Saturday, January 5, 2008

TMP 12: Requirements for Ethics

[Part of The Molyneux Project; read the main critique here]

On page 49, Stefan starts the section by identifying two core components of ethical theories: choice and personal responsibility. On the first, Stefan writes, "If a rock comes bouncing down a hill and crashes into your car, we do not hold the rock morally responsible, since it has no consciousness, cannot choose, and therefore cannot possess personal responsibility. If the rock dislodged simply as a result of time and geology, then no one is responsible for the resulting harm to your car." This seems to imply that if a person does not choose to inflict damage, then she is innocent. But it should be noted that some moral theories do not accept this concept; some might say that a person can be held morally responsible for things they do involuntarily, especially if measures could have been taken to prevent those involuntary consequences from coming about. For example, If I sleepwalk into your house and break your teapot, it's clear that my actions were no more caused by my choices than the damage to your car was caused by the rock's choices. But some people might still want me to pay for the teapot. This would be especially true if I knew that it would be possible for me to do such a thing, and hadn't taken any precautions to prevent it.

Stefan continues, "If, however, you saw me push the rock out of its position, you would not blame the rock, but rather me." Again, what if I were sleepwalking? Would I be responsible? The general thrust of Stefan's argument seems to imply that the answer is "no," but he'll need to give some evidence for this. And what if you knew that you were prone to sleepwalking, but hadn't taken any precautions to prevent things like this from happening? Would you still be in the clear? That Stefan doesn't immediately provide an answer doesn't suggest anything about the correctness of his view; I'm just wondering...

Intriguingly, Stefan next writes, "To add a further complication, if it turns out that I dislodged the rock because another man forced me to at gunpoint, you would be far more likely to blame the gun-toting initiator of the situation rather than me." In my last post, I suggested that Stefan might want to say that we have the "right" to engage in certain kinds of preferable behavior, where the ends were of a certain kind. Clearly when I dislodge the rock at gunpoint, I actively choose to do so. But my doing so seems to be a response to the preferability of doing so; it is necessary that I dislodge the rock if I want to live. So however we want to define the set of ends which seem to automatically justify engaging in a preferable behavior, it seems like Stefan wants to say that saving one's own life justifies behavior that's preferable for achieving survival.

An interesting thing about this is that Stefan still hasn't given us any indication of why we need to "justify" certain behaviors. It seems like he's implying that dislodging the rock at gunpoint would be "justified," and that if the end achieved by dislodging it were somehow "less important," then we would be "morally responsible" for dislodging it. But what does it mean to be morally responsible? Why should it matter if we are justified or not? If we are morally responsible, what happens to us? Stefan already said that a lightning bolt doesn't come and strike us down, so what's the deal? What relationship does this have with preferable behaviors? Is it preferable to avoid doing anything for which we will be morally responsible? Or is it the case that anything that's preferable is justified?

Coming at the issue from another angle, are we completely justified in dislodging the rock if there's a gun pointed at us? What if there's a school bus full of children below us, and dislodging the rock would kill them all? Perhaps the importance of the end is related to whether or not a certain behavior is justified in a given situation. Does this have anything to do with Stefan's discussion on page 22 about the "relative" nature of truth? I'll have to keep reading to see.

Stefan makes an extremely curious statement at the beginning of page 50: "We all have preferences - from the merely personal ("I like ice cream") to the socially preferable ("It is good to be on time") to universal morality ("Thou shalt not murder")." It seems like "socially preferable" here refers to the sort of behavior Stefan was talking about earlier when he discussed irrationality and lying. And Stefan suggested that it was not justifiable to "enforce" preferences with regard to those sorts of things. But as I pointed out earlier, there's no explanation of how we are supposed to arrive at this conclusion. He simply leans on common-sense morality, which I already suggested is unwarranted.

So to Stefan, the "socially preferable" is different from "universal morality," but there's absolutely no explanation as to why. Further, it seems like Stefan's account of "universally preferable behavior" offers no reason why it would be unjust to "enforce" preferences regarding "socially preferable" behavior. If it's consistent with our ends to enforce such preferences, it seems like Stefen could not say that it's preferable not to enforce them. And if it's necessary for our achieving our ends to enforce them, Stefan would even have to say that it would be preferable to enforce them (and perhaps even justifiable, as discussed above). So if Stefan wants to say that it's unjust to enforce preferences regarding socially preferable behavior, he's going to have to offer some explanation which hasn't been given so far. But judging by his claim that "...we can turn to Ann Landers for a discussion of socially preferable behaviour..." it seems like we might never get any such explanation.


Anonymous said...

I am not sure what you are referring to here. Less important than what?
It seems like he's implying that dislodging the rock at gunpoint would be "justified," and that if the end achieved by dislodging it were somehow "less important," then we would be "morally responsible" for dislodging it.
Your whole point about knowing the outcome is happening now in Denver. A man shot a gun at a light pole and it went though a wall and through a person and into antoher killing both people. Is he responsible for murder, for the first death, for both, or none? Should not UPB tell us if he was responsible or justified?

Danny Shahar said...

On the first question: I would guess that Stefan might not feel that I would be justified in dislodging the rock, and damaging your car, if the reason I wanted to do it was not to save my own life, but to recover a quarter that was trapped under the rock. If I'm being held at gunpoint, and I want to survive, then it's preferable that I dislodge the rock. But it's also preferable that I dislodge the rock if I want the quarter that's trapped underneath it. If I'm justified in dislodging it in the gunpoint case, but not in the quarter case, then the only explanation I can think of is that there's something "more important" about saving my life than getting the quarter.

On the second question: I'm not sure that your Denver example is complete, because it doesn't make reference to the reason that the man shot the light pole. If the man were being held at gunpoint, and was coerced into shooting the light pole, Stefan might indeed want to say that his action was justified (especially if it couldn't have reasonably been expected that shooting a light pole would result in people dying). But perhaps if shooting the light pole were not preferable for achieving some important end, then Stefan might want to say that his actions were possibly unjustified, since he was putting people at risk. You might be interested in reading Douglas Lackey's essay, "Taking Risk Seriously;" it's an absolutely fascinating piece of work.

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