Why Constraints are Agent Neutral




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My previous post argued that deontologists must prefer not to violate deontic constraints, or those constraints would lack normative significance. There is one last way that they might avoid my argument that constraints trivialize killing, namely, by holding that while the agent must prefer to abide by constraints, bystanders should prefer that the agent acts wrongly, killing one to save five. This post will set out why I think that view is mistaken.By way of background: It’s typically assumed that constraints must be agent-relative. To explain why an agent should not kill one to prevent five other killings, deontologists often say things like, “Each agent has a special responsibility for their own actions — that they not act wrongly, even to prevent more others from doing so.” But in his groundbreaking paper, ‘Agent-neutral deontology’, Tom Dougherty pointed out that the injunction to not act wrongly, even to prevent more others from doing so can be given agent-neutral form, e.g.: “Each agent should [prefer and] ensure that no one kills to prevent more killings by others.” (2013, 531)This agent-neutral conception of constraints seems much more intuitively appealing. It might be characterized as “patient-centered” rather than “agent-centered”. As Setiya (2018, p. 97) put it, “when you should not cause harm to one in a way that will benefit others, you should not want others to do so either.” Whatever deontologists have in mind when talking about “special responsibility”, they surely wouldn’t intend it to entail the denial of this commonsense claim. (If they just mean that agents should respect constraints rather than engage in preventative killings, then it’s clearly compatible with the agent-neutral version.)To bring out the problem with agent-relative constraints, just imagine an agent-relative deontologist (Ard) as a bystander to the trolley footbridge, shouting encouragingly, “Push! Push! Push!” . . .

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