Dec 14, 2014

Abridged, dramatized account of a car ride conversation

The rental car accelerated as it descended the bridge and pulled onto the coastal highway. Mammoth clay-red storage tanks stood sentinel as they were passed by, clustered on hillsides. The clear day provided a pleasant contrast to the persistent grey rain of the past week.

Do the meetings often turn philosophical? O asked in the backseat.

Frequently. A common disagreement is the value of saving a human life relative to providing developmental effects to a population, I answered. How many people should receive boosted income, instead of saving one child's life? Personally, I'm reluctant to engage with the question.

O smiled softly. I looked out the window. The car sped towards the city. The conversation turned over the opinions of various thinkers on the issue. Eventually, I fell back into it.

The way I think about this is as a set of all present people. The goal is to make the lives of all present people worth living, I said. Adding additional people to the set doesn't necessarily further this goal.

Let me propose a thought experiment for you, O replied. You and three other people are living together. You all have the option to create a fifth person, Bruce. Bruce would be your slave, and having Bruce-the-slave would make your four lives better. Once you all create Bruce, if you create Bruce, you can't unmake him, and you can't free or improve his condition. So the question: do you create Bruce?

I thought it over out loud. So if we create Bruce, he would improve our lives, but his life would be poor. So the set of all present lives would probably get worse. But in the moment before we decide, we have an option to improve all current present lives, by creating Bruce. To not take this option would be not keeping with the goal. So we should take into account future, not-present lives. We should consider the value of Bruce's life before he is created. But once we start doing that ... why stop with just Bruce?

Right. Whenever I try to formalize the rule you are proposing, I run into inconsistencies. I could feel O smiling softly again, though I didn't look at him. This is a broad problem within the field of population ethics. All the attempts to formalize this principle that I have seen run into serious problems.

And why is it important to have a formalized, consistent principle? I asked, scrambling. That was a dumb tack to take.

Well, if a rule-system has inconsistencies like this, I worry that it also contains serious flaws. How could I trust it? O had more to say, but the car had pulled up in front of my house.

Philosophy class is over, kids. C said from the driver's seat.

I said my goodbyes and got out of the car.

[rereads: 1, edits: added "it", removed comma, added "We should consider the value of Bruce's life before it is created", added spaces]