Philosophy Colloquium
Cindy Phillips
University of Maryland
Justifying Using a Weighted Lottery on Scanlon's Account of Contractualism

If you were forced to choose between saving one or ten other strangers in a lifeboat from certain death, which would you choose? Most people believe that one should save the lifeboat with the greater number of lives. However, many moral theorists have argued that the best deontological theory in town, Scanlon’s contractualism, is incapable of justifying this verdict.

On Scanlon’s account, a rescuer must decide whether to adopt a principle that favors saving the greater number of lives on the basis of the comparative strength of the sets of objections that we can expect to be posed by each person. However, since each person has an equally forceful complaint against the rescuer adopting a principle that does not save his or her life, no one’s objection is stronger than any other. Scanlon’s account gives us no guidance about what to do in the lifeboat scenario. It seems that we are left with making a decision by flipping a coin or holding a weighted lottery, both of which Scanlon rejects. As an alternative, he offers the “balancing view,” which demands that the person in the one-person lifeboat has her interests balanced against one person on the opposing side; those that are not balanced out in the larger group are used as tiebreakers. The balancing view entails that we must save the lifeboat with the larger group from certain death.

I argue that the balancing view is inconsistent with other core tenets of Scanlon’s contractualism and that his account obligates us to use a weighted lottery to figure out who should be saved.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Skinner 1116