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Philosophical fictions

June 29th, 2003

Brian Weatherson links to a paper he’s written with the title ‘ imaginative resistance”. It’s about the fact that, whereas it’s easy to imagine fictional events, people and so on, or to imagine real people and things having properties different from those they actually have, it’s very hard to imagine things as morally right if we believe them to be morally wrong.

It seems to me that there’s an ambiguity here and that it’s precisely this ambiguity that is being used in the majority of the fictional examples that are presented as arguments against consequentialism (and, in particular, utilitarianism). The way these examples work is that we are asked to imagine a situation in which a given action has good consequences (when we know that, in reality it has bad consequences). Since this kind of factual shift seems like what we normally do in fiction, it’s assumed [falsely, I claim] that we can do this without damaging our capacity to reason intuitively. But now, it’s pointed out, acceptance of consequentialism would imply that the action is good, when our intuition tells us it’s bad. Hence, consequentialism must be wrong.

All of this is telling us more about the limits of intuitive moral reasoning than about the reasonableness or otherwise of consequentialism.

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