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2012-05-17
Do we have a moral duty to uplift the moral status of others' actions?
In the question of this post's title, I am not asking whether one has a duty to act to change others' actions for the moral better; I'm wondering about cases in which others' actions are fixed, and one seems to have some power to make those actions morally better or worse. Here are two examples.


CASE I: Suppose that A and B are traversing the desert. A somehow learns, without B's knowledge, of B's intention to kill A. Each night they take turns standing watch while the other sleeps. A knows that B intends that night to wait until A is asleep, set a time bomb, and then leave. (Staying awake is out of the question for A; narcolepsy, etc.). A is fully confident that B's intentions are unshakable; A now sees his own imminent death as entirely unavoidable. A is choosing the campsite for the night -- whether site 1 or site 2. Unbeknownst to B, A sees that campsite 1 is near a nest of deadly snarks. Ordinarily, this would be no problem -- snarks will not approach while a wakeful human stands watch. But A knows that B intends to leave after setting the bomb. 


So A knows that if he chooses campsite 1, A will be killed by snarks; if he chooses campsite 2, he will be killed by B. In the former case, B will have let A die (if that! B after all did not know about the snarks, and might not even have known that standing watch was necessary for A's safety); in the latter case, B will have killed A. Is the choice between campsite 1 and 2, ceteris paribus, one of complete moral indifference for A? Or is there some moral incentive to choose campsite 1?


CASE II: A and B are going on a picnic. B is a public official who will soon be publicly awarding a commendation to C. B believes the commendation to be richly deserved. A, however, knows that C is a rogue and a scoundrel, and that C's receiving the commendation is a travesty. Suppose that although B has heard A out on this matter, she remains unconvinced. A is choosing picnic site 1 or 2; if A chooses site 2, then B will, A knows, observe C behaving in a manner that will expose him to B as a rogue and scoundrel. A knows that this will not prevent B from issuing to C the commendation. B is a completely cynical public official; it would, A knows, not bother B in the slightest to award the commendation to a scoundrel, and C is the nephew of B's political ally; and anyway B will probably forget the whole matter either way within a week. If A chooses site 2, then, B's action in awarding the commendation will be an act of corruption; if A chooses site 1, B's action will be a sincere act of public service.

These two cases each seem to me to share the following feature: In each case, A already knows that some future action F is going to occur. A has before her a choice between two options, 1 and 2; if she chooses option 1, then F will be a morally worse action than if she chooses option 2. In a situation like this, is it morally incumbent on A to choose option 1, ceteris paribus?

If yes: well, that just seems a bit bizarre, especially in the first case. These are very strange duties for A to be saddled with.
If no: well, isn't the world a worse place for containing morally worse actions? So, if options 1 and 2 are truly otherwise equal, then in choosing option 2, wouldn't A be willfully and pointlessly making the world a worse place?


2012-05-21
Do we have a moral duty to uplift the moral status of others' actions?
Reply to Carl Ehrett
These are some very interesting thought experiments, Carl - I'm not sure I've ever seen the issue you're addressing approached in quite this way before.

My own intuitions about cases like these usually tend to lie somewhere in the foggy zone between rule utilitarianism and virtue ethics. I think advocates of both positions would be inclined to answer your last question with "probably, yes," but would also claim that they could offer more a more substantive justification for answering this way than just the rather thin-sounding observation that the world is "a worse place for containing morally worse actions."

In Case I, the aspiring murderer B would at site 1 be relieved of the task of killing A in cold blood, which would (at least ceteris paribus) probably be both painful to him and deleterious to his character. And in Case II, having the picnic at site 2 would almost certainly bring B into a much more explicit consciousness of her own cynicism, a realization which itself would probably be likely (again, ceteris paribus) to make her all the more cynical.

I'm not 100% happy with either of these responses, since both depend upon assumptions about the characters of the relevant perpetrators that aren't built into the thought experiments as you describe them. How much do you think this matters?

2012-05-21
Do we have a moral duty to uplift the moral status of others' actions?
Reply to Mark Silcox
That's right -- if, in order for these cases to be puzzling, I had to assume that B has the sort of character that is not negatively impacted by immoral behavior, then I would take these cases to be uninteresting, because (plausibly) B would then just have a farfetched sort of character. I don't take myself to be making such an assumption about B, and I think that at least in the first of the two cases, no such assumption is necessary in order to ensure that the sorts of explanations you mention will not apply.

In the first case, B leaves after setting the bomb. Even if A is killed by snarks, the bomb will detonate, and B will believe herself to be a murderer. There seems no room here to claim that utilitarian or virtue concerns can motivate the choice of site 1, via an effect on B's character. The other case could perhaps be reformed to be similarly immune to utilitarian or virtue theory resolutions of that sort. (In fact, I was trying to remove such considerations in the second case by stipulating that A knows B will forget the affair either way within a week; but you'd be right to point out that this does not remove utterly the possibility of negative effects on B's character.)

I think this shows that these sorts of cases could be offered as a problem for the utilitarian or virtue theorist, since, contrary to what you suggested, the utilitarian and virtue theorist cannot explain in what way the world would be a worse place if A chooses site 2, despite the fact that, intuitively, the world is a worse place for including more murders, ceteris paribus.







2012-05-22
Do we have a moral duty to uplift the moral status of others' actions?
Reply to Carl Ehrett
These are really interesting cases. I don't think A has a moral duty to choose 1 in either case, unless there could be reasons to think that A has a moral duty to prevent B's behavior to fall under certain descriptions. To explain. It is correct that one feature both cases have in common is that by A's choosing 1, the world is one with fewer wrongful actions in it. But at the end of the day, regardless which option A chooses, the world will contain the same amount of scoundrels like B. A's choosing in both cases only avoids that in one particular occasion B's character gets expressed as morally wrong behavior, but in neither case it changes B's character. That the world contains more o less morally wrong actions doesn't matter. What matters is that the people who can perform actions don't have morally despicable characters. Now, if A is in some moral situation such that it is A's moral duty to prevent B performing morally wrong actions (as would be the case if A is a B's tutor or surrogate), then A has such a duty. But in this case, the assumption is that A is acting in B's behalf and then that B lacks proper moral autonomy, or at least, the assumption would be that A's avoiding B's performing of wrong actions has effects on B's character formation.  

2012-05-22
Do we have a moral duty to uplift the moral status of others' actions?
Reply to Carl Ehrett

Carl, thank you for this thought experiment. I admit that on first reading, it feels easily dismissed. But when taken charitably, I can see a number of extremely interesting consequences.

In Case 1, for instance, we have the foregone conclusion that A will die. Therefore there is no moral quandary for A in regard to his own freedom of life (I also assume that A is a rational actor that feels morally incapable of striking against B in an attempt to save himself). The resolution, internally, that death is inevitable can be considered the first of A's moral duties. If A is at all vengeful, then there may be some small satisfaction in denying B the kill. Even if B is never to know (the snarks would not come until after he left, and the bomb would eventually obliterate any evidence), then the satisfaction that A receives prior to his death may still have some moral value. In addition, A's death would serve some small purpose by nourishing the snarks, therefore adding some very minute meaningfulness to his death. I do believe that he does have a moral duty to choose the campsite that denies B the kill, but not for the better of B, but for the better of A, ultimately.


2012-05-28
Do we have a moral duty to uplift the moral status of others' actions?
Reply to Carl Ehrett
Suppose I sincerely attempt murder, I shoot Smith in the chest at point blank range.
But the Bible hidden in his vest pocket stops the bullet. I am every bit as bad a character
as if I'd killed him.

There seem to be two dimensions to the badness of an act.
One is the badness of character it manifests; the second is the harm it does.
My attempt is as bad as success in the first dimension; less bad than success
in the second dimension. Let's allow that successes are worse than
mere attempts, because both dimensions of badness are maximized.

What your very interesting case 1 suggests is, I think, something like this.
B's sincere attempt to kill me is just as bad in the first dimension
as if he succeeded in killing me in the way he planned (and believes he did).
Which campsite I choose does not uplift the moral status of
his action in its first dimension; he's just as bad a man.

The harm of death happens whichever campsite I choose. So the outcome
is the same. Smith is a bad man and I die, whichever site we stop at.

But if we go to the snark site, B's action is less bad in the second dimension
than it is if we go to the non-snark site, where he successfully kills me.

His act is worse at the non-snark site, therefore.
But it is worse only in the second dimension--it does harm only at the non-snark
site.

The moral seems to me to be that if the choice of campsites makes a difference
only in the second dimension of the badness of B's act, the harm it does,
AND THAT HARM WILL HAPPEN ANYHOW, then there is no moral responsibility,
no good that matters, which is accomplished by choosing the snark-site.
B will be just as bad and the harm he intends will be accomplished anyhow,
even though it isn't in the way he meant it to happen.

That is, if there is a duty to uplift the moral status of another's action, it exists
only when I can do something that either

a. makes the action manifest a less bad character

or

b. prevents the harm from happening.

Where nothing I can do will prevent the harm OR make the act manifest a less bad
character, there is no responsibility to make the action less bad by arranging
that the harm is not a consequence of the act. This even though the act
is less bad in the second dimension (that is, it causes less harm), hence
less bad overall.

As generally making other's actions morally better involves a or b, generally
we have a reason to make their actions better. But I don't think the reason
extends to making acts better in ways that do not involve a or b.



 


2012-06-12
Do we have a moral duty to uplift the moral status of others' actions?
Reply to John Baldari
Thanks for the reply. I'm interested by the fact that you and many others with whom I've shared this thought experiment report feeling that A can best express defiance or vengeance by choosing site 1. This was a surprise to me. My own view was that the more defiant and vengeful campsite is site 2. This is defiant in that A is refusing to accede to his own death, and vengeful in that it makes B morally worse off. Choosing campsite 2 makes B a murderer. Isn't it significantly better for B not to be a murderer? Isn't B worse off, ceteris paribus, for being a murderer? 


However, that issue, though interesting, obscures a central question here. Namely: I still don't know whether A has moral incentive to choose campsite 1, ceteris paribus. The sorts of considerations you point out seem to indicate that in the envisioned scenario, ceteris is, after all, not paribus. In other words, I take you to be suggesting the following: the thought experiment in its current state does not suffice to generate a scenario in which, except for the matter of the moral status of B's action, A is or should be truly indifferent between the two choices. But this can, I think, pretty easily be fixed by dickying with the details of the thought experiment. E.g.: snarks kill only for territorial defense, not for sustenance. A does not gain satisfaction by "denying B the kill" -- either as a brute fact about A's emotional response to the situation, or because A does not begrudge B her decision to kill; or maybe the unpleasantness of a snark death offsets the satisfaction of denying B the kill; or maybe A is half-convinced by my first paragraph above, and so is indifferent between the two choices because indifferent as to which constitutes the more vengeful and defiant (and hence satisfying) choice.


2012-06-12
Do we have a moral duty to uplift the moral status of others' actions?
All of that is true on the assumption that character is ultimately all that matters here; but it's not clear to me that that is so. Specifically: I'm tempted to say that the reason that character matters is, at least partly, that having a bad character results in morally bad actions. But if that's right, then shouldn't the result here be that A should after all choose site 1? Choosing site 1 ensures that the world will contain fewer murders, and fewer murderers.

In other words: if the badness of having a bad character is at least partly derived from the fact that bad characters result in bad actions, then it seems to me that A still should have an incentive to choose site 1. But if the badness of having a bad character is not partly derived from the fact that bad characters result in bad actions, then it's mysterious to me why exactly we should be so concerned to avoid bad characters.


2012-06-14
Do we have a moral duty to uplift the moral status of others' actions?
Reply to Carl Ehrett
I agree that the badness of having a bad character is at least partly derived from the fact that bad characters often result in bad actions. That is, in general, one of the reasons why I want
people not to have bad characters is so as to avoid the harm that bad characters often
produce. One way of putting this is that a bad character is typically extrinsically
bad--it tends to have bad consequences.

But it is also widely believed that a bad character is intrinsically bad as well. That is,
independent of the harm it does, being a vindictive, malicious, corrupt, dishonest, etc
person (acting from such motives a good deal) makes one's life a moral failure,
hence it makes it less worth living, a less good life. Of course that it is widely believed
doesn't make it true, but it matters to many people that they be good, kindly and
decent people independent of the good they do. Moral stature matters
intrinsically. I've known disabled people who could not much affect others
(they were so limited behaviourally) who were brave, good, kindly people,
and it seems to me their lives were a moral success and that this success
matters considerably for its own sake.

One mark of this is that sincere failed attempts make for bad character as much as do
successes. So I shoot Jones point blank in the heart and you do the same with Smith,
but Smith alone happens to be wearing a bullet proof vest. Your character is just as
bad as mine, though you do no harm while I kill. Character supervenes on motive,
not consequences. Motives, not consequences, reveal the moral stature of character. Bad character can be maximally bad but not (as above) be extrinsically harmful.

It would be a mistake, therefore, to infer from the fact that the badness of people's having
a bad character is partly because bad characters tend to result in harmful actions, that
my character is less bad if it fails to produce its bad effect. The intrinsic badness
of bad character is unaffected and it is intrinsic badness that makes for (or detracts from)
moral stature. 

In case one, if I choose the snark site, B's character
is just as bad, it reveals him as just as bad a man. That I can make his
murderous intentions extrinsically less harmful has no effect on his moral
stature, which is a matter of his character's intrinsic value. I can't uplift that,
though I can make the manifestation of his bad character less harmful.
That would be worth doing, not because it would makes his character
less bad but because the harm he seeks is intrinsically bad--except in this
case the harm will happen anyway. So I have no reason  to choose
site 1--I do not uplift B's moral stature, nor do I avoid the harm
his act is meant to cause since I secure it another way..

2012-06-20
Do we have a moral duty to uplift the moral status of others' actions?
Reply to Jim Stone
I fully agree with everything except the final two sentences of your recent reply. You say that there is no reason to choose site 1, because doing so neither improves B's character nor prevents any harm. It is the latter point that I'm unsure about. Choosing site 1 ensures that where there would otherwise have been a murder, there will instead be only an instance of letting-die. If world and world w' differ only in that where contains a murder, w' contains an instance of letting-die, I consider w to be a worse world than w'. In other words, murders are ceteris paribus worse than instances of letting-die. I take you to be denying that claim, and to be holding instead that if all agents of the two worlds have the same motives and quality of character in both worlds, then is not worse than w'. Maybe this is just a brute difference of intuition.

(A separate worry about which I'm much less certain would put me in disagreement with more of your reply. The worry is that it may not be possible to describe a person's character or motives in isolation from the actions that character and those motives generate. If that turns out to be right, then B does have a worse character if A chooses site 1, since B's character in that scenario was such as to generate a murder. But again, that's just a thought, and not something to which I'd care to commit myself.)


2012-06-21
Do we have a moral duty to uplift the moral status of others' actions?
Reply to Carl Ehrett
Thanks for responding. The way I understand case 1, there is no case of letting die--since
B doesn't know about the snarks and, we might as well suppose, this ignorance isn't
B's fault.

Choosing site 1 ensures that, where there would otherwise have been a murder,
there will instead be merely an attempted murder (the attempt fails because the snarks
kill me before the bomb explodes).

I agree that murders are ceteris paribus worse than
mere attempted murders, since murder entails
that someone is killed by the act of murder and mere attempted murder entails that
no one is killed by the act of mere attempted murder. That suggests that usually nobody dies
in the case of mere attempted murder. Murders are typically extrinsically worse than mere
attempted murders, therefore, because the former typically involve more harm.

But the ceteris paribus condition is violated in case 1. The harm in question--
that of my being killed--is realized anyway.. The only reason the murder attempt
fails is that the snarks kill me before the bomb goes off. As B manifests just as
bad a character and as, if anything, I die more horribly than if the bomb got me,
the scenario is no better morally than if B's plan worked as B intended.



2012-07-08
Do we have a moral duty to uplift the moral status of others' actions?
Reply to Carl Ehrett
I wouldn't so sure about that is the only reason why character matters. Were that the case, moral judgments on historical personas or on characters whose actions, for any reason, lack the typical consequences, would not make sense. But they do; at least, in every day moral practice. The fact that bad characters result in bad action may be part of the reason of why bad character matter, but this fact only reveals that we are also concern with bad actions. In any case, it doesn't determine which one is the ultimate source. But, I do have to concede that in pragmatical terms, actions are more important, since institutional arrangements are easier to make for repressing bad actions, than for forming or correcting bad characters.   

2012-07-08
Do we have a moral duty to uplift the moral status of others' actions?
Reply to Carl Ehrett
I suppose you could say that it depends on the centricity of the argument. If we look consequentially, then the end result is ultimately the same. A has a choice to make, B has already made a choice. Any resultant evil from this point forward has already been committed. B's decision (and therefore his moral character/motive) is as tainted as is consequentially possible. B decided on murder, A dies. The consequences of the decision come to fruition, even if A is hit by a car on his way to the campsite. I think this is a very unsatisfying analysis, but would suit a consequential enquiry.

I think these points still apply to the would be murderer in the case of the motive enquiry. B has decided to kill A and there is no deterring or reconciling this decision (I gather this from your initial argument). For all intents and purposes, B has already motively killed A. The evil present in B is as whole and complete as it will be after the fact.

Therefore, it is A in which there is some variable value. A is placed in a position in which he must die. What is the motive force at play in each decision? If A is concerned for B's "soul," then A will be motivated to take one action over the other. If A is concerned only with dying well, then either decision will have the same motive intent. So ultimately, it is A who can either be better or worse, B has made her bed...

To close, I think that regardless of the critical direction the problem is approached, nothing that A does can effect B in any way. A's actions can only effect A. So in the absence of any other variables, I believe that A is not morally obligated in any direction for B.