This installment of the early-career research spotlight series looks at the work of Molly Gardner. She is an Assistant Professor in the Philosophy Department at Bowling Green State University. Before that, she was a Research Assistant Professor in the Philosophy, Politics, and Economics program in the Department of Philosophy at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. Gardner received her Ph.D. in philosophy in 2013 from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Her primary research interests are in ethical theory, metaphysics, and environmental ethics. Her work has been featured in several edited volumes, including The Moral Rights of Animals and The Routledge Handbook of the Philosophy of Well-Being, while her research on harm is displayed in the articles “Beneficence and Procreation” and “A Harm-Based Solution to the Non-Identity Problem.”
Nathan: One of your most recent papers is on the idea that we owe something to future individuals. Can you explain what duties you think we have to future individuals? How do you model these individuals (that is, what attributes do you give them) in your ethical theory?
Molly: Thank you for inviting me to do this interview!
Actually, you’ve identified a theme that runs through not just the latest one, but all three of my most recent journal articles. They all have something to say about our duties to future individuals; one is about our duty to benefit them, and the other two touch upon our duty to refrain from harming them. Given these thematically unified papers, you might be thinking that I was sent here from the future to persuade everyone to quit messing things up, but that’s not where these papers came from. Really, I have just been mining my dissertation, which was titled Our Duties to Future Generations.
To answer your first question, I think we owe the same basic duties to future individuals that we owe to present individuals. I am pretty sure that the duties we owe to both include beneficence and nonmaleficence; those are the duties I’ve so far focused on. However, we may well owe individuals other things, like justice.
To answer your second question, a lot of my argument is an appeal to parity. Whatever attributes you think present individuals have that ground our duties to them, I say that at least some future individuals have those too. Obviously future individuals are different from present individuals insofar as future individuals are not here in time, but I don’t think distance in time attenuates our basic duties of beneficence and nonmaleficence.
Nathan: Your argument for duties to the future because of parity is an important one, if for no other reason than it refocuses our attention on things we often ignore. But I wonder how your argument applies to other dimensions of time. Do we have duties to the past? Or do our duties change depending on which potential future is more likely to come into being?
Molly: I endorse eternalism about time, which means that I think the past, present, and future are equally real. Nevertheless, we certainly don’t have the technology to travel into the past, and without the ability to time travel, I am not sure there is anything we can do to harm the dead, even if we wanted to. Of course, there is a lot written about whether we can harm the dead, and I could still be persuaded to come down differently on that issue. In any case, my published view does have the following implication: if we could travel back in time to punch people in the face, or if we could harm people who once lived by thwarting desires they had when they were alive, then we would have reason not to do those things.
To answer your second question, I don’t think that it’s chancy which possible future will be actual. The actual future is the one that will be, just as the actual past was the one that was. So it wouldn’t make sense, on my view, to talk about our duties changing depending on which future comes into being.
Nathan: Your claim that it is a benefit to have a life worth living, coupled with your concern for future persons, seems to have significant implications for the problem of overpopulation. What prescriptions does your ethical theory suggest for those concerned about the possible effects of population growth?
Molly: I have argued that when you bring someone into existence who has a life worth living, you benefit him or her. But I have also argued that in many cases, an action or policy that is the condition of someone’s existence can also harm him or her, even if he or she has a life worth living.
For the environmentalists among us, this view is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it can justify the claim that we need to curb environmental degradation. The fact that certain future people would not exist at all, but for our polluting ways, does not get us off the hook. I think that’s an important implication of my view.
On the other hand, my view can also justify the claim that you have a reason to procreate. So you’ll need to weigh the reason to protect the environment against the reason to procreate. Maybe you can resolve the tension by having a kid and then fighting for the kind of sweeping institutional changes we need—changes which might, incidentally, make it less environmentally damaging for people to have kids. Or maybe you could go childless. I don’t have a blanket answer to the question of whether or how many kids you should have, but my view does say that, whatever you do, you need to support environmentally sustainable development.
Nathan: Some of your peer commentaries and presentations take up contemporary issues like banning trans-fats and organ donation. Why have you chosen to take up those issues, and what do you hope to achieve by writing about them?
Molly: I took up those issues because I think it’s okay to ban trans fats, and I also think it might be okay for death row inmates to donate their organs, although we obviously need to abolish the death penalty.
I’ve seen some talk on the blogs about what the “core” areas of philosophy are, and applied ethics is often passed over in these discussions. However, I think that’s a mistake; I’m not sure there are any “core” areas of philosophy—everything depends on everything else, if you ask me—but if there are, applied ethics belongs among them. It’s certainly one of the most meaningful, important, and distinctively philosophical things we philosophers can do.
One of my role models is Jeff McMahan. He does amazingly rigorous work in applied and normative ethics. I think we can all agree that my organ donation article is not The Ethics of Killing, but McMahan’s work is basically what I aspire to.
Nathan: Your critique of the ‘core’ areas of philosophy is one I think a number of people (myself included) share. Paraphrasing your answer a bit, it sounds like you want a philosophy curriculum that makes philosophy ‘meaningful and important’ to students. How do you think applied ethics can be introduced to students (or to society at large) in a way that gives it these traits?
Molly: Well, I’m not sure we need to do anything to make it meaningful and important; I think it already is meaningful and important. I suppose my answer is that we need to do it well and to teach it well. I know you really want me to say something about my teaching philosophy, but when I talk about my teaching philosophy I get job market flashbacks.
Nathan: Are there other social or political issues you would like to become more involved with as your career progresses?
Molly: My immediate plan is to do a bit more work at the intersection of ethics and metaphysics. I am still working on issues related to the metaphysics of harming, the metaphysics of causation, and the doctrine of doing and allowing. But all of my research in ethics and metaphysics originally stemmed from a belief that we ought to protect the environment for future generations, and eventually I do want to write more about ethics, economics, and the environment—and climate change, in particular. So environmental ethics is on the docket. And possibly more stuff about punishment and the death penalty.
Please feel free to ask Molly questions about her work in the comment thread.
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