The Fugitive Thought

Journal of Value Inquiry 34 (4):463-478 (2000)
Abstract
Moral imperatives are claimed to be inescapable. The moral felon who convinces us that he desired to commit his crimes, that he had no desires that the actions thwarted, does not incline us to withdraw our judgment that he did what he ought not to have done. We do not permit him to evade his moral culpability by citing unusual desires or interests. This thesis of moral inescapability seems familiar and yet is notoriously difficult to make sense of. Philippa Foot calls it “the fugitive thought,” and argues that there is no coherent thought to be brought into the light, but thinks that we could carry on moral discourse purged of claims of inescapability.1 Her pessimism about locating the fugitive is justified, but moral discourse may well not survive its elimination. Inescapability—our tendency to morally condemn the criminal regardless of his desires or interests—lies at the heart of our moral framework; indeed, we might well think that it is the whole point of having a moral language. For this reason our moral discourse is hopelessly flawed in the sense of there not being an acceptable explication of the central moral concepts, though it is not without practical merit. Participating in moral discourse may be warranted in pragmatic terms, despite its defects.
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