Preferring to Act Wrongly




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Deontologists hold that it’s wrong to kill an innocent person, even to prevent five other such killings. Does it follow that they should prefer Five Killings over One Killing to Prevent Five? If so, my previous argument kicks in to demonstrate that they care insufficiently about killing. In this post, I want to argue that the alternative — preferring to act wrongly — results in an even worse theory.First, consider the objection that deontologists needn’t take any stand on matters of preferability. Perhaps they are just concerned to elucidate our obligations, and remain silent on all else. But that doesn’t help, because so long as there are further questions to be asked here (as there clearly are), their incomplete moral view must (if it is to have any hope of being correct) be coherently completable. That is, if certain verdicts about the deontic statuses of actions cannot be coherently combined with any plausible further claims about the relative preferability of various possible worlds, then those initial verdicts cannot all be true. So we might as well move on to the question of what the most plausible completion of a deontological view would be: what verdicts about preferability fit best with the claim that it’s wrong to kill one to prevent five killings.Okay. So, why not prefer One Killing to Prevent Five, while regarding it as impermissible to bring about? Here I think it’s important to get clear on what kind of preference we’re talking about here. One could certainly feel a kind of wistful pull towards saving the greater number, like, “I wish there were some way that I could, permissibly, save the five, alas…” (Like how someone on a diet might feel the pull of the chocolate cake.) But our question is which outcome you should all things considered prefer. To regard the chocolate cake as truly preferable, one must regard one’s restrictive diet as comparatively less important –. . .

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