Cowen’s Hedge

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

In our previous post we rechristened the basic premise of population ethics as Cowen’s Axiom (the notion that we may owe moral duties to future generations) in honor of Tyler Cowen’s beautiful new book Stubborn Attachments. (By the way, we could just as well have called this important idea “Parfit’s Principle” in honor of Derek Parfit, who invented the field of population ethics, but in keeping with Stigler’s Law, I will stick to the formulation “Cowen’s Axiom.”) We also explained why this notion of forward-looking moral duties is, in principle, consistent with both Kantian and utilitarian moral frameworks. Here, however, I shall point out a fundamental flaw with Cowen’s Axiom and with population ethics generally: the problem of indeterminacy. In brief, regardless of your preferred moral framework (Kantian duties or Humean utilities), any such moral framework can be easily rigged or gamed.

Let’s start with “population utilitarianism” first, since consequentialist theories are so easy to dispose of. However we define “utility” or “happiness” or “welfare” or whatever else we are supposed to be maximizing, population utilitarians like Tyler Cowen claim that we should be maximizing the utility (or happiness, well-being, etc.) of future generations. But should we be maximizing “total utility” or utility on a per capita basis? Either way, the problems with both versions of utilitarianism are so well-known by now that I will not bother to rehearse them here. Indeed, Cowen himself hedges his utilitarian axiom: he openly acknowledges that any method of future utility maximization must be subject to some inalienable side constraints such as “human rights.” Alas, Cowen fails to specify what these (Nozickian?) side constraints are; nor does he tell us who is supposed to enforce them. More problematically, what is the source of these side constraints? How are we to discover them?

Despite these problems, Cowen’s strategic hedge in favor of human rights or Nozickian side constraints points us in a potentially more promising direction. Specifically, why not use a Kantian or deontological framework to figure out what duties we owe future generations? That is, why can’t we have an Intertemporal Golden Rule? We will explore this very possibility in our next few posts.

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