Fun with Counterfactuals
But no, I said, if you had gone, everything would have been slightly different. They would have had to drive to your house and pick you up, and other things would have gone differently too, so they would have wound up in slightly different places at slightly different times, and there wouldn't have been an accident at all.
It so happens I read a philosophy paper by Caspar Hare (start with part 2 on pg. 21) later in the week that involved the same sort of fun with counterfactuals. Here's a puzzle to drive your friends crazy with: if we had no seatbelt laws in Texas, and the traffic czar suddenly passed such a law, on whose behalf would that be the right thing to do? Accident victims, right?
But it's not so simple. The law takes effect, and Abby, Bob, and Cathy are in accidents, but wear seatbelts, and avoid trauma. So the law was passed on their behalf? Can't be! Without that law, Abby, Bob, and Cathy would have pulled out of their driveways just a little earlier, so wouldn't have been in any accident at all.
What about Debbie, who avoided being in any accident, because of the time it took her to buckle her seat belt? Well, the law helped her, but surely that's not it's aim --simply to change the timing of accidents. Changing the timing obviously wouldn't save lives, on the whole.
More fun with counterfactuals. Imagine a young man starts putting away money for the future, in expectation he will have a family to take care of one day. Now, what if one day he has kids, and they're all having fun on a cruise in the Carribean, and he tells them to thank him for saving up over the years, so vacations like this would be possible. Smart Alec says "But if you hadn't saved, every event would have been timed differently, so some other kid would be having a miserable time vacationing in Waco, Texas, not me. So don't ask ME for any thanks!"
Smart Alec is right that some other kid would have been in the picture, but wrong that his father did nothing right. Hare's paper contains a very nice proposal. The father did something good for his kids "de dicto," not "de re." He did good with respect to a category (his children, whoever they turned out to be) not for specific things--his eventual kids.
I suspect we think about what to do in "de dicto" terms all the time, and for a lot of reasons. Sometimes there's no way to think "de re" because of timing matters, but sometimes it's the wrong way to think for other reasons. A lot of ethical thought is about whoever winds up doing this, or going there, or being that. The idea of an obligation being "de dicto" captures the right sort of generality.