"There are none so blind as those who will not see." --

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Saturday, December 10, 2011

A follow up on "An uncontroversial instance of moral knowledge?"

In this post I’m going to refine the position I advanced in my previous post, “An uncontroversial instance of moral knowledge?”. In that post I said,

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.

This passage is ambiguous: It could be read as saying that if one believes some (particular) action A to be wrong but does A anyway, then A itself is a wrong action. But it could also be read as saying that if one believes some (particular) action A to be wrong but does A anyway then one has acted wrongly, even if A itself is not wrong. Since I wrote this passage a while ago I can’t be sure what exactly I had in mind, although I suspect I wasn’t thinking carefully enough to notice the difference. However, I now think that the second reading is more plausible, because of cases like the following.

Suppose Jones has been raised by parents who are ethical egoists, and has been taught that one should never act to help others unless it is one’s own interest to do so, except in a situation where helping someone else and not helping them would have precisely the same consequences for one’s own well being, in which case it is permissible to help that person and also permissible not to do so. Suppose that one day Jones spies a beggar on the street, and that Jones, moved by pity, gives the beggar some money that he would otherwise have used to buy his lunch. Nevertheless, in spite of his feelings, Jones still believed while he was acting that he shouldn’t help the beggar because in doing so he made himself (mildly) worse off by skipping lunch. 

In a case such as this, I find it intuitive to think that Jones’ action of helping the beggar was not wrong, but permissible or perhaps even obligatory. In spite of that, I think it is still at least plausible to hold that Jones did something wrong. For even if an action A is not wrong, it does not follow that in doing A one has not acted wrongly. For instance, by moving one’s finger in a certain way one may thereby also flip a switch and thereby turn the lights on. Similarly,  by doing A  one may also perform another action—call it ‘e’—namely violating one’s conscience, and it might be that e is wrong because it is always wrong to violate one’s conscience. However good it may have been for Jones to give his lunch money to the beggar, it would have been better still if Jones had thought that by giving away his money he was doing the right thing, or a least a permissible thing.

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