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February 05, 2009

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Simon,

You ask, "Wouldn't each of Tom, Rick and Harry each have some justification for thinking that Smith had not treated them as he was morally required to, even though he never actually broke a promise to any of them?"

I don't think so, no. They would have good justification for thinking that Smith was going to fail to treat at least one of them as he was morally required to. But they don't know which one(s). And if I were Tom, I would think only that Smith is required to give me the double-dose; that, after all, is what he promised me. I would not think that Smith violates my rights merely by failing to keep enough doses to fulfill all of his promises. He never promised me that he would do what he promised others he would do. He only promised me that he would give me a double-dose. And if he does that, I have no grounds for complaint. What's more, if he does that, he hasn't violated any of my rights. So I don't think that there is justification for Tom's thinking that Smith had not treated him as he was morally required to treat him.

You also write:

The more natural way to think of Smith's intention at t3 is something like: "I know I made all those promises, but I don't care, I'm going to use a couple of doses now to get high." Here it seems plausible that he's violated all of his promisees' constraining rights, by failing to act in a way that respects their status as his promisees.

This implies that Smith violates some constraining right of Tom's even if Smith gives him the double-dose. And this implies that so long as Smith has this intention at t3 and follows through with this intention, Smith violates some constraining right of Tom's even if Tom releases Smith from his promise after t3 but before he goes into surgery. I take these both to be reductios of your position.

Doug, your last reply ignores the distinction I pointed out between a failure to keep a promise in material fact, and a moralized failure toward the promisee. There's only a resemblance of a "reductio" here if you assume either that these two are the very same thing, or at least that a necessary condition of a moral failure of a promiser to a promisee is a material failure to keep the promise. But this assumption is false, as I already explained. Moreover, you earlier apparently admitted that it was false, when you accepted that on getting high "Smith has [already] violated the constraint against doing what will make him unable to keep his promises".

If Smith took all four doses, it is quite clear, at least to me, that he would have violated his promisees' constraining rights by failing to respect them and his obligations toward them, even if he later gets lucky and they release him his promises, or he happens to find more medicine by chance.
The only difference that Smith's taking two doses makes, as I explained, is that now we would need to know about the content of his intentions when taking them in order to know which of his promisees he had failed to respect in doing so.

Simon,

I hold that a necessary condition of a moral failure of a promiser to a promisee is a material failure to keep the promise. Now, I did accept that, in getting high, "Smith has [already] violated the constraint against doing what will make him unable to keep his promises." But just because Smith has violated a constraint doesn't mean that he has violated anyone's constraining rights. I believe that there are constraints without any correlative constraining rights -- see, for instance, Case C.

If Smith took all four doses, it is quite clear, at least to me, that he would have violated his promisees' constraining rights by failing to respect them and his obligations toward them, even if he later gets lucky and they release him his promises, or he happens to find more medicine by chance.

We disagree. It's quite clear to me that he doesn't violate Tom's constraining rights if either Tom releases him from his promise or he happens to acquire more medicine by luck and gives Tom the promised double-dose.

I think that we've hit bedrock here. I find it absurd to think that Smith has violated Tom's constraining rights if he does what he promised to do, whereas you think that it's absurd to deny that Smith has violated Tom's constraining rights if he knowingly acts in a way that makes it unlikely that he'll be able to keep his promise to Tom.

Doug - Wait, now I'm confused about the dialectic. You are now in the course of your argument simply asserting the existence of "constraints without correlative constraining rights" at t3. But you were supposed to be making an argument against VFR, which denies precisely that possibility!

Simon,

As I see it, VFR doesn't entail that there are no constraints without correlative rights. It entails only that certain typical constraints have victims. As I see it, VFR and AFR are offering competing explanations for typical constraints such as the constraint against murder and the constraint against promise breaking. And I'm arguing that AFR offers the more plausible explanation for these typical constraints. For one, AFR can account for more constraints than VFR can -- e.g., for constraints that don't involve victims. And, for another, AFR can more easily account for certain intuitions such as the intuition that I have in the Promise Case.

I realize, now (and thanks to you), that I set things up a bit too generally. But, hopefully, I can be forgiven for this mistake. The intuitions that AFR and VFR are meant to be providing rationales for are not (1) (after all, it's not clear that we have intuitions about such schemas), but rather instances of (1).

Doug, thanks for this, we seem to have taken the scenic route, and I'm still a bit confused about the dialectic. So I'm hoping I can point out the short cut.

Your argument from the Promise Case depends on the intuition that, in case 2, both Smith and Jones are under the very same substantive constraint (roughly: to keep one's promises), and that Smith could, by passing the medicine on to Jones, make it the case that Jones doesn't violate the constraint. I, along with others, objected to thinking of the constraint at issue that way, and I've basically suggested that it is really better explained as a constraint to, roughly: keep one's promises where one can. If Jones doesn't possess the medicine, Jones can't keep his promise, and so he isn't about to violate that constraint. So that constraint could not provide a reason for Smith to give the medicine to Jones instead of Tom, whatever rationale you give for the constraint.

Now you still want to say that AFR better accounts for your intuitions in the Promise Case. But it seems to me that this depends on the claim that the substantive constraint at stake is to keep one's promises - in exactly the way that the interpretation of the bomb case depends on a claim about what the substantive constraint at stake is. If you want to say that your intuitions about the Promise Case provide evidence for AFR, then, you must be treating as part of your evidence your intuition about what the substantive constraint at issue is. Similarly, it seems to me, you must admit that the VFR proponent has equal and opposite evidence for her view from the bomb case, insofar as she has the intuition that what one should be most concerned to minimize is the number of one's killings, rather than the number of instances of one's treating people as a mere means.

Simon,

I think that there's an important disanalogy between the Bomb Case and the Promise Case. In the Bomb Case, there's a tension between two constraints: the constraint against killing and the constraint against treating people as a mere means. If A1 throws V6 onto the bomb, A1 decreases the number of people that she kills, but increases the number of people she treats as a mere means. And the proponent of AFR can claim that what one should be most concerned to minimize is the number of instances of one's treating people as a mere means, rather than the number of instance of one's killing someone.

In the promise case, there is no similar tension between the constraint against breaking one's promises and the constraint against doing what will make one unable to keep one's promises. At the time of the agent's decision, Smith (the agent) is deciding only whether or not to minimize the number of promises he breaks. He doesn't face a situation, as in the Bomb Case, where he must choose either to minimize his violations of the one constraint or to minimize his violations of the other constraint.

I admit, though, that the proponent of VFR could deny that there is a constraint against breaking promises that one can keep, and claim that there is only a constraint against breaking the promises that one can keep and that the keeping of which doesn't prevent the breaking of more of one's promises. I also admit that the proponent of VFR could deny that a necessary condition of a moral failure of a promiser to a promisee is a material failure to keep the promise. And I admit that if the proponent of VFR does either, then the Promise Case doesn't present a problem for them. I just don't find either plausible. This is where I think we disagree, but maybe I'm still not seeing what the dialectic is.

In any case, it seems, contrary to what you suggest, that the move that the proponent of VFR has to make with respect to the Promise Case is not the same move that I made with respect to the Bomb Case.

Doug - I see, I took the cases to be parallel because I understood the AFR proponent as simply denying that there was a constraint to minimize the instances of killings one performs in the bomb case. Now you've made it clear that you want to say that that's just a less important constraint than the constraint to minimize the instances of treating someone as a mere means one performs. If so, you're right that the two cases can't be precisely parallel, though it's still unclear to me why you think the difference between them is significant.
Your latest explanation of the bomb case also highlights, again, the difference between our intuitions about what it means to be under a "constraint". I always thought constraints were inviolable, pretty much by definition (is there a commonly understood difference between "constraints" and Nozickean "side-constraints" that I've missed until now?)
I think I also may differ with you on the status and importance of intuitions, though perhaps you were speaking imprecisely. I don't agree that if the VFR proponent merely denies that a certain constraint holds, or intuits that a certain constraint holds, then it follows that the Promise Case isn't a problem for them. They may not think it's a problem for them, but it would still be a problem for them if their denial or intuition turned out to be false. And a widely-shared intuition to the contrary, in my view, would be some prima facie evidence that their own denial or intuition is false. So I don't think anyone should be arguing just from their own intuitions.

Simon,

Your latest explanation of the bomb case also highlights, again, the difference between our intuitions about what it means to be under a "constraint". I always thought constraints were inviolable, pretty much by definition.

I would say that, by definition, there is a constraint against performing a certain act-type if and only if agents are prohibited from performing that act-type even in some circumstances in which performing that act-type would minimize overall commissions of that act-type.

And we could distinguish between violations and infringements of constraints. If there is a constraint against promise-breaking, then that constraint is infringed whenever an agent breaks a promise. But the constraint is violated only when that infringement is wrong. So, in my explanation of the Bomb Case, I should have, in some instances, talked about infringing rather than violating a constraint. Hopefully, it's obvious where the changes should be made.

They may not think it's a problem for them, but it would still be a problem for them if their denial or intuition turned out to be false. And a widely-shared intuition to the contrary, in my view, would be some prima facie evidence that their own denial or intuition is false. I don't think anyone should be arguing just from their own intuitions.

I agree with the first and last sentence; I'm not sure about the middle sentence.

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