More to Consider Than Interests

Jay Watts has an excellent post arguing against the utilitarian idea that we only have ethical obligations toward a human being if he has obtained consciousness and is aware of his interests.

To do this, Watts creates a story using the characters of Les Misérables to bring out our moral intuitions about this claim. He says of this approach, “[W]e are not arguing the infallibility of intuitions. We are arguing that they are a starting point for deeper moral reflections. They demand an explanation not a dismissal.”

Imagine Monsieur la Maire Jean Valjean walking the streets of Montreal-sur-Mer, the beloved mayor whose generosity and kindness is known far beyond the borders of this town. A young girl is crying to her parents -whom he knows and respects - so he stops to ask her why. It turns out she lost her beloved doll as she was playing in an alley and her parents are in a hurry to an urgent appointment out of town and cannot stop to go back for it. The parents are heartbroken they can't help their daughter, so Valjean assures the little girl and her parents he will go look for her doll and get it back to her before they leave.

As he runs deep into the alley in question he finds the doll but also sees a young woman on the ground holding a newborn child. It is Fantine and she holds Cosette. In this story Fantine's life is drawing to an end. She begs Valjean to take Cosette who is unconscious and in urgent need of care. Fantine dies and Valjean holds Cosette in his arms. She has no family or friends to love her, and she is currently unaware of her own existence. No one but Valjean knows she exists. He considers her and then looks at the doll on the ground. The doll is greatly missed by a child that will be heartbroken if Valjean fails to return it to her. Cosette, meanwhile, lacks consciousness and therefore has no interests to frustrate. The doll is strongly tied to the interests of the little girl and to the parents who want their child to be happy.

As long as Valjean himself feels no emotion over Cosette one way or another, it seems that in Singer's utilitarian approach that it is acceptable to strike Cosette's head against the brick wall, mercifully ending her life, dropping her corpse in the arms of her dead mom, and quickly returning the doll to the girl before they leave town. Minimally, he could just leave her in the alley to die as he retrieves the doll. There will be no interests subverted and the happiness and flourishing of conscious beings will be served. But wouldn't such an action change our evaluation of Valjean? It is hard to imagine the literary paradigm of generosity and self-sacrifice acting in such a way. Normal intuitions tell us that he ought to save Cosette and that the little girl and her family will just have to deal with the disappointment of losing the doll….

Our intuitions tell us that there is more to consider here than interests and the immediate flourishing of conscious beings. That even though Cosette has no one on earth that loves or cares for her, Valjean should love her. At minimum he should save her – ought to save her – so that she can love and be loved by another.

I recommend you read the entire post.

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Amy K. Hall