Jon Garthoff: Moral Coordination Problems
Public lecture organised by the Department of Ethics
11 May, 15.15 - 17.00
For example: individuals with ample resources are obligated to provide aid to those in extreme poverty, but in circumstances like ours where a large number of people are obligated to provide aid and a large number of people are entitled to receive it, morality in the abstract fails to specify what each individual is obligated to provide and to whom she is obligated to provide it. These obligations can guide action with sufficient precision only if those obligated to provide coordinate their provision. There are multiple fair schemes of provision, however, so individuals face a problem of coordination when discharging obligations of aid. These moral coordination problems share some features with their more familiar cousins, decision-theoretic coordination problems. In a decision-theoretic coordination problem, multiple persons have an interest in coordinating their actions for mutual benefit, and there are multiple schemes of coordination that would enable the achievement of this benefit. To solve this problem of underdetermination, individuals must generate and sustain reliable mutual expectations of action. The standard mechanism for solving coordination problems is a convention that enables the relevant reliable expectations. In a moral coordination problem the aim is not to achieve a mutually beneficial result; it is, rather, for each person to discharge her obligations. The solution is, however, the same: in order for many obligations to guide action with sufficient precision, these obligations must be specified by conventions that enable reliable mutual expectations of action. But there is a crucial difference between the conventions that solve moral coordination problems and those that solve decision-theoretic coordination problems: the value of the former, unlike that of the latter, is not purely instrumental. The former conventions do more than sustain a social milieu that enables individuals to achieve benefits; they specify what fairness consists in, in a particular social context. This is a normative category intermediate between what fairness is, as expressed in abstract moral principles, and what happens to be fair in a particular context. This distinction can be illustrated in domains where individuals face a moral coordination problem, such as responses to poverty and emergency. One of the functions of an emergency tax after a drought or natural disaster, on the model I propose, is to establish and sustain a convention specifying individuals’ obligations of aid. A variety of regimes of taxation would be fair, and only an actual regime can resolve this problem of underdetermination and so specify the content of each individual’s obligation, since only actual social structures can sustain reliable mutual expectations of action. Even if it would have been fair to require more or less of an individual, the content of her obligation is given by the actual convention, whatever it may be, provided it is adequately fair.
Jon Garthoff is an assistant professor in the Philosophy Department at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, in the United States; previously he served as Visiting Assistant Professor at the University of Chicago, and this summer he is leaving Northwestern to take up a position as Assistant Professor at the University of Tennessee. He earned his doctoral degree in philosophy from the University of California at Los Angeles in 2004. His principal interests lie in ethical theory, political philosophy, and the philosophy of law, including especially the Kantian traditions within these disciplines. He is currently working on a monograph entitled Structuring Value. The monograph investigates the phenomenon of moral obligation by situating an account of obligation within a broader account of value and by examining how actual social structures, such as conventions and laws, shape the content of our obligations.
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