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Posted on November 22, 2019 at 7:01 PM

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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