Philosophy 5100 - Proseminar in Ethics

Paper Topics

Second Paper

Due Wednesday, March 22, in class

Write a 2-4 page paper on one of the topics below (or on a topic of your choice, but only with prior approval). You may not write a paper on a topic that you presented on.


1. Is Intrinsic Value Intrinsic? According to G.E. Moore,

To say that a kind of value is 'intrinsic' means merely that the question whether a thing possesses it, and in what degree it possesses it, depends solely on the intrinsic nature of the thing in question. (Moore, “The Conception of Intrinsic Value").

Moore evidently means this to be taken not as a substantive thesis in normative ethics but rather as a mere conceptual truth, one designed simply to help us grasp the concept he is calling attention to with the expression 'intrinsic value'. Moore would presumably want this thesis to be neutral with respect to what things have intrinsic value.

But consider this passage from Shelly Kagan's "Rethinking Intrinsic Value" (The Journal of Ethics, 1998, pp. 285-86)):

Consider the pen used by Abraham Lincoln to sign the Emancipation Proclamation, freeing the slaves. Clearly, this pen had considerable instrumental value -- it was the actual means by which a great deal of intrinsic good was brought into the world. But it seems to me that we might want to say something more than this. It seems to me that we might want to suggest that this pen has intrinsic value -- that the continued existence of this pen has value as an end. Of course, the pen's defining instrumental moment is now long since over. But by virtue of that history, we might say, it now possesses intrinsic value: it is something we could reasonably value for its own sake. The world is the richer for the existence of the pen; it's destruction would diminish the value of the world as such.

As usual, no doubt, one can point to continuing instrumental value in the pen: perhaps, for example, its display in a museum edifies us, reminding us of the value of human freedom. But to insist that such on-going instrumental value is the sole source of whatever value the pen now has seems to me to be an overly narrow view. At the very least, I think I understand someone who suggests that the pen itself has intrinsic value -- that it is valuable as an end.

Explain how Kagan's passage forms the basis for an argument against the idea that Moore's thesis is a conceptual truth. Explain why it need not actually be true that Lincoln's pen is intrinsically good -- but instead only coherent or intelligible that it be intrinsically good -- for Kagan's argument to work. Next consider the following response on behalf of Moore (Kagan, p. 293):

It might be suggested, however, that although it is a common enough practice to view objects as the bearers of intrinsic value, it is nonetheless preferable to hold that facts (or, perhaps, states of affairs) are the only genuine bearers of intrinsic value. If a view like this is correct, there will of course be a fairly easy translation from the common, informal object-based idiom to the strictly correct fact-based idiom. Instead of saying that Lincoln's pen has intrinsic value, for example, by virtue of its having been used to sign the Emancipation Proclamation, we will say that what has value is the fact that there exists a pen which was used to sign the Emancipation Proclamation. More generally, wherever we might say that object O has intrinsic value, by virtue of having properties P, Q, and R, we will say that what has intrinsic value is the fact that there is an O that has P, Q, and R.

Explain this response in your own words. Be sure to make clear how it is supposed to save Moore's thesis above.

Finally, explain your own view on the debate. Is this response on behalf Moore adequate? Or perhaps was Kagan's argument flawed to begin with, and so in need of no response? (You may wish to read the whole of Kagan's paper, available here.)


2. Mill's Defense of Psychological Hedonism. In ch. 4 of Utilitarianism, Mill endorses psychological hedonism (roughly the view that happiness, and only happiness, is desired as an end). But Mill goes on to recognize that things other than happiness, such as virtue or money, are sometimes desired as ends. This would appear to be incompatible with Mill's psychological hedonism. But Mill responds to this objection. He writes:

The desire of it [e.g., money, or virtue] is not a different thing from the desire of happiness, any more than the love of music, or the desire of health. They are included in happiness. They are some of the elements of which the desire of happiness is made up. Happiness is not an abstract idea, but a concrete whole; and these are some of its parts.

In class I said that I could not understand Mill's response. In your paper, offer the most charitable interpretation you can of Mill's attempt to save his psychological hedonism in the face of this objection. Then evaluate that attempt. Does it succeed? If so, explain. Or does it fail? If so, explain.

Above I have quoted only a fraction of Mill's response. You will want to look at his whole discussion, which is on pp. 166-167 in Pojman. Chapter 4 of Utilitarianism is also available here.


3. Against Millian Qualified Hedonism. In class I presented a dilemma for MQH. Thoroughly explain that argument (be sure to include the rationale behind each premise in the argument). Then evaluate the argument. Is it sound? Or does Mill have a plausible reply?

If you have room, you can discuss and evaluate the following thought: "MQH certainly has more of a chance of being true than does Bentham's hedonism; so if this argument successfully shows MQH to be false, we can conclude that all forms of hedonism are false."


4. Nozick's Experience Machine. Consider this interpretation of Nozick's argument:

1. You would not enter the experience machine.
2. If you would not enter the experience machine, then you believe things in addition to certain experiences are intrinsically good.
3. If you believe things in addition to certain experiences are intrinsically good, then you reject hedonism about welfare.
4. Therefore, you reject hedonism about welfare.

Raise one decisive objection to premise 2. One way to do that is to imagine what a hedonistic utilitarian would say in response to premise 2.

Next, raise one decisive objection to premise 3. In doing so, you should explain what hedonism about welfare is and how it differs from hedonism about value.

In class I said I thought Nozick's argument was most compelling as an argument against hedonism about value. Explain roughly what I took that argument to be, and why it might seem to some to be more compelling than the argument against hedonism about welfare. Then evaluate the argument (the one against hedonism about value).


5. Your Own Interpretation of Nozick. Present, explain, and evaluate your own interpretation of Nozick's experience machine argument. Part of your paper should be exegetical -- you should be defending the claim that your interpretation of Nozick is accurate. The other part of your paper is philosophical -- you should be critically evaluating the argument you have attributed to Nozick.


6. Objections to Taylor. Taylor writes (p. 122a in Pojman):

Unthinking men have a tendency to assume that some things are just naturally good and others bad, and some actions right and some wrong, and that we need only to discover which are which.

He goes on to say:

But now let us note that the basic distinction between good and evil could not even theoretically be drawn in a world that we imagined to be devoid of all life.

He thus seems to be giving the following argument:

1. The basic distinction between good and evil could not even theoretically be drawn in a world that we imagined to be devoid of all life.
2. If the basic distinction between good and evil could not even theoretically be drawn in a world that we imagined to be devoid of all life, then nothing is just naturally good or bad.
3. Therefore, nothing is just naturally good or bad.

Explain why and how a hedonist should reject this argument. (So identify which premise hedonists will reject, and why.)

Next, imagine an objection to Taylor that begins as follows: "According to your very own view, some things are just naturally good or bad." Explain the rationale behind this objection (i.e., why someone would think that even according to Taylor's own view about what's good and badm, some things are just naturally good and bad). Then, evaluate this objection. In evaluating it, consider whether there is a reasonable reading of "some things are just naturally good and bad" according to which this turns out to be false on Taylor's view.

Finally, consider one more objection objection to Taylor. In describing a world with a small plurality of beings, Taylor writes (p. 124a in Pojman):

With this small plurality of beings, it remains just what it was before. The first inhabitant deemed those things good that he found agreeable to his needs and purposes, and those things bad that threatened the opposite, and in this judgment he was absolutely correct. For him, the good and evil of things consisted of precisely such promise and threat to his interests. Such, accordingly, will it also be for our second sentient and goal-directed inhabitant.

Suppose the first inhabitant finds, say, rain agreeable to his purposes, whereas the second inhabitant finds rain disagreeable to his purposes. The first inhabitant therefore says, "Rain is good." The second says, "Rain is not good." Explain thoroughly why it seems that, about this simple case, Taylor's theory implies a contradiction. Does Taylor have a good response to this objection, or does the objection refute his view. Explain.


7. Kraut. Briefly explain the main difference between what I called "atomistic" and "holistic" desire theories of welfare. Next, explain Kraut's argument based on the idea self-punishment (be sure to include the details of Kraut's case). Then evaluate this argument as against both of these theories. Is it a stronger argument against one of them? Explain.

Finally, elaborate on and then evaluate the following rejoinder on behalf of an atomistic desire theorist: "My theory avoids Kraut's argument from self-punishment because it does imply, correctly, that the self-punisher succeeds at making his life worse by taking the miserable job. This is because, each day on the job, the self-punisher will have many desires frustrated and few satisfied. He'll get a worse balance of satisfaction over frustration than he would have gotten had he not taken the job."


8. Ross on the Intrinsic Value of Knowledge. In "What Things Are Good," Ross maintains that knowledge is intrinsically good. Do you think he means that knowledge is intrinsically good for the knower, or intrinsically good simpliciter, or both? Explain.

Ross considers three objections to this view. For each such objection, explain both it and how Ross responds to it. Do you think any of his responses are inadequate? If so, explain.

Do you think knowledge is intrinsically good? If so, is it intrinsically good for the knower, or intrinsically good simpliciter, or both? Why? If not, why not?


9. Parfit. In "What Makes a Person's Life Go Best," Parfit presents (on p. 135 in Pojman) a case in which he meets a stranger who has what is believed to be a fatal disease. This case forms the basis of an argument against a desire theory of welfare like our Atomistic Desire Satisfactionism. Explain in detail exactly how the case is supposed to refute this theory. Then do one or more of the following: (a) evaluate that argument; (b) explain how Parfit revises the desire theory so as to avoid his argument, and evaluate this new theory; (c) offer your own revision of the desire theory to avoid this argument, and explore whether this new theory is open to any new objection.


10. Kant. What do you think Kant means when he says that we should never treat anyone merely as a means and that we should always treat everyone as an end? (You may offer your own interpretation or present the interpretation of another commentator with whom you agree.) Defend your view against some of the objections discussed in class (e.g., some of those that refuted the simple interpretations of Kant, or some of Parfit's objections to other interpretations.). What does your interpretation imply about the organ harvest? Do you think Kant's prinicple is true? Explain.








Philosophy 5100 - Proseminar in Ethics

Paper Topics (final version)

First Paper

Due Wednesday, February 22, in class


Write a 2-4 page paper on one of the topics below (or on a topic of your choice, but only with prior approval).  You may not write a paper on the same topic you presented on.


1. A Problem for Relativism? Handout 3 contains a small section on “Technical Problems” for MR. One of the items in this section says “What if we all became relativists?” I had in mind the following issue: what would happen if some society became thoroughly convinced of MR? Each now believes that anytime some act is wrong, it is wrong because it is not permitted by the moral code of the society of its agent. It would seem to follow that each member of the society I'm imagining would now accept just one basic moral rule: any act that is not permitted by the moral code of the society of its agent is wrong.

In your short paper, explain what you believe MR would imply about this society? Under what conditions would the things they do be right or wrong? Explain in detail. Do you think this case forms the basis of an argument against MR? If so, what is it? If it doesn't show that MR is false, does it show it is defective in some other kind of way? Or, in your view, is this case instead no problem for MR? Explain.

2. Agent vs. Appraiser Relativism. Explain the difference between “agent” and “appraiser” versions of relativism (our MR and AR, respectively). Explain the motivation for moving to a form of appraiser relativism. Explain why AR is formulated metalinguistically. Explain how AR avoids the Hitler argument. Do you think AR also avoids the Reformer’s Dilemma? Explain.

3. Frankena on Egoism. In this book Ethics, William Frankena writes:

Just what are the tenets of the ethical egoist? When he is considering the individual as a moral agent, he holds (1) that an individual's one and only basic obligation is to promote for himself the greatest possible balance of good over evil. What is not so clear is what the ethical egoist says about the individual as a moral spectator, adviser, or judge. He may say (2) that even in making second and third person moral judgments an individual should go by what is to his own advantage, or (3) that in making such judgments an individual should go by what is to the advantage of the person he is talking to or about. Tenet (3), however, seems to be inconsistent with the spirit of ethical egoism, unless it is based on the premise that judging as it prescribes is to the individual's own advantage, in which case (3) falls under (2). Hence, I shall take an ethical egoist to be asserting tenets (1) and (2).

Explain the theory Frankena is attributing to the egoist. Illustrate the theory by means of a few examples. Prove, by means of a case, that the theory is inconsistent (i.e., that it entails a contradiction). Explain how EE (our formulation of egoism) is different, and why, with respect to your case that showed Frankena's formulation inconsistent, EE implies no contradiction.

4. Moral Schizophrenia. In "The Schizophrenia of Modern Moral Theories" (JPhil, 1976), Michael Stocker objects to modern moral theories (e.g., egoism, utilitarianism) on the grounds that they do not allow harmony between ones reasons and ones motives. Explain what Stocker means by this. Explain why he thinks these theories don't allow for this. Evaluate this objection: does it successfully refute these theories, or is there a plausible reply to be made? Explain. (The article is available on JSTOR via the link above.)

5. Williams and Moral Self-Indulgence. Concerning the case of Jim and the Indians, Williams considers a response by the utilitarian based on the idea of “self-indulgent squeamishness” (p. 196 in Pojman). Thoroughly explain how this utilitarian response is supposed to work. Then explain Williams’s rejoinder to it. Then adjudicate the debate: who’s right, and why?

6. Feldman and the Epistemic Objection. Present the epistemic objection to utilitarianism that Feldman raises (in Doing the Best We Can). In doing so, present the medical example (or an analogous example of your own), and explain why utilitarianism seems to generate the wrong result. Then explain in detail Feldman's response to this objection. Finally, evaluate Feldman's response: do you think it is adequate? Why or why not?

7. Jeske and Fumerton and the "intrinsic value of actions" reply.
Jeske and Fumerton object to AU on the grounds that it doesn't accommodate the "special obligations" we often have (e.g., as to our children). Briefly explain their argument. They consider a utilitarian reply based on the idea of the intrinsic value of certain kinds of actions. Explain that utilitarian reply and how it avoids their original objection. Then explain Jeske and Fumerton's rejoinder to this reply. Finally, evaluate this rejoinder: does it succeed? Why or why not?