Filosofiska Notiser Årgång 9, Nr 1, 2022

This is a special issue on formal ethics and formal ethical principles. At least one more paper will (perhaps) be added to this issue later.

Harry J. Gensler
Formal Ethical Principles

In this paper, Harry Gensler discusses formal ethics, which studies rational patterns in our ethical thinking. He describes four fundamental principles that he calls [r] (a rationality axiom), [e] (ends-means consistency), [p] (prescriptivity) and [u] (universalizability). Gensler also discusses the so-called golden rule (“treat others as you want to be treated”) and shows how several versions of this principle can be derived from his axioms. According to Gensler, there are both good and bad versions of the golden rule. One of the good versions can be formulated in the following way: Treat others only as you consent to being treated in the same situation. Gensler shows how this version of the golden rule can be used in our moral thinking and how it can be defended against many common objections. Together the principles discussed in the paper can be used to help us think more rationally about morality and live more consistent lives. The paper brings together several ideas that Gensler has been working on for more than 50 years.

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Jan Narveson
On Formality and Formalism in Ethics

Question: is the familiar distinction of ‘formal’ vs. ‘material’ in ethical theory of any real use?
On one hand, ‘formal’ could just refer to the part of our inquiry known as meta-ethics, and we aren’t querying that here. But ‘formalism’ is also supposed to identify a sub-class of theories about what we ought to do. The idea is supposed to be that “formalism” and something else - ‘consequential-ism’ is usually the supposedly opposed idea - are genuine alternatives as ethical theories. It’s that idea that I challenge here.
Morality has to do with principles, or rules, “for the group”. Which group? That ‘group’ might simply be a variable here, which would give us one or another version of Relativism: everyone to do whatever his/her group’s rules say to do. But all relativisms fail in the face of disagreement among the groups in question. The solution to all such is the same as was the application to religion, where freedom is the byword: each to practice his own religion, but no one may enforce his or her religion on others. Other situations of conflict can replace religion, and the general result is the same: we are to respect the freedom of each to pursue his or her own way, so long as that way is compatible with the ways of others. But that rule is not that of any particular group. It is the rule for all, because of reflection on our general situations. And it is only “formal” in the sense that it applies to religions generally, rather than to some particular one.
Underlying all such is the (correct) idea, that morality is essentially a universal understanding, an agreement among all, regarding how our mutual interactions are to be conducted. Are contracts, then, “formal”? No. They are motivated by our hope of gain, the particular gain varying from one to another.
I conclude by reminding readers of my earlier proof that a genuine “formalism” in ethics is nonsense. All acts are wrong because of their consequences, but not all consequences are relevant. Those mentioned in the Social Contract are: we are to avoid consequences that are bad for others (or oneself), insofar as those others are themselves living up to that very rule; we may pursue whatever consequences are compatible with others’ pursuits.

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Wlodek Rabinowicz
Personalized Neutral-Range Utilitarianism with Incommensurable Lives – What Form Does It Take? And Is It Repugnant?

This paper considers Neutral-Range Utilitarianism (NRU) – a utilitarian theory that posits a range of lives that are neutral in impersonal value, in the sense that adding people with such lives to the world’s population doesn’t make the world, or its population, either better or worse. The paper considers a particular version of this utilitarian axiology, Personalized NRU (PNRU), according to which a life is in this way impersonally neutral if and only if it is neutral in its personal value, i.e., iff it is neither better nor worse for a person to have such a life than not to exist at all. A personally neutral life might in principle be either ‘strictly neutral’, i.e., equally as good for a person as non-existence, or ‘weakly neutral’, i.e., incommensurable with non-existence: neither better or worse, nor equally as good. The range of lives that are weakly neutral may well be relatively extended. It seems plausible that some of them may be better for a person than others.
PNRU differs from the more familiar versions of NRU, according to which even good lives (either all or all up to some wellbeing limit) are impersonally neutral: adding people with such lives doesn’t make the world better. Unlike PNRU, these versions conflict with a basic welfarist claim that what is good for a person is pro tanto impersonally good.
The paper considers PNRU in a framework that differs from the standard one for utilitarian axiologies in that it allows for incommensurable lives. Lives can be incommensurable in personal value with non-existence, but also with each other. Is utilitarian aggregation possible if all these incommensur-abilities are allowed? The paper addresses the question how PNRU should be formulated in such a non-standard model.
The second question addressed in the paper concerns the Repugnant Conclusion. Given additional assumptions, PNRU implies that for any population there is a better one in which everyone’s life is barely good – barely worth living. However, as it turns out, the apparent repugnance of this conclusion is considerably mitigated by the introduction of the neutral range. It is shown that barely good lives cannot be only marginally better than bad lives: the distance between the former and the latter must be significant. This claim crucially depends on the argument that a framework in which weakly neutral lives are allowed has no room for strictly neutral lives.
Unfortunately, though, PNRU leads to another repugnant conclusion that is less easy to come to terms with: For any population, however wonderful, there is another possible population that isn’t worse even though everyone in that other population has a life that not only isn’t good (not even barely good) but also is very close to being positively bad. That PNRU has this worrying implication is a problem that needs to be recognized and confronted.

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Jeffrey Wattles
The Place of the Golden Rule and Formal Ethics in a Philosophy of Living

Formal ethics sharpens one’s capacity for (insightful) moral intuition and sheds light on the golden rule, which I discuss in relation to the philosophies of Immanuel Kant and Harry Gensler. I consider the rule in the context of a philosophy of living which is designed to promote the sharpening and integration of our capacities for intuition in the realms of science, morality, and spiritual experience.

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Rob Shaver
Are Formal Principles Privileged?

In “Revisionary Intuitionism,” Michael Huemer argues for privileging “formal” intuitions over intuitions about particular cases and intuitions about prima facie duties. Formal intuitions, he argues, are not prey to the many sceptical worries that afflict intuitions about particular cases and intuitions about prima facie duties. I shall argue that he does not show the superiority of formal intuitions to intuitions about prima facie duties. I then consider Sarah McGrath’s recent, very different, response to Huemer. I argue that Huemer can avoid her objections, but in a way that makes his case for formal intuitions just like a standard case for intuitions about prima facie duties. I close by doubting whether stressing the generality of an intuition, as Huemer and Peter Singer do, has much payoff.

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