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Michael Byron
Kent State University
Interests: Moral theory, metaethics, history of ethics, theory of rational choice
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Suppose we recast DROWNING: In DROWNING, (b) is worse than is (c). In DROWNING, (c) is just as bad as (no better than?) (d). In DROWNING, (b) is worse than is (d). [from 1,2 "arithmetic"] Therefore, the numbers matter. [sidebar: you claim that statement 3 in the DROWNING case follows by "arithmetic," but that cannot be correct, as you have not mentioned any numbers. If it follows, it must be by the transitivity of wrongness, and now you're committed not just to demonstrating degrees of wrongness but the also transitivity of the relation.] This argument strikes me as compelling in a way that yours does not, and the difference seems to suggest a possible conflation of "wrongness" (the very term is awkward) with badness (a natural term). Do we have degrees of "wrongness" locutions in ordinary speech? "That's so wrong!" might be one, if it weren't ironic. My sense of 'wrong' is that it means 'impermissible', which has as many degrees as 'impossible'. That is to say, none. I don't see a straight line between badness and being wrong: we sometimes choose the lesser of two evils as the best (and permissible) option. The evils might be rather bad indeed: their badness is a reason not to choose them other things equal, but if all options are bad I might yet have reason to choose a bad option that is not therefore wrong. The worse options would be wrong, but none "more wrong" than others. Being "in the wrong" is being over the line, and that does not seem to be a status that comes in degrees. Outcomes are better or worse (and sometimes on a par, or incommensurable, or incomparable). Some impermissible acts yield terrible outcomes, others yield mildly bad outcomes. Some might yield good outcomes, though perhaps not as good as permissible alternatives. Again, no straight line from badness to being wrong. Your intuition seems to be that when two impermissible actions yield outcomes differentially bad, that one of the alternatives is therefore "more wrong." Given the surface unnaturalness of your way of talking, the burden seems to be on you. What does this way of talking help explain that we cannot explain with the idea of impermissibility plus differentially bad outcomes?
It's intriguing that many folks seem to assume that the problem of "permissible suboptimality" has to find a fix on the value side. Aquinas, to take a historical example, distinguished two ways of being "morally required": one by universal commandments of natural law, and one by non-universal counsels of perfect virtue. Supererogatory acts exhibit a mode of perfection that some but not all are required to achieve. Aquinas's own account would not get much traction today, but it does at least suggest a type of solution that the literature has not explored, namely that "morally required" might be systematically ambiguous. As someone who is suspicious that the distinction between moral and non-moral reasons will never be cashable in a non-question-begging fashion, I think this approach could be valuable.
Could this result also signal an expectation of normal moral development? We expect people to become kind and generous, which is partly why we blame failures to do so. In the Phineas case, some might interpret the accident as a disruption of normal moral development. As a disruption, Phineas would not be blameworthy for his resulting character. One way to suspend blame is to attribute the bad character to a different person. In the reverse Phineas case, some might interpret the accident as enhancing or accelerating normal moral development. Since he would/should have arrived at that character eventually anyway, he might be praiseworthy for his resulting character. He deserves praise only if he is substantially the same person.
Toggle Commented May 25, 2015 on Personal Identity and Moral Change at PEA Soup
Hi Robert, Thanks for the intriguing post. Could the virtue theorist propose a response of this sort? Virtue ethics (VE) "demotes" the right, not least by subordinating the theorizing of it to theorizing the good, a good life, a good person, and so forth. Those who are not virtuous might not be able to do the right action in the sense given by criterion (V), and you treat that as a bug rather than a feature. There might be something that the "learner" ought to do that is different from what a virtuous person would do. Why should we call that action "right" in the same sense? Your brief discussion above reads this position in terms of distinguishing 'right for the virtuous' from 'right for the learner', but why is the latter a "kind" of rightness at all? Could it not be good for learners to act as they ought without thinking that they thereby act rightly in the robust sense given by (V)? I suppose my worry is that your approach seems to try to re-prioritize the right by assuming that each agent can do what is right, and that VE must theorize this ONE sense of rightness. Do you worry that this assumption might beg the question against VE's fundamental move?
Tom, your thoughts remind me of some work Robert Adams did on "moral horror" a while back. Adams (found it: defends a theological category of moral horror that involves violation of the sacred and wouldn't have much application in your work. But I wonder whether you would entertain the idea that actions can be wrong in more than one way. Not just "wrong...seriously wrong...really, really, badly wrong," but wrong in different ways. Cannibalism involves murder, but is that the only thing wrong with it? Is the extra something along the same dimension as the murder, or a different dimension altogether? I worry that focusing too much on thin evaluations encourages flattening and attenuating moral discourse...
Toggle Commented Apr 29, 2013 on Featured Philosopher: Tom Hurka (Part 1) at PEA Soup
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Apr 10, 2013