Rewarding what matters: Status in academic ethics

By Charles Foster

Not everything matters equally. If academic ethics is to be useful – if, indeed, it is to be ethical – it should address itself more to the things that matter most than to things that matter less.

It is hard to imagine a pair of sentences more uncontroversial – no, downright trite – than the two above. And yet not only are these basic principles not acknowledged, they are often reversed: often the manifestly least important work in academic ethics gets the most applause and recognition. This may be because it is more arcane and therefore perceived as requiring greater cleverness.

This needs to stop, and that demands a system whereby important and useful work is incentivised by enhanced status and funding.

Decisions about what matters most don’t involve value judgments. They are determined purely by what is necessarily dependent on what. If State of Affairs B presupposes State of Affairs A, then matters pertaining to the existence of State of Affairs A will trump those pertaining to State B, and State A professors will have higher status than State B professors.

 This doesn’t mean that everything to do with State A is necessarily more important than those to do with State B. The fine-tuning of State A issues, for instance, is likely to be less important than matters relating to the fundamentals of State B. Indeed fine-tuning (aka the addition of footnotes, and footnotes to footnotes) is so overrated generally as an academic pursuit (often being seen as a particularly rarefied and hence laudable activity) that I have created a separate category for fine-tuners which ranks below all other categories.

Here then are the rankings:

Tier 1

Matters to do with the maintenance of the planet and of the human species, e.g. the ethics of climate change, and the prevention of catastrophic war.

Comment: If there is no planet, all other concerns, ethical and otherwise, are irrelevant. Likewise if there are no humans to argue about ethics, or to be the subject of its concern.

Tier 2

There are two equally ranked subcategories here:

(a) Matters to do with the kinds of creatures we are, and hence the fundamentals of our relationships to one another and to non-human entities and the environment generally (insofar as such considerations do not fall within Tier 1). This will include some basic ontological and anthropological inquiries, and will cover questions of human and non-human identity and personhood: Conflict of Interest statement: I work on such things myself.

Comment: We need to decide what sorts of entities we (and other entities to whom we relate) are before we can start to suggest how we/they should behave. It is irrational, for instance, to start insisting on autonomy as a governing principle, and suggesting what account of autonomy is the right one, unless and until it has been established that humans are capable of autonomy/sufficiently discrete from one another to make it meaningful to say that a particular person is making an autonomous decision.

(b) Matters concerned with the survival of human individuals.

Comment: Unless individuals are protected, one cannot talk meaningfully about the way they should act or about ways that we should act towards them.

Tier 3

Matters concerning the critical interests (other than mere survival) of the sorts of entities we have decided, in Tier 2 type considerations, we are.

Tier 4

Matters concerning the experiential interests of the sorts of entities we have decided, in Tier 2 type considerations, we are.

Comment: There is room for debate about what is a critical interest and what an experiential interest.

Tier 5

Fine tuning considerations.

These are sub-ranked according to the Tier to which the fine-tuning relates: Thus a Tier 5(2) academic, working on little details pertaining to human identity, would outrank a Tier 5(4) academic, working on small quibbles about how much holiday office workers should have.

Surely this is all entirely uncontroversial, and we can agree to move seamlessly to the details of implementation?

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12 Responses to Rewarding what matters: Status in academic ethics

  • Anthony Drinkwater says:

    Thank you for your provocative post, Charles.
    Whilst agreeing with much of what you write, I’m not convinced that it is purely an objective question of the necessary dependence of states of affairs.
    Human life is dependent on and thus presupposes conception, and surviving to little more than my age is a necessary condition of being treated by a geriatrician. Would you recommend that fertility specialists and obstetricians be more valued than other doctors (who should find their place in tier 2 or 3) , and geriatricians relegated to tier 4 (if they’re not there already) ?
    I have other reservations too, but they are clearly based on value judgements (IMHO) so probably irrelevant….

  • Charles Foster says:

    Many thanks, Anthony. I can see no reason to attribute different values to different chronological phases of human life (and many reasons for not doing so), and accordingly debates about all life-preserving or life-prolonging interventions belong to Tier 2(b).

  • Anthony Drinkwater says:

    Thanks for your reply, Charles. I’m pleased that the notion of dependence seems to be abandoned. This implies, to me, that the question is at least partly subjective, so may I pose a value question and one practical one ?
    The value question concerns a cluster of issues on what makes life worth living : if ethicists can help us overcome global warming and prevent nuclear war, that will indeed be wonderful. But the traditional questions of philosophy remain. Or does your point of view imply that ethics, as restricted/redefined , is of such great importance that until we are sure that threats to human survival have disappeared all other philosophers should retrain as ecologists ?
    The practical one concerns what precisely academic ethicists can bring to the debate on global warming : what are the questions in this domain that need philosophical analysis?

  • Charles Foster says:

    Thank you, Anthony.
    I don’t understand what you mean when you say that ‘the notion of dependence seems to be abandoned’.
    Yes, the traditional questions of philosophy remain. But don’t worry: I am completely confident that a sufficient number of philosophers will ignore my advice and continue to examine those questions.
    Your question about global warming would be better addressed to those who work in the field, but one obvious issue relates to how we approach questions of resource allocation (all of which have ethical colour), in the light of the imperative to reduce anthropogenic climate disruption.

    • Anthony Drinkwater says:

      Sorry if I’m not clear, Charles. I was reacting to the part of your post where you write “Decisions about what matters most don’t involve value judgments. They are determined purely by what is necessarily dependent on what. If State of Affairs B presupposes State of Affairs A, then matters pertaining to the existence of State of Affairs A will trump those pertaining to State B, and State A professors will have higher status than State B professors.”
      This appeared to me to claim too much : viz, that anyone who disagreed with your suggestion was not just making a value judgement but was flying against evident logic. This seems to me to be over-egging your case.
      I hope that this is clearer !

      • Many thanks for the clarification, Anthony.
        I can see no obvious exceptions to the statement: ‘Tier 4 considerations are necessarily dependent on the state of affairs that are the subject of Tier 3 considerations; Tier 3 considerations are necessarily dependent on the state of affairs that are the subject of Tier 2 considerations….’ (etc). Tier 5 considerations are rather different, of course. Some of them will pertain to Tier 1, some to Tier 4 (etc), but since you can’t get footnotes without having a substantive text to which to append them, the criterion of dependency is satisfied.

    • Kian Mintz-Woo says:

      Re: The practical one concerns what precisely academic ethicists can bring to the debate on global warming : what are the questions in this domain that need philosophical analysis?

      > As someone working in this field, I am happy to attempt an answer.

      The main questions that climate ethics have revolved around are questions about the burdens of climate change (i.e. the costs of addressing it): how should we measure them (closely related to the important concept of the social cost of carbon [1]) and how should we think about costs and benefits over time [2,3] and over space [4].

      However, more recently this has developed in many different ways. One way I am interested in is seeing climate change as a constellation of positive and negative externalities (as opposed to a single, net-negative global externality) with various associated demands of justice. [Work in preparation co-authored with Justin Leroux.]

      Another way is moving beyond familiar distinctions like mitigation (climate impacts that can be addressed through reduction of greenhouse gases in the system) and adaptation (climate impacts that can be addressed through protection of vulnerable systems) to what the policy community calls losses and damages [5,6]. Yet another way of moving beyond such distinctions, which has been very influential in climate ethics, is discussions of geoengineering [7,8].

      [Links are disabled, but here are some URLs]
      [1] https://doi.org/10.1093/monist/ony023 [open access]
      [2] https://doi.org/10.1017/S0266267117000049
      [3] https://doi.org/10.1515/mopp-2018-0060 [open access]
      [4] http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/21550085.2018.1448038 [open access]
      [5] http://link.springer.com/10.1007/s10584-015-1483-2
      [6] http://dx.doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-72026-5_2 [open access]
      [7] https://www.tandfonline.com/toc/cepe21/21/3
      [8] https://doi.org/10.1080/13698230.2019.1693157 [open access] and the associated forthcoming articles

  • Robert Cottrell says:

    Why only ethics? Shouldn’t all publicly-funded research be prioritised along these lines?

  • Charles Foster says:

    Robert: many thanks.
    The answer to your second question is yes. I considered only ethics here because this is an ethics blog.

  • Riki Scanlan says:

    A possible subjective heuristic for determining the tier of knowledge some proposition falls within is how obvious it is to peers in a field (and a field can, in turn, be evaluated by laypersons). This is a nonlinear relationship: obvious things fall in Tier 5 or thereabouts, as do highly abstruse things, but almost-obvious things fall closer to Tier 1. The idea is that fine-tuning research frequently produces knowledge that is difficult to understand (because it is epicyclical) or trivial in nature, whereas more fundamental research produces knowledge that is “almost-obvious.” By its nature, it is across the border of what we know yet it can reshape what we presently know (just as realising that a river has a dog-leg turn one way to an ocean reshapes our understanding of where we are now since we know that we can boat down to the beach where we could not before). In this sense, almost-obvious knowledge does not match neatly to “simple additions or extensions” but can include deep revisions and concepts.

  • Milan Griffes says:
  • Michael St. Jules says:

    Would Tier 1 essentially be concerned with population ethics and its applications?

    “Comment: If there is no planet, all other concerns, ethical and otherwise, are irrelevant. Likewise if there are no humans to argue about ethics, or to be the subject of its concern.”

    Although I’m personally skeptical that we’ll ever interact with any, there could be conscious aliens out there. Also, even if there are no humans left to argue about ethics or to be the subject of its concerns, there could still be nonhuman animals left that would be the subjects of its concerns. If we go extinct, it could be good or bad for nonhuman animals, who vastly outnumber us and many of who (I believe) have and would have lives as bad as the worst off humans (specifically, lives not worth living). There could also eventually be artificially conscious individuals that deserve ethical concern. Moral agency could also evolve again. Some of these are pretty speculative, of course.

    Also, I think this comment could be read as an argument for the procreation asymmetry of population ethics, antinatalism and (voluntary) extinction: if no one would exist, then there would be nothing to worry about, and all of our problems (including the other tiers below) would be solved. Some will counter that it is a problem if no one exists or fewer people exist, if they would otherwise have (sufficiently) good lives.

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