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Wednesday, September 02, 2009

An uncontroversial instance of moral knowledge?

Given the pervasive moral disagreements there are (or seem to be) between different people and different societies, one might question the notion that there are any uncontroversial instances of moral knowledge. In opposition to this, I propose that there is at least one instance of moral knowledge that I think most will find uncontroversial. Suppose, as I believe to be the case, that skipping pebbles across a pond is a morally neutral action: it is neither right nor wrong, but merely permissible. Nevertheless, suppose that Sam, for whatever reason, forms the belief that skipping pebbles across a pond is wrong. (Perhaps Sam’s brain has been hit by one too many cosmic rays.) If, in spite of this, Sam skips a pebble across a pond, he has acted wrongly, even though actions of that type are not normally wrong. No matter what else one may think about which actions—or types of action—are wrong, one must hold that if someone performs any action which they believe to be wrong they have acted wrongly. And if we know that anything is wrong, we know that doing something which one believes to be wrong is wrong.

Or so I think. But you may disagree; and if you do, I’m interested to hear where you think I’ve gone wrong.


Colin Caret said...

Without spending time to justify these claims, let's suppose the following for the sake of argument. (1) it is permissible for anyone to skip rocks across a pond. It follows that (2) it is permissible for Sam to skip rocks across a pond. It follows that (3) Sam does not act wrongly when he skips rocks across a pond. Now suppose that Sam believes it is wrong to skip rocks across a pond. You claim that it follows that (4) it is wrong for Sam to skip rocks across a pond. Unless you want to eat the contradiction that Sam both is and is not acting wrongly, you've got to identify the faulty inference. It looks to me like its the inference from Sam's belief to (4).

Jason Zarri said...


Ok, suppose for the sake of argument that I can't reject (1). In that case I would have to say that it's not surprising that we can derive a contradiction in this situation, because the supposition that (1) is true is inconsistent with the supposition that that Sam both believes that it is wrong to skip rocks across a pond and does so. So if (1) is true, it is impossible for Sam to believe it's wrong to skip rocks across a pond and do so. Compare this situation with one in which an irresistible force meets an immovable object: what happens then? Is the force resisted, or does the object move? I think we should conclude that while it might be possible for there to be an irresistible force or an immovable object,it is not possible to have both in the same possible world. Similarly, there might be a possible world where it is always permissible to skip rocks across a pond, and a possible world where Sam believes skipping rocks across a pond to be wrong and does so, but both cannot hold in the same possible world.

In actuality, though, I think (1), considered in its full generality, has to be false. My idea was only that skipping pebbles across a pond is ceteris-paribus neutral. Any action at all can be wrong, provided that one believes it is, so no action type is permissible in *all* of its possible instances, even if it is permissible in the vast majority of them.

Colin Caret said...

That's fine, I thought you meant to hold fixed the supposition that rock-skipping is permissible in your original post. If not, then the issue is much more complicated and I don't think I have anything very insightful to offer with respect to your target case of moral knowledge.

Anonymous said...

dear Jason,
using logic as a tool, in the instrumentality of thought, has its place and its rightful use. But moral thought cannot be reduced to logic. Such thought is nested in a self and the self is nested in an existence, and as a social self, it is nested in relationships with others. So the contradiction between such a person's belief and action is not a real contradiction.
Psychologically, a self can have a "bad conscience" that is not sensitive to what is really right and wrong. A self can feel guilty of his or her whole existence as if it were wrong. The skipping of pebbles on the surface of a pond as wrong could be an example of such a case. I used to feel that way and I would tell a joke about standing over the San Andreas fault, feeling so guilty, I could start a travel agency for guilt trips.
Logic is, of course, a fine tuned instrument, but life is full of complexities, logic cannot really handle. Sorry, I know this does not help sharpen your instrumental reasoning.