Barry Maguire (University of Edinburgh): Rewiring Ethics
Bourgeois practical philosophy offers two approaches to the ethics of collective action contexts. These are contexts in which many actions can cause some social outcome but no individual action seems to make much difference. The individualist approach gives individuals responsibility just for the difference they make to the relevant social outcome. The structuralist approach gives primary responsibility to larger structures, with individuals either having blind duties to comply with these structures or extrinsic incentives to do so. Both seem problematic: the first gives too much responsibility to individuals, the second too little, and neither quite the right kind of responsibility.
In this essay, I pursue a more integrated approach. I start by drawing an unorthodox moral from Parfit’s puzzle of the harmless torturers, namely that an agent may have more reason to respond to a local than a disaggregated value. This moral applies to collective action cases in which the relevant social outcome is a function of local evaluatively significant outcomes, and there is an available division of labour that assigns individuals responsibilities for local values in some distributively responsible way. In such cases, I suggest, an individual ought to fulfil their role in a localising and otherwise just division of responsibilities. As applied to the ethics of production, this approach offers the prospect of reconciling a wholehearted commitment to the values at stake in production (such as serving particular needs) with proper responsiveness to larger distributive patterns. I end by contrasting this approach with some structurally similar positions, including property rights-based solutions to commons tragedies and the principle of subsidiarity in international relations theory.
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