Rowan Mellor (Northwestern University), "Joint Ought"
Forthcoming, Philosophy and Public Affairs
By Rowan Mellor
Lots of contemporary social problems have something like the following structure. It would be best if everyone were to enact some pattern of actions. But not everyone is going to do their parts of that pattern. And given this, your best option is to decline to do your part of the best pattern too: since it would be better for none to do their parts than only some. So, while everyone could do their parts of the best pattern, everyone ought not to do so; given that some will refuse, each person’s best option is to refuse as well.
Industrial action, for example, can have this structure. Suppose it would be best if all the workers at a given company went on strike, since this would give the union the necessary leverage to negotiate for better working conditions. But a significant number are not going to strike; they would rather receive their paychecks. Given this, each worker’s best option may be not to strike too. If they strike, then they forego their wages, and their efforts would likely be in vain. Better to work, and at least get paid.
There’s a lot to be said about cases like this. In my paper ‘Joint Ought’, I concentrate on a moral puzzle which is raised by a subset of them. This is best brought out by focusing on a toy example (which I’ve borrowed from David Estlund). But the hope is that what I have to say about this example can help to shed light on some real-world problems too.
Slice and Patch Go Golfing: Mr. Patient needs a life-saving operation from two surgeons, Ms. Slice and Mr. Patch. If left unattended, Patient will die, though not painfully. If Slice cuts and Patch stitches, then he will survive. But cutting without stitching would cause his death to be agonizing, as would stitching without cutting. As it happens, Slice and Patch will each go golfing, regardless of what the other does.
What should Slice and Patch do here? Take Slice. Since Patch isn’t going to do any stitching, it seems that she ought not to cut; by not cutting, she spares Patient pointless and agonizing pain. Equally, since Slice won’t cut, it seems Patch ought not to stitch.
Yet it also seems that Patient stands to be seriously wronged. Instead of golfing, the surgeons could save his life; and as such, he seems to have a weighty moral claim on them to do so. This gives rise to a puzzle. If (given how Patch will act) Slice ought not to cut, and (given how Slice will act) Patch ought not to stitch, how can Patient stand to be wronged? How can he have a moral claim on the surgeons to act other than they ought?
Here's how I think we should resolve the puzzle. In addition to individual ‘oughts’ which apply to individual agents, I propose that there are joint ‘oughts’ which hold irreducibly of pluralities of agents. Moreover, these joint ‘oughts’ can pull in different directions to individual ‘oughts’; it could be true that you and I jointly ought to do something, while false that either of us individually ought to do our parts. Considered individually, Slice ought not to cut, and Patch ought not to stitch. But considered jointly, the surgeons ought to operate on Patient.
In one sense, this claim might seem trivial; obviously, it would be best for Slice and Patch to operate. But notice that this is insufficient to explain Patient’s moral grievance; it would be best if volcanoes didn’t erupt in densely populate areas, but that doesn’t mean that anyone is wronged when they do.
My paper defends a bolder claim. Operating isn’t merely the best thing which Slice and Patch could do. It’s what they, jointly, have most reason to do. And this is so, moreover, even though they each, individually, have most reason not to do their parts of the operation. It is their failure to satisfy this joint ought which (in part) explains the wrong which poor Patient stands to suffer.
That, at least, is the bare bones of the proposal. To found out more, you’ll have to read the paper.
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