Cowen’s Axiom

Note: This post is part two of our review of “Stubborn Attachments.”

We posed the following question in our previous post: What ethical, moral, or legal duties, if any, do we owe to future generations? We also noted that this is the central question in Tyler Cowen’s beautiful new book “Stubborn Attachments,” available here via Amazon. Of course, just because something is legal does not make it moral, and vice versa, just because something is illegal does not make it immoral. So, before we delve into this difficult question, we must ask an even more fundamental question, How can we tell when a decision is morally right or wrong? In short, what theory of morality or ethics should we apply to our decisions regardless of the temporal scope of our moral rights and moral obligations, i.e. past, present, or future.

In summary, there are at least two ways of judging the moral dimension of our decisions. One method is legalistic in spirit. It asks us to evaluate the morality of a decision in light of universal moral duties, such as do no harm, or always tell the truth, or always keep your promises. The other method emphasizes the potential consequences of our decisions. A decision is morally or ethically right if it produces the greatest amount of happiness or the greatest good for the greatest number or satisfies some other utilitarian criterion. Now, before proceeding any further, notice that both major theories of ethics (Kantian duties and Humean consequences) are broad enough to encompass the interests of future generations. After all, if Kantian duties are spatially categorical, it makes logical sense to say that Kantian duties are temporally universal as well. Similarly, taking theories of consequentialism to their logical conclusion, why shouldn’t the well-being or welfare of future generations be included in any utilitarian calculus? For his part, Professor Cowen claims that the interests of future generations should matter when we are deciding matters of public policy. (Because Cowen merely accepts this conclusion as true, I shall refer to this position as “Cowen’s Axiom.”)

Nevertheless, whether we apply a Kantian or Humean framework to questions of population ethics, I shall offer an expanded critique of Cowen’s Axiom in my next post. Although axioms are supposed to be self-evident and are thus not to be questioned, the theoretical and practical problems with Cowen’s Axiom are too large to ignore …

Screen Shot 2018-11-27 at 9.09.59 AM

(Cowen, 2018, p. 19)

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One Response to Cowen’s Axiom

  1. Pingback: An intertemporal golden rule | prior probability

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