Killing or Letting Die… With Kindness

Via Leiter, Jeffrey Brand-Ballard’s review of Frances Kamm’s Intricate Ethics is a gorgeous example of killing (letting die?) with kindness. This is, I think, a brutally dispositive review, effectively tearing to shreds the brand of autobiographical moral phenomenology in which Kamm deals. But it’s so nice in between slicings and dicings, which makes it hurt all the more. Here are some good bits:

Kamm does not claim otherwise, but she sometimes seems to slide from the observed near-universality of some deontological intuitions to the conclusion that everyone would share her intuitions about the complicated cases she invents, if only he would reflect upon them as carefully as she has.

Of course, one should not begrudge a philosopher a few appeals to her own intuitions, but Kamm makes these appeals with a vengeance.  This is especially worrisome because she so often draws moral distinctions between cases that others might see as morally indistinguishable.  Her intuitions are exquisitely sensitive to the specific physical properties of trolleys, bombs, bridges, pills, knives, doctors, transplanted organs, sore throats, headaches, bathtubs, Lazy Susans, life-support machines, snow shovels, islands, yachts, et cetera. 


Kamm is exceptionally good at inventing hypothetical cases that isolate the factors that interest her, and she has a similarly prodigious talent for identifying and characterizing those factors in general terms.  She has yet to discover in herself an intuition for which she cannot formulate a covering principle.  However, I am not sure why anyone with Kamm’s level of confidence in her own moral intuitions about difficult cases would need to contemplate general moral principles in the first place.


Kamm uses her formidable imagination to consider outrageously unrealistic hypothetical scenarios, but she does not consider what her intuitions might be if she had lived in other possible worlds.  I am not sure her indifference to such counterfactual intuitions comports with her ambition to identify ultimate, universal moral principles, rather than derivative, local ones.


I can also imagine the social and natural sciences supplying persuasive “debunking explanations” for the deontic intuitions to which Kamm appeals.  For example, some of my deontic intuitions may be explicable as heuristics that are highly adaptive in statistically normal situations, but that misfire in unusual situations, as when pushing one man in front of the trolley is necessary to save five.  Kamm does not, apparently, take principled objection to the project of offering an error theory to account for recalcitrant moral intuitions (pp. 188n92, 379-85).  She is merely unimpressed with all such efforts to date. 


Even readers who do not share her intuitions will come away from the book inspired to formulate principles that capture their own, and she will have provided them with dozens of new philosophical resources for doing so.  Professor Kamm is in a class by herself. 

 I hope never to receive such praise.

Author: Will Wilkinson

Vice President for Research at the Niskanen Center