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Discerning Subordination and Inviolability: A Comment on Kamm's Intricate Ethics


Frances Kamm has for some time now been a foremost champion of non-consequentialist ethics. One of her most powerful non-consequentialist themes has been the idea of inviolability. Morality's prohibitions, she argues, confer on persons the status of inviolability. This thought helps articulate a rationale for moral prohibitions that will resist the protean threat posed by the consequentialist argument that anyone should surely be willing to violate a constraint if doing so will minimize the overall number of such violations. As Kamm put it in a 1992 article, ‘If morality permitted minimizing violations of persons by violating other persons, then each of those saved as well as those persons used to save others would be less inviolable. It is the permission, not any actual violation of persons, that makes this so.’ Now, as thus baldly asserted, this claim borders on the conclusory. It is almost as if the claim were that morality conferred on persons the following status: that of being protected from consequentialism. One wants to hear in what inviolability consists, in more detail, so that we can understand it independently of the negation of consequentialism. And there is also an opposite problem: if inviolability is a good, then why can't consequentialism take it into account? Hence, one also wants to hear why this would not be the case.

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1 I am grateful to John Mikhail and David Wasserman for comments on an earlier draft.

2 Kamm, F. M., ‘Non-consequentialism, the Person as an End-in-Itself, and the Significance of Status’, Philosophy & Public Affairs 21 (1992), pp. 354–89; Intricate Ethics: Rights, Responsibilities, and Permissible Harm (Oxford, 2007), p. 164. Parenthetical page references in the text will be to the latter work.

3 Kamm, ‘Non-consequentialism’, p. 383.

4 Certain very abstract varieties of consequentialism surely can take it into account. I have in mind the abstract forms of consequentialism characterized in, e.g., Broome, John, Weighing Goods: Equality, Uncertainty, and Time (Oxford, 1991), ch. 1 (under the label of ‘teleology’) and Dreier, James, ‘Structures of Normative Theories’, Monist 76 (1993), pp. 2240. As I will shortly indicate, Kamm defines ‘consequentialism’ more narrowly than does either of these authors.

5 Following Kamm, Intricate Ethics, I will use ‘evil*’ to abbreviate ‘evil and/or the involvement of a person without his consent when foreseeably this will lead to an evil to him’. Kamm is here taking on board a suggestion from Quinn, Warren, ‘Actions, Intentions, and Consequences: The Doctrine of Double Effect’, in his Morality and Action (Cambridge, 1993).

6 Kamm writes that ‘Nonconsequentialism is usually understood minimally as the denial that all that matters to the rightness or wrongness of acts is the goodness of the consequences of the acts. . . . Nonconsequentialism is typically described as focusing on how the greater good comes about’ (140). As I noted in n. 4, consequentialism is not always so narrowly understood.

7 Michael Otsuka's contribution to the present symposium critically discusses Kamm's chapter on state-of-mind theories.

8 Scanlon, T. M., ‘Intention and Permissibility’, Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society, Suppl. Vol. 74 (2000), pp. 301–17.

9 I am assuming that the school's roof has been non-negligently maintained.

10 Thomson, Judith Jarvis, ‘The Trolley Problem’, in her Rights, Restitution, and Risk: Essays in Moral Theory (Cambridge, Mass., 1986), pp. 94116.

11 Thomson, ‘The Trolley Problem’, p. 102; quoted in Kamm, Intricate Ethics, at p. 122 n. 5.

12 This straightening-out of Loop is implicit in John Mikhail's ‘Loop Track’ case, in his article, ‘Universal Moral Grammar: Theory, Evidence, and the Future’, Trends in Cognitive Neuroscience 11 (2007), pp. 143–52. As he describes the case, the switch ‘will temporarily turn the train onto a side track’. The qualification, ‘temporarily’, suggests that it will rejoin the main track at some point. My Bypass Case just spells this out.

13 A causally necessary means? When we say that someone does something to someone ‘as a causal means’ to something, I think we are at least implying that the agent sees the harming as a non-superfluous means.

14 Of course, this was where Elizabeth Anscombe's account of intentions began: see Anscombe, G. E. M., Intention (Ithaca, NY, 1976), secs. 3–5.

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