Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Presentism and ethics

Presentism has some ethics problems stemming from its claim that persons who don't exist now don't exist.

  1. Weight: Non-existent persons should count for a lot less than existent persons in our moral deliberations. But future persons shouldn't count a lot less than present persons in our moral deliberations. So, presentism is false.

  2. Murder: If there is no afterlife and presentism is true, murder can be a victimless crime. For when the crime is complete, there is no victim. But that would be absurd even if there were no afterlife.
  3. Promises: A promise to a nonexistent person has no force. But even if there were no afterlife, a promise to someone who had died would have force.
  4. Mourning: If there were no afterlife, it would be appropriate to mourn beloved departed persons because we love them. But a love for someone who doesn't exist is not appropriate.
  5. Love: Ethics is grounded in love. But one shouldn't love non-existent persons. This creates a problem for duties towards people who do not yet exist, if presentism is true.


Husain Alshehhi said...

But how would a presentist answer these questions?

Hyena said...

I'd answer that:

Weight: future persons should matter much less in our moral calculations because we cannot predict their preferences well. Even within living memory, we've had trouble predicting the kind of world future generations will prefer. So we must discount many facets of moral consideration as inaccessible to us.

Murder: murder is only a victimless crime if the former person has no family or friends. Some murders are, therefore, more victimful than others and we clearly recognize that.

Promises: we recognize keeping promises to non-existent persons as good for the promise keeper. Rarely do we consider failing in these promises as unethical. Where we do, it is often because the dead were at once a person and carrying the authority of an institution. Dynastic promises, for instance, aren't actually directed at the ancestors, but at the family qua institution. In all other cases we see it as praiseworthy or blameworthy but rarely good or bad.

Mourning: people widely recognize the value of mourning as inhering in the living, not the dead.

Love: see weight above.

Laslty, we can, in many cases, solve the Parfit problem in favor of person-as-process to elide these critiques. This places us, as with the Promises point above, as owing our duties more to the continuant aspects of persons rather than their narrative center.

Drew said...

There's a distinction between persons who never exist and persons who are now non-existent but did exist or will exist.

Michael Gonzalez said...

Your concerns here (like with many of these posts you've done on Presentism) are completely opaque to (Presentist that I think I am).... In the present moment, it is still true that I did something wrong to someone real. That is all our intuition requires in order to punish someone. It surely doesn't require that I am eternally and changelessly murdering the person. Indeed, such a world (as you yourself have pointed out) seems to face an insupperable Problem of Evil, since God never actually triumphs over evil, never actually removes it; nothing is really ever redeemed. The evils and tragedies are exactly as real and permanent as the goods and successes.

Again, I don't understand this "mourning for someone who doesn't exist" objection. The person did exist, and we mourn because we miss them.

Let's look at the example where you drew the distinction most directly: Promises. A promise to an existent person has died still has force. Do you really mean to imply that the force of my promises from a point in time onward is in some way dependent on whether the receiver of the promise persists in existence at those times, though he does not exist at the later times (even on B-theory, he doesn't exist at the later times)?? I'm really failing to see any strength in this sort of objection. The Presentist can say exactly what the non-Presentist can, when asked "why are you still holding to this promise, even though the recipient has died?": "Because they DID exist".

Alexander R Pruss said...


No victim, no harm, no foul. This point applies to both murder and promises. (I am not embracing a general principle that every crime must have a victim. But murder and promise-breaking do.) In the case of promises to the dead, there is also the added thing that if there is no afterlife, then there is no one to whom we owe the promise.

As for mourning, it's not so much that we mourn that is puzzling, but that we mourn because we love, and that this is rational. For how can we rationally love someone non-existent?