Seminar: Professor Martin Peterson, “Some actions are neither right nor wrong: Abortion, euthanasia, and some other controversial examples”

Past Event

26 May 2010, 4:00pm - 6:00pm

Lecture Theatre, Oxford Martin School
34 Broad Street (corner of Holywell and Catte Streets), Oxford, OX1 3BD

Abstract: Philosophers have proposed a wide range of criteria for distinguishing morally right actions from wrong ones. Utilitarianism, Kantian duty ethics, ethical egoism, contractualism and natural rights theories are some of the most widely discussed criteria. The structural picture of normative ethics inherent in all these criteria is surprisingly uniform: Some actions are right and some are wrong, and there is nothing in between. In this talk I argue that this is an overly simplistic structural picture of normative ethics.

On the view I defend, some actions are neither entirely right nor entirely wrong. This includes many instances of abortion and euthanasia. To suppose that we can for instance always weigh the obligation to not abort a foetus against the mitigating circumstances (such as the mother being too young, having been raped, or being a drug-abuser), so that we arrive at a clear-cut, discrete conclusion about what is right or wrong with respect to abortion is implausible. Moreover, this inability to reach a clear-cut, discrete conclusion need not be due to epistemic limitations. To say that there has to be some sharp threshold between rightness and wrongness, even in a case like this, appears overly optimistic.

I argue that actions of the kind that I have in mind are best thought of as being neither entirely right nor entirely wrong, but rather right or wrong to some degree. That an action is right to a certain degree means that it is more right (or righter) than an action that is right to a lower degree. My argument for this position, DEGREE, will be derived from two premises:

1) Sometimes one has a verdictive obligation to perform an action and a verdictive obligation not to perform it.
2) An action is right to some (non-extreme) degree if and only if one has a verdictive obligation to perform it and a verdictive obligation not to perform it.
3) Some actions are right to some (non-extreme) degree.
The main alternativies to DEGREE are RESOLUTION and DILEMMA; those positions are both committed to the claim that moral obligations are discrete entities that are either valid or not. On the RESOLUTION view, there is always some available action that is right, because there always exists a single all-things-considered obligation that holds to the highest degree. On the DILEMMA view, all available actions are wrong, because there exists two or more all-things-considered obligations that hold to the highest degree.

The paper is based on joint research with Dr Nicolas Espinoza.

Professor Martin Peterson is Associate Professor of Philosophy at Eindhoven University of Technology in the Netherlands. He is author of two books, An Introduction to Decision Theory (Cambridge University Press 2009) and Non-Bayesian Decision Theory (Springer 2008). He has also published about 30 articles on philosophical aspects of risk and on various issues in normative ethics. Before coming to the Netherlands he worked for three years as a Research Fellow at Cambridge University. He has also worked at several technical universities in Sweden.