Philosophers discover new moral principle
A previously unrecognized moral principle was discovered last week after ethicists at the University of Mesa realized that they would rather kill an old lady’s cat than a young girl’s puppy. The principle of moral naivete, as it is being called, justifies this preference by holding that the wrongness of inflicting a given harm can depend in part on the degree to which the victim has previously been exposed to such a harm.
The breakthrough came late Thursday as several members of the Moral Philosophy Research Group analyzed the results of a thought experiment they had run earlier in the night. “We were messing around, getting pretty sloshed,” explains Anthony Vega, the group’s principal investigator. “Basically it was just another night at The Lab,” a local bar and the group’s favorite venue for conducting research. Vega and several graduate students were playing Would You Rather, a party game and the standard research tool in normative ethics. Before long the group hit upon the question that has since sparked a firestorm of scholarly interest: Would you rather kill an old lady’s cat or a young girl’s puppy?
“We were unanimous in our preference to kill the old lady’s cat,” says Amy Fletcher, a graduate student and member of the research group. “Naturally, we then asked ourselves what morally relevant difference between the killings could justify that preference. Then we asked ourselves if we’d rather have an opportunity to play the St. Petersburg game or Newcomb’s problem, but later some of us remembered about killing the cat and got down to business on it.”
As news of the discovery spread, philosophers swung into action to justify the preference for killing the old lady’s cat. It appears that most accept the principle of moral naivete, but the justification of the principle is itself controversial. “To kill a young child’s pet is to introduce that child to death, an event of great moral gravity,” Cynthia Lu writes in a blog post discussing the issue. Albert Montag disagrees, focusing instead on the effect of killing on the agent herself. “We are naturally inclined to protect and shelter those who are naive to loss, such as children. To kill a girl’s puppy is to do violence to one’s better nature and thus to brutalize oneself.”
Discovery of the principle of moral naivete has sparked a flurry of related research. Just three days after the original discovery philosophers from Sloan University hit upon “the lolly problem,” a dilemma in which the subject must choose between stealing candy from one baby or from five grown men. Preliminary analysis of the lolly problem and a number of variants is expected in the coming weeks, with philosophers hopeful that the problem will shed light on the hotly contested issue of confectionary theft.