Moral Innocence as the Negative Counterpart to Moral Maturity

In Elizabeth S. Dodd Carl E. Findley (ed.), Innocence Uncovered: Literary and Theological Perspectives. Routledge. pp. 167-182 (2016)
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Establishing a precise definition of moral innocence is a difficult task. Ordinarily philosophers explore the necessary and sufficient conditions of a term or concept in order to determine its meaning. Doing so with “moral innocence” proves difficult because the concept is mutable. The term is used in varying contexts to refer to ignorance, naiveté, sexual inexperience, legal and moral culpability, noncombatants in war, and moral purity. For our present purposes, we can exclude the contexts of law and war because they are too specialized to aid us in identifying the commonalities present in the more general uses of the term. Once we take the other common uses into consideration—ignorance, naiveté, and sexual inexperience—a shared feature surfaces. Each of these conditions of character or states of being is a mode of immaturity. Now we are impelled to ask: what are the qualities of this immaturity? More specifically, what are the features of moral immaturity? To answer this question, the first section of this chapter argues that moral innocence ought to be interpreted in terms of illusion and inability. The innocent hold certain illusions about the moral order that make them unable to engage in practices constitutive of the moral community. Specifically, the morally innocent falsely believe that a life of moral purity—that is, a life devoid of wrongdoing—is possible to achieve. This illusion is based on the following three elements characteristic of an immature and rudimentary understanding of moral interaction: the belief that human nature has only a propensity for goodness; the belief that following ethical rules is sufficient to avoid transgressing moral values; and, the inability to see oneself as a perpetual source of wrongdoing. The subsequent sections establish why each of these elements hinders the development of a realistic and mature moral acumen. We will proceed by examining the thought of two figures in the history of philosophy who have not previously been associated with the notion of moral innocence, and yet through the present analysis and interpretation can provide insight into its nature. First, Immanuel Kant’s theory of radical evil demonstrates that the human propensity to evil is so pervasive that it is, practically speaking, unavoidable. Therefore, to believe that one can avoid acting upon temptations to evil is self-deception. The final section engages in a thorough analysis of Søren Kierkegaard’s philosophy and interprets it in a new way as a theory of moral maturity. The morally mature individual is one who questions ethical rules and who, through self-reflection, recognizes herself as a potential source of wrongdoing. As a result of these arguments, we will identify rule-questioning, self-reflection, and locating wrongdoing in terms of one’s own agency as essential features of moral maturity. We will determine the essential characteristics of moral innocence by examining its positive attributes before establishing it as a negative counterpart to moral maturity.



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Zachary J. Goldberg
Ludwig Maximilians Universität, München

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