if morality is only about people, should be desirable. But that seems hard to accept. It seems that criminals, at the very least, should not be made BETTER OFF than their victims. Again though, if morality is only about people and how well off they are, then there should be no problem preferring tropical paradise world to normal punishment world.

Also take promises. Pretend you promise something to someone on her deathbed. The person says “don’t cremate me,” and you say “I promise.” After she dies, you find out that cremating her would save you a lot of money and no one would be made worse off. So you cremate her. That seems wrong, but if morality is only about people, then of course, you should cremate her or at least there would be nothing objectionable about doing so.

So, a tentative conclusion I have is that morality is about more than people and their welfare, but about states of affairs.

But then it seems that EQUALITY, which I originally said didn’t seem like a value, could be.

But wait, there is a further argument, and I think it has to do with human WILL. In the justice and promise case, the state matters because a human will took action. Criminals, presumably, decided to do something wrong. The promiser, likewise, decided to make a promise.

Equality does not involve human action. I could find myself on a planet doing much better off than another planet purely by chance — not due to anything I DID. Therefore, I think we can say that morality is state regarding when actions are at stake, but welfare regarding otherwise.

This lets me cling to my belief that the two planet example is fatal to egalitarianism as a value.


2 Responses to “Is Morality about Persons or States?”

  1. 1 Jahangir
    April 1, 2011 at 11:04 am

    Makes a lot of sense.
    Do you ever plan on commercially publishing your articles into a book or something someday? I think you should.

    • 2 questionbeggar
      April 1, 2011 at 1:26 pm

      Well, thanks for the kind words, but I’m not sure that many people would be interested in buying a collection of my random thoughts. Maybe…but I doubt it.

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