Saturday, July 12, 2014


On my run I was thinking about the idea that every intention carries with it a microduty to fulfill that intention. (A microduty would be like a prima facie duty, but smaller.)

I got to thinking about that because I was thinking about situations where one desires at one time to avoid a future outcome but the outcome is one which, in the future, you would have actually be fine with if it occurs. This isn't as weird as it sounds. Think of a couple who are considering having an open relationship. One reason they might not want to is the fear that if they had an open relationship, they would fall in love with other people, break up with each other, and live happily with their new partners.

Or here's a more common one: a person gets a diagnosis of Alzheimer's and decides that when they reach a certain level of mental decline, they will no longer want life-extending treatment. But actually when they reach that level of mental decline, they are quite happy. They watch TV shows whose plots they can't follow and a nice lady brings them ice cream. This version isn't quite like the open relationship scenario, in that the person isn't absolutely sure they would like the outcome they are trying to avoid, but the basic idea is the same.

The book What Sorts of People Should There Be features several similar scenarios that play out at the level of human evolution. We can imagine a future where people live as clone pods, a hundred or so genetically identical individuals who only are concerned with the interest of the pod as a whole. We might want now to avoid this outcome, even if we would have no problem with it were it to happen.

My basic thought, while running along, was that we can make sense of our conflicting intuitions in these situations if we imagine that forming the intent at the earlier time creates a little duty. I can't spell out the rest of the thinking yet. And in any case, I'm a consequentialist, not a deontologist, so I shouldn't be trying to rescue these intuitions anyway.

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