Wednesday, August 10, 2005

The Immorality of Moral Justification

[The following is a guest post by Vera Bradova, whom some readers will recognize from recent discussions. I will respond in the comments section below.]

Moral philosophers have spent lifetimes developing and defending systems of moral justification. Should we justify by reference to higher authority, social mores, or the greatest good of the greatest number? Yet no one, not one person I have been able to find, has questioned or analyzed within the context of ethical theory the concept of justification itself, or its validity. Ethics dictionaries and encyclopedias ignore it virtually completely. Everyone asks how to justify. No one asks whether to justify.

My contention is that moral justification does not work. It does not give people tools for ethical decision-making. On the contrary; it facilitates moral irresponsibility and so undermines the entire moral enterprise.

Moral justification is, simply put, a process whereby a person who is evaluating a morally questionable act attempts to make it seem right. This person looks for a way to shine a favorable light on such an act in order to maintain a clear conscience. In other words, it is a kind of alchemy whereby unsavory actions are transformed by persuasive argumentation into something acceptable, if not outright positive. Lead into gold, evil into good! As they say, if something sounds too good to be true, it probably is. But this nifty trick has fooled people for hundreds of years, and the philosophers keep on riding the same worn rail, oblivious to any problems with this fundamental assumption.

The first problem with justification is that it favors the cunning. People are amazingly good at justifying their questionable actions, particularly to themselves. For clever people good at analysis or manipulation, such a stratagem is child's play. If justification favors the clever and the glib, it should give philosophers pause. Secondly, moral justification is, up close, a search for rationalizations. The only difference is the greater sophistication of the justificatory arguments. Is this what we want to encourage people to do when they are morally uneasy? Do we want them to spend time looking for loopholes and ways to whitewash or to sweep under the rug that which their conscience tells them is not quite right?

Moral justification is a way to get oneself off the hook, morally speaking. As has been so well described by Albert Bandura in his paper Moral Disengagement in the Perpetration of Inhumanities, it is a ploy used to silence moral qualms. (He says: "Cognitive restructuring of harmful conduct through moral justification, sanitizing language, and exonerating comparisons is the most powerful set of psychological mechanisms for disengaging moral control.") It is one of the key strategies followed by people who later commit atrocities in the service of some noble goal. And it is a process followed by any of us on a daily basis as we commit the little lies, cruelties, and injustices of our everyday existence. A kid lies to mom? Well, he really did it to spare her the worry. People steeped in the culture of justification are not likely to say to themselves, I'm a bloody liar, she deserves better, I've got to make this right. The habit of moral justification encourages people to say to themselves instead, I really did it for her own good, and that makes my lie just fine.

Bandura says: "People do not ordinarily engage in harmful conduct until they have justified to themselves the morality of their actions. In this process of moral justification, detrimental conduct is made personally and socially acceptable by portraying it as serving socially worthy or moral purposes. People then can act on a moral imperative and preserve their view of themselves as a moral agent while inflicting harm on others." As an antidote he recommends better social safeguards. But he stops short of examining the role of moral justification in formal ethics.

With moral justification as a given, it is no wonder that these days, conservative people who care about firm principles and who were raised with precepts such as "two wrongs don't make a right" and "ends don't justify means" are defending president Bush's lies as "technicalities" and "mere stretching of the truth," and in any case as deception well justified by the removal of a nasty dictator. No one is immune from the morally corrosive influence of justificatory habits.

Bandura's work has been received favorably, and there are efforts underfoot to model different behavior to bullies and other violent people. But as long as we use moral justification ourselves, why shouldn't the bully? And if moral justification is a bad idea in one context, shouldn't we examine its role in moral guidance overall?

63 comments:

  1. This is thought-provoking stuff, Vera.

    While your point is well taken, I think the problem lies not in justification per se, but rather false justification and rationalization. Surely nobody would deny your point that it's bad to make evil appear good. But what if the act in question really was good? Or what if we simply are not sure?

    This is presumably the paradigm case where justifications are relevant. If we are not sure whether an act was right or wrong, then it would be helpful to have some process which could help us gain this knowledge. That's where justification comes in. A good justification will establish that the act was right after all, and the person doesn't deserve blame for it. But if all the attempted justifications fail, we might think that the act was wrong after all, and the actor deserves blame for it. (Those critical of the actor might themselves offer opposing justifications in favour of this conclusion.) This exchange of arguments strikes me as an important and worthwhile endeavour. Reason, though imperfect, is the surest guide to truth we have.

    I'm not sure whether you intended this essay to tie in with our previous discussion, but if so, it does seem limited in some respects. Most importantly, your account fails to provide us with action-guidance. Sometimes, when faced with tough decisions, we want to know what we ought to do. But how can one possibly answer such questions without some general idea of what sorts of actions would or wouldn't be justified?

    It helps me to know, in advance, that it is bad to cause harm to others. That way, if I ever get the opportunity to cause such harms, I will know not to do it (assuming there is no overriding good involved). I will know that such actions would not be morally justified. Don't you think it is useful and important to have such knowledge? And shouldn't we be seeking more of it? (And isn't that precisely what those moral philosophers you so decry are trying to do?)

    "if moral justification is a bad idea in one context, shouldn't we examine its role in moral guidance overall?"

    It's only a bad idea in those contexts where the justification given is a bad one. To decry all justification on the basis that some are false, is as misguided as dismissing all evidence on the basis that some is misleading, or demanding that one never believe anything because some beliefs are false.

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  2. Vera,

    "Moral justification is, simply put, a process whereby a person who is evaluating a morally questionable act attempts to make it seem right."

    If that's what 'moral justification' means, then let's grant that, absent some special circumstances, it's a bad enterprise.

    Let us turn to the more interesting enterprise that at least good moral theorists are engaged in: attempting to find out whether or not a given action is justified.

    "The first problem with justification is that it favors the cunning."

    Your concerns here are not entirely out of place, and they remind me of Socrates's discussion in the Republic about why philosophers have such a bad reputation. This is not, however, a reason to stop investigating justification, but rather a reason to be cautious about it.

    Richard's analogy with evidence is very apt. This point applies equally well to theoretical justification.

    Secondly, moral justification is, up close, a search for rationalizations.

    Assuming this isn't just true by definition, you don't really support the claim. If you replaced the "is" with "often is," "sometimes is," or "can be" then your evidence supports the claim. If there is an assumed "always is" or "only is" then your supporting evidence is insufficient.

    And if moral justification is a bad idea in one context, shouldn't we examine its role in moral guidance overall?"

    Examine it? Yes. Assume it's probably bad? No.

    Everyone asks how to justify. No one asks whether to justify.

    To throw 'moral justification' as a practice into question is to engage in the practice of asking whether or not certain actions (in this case acts of justification) are justified.

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  3. Vera, I agree with Richard that you're only looking at half of the story of moral justification. You're asking "what role does moral justification play when people do bad things?" and you look at the ways in which it facilitates immorality. But you're ignoring all of the positive roles that it plays. For instance, rationalization can serve to silence your qualms when you do the wrong thing, but justification also helps give you the confidence of your convictions when you are doing the right thing (consider activists working for a good cause or soldiers fighting in a just war).

    Sometimes people make moral errors without realizing it. Sometimes people genuinely want to do the right thing but they do not know what is the right thing to do. Sometimes people do not pay much attention to what they should be doing. In all of these cases, good moral reasoning can help them do the right thing. Justification can correct their errors, solve the problem of deciding what to do, and provide motivation for doing something about important moral issues. Peter Singer's arguments for doing more to alleviate the suffering of people overseas and factory-farmed animals come to mind as examples of moral justification that can serve these three roles.

    Another limitation of your post is that it does not say much about what is the alternative to moral justification. Bandura says "People do not ordinarily engage in harmful conduct until they have justified to themselves the morality of their actions." If we accept this as true, the question remains: what would happen if we got rid of moral justification? You seem to think that people would stop engaging in most harmful conduct, but it is also possible that people who became convinced of the irrelevance of justification would feel free to engage in harmful conduct without justification. This would make things much worse. Or maybe there would not be much change in harmful conduct, since justification doesn't do much either way (it just rationalizes whatever you were going to do anyways).

    One way to view your argument against justification is as a claim about human psychology. What roles does justification usually play in people's moral behavior? Your response, that most justification is rationalization, is similar to Jonathan Haidt's social intuitionist model (which Chris will soon be describing in the next post in this series at Mixing Memory). Haidt, however, thinks that justification doesn't do much of anything, while you think that it serves as a force for evil but not so much as a force for good.

    The comparison to Haidt suggests another way in which your post is overly narrow. Moral psychology is just a part of a larger field of psychology. As psychologists know, people use forms of justification other than moral justification all the time. These other forms of justification are equally subject to rationalization. Prudential justification can lead people to make worse decisions (for instance, by making a choice that's easy to defend with supporting reasons, rather than choosing what they like the most). Still, prudential justification still seems to be an overwhelmingly good thing that helps people live better lives. Is your view of prudential justification as negative as your view of moral justification? If so, you are making a much more ambitious claim that will be harder to defend. If not, there is a tension within your view of justification, as most arguments for or against one type of justification also apply to the other type.

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  4. As a sidebar, I want to showcase a prominent moral theory that sets forth an action-guiding guiding moral principle that need not justify the person following as morally good.

    In the Groundwork to the Metaphysics of Morals Kant sets forth the 'good will' as the only truly good thing. The 'good will' is one that not only does the right thing but that does it for the right reasons.

    The right thing is to follow the Categorical Imperative, and the right reason is because that is what reason demands.

    This principle is obviously-action guiding, and in a sense it justifies the performing of actions that are in accordance with it.

    But even when we do the right thing, we never know whether we're really doing them for the right reasons, and so we never know if we have a 'good will.' So we never get moral absoution, since we never know whether we're really good or not.

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  5. Not all people all the time will engage in self justification of hteir own actions or morals. That being the case maybe what you really want to argue for is the identification of self justification (which is very common of course).

    > The first problem with justification is that it favors the cunning.

    there is a certain argument for engaging in jsutification then because if you dont then you might loose. If your argument is true (which is what you believe) you should take all measures to argue in favour of it. Still I wouldnt use that logic and certainly I wouldnt propose it in an open debate.

    -----

    > But if all the attempted justifications fail

    It seldom fails of course

    > Most importantly, your account fails to provide us with action-guidance.

    This stuck out to me also.

    > To decry all justification on the basis that some are false

    I think as I hinted above that one can make a reasonable improvement in regard to reducing hte amount of unreliable self justification one does. It is hard but I can think of a few simple mind exercises that can help.

    > What roles does justification usually play in people's moral behavior?

    I think self jsutification is very useful in every day life it allows you to make mroe moeny and do all sorts of thigns better. morally it may also help to some extent as well as hinder who knows if being honest with your self would make key behaviour match ideals or ideals match key behaviour.

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  6. I am delighted with all the feedback. First, some clarifications. There are many types of justifications, as people point out, ranging from pagination, to religious justification (justified by Jesus’ sacrifice), to prudential justification, to rational justification (giving rationales), to moral justification. The only one I am critiquing is moral justification. Naturally, giving rationales plays an important role in ethics, and I am all for it. In other words, I am all for "good moral reasoning." I claim that moral justification is "bad moral reasoning."

    The difference between rational justification and moral justification is in this: moral justification, if successful, exonerates. As one textbook says: "When you justify your behavior, you claim that in the prevailing circumstances, you did the right thing, and you aren’t sorry you did it." Moral justification only comes up when evaluating morally questionable actions. People do not justify taking a blind man across the street. They justify ignoring him.

    I am saying that moral justification and rationalization are of a similar, if not identical, nature. And it’s true that to show this, I will have to provide the proper argument, which I think is my next task. So to answer those who say that moral justification is rationalization only when it fails, only when the argument is transparently ineffective, I intend to argue that it is rationalization also when it succeeds. That is when it becomes dangerous.

    I am looking forward to reading Haidt and will keep an eye on Mixing Memory. I would agree with him that justification does not do much of anything, anything good, that is. It does do plenty of harm.

    Part of your responses deal with the question of, if justification does not work, then how the heck do you do x and y and z? Quite properly so. I will address that later.

    You also say that we ought to be cautious about moral justification. I agree! I think that the whole issue ought to become a key part of meta-ethical scrutiny. It cannot just be taken for granted. Is "to throw moral justification into question same as asking whether or not moral justification is justified"? Only if "justified" means examining its rationale. I do not claim that "moral justification" cannot be justified. Heck, just about anything can be justified if the person is clever enough, which is one of the reasons why it’s worthless as a method, IMO. What I claim is that it is a deceptive practice that is impotent to achieve what it’s supposed to achieve.

    And one of the things it’s supposed to achieve is moral exoneration. Has any of you paused to think where the idea came from, that moral justification can morally exonerate anyone? Since when is an argument -- a bunch of words -- a valid path to moral absolution? Or, to put it another way, since when does a bunch of intellectual musings substitute for remorse and amends?!

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  7. Vera, I should highlight some terminological differences here. I take 'justification' to be an objective normative notion, such that if a person offers a "successful justification" then it follows that the action really was justified. This is not to be confused with a psychologically convincing justification (which I think is what you are talking about). Rationalizations might be psychologically convincing, but if the action was actually wrong then the justification could not possibly have been a successful one (by definition). It must have contained some flaw or fallacy that we failed to recognize. There must be some reason why it's wrong, that our attempted justifications failed to take account of.

    Anyway, it doesn't much matter what words we call these ideas by, so long as we are clear on what we mean by them. (I do worry that your terminology could be misleading, however.) As I said before, I can't imagine that anybody is going to disagree with the claim that it's bad to offer merely psychologically convincing excuses (with no concern for whether they are rationally justified). But that isn't what philosophers usually mean when they talk about "justification". So I'm not sure what significance your point has. (Are you really disagreeing with anyone? Are you, for instance, suggesting that we shouldn't engage in rational inquiry as to the justification of particular acts, of the sort that moral philosophers tend to do?)

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  8. "People do not justify taking a blind man across the street. They justify ignoring him."

    Just because we do not feel the need to give a justification for an action does not mean we don't think there is a justification.
    Suppose that just as we're about to help the old man cross the road someone stops us and offers the following objection:

    'You know helping the blind cross the street may make you feel good but it's bad for the blind person. When you coddle someone like that they lose the ability to be self-reliant; it would be better for him if people let him find his own way across the road.'

    Surely we would then find ourselves engaged in the process of giving a justification for our action. (Self-reliance won't allow the blind man to avoid oncoming cars; we are all better off with mutual cooperation; etc, etc, etc)
    Would you find such a justification objectionable?

    You seem to operate from the assumption that we 'just know' that some things are right while others seem questionable. From there I'm not sure if your position is 'If it's questionable then it must be wrong' or 'If it's questionable we should just assume it's wrong.'

    But of course many people think of ignoring the blind man in distress, or talking down to their waiter, or treating people like sex objects, etc are things that they don't need a justification for.

    On the opposite end you have cases like Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finn. Huck is on the run with a runaway slave, Jim. He knows in his heart that this is wrong - Jim is somebody's property and running away with him is like stealing. And when he lies to protect Jim, poor Huck can't get over what an awful person he is for not turning Jim in.
    It might seem that Huck is the perfect exemplar of the moral system you suggest. He didn't try to justify his action - he knew it was wrong. And in a sense he took responsibility for it. He didn't turn himself in or pay anyone restitution, but he reconciled himself that he was probably going to hell.

    But most of us think (as I believe Twain intended) that not only was Huck justified in what he did, but that he would have been unjustified in doing what he (falsely) believed would have been right.
    (It's been years since I've read the book so please forgive any inaccuracies)


    "Since when does a bunch of intellectual musings substitute for remorse and amends?!"

    There is some philosophical literature that argues that moral justification, even of the genuine sort, does not always replace either remorse or amends.

    Almost all defenders of property rights agree that in some cases one is justified in violating those rights (though they certainly disagree on which cases that is true of). For example, I may be justified in stealing your boat or breaking into your cabin in the woods when it is necessary to save someone's life (even my own). Nonetheless, it is often argued that I owe restitution for any losses you suffer as a result of my (justified) incursion.

    There are also those who argue that in cases of tough choices, even where we are justified in harming (or failing to aid) one to save another, regret for the harm is still appropriate. Others of course deny that it is rational to have regret over an action one considers justified.

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  9. Richard: Yes, I do assume people do justification to mostly convince and influence others. So of course whether or not it actually is convincing is important. When you say that to you, justification is an objective normative notion, what do you mean?

    You say: "if the action was actually wrong then the justification could not possibly have been a successful one (by definition)." Earlier you said that justification is needed to help us distinguish between right and wrong. Is this not a circular argument? If you need justification to tell right from wrong, then how can you use "rightness" as a criterion of success?

    Yes, I am totally suggesting that we should not engage in "rational inquiry as to the [moral] justification of particular acts." And if people argue that we should, at least they should provide a meta-ethical analysis of the process before just blithely carrying on. Do you agree?

    Derek: I agree that people have reasons for their actions. All I was saying was that justification kicks in at the point where a challenge is issued, either by another person, or by one’s own conscience. If such a challenge occurs, of course I pay attention. No, I do not justify, but I certainly would explore the reasons for the challenge, looking at the supposed harms this action of mine is said to cause the blind man. Perhaps, now that the other person brought their concerns to my attention, I will over time notice that my taking care of the blind man indeed does seem to lead to increased dependency, in which case I would either say, increased dependency is not good, I must take responsibility. Or I could say, well, maybe we are both wrong and increased dependency is fine and dandy (re-evaluating whether x is wrong after all). I see no need for moral justification here at all. (Which leads back to the query of “how do we tell what is wrong”?)

    >You seem to operate from the assumption that we 'just know' that some things are right while others seem questionable. From there I'm not sure if your position is 'If it's questionable then it must be wrong' or 'If it's questionable we should just assume it's wrong.'<

    No, not at all. I operate from the assumption that we really do not know with any useful certainty that a particular action is morally right. (That is why it is so important to be on the lookout for post facto feedback, as with the blind man.) I do think that we have a fairly good idea about certain few wrongs, but that’s about it. So to answer you, I say, if it becomes questionable, don’t whitewash it via justification. Either take responsibility, or re-evaluate.

    Here is an example. Say I kill one person to save nine. I say, take responsibility for the killing (while also of course taking credit for saving nine lives)! Or reexamine whether you really believe killing people is wrong. Don’t just go, oh, killing is wrong, but in THIS case, it was fine and dandy, and walk away. That is, in my book, morally irresponsible.

    I think it’s time for me to reread Huck Finn! :-) Read it when I was way too young and way too European to really understand. Here is my take on that. Yes, Huck is right not to justify away his moral qualms. I see that as a sign of character. But he needs to take the next step, and reevaluate his basic premise about the right and wrong of slavery. Which is what at that time, many people were certainly already doing. You see, if he just justified, all he would be saying is, ok, failing to return slaves to their owners is wrong. But in THIS case, because of x, y, and z, it is morally fine. But I think you can see that what was needed then was not just to whitewash (remove moral taint from) individual failings to return runaway slaves, but to examine the whole damn thing.

    >Others of course deny that it is rational to have regret over an action one considers justified.<

    And that is precisely the problem! I argue that this approach has harmful consequences.

    Btw, I would tremendously appreciate any references you can give for the remorse issue.

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  10. "So to answer you, I say, if it becomes questionable, don’t whitewash it via justification. Either take responsibility, or re-evaluate."


    You seem to have a very limited notion of what both justifying and re-evaluating involve.
    Your model of justifying is: Assume the basic principle holds, then find excuses why it doens't apply.
    You seem to limit re-evaluation to casting the very general principle into question.

    But consider the following case: I believe that killing is wrong, but in order to defend myself I kill someone who is in the process of trying to kill me. You seem to suggest that there are only two appropriate options:
    1) Reject my principle that killing is wrong;
    2) Accept responsibility for doing something wrong.

    After all if I say 'Killing is normally wrong, but it wasn't this time because it was a case of self defense' I seem to be involved in a paradigm case of pernicious moral justification.

    Of course if what's pernicious about moral justification is that it absolves us, re-evaluating and rejecting the principle should be bad too, since it also absolves us. Both 'killing is usually bad, but not now' and 'oh, I was wrong, killing really isn't bad' imply that I did nothing wrong - that my action was justified.

    What you call re-evaluation falls under the scope of what moral philosophers take themselves to be engaged in when they engage in "rational inquiry as to the justification of particular acts."

    "I would tremendously appreciate any references you can give for the remorse issue."

    I had in mind the essay "Moral Luck" in the book Moral Luck by Bernard Williams. He argues in favor of the appropriateness of regret (and compensation) even when our actions are justified (also even where they are partly beyond our control - e.g. unavoidable car accident).
    It's a famous essay so you shouldn't have too much trouble finding responses to it.

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  11. Derek, I did not imply that reevaluating is a substitute for taking responsibility. It is part of the process of assuming responsibility, and comes later, after amends have been made – it’s a future looking process. For example, in AA they use the process where the alcoholic makes amends to all that have been harmed, within reason. But then, for a person to not repeat it, she has to become a different human being, one who does not drink in a damaging sort of way. That’s where the process of reevaluating enters. It’s not a trick to weasel out of anything… it is part of moral growth.

    Many thanks for the reference. Will read it. I just read another very interesting piece called Tragic-Remorse by South African philosopher, Stephen Wijze. He is a justificationist, but nevertheless argues as I do that tragic choices (e.g. Sophie’s choice, or I think your example of murder in self defense) carry with them responsibility too. Are you really so dead set on walking away from this killing of another human being without a smidgen of remorse? Just keep in mind that in order to get such cheap absolution for a grisly deed you are not likely ever to commit, you give away a lot. Have you considered the price you pay for this strategy?

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  12. Actually, I did imply that reevaluation was a substitute or an alternative to taking responsibility, sorry. Had been poorly worded on my part.

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  13. Vera,

    The way you now talk about reevaluation it is not longer a solution for Huck Finn. On the first version (where it is an alternative to taking responsibility) it was possible for Huck to reject the principle on the basis of which he evaluated his action as wrong.
    In the new version "it is part of the process of assuming responsibility, and comes later, after amends have been made". So for Huck to be able to re-evaluate he must first make amends for failing to turn in a runaway slave. Does he do this by turning Jim in, or would cash payment be sufficient?
    Then from there it seems he needs to re-evaluate his life in order to figure out how to avoid harboring runaway slaves again.

    Both of these notion of 'reevaluation' you talk about are important. The first is the case of evaluating principles and of evaluating actions against such principles. The second is an evaluation of one's life and one's priorities in the light of those principles that one endorses, ideally on the basis of sound evaluations of the first kind.

    "Are you really so dead set on walking away from this killing of another human being without a smidgen of remorse?"

    My point in invoking the Williams article was that it is an open question whether settling the question of justification also settles questions of remorse and regret.

    I am convinced that (under appropriate conditions) killing in self-defense is morally justified. And, except in cases of 'innocent threats', it seems clear that there are no ammends which need to be made. Nor do I think the appropriate response would be to reevaluate my life to see how I can become the sort of person who will let assailants kill me in the future.

    Still, except in special cases, it would be a sign of bad character if I didn't feel bad about such a killing. Whether that bad feelings is to be counted as regret or remorse or something else depends on what account one gives of those terms.

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  14. > After all if I say 'Killing is normally wrong, but it wasn't this time because it was a case of self defence' I seem to be involved in a paradigm case of pernicious moral justification.

    The logic "Killing is wrong" is not absolutely true if you will excuse it in a certain situation. In that case your rule is something different from "killing is wrong" and you should admit it.

    > Of course if what's pernicious about moral justification is that it absolves us

    I am worried about (moral) justification because it just results in irresolvable arguments and incorrect conclusions, these results in harm. (It is sometimes also useful even at a moral utilitarian level but possibly less than half the time?)

    > But then, for a person to not repeat it, she has to become a different human being, one who does not drink in a damaging sort of way. That’s where the process of revaluating enters. It’s not a trick to weasel out of anything… it is part of moral growth.

    What they do in these meetings in general is a trick - just a trick one might use for a good purpose. One of the best ways to make people change behaviour is to separate out the part of them that is causing the problem - give it a name like the devil or "the alcohol" or a psychological disease or something and then allow the person to hate it and not the rest of them. It is largely nonsense but it is a useful tool.

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  15. "I am worried about (moral) justification because it just results in irresolvable arguments and incorrect conclusions, these results in harm."

    Surely you must mean 'or,' not 'and.' You can't believe that in one and the same case moral justification leads both to irresolvable arguments and incorrect conclusions. If the arguments cannot be resolved then we never reach their conclusions. Also, to know that the conclusions are wrong, you yourself would have to be able to resolve the argument in question.

    By what means, then, do you reach your conclusion that the conclusions reached in 'moral justification' are wrong, and by what alternative method do you reach them? Are you using Vera's narrow definition of moral justification (where it just is finding an argument for whatever we want to do)?

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  16. Trapped like a rat! Damn. I walked into that one, ey? :-)

    Here’s the dilemma. I’ve been using another example to jolt my mind. A Catholic kid reevaluting whether masturbation is wrong. She does all the right things, searches her heart, looks into it carefully, asks people she respects, etc etc. By the time the next confession rolls around, she is no longer a person who believes it’s wrong, but nevertheless is in a state of sin since she did it while still believing. Does she confess and get absolution, just going thru the motions? Does she just shrug it off and no longer mention it to the priest? Both choices seem in bad faith (not to even mention the religious problems). Looking at what happens in real life, I think both choices. Some people keep going thru the motions for a while, others just stop confessing that sin. Many people see the problem accummulate over the years and stop going to confession altogether. (I hear some Catholic churches have been forced to close the confessional -- people stopped showing up!)

    As for Huck. He is stuck: not a good place to be thinking that he is going to burn in hell. And I could argue that his self torment is penance enough, but of course the slave owner would not agree. I am stuck likewise. You are right to say that my option (as stated at first) is as weaselish as I accuse justification of being.

    >My point in invoking the Williams article was that it is an open question whether settling the question of justification also settles questions of remorse and regret. <

    It seems that now at least some philosophers have accepted the intuition that some morally justified acts can be wrong, they are in a pickle. De Wijze says about this problem: …this insight [regarding remorse] from dirty hands theory articulated by Stocker (1990, p 13) is much contested by a very wide range of deontologist and consequentialist moral theorists. A central concern is that it is illogical and confused to claim that it is possible to do something that is justified, even morally required, yet nevertheless morally wrong. Susan Mendus (1988, p 340) puts it like this: There is no sense in the thought "morally wrong but morally justifiable."

    [Just a side note, a dirty hands situation is one where say a politician must do something morally terrible, like torture of a terrrorist’s relatives, in order to forestall say a nuclear disaster.]

    I think that Mendus is right. This is like trying to salvage the Ptolemaic system. Justification could only work by pretending that "serious evil vs serious evil" dilemmas did not really exist.

    >I am convinced that (under appropriate conditions) killing in self-defense is morally justified…. it seems clear that there are no ammends which need to be made. <

    So you do not agree with the Lorry Driver solution where the driver who kills a kid by accident thru no fault of his own feels terrible, and properly so (they call it agent-regret), and feels obligated to reach out to the harmed people to help with the healing? I recently read an Amish series where just such a case occurs, and the author makes a lot of sense picturing the young man who fatally injured an Amish teenager, reaching out to the whole community several times, and making a difference not only for them, but with his own trauma as well. I think that to say "no amends are needed for killing in self defense" ignores the trauma inflicted by having done a terrible thing like that, and misses the chance to examine what role doing amends can play in self-healing and that of others.

    >Still, except in special cases, it would be a sign of bad character if I didn't feel bad about such a killing. Whether that bad feelings is to be counted as regret or remorse or something else depends on what account one gives of those terms.<

    Exactly. Does that mean that in some cases, justification lacks the power to absolve? And what name would you give this feeling? Is there "something else"?

    Genius said: >The logic "Killing is wrong" is not absolutely true if you will excuse it in a certain situation. In that case your rule is something different from "killing is wrong" and you should admit it.<

    Exactly. How is it different from Killing is wrong, except when it suits my purposes for it to be right?

    >Are you using Vera's narrow definition of moral justification (where it just is finding an argument for whatever we want to do)?<

    I would love to see your own definition of moral justification, Derek. (Btw, the above, is, strictly speaking, not my definition. My definition is more like "finding a persuasive argument for what we did or are about to do is enough to make it right".)

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  17. "some morally justified acts can be wrong"

    That's a sheer contradiction, the way most philosophers use the word 'justified'. That's what I was saying in my earlier talk of justification being "an objective normative notion". The basic idea is that we define: "you are morally justified in doing X" = "it is right for you to do X".

    When you offer a moral justification for X, you are trying to show that it really was right for you to do X.

    If something is right, then it is right for some reason. A "good justification" is one that points out these reasons. If something is wrong, then there are in fact no such justifying reasons. Any attempt to point to such a reason will necessarily be mistaken. When you say "But consideration C justifies my doing X!", you are simply mistaken. X is wrong, so C does not, in fact, justify it. So your pointing to C is a "bad justification".

    That's how I define the terms.

    Now, it's an entirely separate issue whether you ought to feel regret sometimes even after doing the right (morally justified) thing. I think it's obvious that you should. If I have to kill one man to save the world, of course that's the right thing to do. But it's still sad that a man had to die, and I should feel regret that it had to come to this. (That's not to say I should wish I had let the world explode instead. Not at all. One can think that X was right but still regret that there weren't any better alternatives available.)

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  18. "finding a persuasive argument for what we did or are about to do is enough to make it right"

    If this is your definition of moral justification then you are wrong to say this is what most moral philosophers are doing with the moral systems they create.

    Philosophers don't claim that a persuasive moral argument makes an action right any more than they claim that an evidential argument makes something true. A sound evidential argument is grounds for believing a claim is true, and a sound moral argument is grounds for believing that an action is right. (Note that 'sound' does not mean 'convincing' - it means a valid argument with true premises)

    Also you will rarely find philosophers focusing on actions that they themselves have just done or are proposing to do. Most philosophers who argue that killing in self-defense is justified, for example, have never killed anyone, nor do they anticipate doing so.

    So I would define moral justification in more or less the way that Richard did earlier - it is the search for sound arguments for or against the claim that an action or class of actions are right. It includes the process of evaluating any such proposed arguments to test for their soundness. When it is done correctly it does not begin with a set conclusion and simply seek an argument in favor of that conclusion.

    "As for Huck. He is stuck: not a good place to be thinking that he is going to burn in hell. And I could argue that his self torment is penance enough, but of course the slave owner would not agree."

    But why should we think he deserves any penance at all? And why should we care what the slaveholder thinks? Surely we want to say that Huck did the right thing and that he is wrong to feel guilty about it. And I at least think I can support that with an argument about the wrongness of slavery and the rightness of saving people from it, even when that requires lying.

    And all this even though I haven't lied to save anyone from slavery, nor do anticipate doing so.

    Agent-regret, remorse, etc

    I don't have any more clear position on these matters than I articulated above. If regrettng an action or having remorse for it means I think it was wrong, then I clearly can't have those feelings where I think I was justified.

    At minimum I think a failure to have some sort of bad-feeling is a sign that one doesn't appreciate the moral costs of one's actions, even where that action is justified. Perhaps there is a further empirical assumption that our feelings are not as fine grained as our moral theories. On that view a failure to feel (irrational) regret in cases where one harms another justifiably or involuntarily shows a lack of concern for the rights or well-being of others.

    In any case I haven't done much work on moral psychology, so these undeveloped thoughts are all I really have to offer on that matter.

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  19. >That's what I was saying in my earlier talk of justification being "an objective normative notion". The basic idea is that we define: "you are morally justified in doing X" = "it is right for you to do X".<

    Richard: Can you actually provide rational underpinnings for this claim? In other words, how did you arrive at the conclusion that when you are morally justified in doing X it is right to do X? Or is this a basic postulate to be taken as self-evident?

    >When you offer a moral justification for X, you are trying to show that it really was right for you to do X.<

    Yes, that’s how I understand the process too.

    >If I have to kill one man to save the world, of course that's the right thing to do. <

    So, Richard, in your world, the only thing that is wrong with gasing Jews and turning them into lampshades is that Hitler just did not have a noble enough purpose? Aryan lebensraum does not do it for you, but another better purpose might?!

    >Philosophers don't claim that a persuasive moral argument makes an action right any more than they claim that an evidential argument makes something true. A sound evidential argument is grounds for believing a claim is true, and a sound moral argument is grounds for believing that an action is right. (Note that 'sound' does not mean 'convincing' - it means a valid argument with true premises)<

    Please Derek. You and I both know that what works in formal logic does not work in real world. In real world, moral arguments are messy, and there is no ready way to conclude that this or that one is unsound. Only the bad ones (the ones called rationalizations for that reason, and others) can be relatively easily dismissed. The point I am making here is about what philosophers actually DO. They behave as though to make a persuasive argument is enough. That’s what they spend their lifetimes on. When was the time you picked up an ethics textbook where the author described his efforts at justifying his own iffy deed, admitting a failure, and then embarking on figuring out how to make amends/changes?! If you know one, I will eat my hat.

    >Surely we want to say that Huck did the right thing and that he is wrong to feel guilty about it. And I at least think I can support that with an argument about the wrongness of slavery and the rightness of saving people from it, even when that requires lying. <

    That reminds me of something… I have often argued that such and such was wrong (e.g, burning people at the stake for holding, possibly, some offbeat views). But people argue that you cannot judge persons from another era by the standards of this one. I can buy it with the inessentials, but not with the key stuff. I would be interested in your view.

    As for Huck, whether or not you approve of it, he does actually feel guilty about it. As should anyone who is transgressing something big. It should never be just a shrug… And I argue from what actually happens in people’s lives. If a person feels guilty, then something is needed to deal with that. Of course, this is in the realm of moral psychology… but it’s all intertwingled.

    >I don't have any more clear position on these matters than I articulated above. If regretting an action or having remorse for it means I think it was wrong, then I clearly can't have those feelings where I think I was justified.<

    So what happens if you DO have them? Smother them because they don’t fit in with the theory? Or refuse to see that it was wrong? Nice try, but the cat is out of the bag now, and will not willingly go back in. :-)

    >At minimum I think a failure to have some sort of bad-feeling is a sign that one doesn't appreciate the moral costs of one's actions, even where that action is justified. <

    I agree.

    >Perhaps there is a further empirical assumption that our feelings are not as fine grained as our moral theories. <

    LOL! When the theory does not fit the reality, you throw out the reality?

    >On that view a failure to feel (irrational) regret in cases where one harms another justifiably or involuntarily shows a lack of concern for the rights or well-being of others.<

    Agreed. Also, I have not done much "moral psychology" either, but I know when I am being tweaked. To call such remorse irrational is pure balderdash. Howz that? :-D The nice thing here is that the reality of our emotions (those of us who care and try hard to be moral human beings) has finally caught up with moral philosophy, and is stirring things up. I will be cheering this process on.
    -------------
    So here is my question for you guys, to tie in with something Genius said. Are you really saying that there is no way of telling whether murder, torture, cheating, stealing et al are wrong or right, initially? The way to find out what they are is by coming up with a sound argument for a particular one. If I come up with a sound argument, then murder, torture, cheating, stealing et al are morally right. If I cannot, then they are wrong. Is that it?

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  20. "In real world, moral arguments are messy, and there is no ready way to conclude that this or that one is unsound."

    Yes. And the same is true of arguments for scientific theories, arguments in courts of law, and in pretty much any domain where people bother to make arguments 'in the real world.'

    I think that is grouds for a good healthy skepticism; that's why the same arguments (just like the same experiments in science) should be revisited over and over again. But that is not reason to abandon the practice of making arguments in any of these fields.

    "The point I am making here is about what philosophers actually DO. They behave as though to make a persuasive argument is enough. That’s what they spend their lifetimes on."

    If philosopher's believe that making a persuasive argument is enough, why do you think they spend their lifetimes on it? If all someone is looking for is a persuasive argument, as you yourself contend, they'll have little problem manufacturing one to meet their needs.

    Rationalizing one's actions is not a lifetime's worth of work. Continuing to test proposed moral justifications for soundness is.

    "If a person feels guilty, then something is needed to deal with that."

    Agreed. But there are at least two ways to deal with it - find that the feeling of guilt is well-founded or that it is not. If what was done was actually wrong, one should feel guilty and make amends (is it okay to stop feeling guilty after you've made amends? Perhaps that depends on the crime.) If what was done was not wrong, then one should convince oneself that the guilt is misplaced.

    The importance of moral theory and moral argument is to determine *which* of those responses are appropriate. That determination may never be 100% solid, but as far as I can tell the alternatives are blind guessing and blind deference to authority. From that field, I pick arguments.

    "LOL! When the theory does not fit the reality, you throw out the reality?"

    Why are you so sure our feelings constitute the moral 'reality' of a situation?

    Consider the person who was attacked by a pit bull and is now scared whenever he encounters a dog. Intellectually he knows only certain dogs are dangerous. And he knows that his brother's dog Fluffy barks loudly but does not bite. Nonetheless, he is afraid around Fluffy.

    His fear applies to the whole category 'dogs,' while his cognitive assessment of danger applies only to certain dogs. Such would be a case of one's emotions not being as fine grained as one's theories.

    "To call such remorse irrational is pure balderdash."

    Let me be clear on my speculation. There are two very broad possibilities about the feeling of remorse.

    1) Remorse is simply a feeling and has no cognitive/propositional implication. In that case feeling remorse can never conflict with any belief, including the belief that one's action was morally justified. In that case moral justification has little, if anything, to say about remorse.

    2) Remorse has some cognitive/propositional implication, most plausibly the implication is something along the lines of 'what I did was wrong,' or 'it would be better if I had not done what I did.' In that case it would be irrational to feel remorse and, at the same time, regard one's actions as justified.

    And, just as it would be irrational to belive not-P in the face of strong evidence in favor of P, so too it would be irrational to feel remorse in the face of a strong case that one's actions were justified.

    "Are you really saying that there is no way of telling whether murder, torture, cheating, stealing et al are wrong or right, initially?"

    They certainly seem to be wrong just on the face of it. The question is whether you consider that to be enough. I don't, because that 'seems wrong' test provides no way to weed out judgements based on prejudice and inconsistency.

    Have you ever engaged in arguments with opponents of homosexuality or 'race mixing?' It is obvious to them that these things are wrong in precisely the same way it is obvious to them that murder, etc are wrong.

    If we don't advocate recourse to moral argument, then there is no way to resolve those kinds of disputes. I just see that it is wrong to interfere with interracial/same-sex couples, they just see that it is wrong to allow such relationships to continue.

    There is of course no guarantee that proceeding to philosophical argument will resolve such disputes, but I think it is our best option.

    "But people argue that you cannot judge persons from another era by the standards of this one. I can buy it with the inessentials, but not with the key stuff."

    I agree with you.

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  21. Goodness, Vera, I'm not sure what I've done to deserve being compared to Hitler!

    There is a world of difference between killing one person in order to save the world from exploding (in which case everyone would die anyway), and committing genocide for no good reason at all. (Whereas the former saves billions of lives, the latter does nothing but harm. If you can't see the difference here, there's something wrong with you.)

    But if you insist on phrasing it in such a stupid and misleading way, then yes: the "only" thing wrong with Hitler's actions was that they lacked sufficient justification (in the objective normative sense). Just like the "only" thing wrong with rape is that it lacks consent. And the "only" reason my car is coloured is that it's neither black nor white.

    What utter foolishness.

    Indeed, many of your comments have exhibited an odd sort of absolutism. You seem to hold that if an act of type A is wrong, then it is always wrong to A. But that's silly.

    For example, lying is sometimes wrong, and sometimes not, depending on the situation. Same with everything else -- even 'killing'. Of course, killing is almost always wrong, but there are always exceptions. You don't seem to want to allow for the possibility of exceptions. That seems awfully simplistic, not to mention implausible.

    For example, killing in self-defence is sometimes morally justified (="right"). Like I said previously, you should still feel regret that a person had to die. But it would be foolish to deny the action was justified (e.g. "oh, I should have let him murder me instead!").

    Same with saving the world from exploding. Sure, I'd be upset that I had to kill the guy. But it was obviously justified nonetheless. The alternative was to let the entire planet explode, and only a lunatic (or a narrow-minded absolutist) could prefer that.

    "how did you arrive at the conclusion that when you are morally justified in doing X it is right to do X?"

    By sheer definitional stipulation. Like I said, that's simply what philosophers use the word 'justified' to mean. Just like if we define the word 'plog' to mean red, then it doesn't take much work to reach the "conclusion" that if X is red then X is plog. It's just true by definition.

    (The problem throughout is that you're using the word "justification" to mean something completely different, i.e. "psychologically compelling attempt at justification". But just like convincing you that P is true doesn't mean it is, so convincing you that X is justified doesn't mean it is. Both are objective notions -- the mere fact that something appears true or justified, doesn't guarantee that it really is.)

    Getting back to your earlier comments:

    "Earlier you said that justification is needed to help us distinguish between right and wrong. Is this not a circular argument?"

    This highlights the ambiguity in 'justification'. To distinguish right from wrong we need to engage in rational inquiry -- i.e. attempts at moral justification. It's an open question whether we'll succeed or not, as with any form of inquiry (cf. science).

    But note the difference between epistemic and moral justification. It's possible to have justified but false beliefs. So you might be (epistemically) justified in believing that X is right (= "morally justified"), even if that belief is false and X is unjustified after all. (Remember, "morally justified" and "morally right" are defined to be synonymous.)

    "Yes, I am totally suggesting that we should not engage in "rational inquiry as to the [moral] justification of particular acts.""

    So how do you tell right from wrong? Simply guess? Rely on the prejudice of "intuition"? Conservatives would love that, as Derek aptly points out.

    No, we need a 'critical theory' against which we can assess our intuitive judgments, and sort out which are truly justified, and which are mere prejudices that lead us astray. Else you might as well let your magic 8-ball tell you how to act, if you've given up on reasons and rationality.

    (Just imagine it: "Should I steal the old lady's handbag?" *shakes magic 8-ball and waits for answer...*)

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  22. "When was the time you picked up an ethics textbook where the author described his efforts at justifying his own iffy deed, admitting a failure, and then embarking on figuring out how to make amends/changes?!"

    This is difficult to come by simply because professional philosophical writing, at least in the 'English speaking world,' is not a confessional art. Professional philosophers don't generally tell us what sorts of things they've done in their lives, especially the morally iffy stuff.

    This fact, by the way, casts doubt on your claim both that 'moral justification' is what philosophers do and that it is the process of finding a rationalization for something we did or are about to do.

    That said, I can think of one example that at least comes pretty close: Peter Unger's Living High and Letting Die. Unger argues that the affluent (he specifically addresses an American audience) have a pretty substantial obligation to spend their disposable income on 3rd World aid.

    I'm not sure if he ever explicitly tells us his own practice before and after the argument of the book (I can't find my copy). But it is plausible to think that he once held the common view he describes where one is justified in spending on luxuries instead of aiding dying children half a world away.

    This may not be worthy of hat-consumption, but I think it fits to spirit of your request. I'll let you know if I run across any other examples.

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  23. You know very well I am not comparing you to Hitler, Richard, merely exposing the morally repugnant nature of your reasoning (as I see it). And since you know that this is part of the philosophical ethics game, I think you are trying to deflect the problem by accusing me of something you perfectly well know I am not doing. Maybe if it looks ugly and smells ugly, you ought to at least consider that it may actually BE ugly. That is what taking moral responsibility is about, isn’t it? If it has a bad moral odor, at least taking a second look?

    What you are saying then is, Gasing all Jews and turning them into lampshades is morally right, if it saves the world from destruction. It’s the same argument as “killing a baby for world peace” or “killing one to save 10”. The reason I am using it is that it is an example that hits the gut and shows the argument for what it is. Just as morally bizarre as it sounds. And it has the added tiny disadvantage of giving vast moral ammunition to all the genocidal criminals of our world who also think that killing a bunch of us for a really noble goal is moral. In fact, that is what the Germans thought – that killing Jews was for the good of the world. And Pol Pot thought that killing all intellectuals was for the good of Cambodia. And so on down the line. You can be down there in the trenches the rest of your life, trying to convince the Hitlers and Pol Pots and assorted terrorists of this world that their ends are not noble enough. I prefer to pull the rug out from under them once and for all.

    >But if you insist on phrasing it in such a stupid and misleading way, then yes: the "only" thing wrong with Hitler's actions was that they lacked sufficient justification (in the objective normative sense). Just like the "only" thing wrong with rape is that it lacks consent. <

    And that is where we differ, then. I think that "Gasing all Jews and turning them into lampshades" is never morally right, regarless of what good results may come from it for some. It’s not right here, or in Germany, or with the Martians. It is not only wrong for the bad stuff that comes from it, it is also wrong in itself. I find it morally repugnant to think that key moral evils are up for mercenary horse trading. And I would like to know why you think it’s perfectly legitimate to assume that "parallel lines never meet" as a basic self-evident postulate, or "when you are morally justified in doing X it is right to do X" but not the equivalent of "gasing all Jews and turning them into lampshades is morally wrong". Hm?

    >Indeed, many of your comments have exhibited an odd sort of absolutism. <

    Yes, when it comes to certain things, like torturing the innocent, etc, then of course I draw the line. If I (who is not about to torture any innocents) is not willing to draw a line, then how can we even hope for someone who IS contemplating torturing innocents will draw it???!!! Nuts. And you think it’s simplistic and implausible because you’ve bought the line that it is, and never really taken time to see if this line you’ve been fed is so. Indeed, I would say that most ethics thinkers have resigned themselves to it being so.

    >But it would be foolish to deny the action was justified (e.g. "oh, I should have let him murder me instead!").<

    You got your cultural blinkers on. These are two separate issues. Just because Kant went looney-tunes while defending his not lying, does not mean that it’s a given. Sheesh. Your mind is in a rut.

    >"how did you arrive at the conclusion that when you are morally justified in doing X it is right to do X?"
    By sheer definitional stipulation. Like I said, that's simply what philosophers use the word 'justified' to mean. Just like if we define the word 'plog' to mean red, then it doesn't take much work to reach the "conclusion" that if X is red then X is plog. It's just true by definition.<

    We are in agreement. And what I am doing here is seeing what happens to ethics if we take this self-evident postulate and throw it out. Just like a new form of geometry was constructed when the parallel lines postulate was thrown out, I think a new form of ethics can be constructed when the justification postulate is thrown out.

    >(The problem throughout is that you're using the word "justification" to mean something completely different, i.e. "psychologically compelling attempt at justification". But just like convincing you that P is true doesn't mean it is, so convincing you that X is justified doesn't mean it is. Both are objective notions -- the mere fact that something appears true or justified, doesn't guarantee that it really is.)<

    Richard, we do not have access to Truth. All we have is well corroborated theories. Which is not shabby at all. Similarly, we do not have access to Justification. All we have is some well-corroborated evil. Now while God may know if P is really really true, or if X is really really morally right, we don’t. And I am tired of ethics that tries to play God, just like I am critical of epistemology that does the same.

    >To distinguish right from wrong we need to engage in rational inquiry<

    That excludes most of the human race from the endeavor, then, doesn’t it?

    >So how do you tell right from wrong? Simply guess? Rely on the prejudice of "intuition"? <

    And you think reason is free of prejudice? LOL! Reason is just a human tool, and we are biased critters…

    Here is how I understand it. People who accept the recipe for being moral as "find out what is right and then do it" must search for a method that will give you the sure-fire thing. You gotta work very hard, via rational inquiry, to find that really really right action. After that, all you need is to do it.

    But this is not the only recipe there is. I follow another recipe altogether. My recipe says, do your best to examine the situation (with reason, intuition, asking mom, consulting the Golden Rule, considering the religious, cultural and philosophical traditions, etc etc etc) and then make your choice. It will likely be morally imperfect no matter what you do, because we are all imperfect beings. Then keep your eye on the consequences, and take responsibility for them. As a consequence, I am not looking for guaranteed answers for right and wrong. Therefore, I do not need a magic method to get me there. (And I agree with Paul Feyerabend that there is no magic method.)

    >Conservatives would love that, as Derek aptly points out.<

    And that’s supposed to be bad?! My main problem, Richard, is not with conservatives. It is with murderers, maimers, thieves, embezzlers, robbers, rapists, child abusers and their assorted ilk. And I will make alliances with anyone who is not one of the above, in order to be effective against them.

    >No, we need a 'critical theory' against which we can assess our intuitive judgments, and sort out which are truly justified, and which are mere prejudices that lead us astray. Else you might as well let your magic 8-ball tell you how to act, if you've given up on reasons and rationality.
    (Just imagine it: "Should I steal the old lady's handbag?" *shakes magic 8-ball and waits for answer...*)<

    Here is a story to answer you with. When I was very young, I had an abortion. I used my reason to decide on it. The reason of the person I was then, which gave my baby no chance at all. The 8-ball at least would have given it some small chance.

    Reason is no more magical than intutition is. And no less. It is simply a useful tool. But then, so is moral intuition.

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  24. >I think that is grounds for a good healthy skepticism; that's why the same arguments (just like the same experiments in science) should be revisited over and over again. But that is not reason to abandon the practice of making arguments in any of these fields.<

    I agree on principle, Derek, but the problem with ethics is, it’s been getting nowhere for way too long. We need an effective consensual ethical tool to do right by our world. In the meantime, humanity is careening wildly toward utter disaster. We need fresh thinking in ethics. Mine may not pan out, but hell, at least I am trying something new!

    >If philosopher's believe that making a persuasive argument is enough, why do you think they spend their lifetimes on it? If all someone is looking for is a persuasive argument, as you yourself contend, they'll have little problem manufacturing one to meet their needs. Rationalizing one's actions is not a lifetime's worth of work. Continuing to test proposed moral justifications for soundness is. <

    Look, if philosophers believe that a persuasive argument must be sound, and they do, then soundness is built into what I am saying. If we go century after century with no fundamental agreement and no significant progress, then there is something wrong here, don’t you think? We don’t settle for that in housebuilding or dentistry, why should we settle for it in ethics?!

    I agree with you on your thoughts about guilt.

    >The importance of moral theory and moral argument is to determine *which* of those responses are appropriate. That determination may never be 100% solid, but as far as I can tell the alternatives are blind guessing and blind deference to authority. From that field, I pick arguments. <

    I pick everything handy, and never go blind. :-)

    >Why are you so sure our feelings constitute the moral 'reality' of a situation? <

    I was just tweaking. I tend to throw out the theory first, all other things being equal.

    My moral intuition says that remorse is the latter definition you gave. How well it can be argued, I am not sure. But I am glad it’s being argued.

    >"Are you really saying that there is no way of telling whether murder, torture, cheating, stealing et al are wrong or right, initially?" They certainly seem to be wrong just on the face of it. The question is whether you consider that to be enough. I don't, because that 'seems wrong' test provides no way to weed out judgements based on prejudice and inconsistency. <

    No, I also do not consider it enough. I was just wondering if I was missing the mark with my saying that justification is used for moral absolution. If torture is neutral at the base, and a method is used to arive at what it really is, then perhaps my argument does not hold, because there is nothing to whitewash…. So I was wondering if you’d say they are neutral. Which you don’t seem to be saying.

    >Have you ever engaged in arguments with opponents of homosexuality or 'race mixing?' It is obvious to them that these things are wrong in precisely the same way it is obvious to them that murder, etc are wrong. <

    That’s where mercenary moral horse trading comes into its own! :-) I give you polygamy, Mormon, you give me homosexuality. I give you small local communities that have the right to remain white, you give me small local communities that can be all colors of the rainbow. Live and let live. [I am a big supporter of Jefferson's idea of self-governing local wards.]

    >There is of course no guarantee that proceeding to philosophical argument will resolve such disputes, but I think it is our best option. <

    I think human give and take and fostering good will is our best option dealing with the inessentials. The more we crack down on the inessentials, the less good will remains, the more everybody is fighting with everybody else. And the real evildoers run off with the store.

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  25. "I agree on principle, Derek, but the problem with ethics is, it’s been getting nowhere for way too long."

    Ok, but let's notice that this is now a different charge against the one in your main post.

    "We need fresh thinking in ethics. Mine may not pan out, but hell, at least I am trying something new!"

    The problem is that it's still not clear exactly what it is that your proposing. To the extent that I get an idea I'm not sure how different in kind it is from the 'old ways' you criticise.

    "if philosophers believe that a persuasive argument must be sound"

    Philosophers realize that unsound arguments can often seem persuasive. On the other hand if you think persuasive=sound, then yes, valid arguments with true premises are 'enough' to establish their conclusion.

    "I pick everything handy, and never go blind."

    But 'everything handy' doesn't give all the same answers, so you must have a method of sorting through all that stuff to see what to keep and what to reject.

    Now either your method is one of reasoning through each theory/tradition to see which claims are justified, or your method is different from this.
    If your method is reasoning, then you are using the method you claim to reject.
    If your method is something else, it looks like it has to be either some sort of random picking or else a blind deference to some authority (I include one's own intuitions under this head).

    "That’s where mercenary moral horse trading comes into its own! :-) I give you polygamy, Mormon, you give me homosexuality. I give you small local communities that have the right to remain white, you give me small local communities that can be all colors of the rainbow. Live and let live."

    And what of the non-whites who are living in, or who try to move to, the 'white-only' community? Are they to be forcibly removed? Can the local community decide to drive them out through harassment?

    Can they decide to make them slaves?
    What about a community who wants women to be subservient to men or one that wants to give forced 'treatment' to homosexuals?

    (See Susan Moller Okin's "Mistresses of Their Own Destiny" in Ethics Jan 2002 for why 'they can always leave' isn't a good answer)

    "I think human give and take and fostering good will is our best option dealing with the inessentials."

    But of course this assumes there is some agreement on what is essential and what is not.

    For many evangelical Christians the only 'essential' is whether you accept Jesus as your savior - everything else is just gravy.

    To the white supremacist it is essential not merely to live seperate from nonwhites, but also to be in a position of dominance over those groups.

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  26. Sidebar: Vera, I think you'd find the following book interesting, though it doesn't hit on any of our main disagreements.
    The Atrocity Paradigm by Claudia Card.

    Among other things she gives an account of remorse, regret, forgiveness, etc. As the title suggests she considers these in contexts where no true reparation is possible for one's actions.

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  27. >Philosophers realize that unsound arguments can often seem persuasive. On the other hand if you think persuasive=sound, then yes, valid arguments with true premises are 'enough' to establish their conclusion.<

    Since is does not result in ought, how do you propose this has a definitive application in ethics? As far as I can tell, ethicists argue the best they can, and then the next guy shoots them full of holes. Funny how dentists can find a way to agree, but ethicists hardly. If it was merely a matter of a formula, surely we would not be having this conversation.

    >But 'everything handy' doesn't give all the same answers, so you must have a method of sorting through all that stuff to see what to keep and what to reject. <

    I do have a method I mentioned already. It’s not a method that guarantees I will pick “right” but it helps me to know what is wrong. That is by assuming the key wrongs as self-evident. With the inessential wrongs I go mostly by gut reaction and personal preference, some reasons too but not necessarily conclusive in any way. Polygamy, fine. Incest, not. Would have a hard time explaining it rationally, I suspect. Did you read my response to Richard? I explained my method there. (I do not go thru each tradition to see what is justified. I look and notice, hey, all the major religions and other traditions say killing is wrong. Hm. My mom says it too. Hm. What does my moral nose say? Stench! Hm… What does the golden rule say? Categorical imperative? Yeah, just as I thought. What about the consequences? Quite a few undesirables. Looks like this evil is pretty darn well corroborated. Good enough for a basic postulate!)

    >And what of the non-whites who are living in, or who try to move to, the 'white-only' community? Are they to be forcibly removed? Can the local community decide to drive them out through harassment?<

    To get the system in place, some folks would need to relocate. If paid a nice sum of money, many would be happy too. Those that want to stay for the moment can stay, until they either decide to leave, or die. Mostly people would choose to leave for cash, and move a few streets down where they are wanted. No, slavery is out (an essential evil, under harm to life, as well as gross injustice). Can they be harrassed? Well, that depends. Can their neighbors snub them? You bet. Can they set their porch on fire? No, already covered in essential evils. We already have communities where women and men agree that women are subservient. You wanna crack down on the Amish and Mennonites?! What nasty thing have they done to you lately?! A community that wants to give forced treatment to homosexuals? If you mean heavily urging them into counseling, then sure they can. Alcoholics, too. "They can always leave" is not the perfect answer, but it sure beats "everybody has to be everywhere miserable exactly the same way, and nobody gets what they want."

    >But of course this assumes there is some agreement on what is essential and what is not. <

    Indeed. That is what I am laboring on behalf of.

    >For many evangelical Christians the only 'essential' is whether you accept Jesus as your savior - everything else is just gravy. <

    Good point, but in practical life, not really true. They also want to live in communities where people consider theft and rape wrong.

    >To the white supremacist it is essential not merely to live seperate from nonwhites, but also to be in a position of dominance over those groups.<

    Well, as I said, give a little, get a little. Nobody gets EVERYTHING they want, but if people get quite a bit of what they want, they are pretty happy… in my experience. Hey, maybe they could pay some blacks to boss them around for a weekend, the way some men pay prostitutes to tie them up and paddle them? Within reason, of course. Hey, just trying to be creative. :-) (For all I know, they already do! Internet makes the weirdest stuff possible.)

    Many thanks for the references. So many interesting things to read now! Gotta get off line and get a life…

    >professional philosophical writing, at least in the 'English speaking world,' is not a confessional art. Professional philosophers don't generally tell us what sorts of things they've done in their lives, especially the morally iffy stuff.<

    Actually, sometimes they do. That is not really the problem. The problem is, they never fail at justification… haven’t you noticed? That way, they never have to examine what happens then! I think we will see changes on this, but traditionally, this has been the case.

    When I say “what we think of doing or did” then of course it includes “mind experiments.” If it did not, most philosophers would have to get another job… :-) It includes the pretend stuff, naturally.

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  28. "all the major religions and other traditions say killing is wrong"

    Once again you're tring to turn agreement about a platitude into agreement about a principle.

    Consult all these major traditions again to find out:
    Is killing self-defense wrong?
    Is killing as punishment wrong?
    Is it wrong to kill everyone or just believers?
    Is it wrong to kill fetuses?
    Is it wrong to kill the terminally ill?
    Is it wrong to kill those who want to die?
    Is it wrong to kill animals?
    Is it wrong to kill in war?
    Is it wrong to kill for God's glory?

    As soon as you get around to actually applying the principle to difficult cases (i.e. the ones you'd need the principle for to begin with), the agreement evaporates.

    "We already have communities where women and men agree that women are subservient."

    You can also find slaves who endorse their own servitude. It's also interesting that you think the subservience of persons of one gender to those of another is different in kind from the subservience of persons of one race to those of another. I would consider it to be a difference of degree (and, in some circumstances, not even that).

    Here we have another example of a platitude that different people (though not everyone) will agree upon: slavery is wrong. But is it wrong if the slave 'agrees' to it? What kinds of subservience count as slavery and what do not?

    Once again consensus begins to fall apart just when we need it most.

    "The problem is, they never fail at justification… haven’t you noticed?"

    Sure they do. But why would you publish your failed argument? Once you see the argument is bad you cut it out of the draft and revise your account.

    "When I say “what we think of doing or did” then of course it includes “mind experiments.”"

    In that case there are clear examples where the justification fails.

    Consider the litany of 'problem cases' raised by deontologists against consequentialist theories. Such arguments often proceed by showing that the consequentialist theory justifies (even requires) killing a healthy patient to harvest his organs.

    Then some attempt is made to show what is wrong with this argument (it fails to distinguish the right from the good; it fails to take seriously the separateness of persons; etc, etc).

    Now if your complaint is that they don't go on to say, 'Yeah, but suppose I killed the healthy patient before I found out consequentialism was wrong - what do I do now?' then you're certainly right that they typically don't do that.

    But note that that question - what do I do when I've done something wrong - requires that we've already answered the first question - what actions are and aren't justified.

    We can't start making ammends until we have some basis of determining which of our actions were right and which ones were wrong.

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  29. >Once again you're trying to turn agreement about a platitude into agreement about a principle.<

    I am not saying that everybody agrees with me. I am saying that this is what I do, this is what I have done to arrive at my basic postulates. And in fact, if I arrived at my basic postulates by consulting a medium, it really would not matter, just like it would not matter with “parallel lines never meet.”

    I consulted my world for guidance. Out of this guidance, I crafted my basic postulates. They are not platitudes; they work very well for me. Yes, it is wrong to kill, so yes, in my world it’s yes to all your questions. It makes real morality possible, where previously only swiss cheese morality (or Kantian lunacy) was possible.

    It is true that I do not have agreement on all the specifics. But I think my system makes such agreement possible in principle. Whereas the system that is extant does not. Insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.

    I find great many things “not a problem” in the public sense. Subservience is one of them. Slavery is not, whether or not the slaves have agreed to it (and at least in this society, we have consensus on that). And I don’t care if the slaves are women, or blacks, or artists, or welders. And in this case, I wager a guess that the consensus-getting would not be a problem in most places.

    You are right to say that there are degrees of unfreedom. At one time, indentured servitude was a common thing, and many a poor person would never have made it to America without it. So there are certainly degrees to discuss. And ethics is not remiss to discuss such boundary issues. But the main outline is firm.

    >What kinds of subservience count as slavery and what do not? <
    The essence of slavery is NOT subservience. It is robbing a person of their freedom. European serfdom falls into that category too. And I don’t believe I will any time soon run into anyone hankering to go back to it. You may well say to me then, well, jailing people is also robbing them of their freedom, and I would say, yes, it is, and it too is wrong. That would be a good example where I would not get consensus from the culture around me at present, but as I said earlier, my system makes such a consensus possible, when understood as a whole.

    >Sure they do. But why would you publish your failed argument? Once you see the argument is bad you cut it out of the draft and revise your account. <

    Duh! Then you never have to deal with what happens in the real world when people do wrong, and it cannot be justified away. Ethicists ought to model to people how to behave when dealing with difficult decisions. In real life, you don’t scrap the draft or publish your argument half-assed. You have to deal with the moral mess you made.

    >In that case there are clear examples where the justification fails. Consider the litany of 'problem cases' raised by deontologists against consequentialist theories. Such arguments often proceed by showing that the consequentialist theory justifies (even requires) killing a healthy patient to harvest his organs. <

    Sure. And consequentialists carry on nevertheless. If it REALLY fails, how come consequentialism isn’t long dead and buried? Because consequentialists shoot right back and nothing ever gets resolved. That takes us back to my question, how come dentists and plumbers have lots of agreement, and ethicists don’t? They certainly, as a whole, know much more about proper argumentation than dentists or plumbers. And yet this knowledge avails them not.

    >Now if your complaint is that they don't go on to say, 'Yeah, but suppose I killed the healthy patient before I found out consequentialism was wrong - what do I do now?' then you're certainly right that they typically don't do that. <

    Maybe they should. Reductio ad absurdum has it uses.

    >But note that that question - what do I do when I've done something wrong - requires that we've already answered the first question - what actions are and aren't justified. <

    Yes, in your system this is true. So how come it gets such a short shrift in justificationist ethics texts? I should say virtually non-existent shrift…. >We can't start making ammends until we have some basis of determining which of our actions were right and which ones were wrong.< Are you saying that in the justificationist system, you just never get there? That would certainly ring true to me! (tongue-sticker icon, insert here)

    Look, we should wrap up. Too much stuff divides us. I need time to think. And I don’t want things to fall apart into sniping at each other and endless repetition. Richard, I would love to hear from you one more time, and then, how about you both (and Genius, or whoever) ask me one more clarifying question, and I ask each of you one too. Just one, and one simple answer. Then we’ll call it a day. Agreed?

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  30. "It is true that I do not have agreement on all the specifics. But I think my system makes such agreement possible in principle. Whereas the system that is extant does not."

    You keep saying this, but you never really describe how this consensus is to come about. Is the assumption that if we encourage people to look at everything and go with what seems right, we'll all come to the same answers about 'the essentials'?

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  31. Derek: There are many pieces of my system that I cannot describe in one little essay. I know the lay of your country, but you don’t know the lay of mine. It makes conversation difficult and frustrating. I will see what I can do to answer.

    Here is my query to you:
    Regarding the "recipe" for being moral which commonplace ethics follow, namely "find out what is right via rational inquiry prior to the act in question, then do it" -- has this recipe been rationally examined in meta-ethics, to your knowledge? Do you feel it has sound underpinnings, and why? Is it practically doable for most people? Is it effective?

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  32. Actually, two-level utilitarians (especially R.M. Hare) have done a lot of work along those lines. I'll write up an overview for you in a new post (perhaps within the next few days). In the meantime, you might be interested in the 'critical theory' link I offered in my previous comment (which is relevant to the theory vs. practice distinction).

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  33. Thank you, Richard. I will look forward to it, and am checking out the link.
    I do have a follow up question for you also:

    Do you draw no moral lines, ever, regarding evil in itself? Is there no act heinous enough where you just say no? Is nothing so evil that justification has no power over it, nor do any possible consequences redeem it? Is there no act so unspeakably immoral that by doing it, you would cease to be the person you are, and become something so alien to your own self that no payoff of any kind can induce you to agree?

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  34. I suggested back in the 'arbitrary ethics' post that something can be wrong only in connection to the harm it causes to human wellbeing. That is, an assessment of its consequences. Bad acts are bad precisely because they have bad consequences. If they didn't have bad consequences, they wouldn't be bad anymore. So I don't think it makes sense to speak of an act for which no "possible consequences redeem it". We need merely to get rid of all the bad consequences, and the act would turn out to be harmless. (Though it might still be "blameworthy", on indirect utilitarian grounds, as explained in previously linked posts.)

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  35. Vera: You requested a short answer, so I'll try to give one though it goes against my training ;). On one way of taking your question, Richard provides an answer with Hare, et al.

    On another reading of your question, I think it is implicit in central metaethical debates between Humean noncognitivists and their opponents when they debate the role of reason in deciding how to act.

    On that second reading, I think that either the 'recipe' works or else nothing does. Perhaps it is just my limited perspective, but I cannot read the genuinely asked 'what ought I to do?' in a way that does not demand a reasoned answer. (Unless it is just the factual question 'what does my antecedently accepted authority say I should do?')

    If our intuitions were a sure guide, we'd never need to ask the question. If 'right' and 'wrong' are just 'hoorah' and 'boo,' then the question is incoherent. But if the question is genuine, and we find ourselves asking it, then rational inquiry is our only hope to an answer. If it cannot provide one, then deliberation about action is futile.

    Is it practically doable for most people? To some extent it is available to anyone who finds themselves asking what they should do. Beyond that, I think the problem of ethical expertise (and of expertise in general) is very interesting and wish I had something interesting to say about it.

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  36. Richard, you have not answered my question. Let me illustrate it to make it clearer. Suppose you are approached by credible aliens from constellation Sadists-R-Us, and they tell you that they are planning to destroy planet Earth. However, they say, you can save it if you yourself (and they will provide you with the tools to do it): 1) round up all the children under 10 and torture them to death under excruciating conditions, or 2) infect all humans with a lethal strain of plague (but you, your friends and close relations will have immunity), or 3) roast all your close relatives or friends on the spit alive, and then eat them, or 4) insert the most hideous "unthinkable" evil you yourself can think of. Is there any point along the continuum of evil where you would take a stand and say, no, THAT I will NOT do?

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  37. Realistically, I wouldn't do any of those things, because I couldn't be certain that the aliens were telling the truth. But if we stipulate (for the sake of argument) that they are truthful, and that I can somehow know this, then I should do whatever would have the best consequences. If that means performing an "unthinkable" act in order to prevent an even worse one from occurring, then yes, I think that's the right thing to do. This is all just so much standard consequentialism, you do realize. We reject the doing/allowing distinction: If you allow something bad to happen, you might as well have done it yourself.

    I take it you have non-consequentialist intuitions. So be it. Frankly, I think it would be utterly morally repugnant for anyone to allow the total extermination of the human race when they could have prevented it. Non-consequentialists fetishize their own "moral purity". They care more about keeping their hands clean than they do about promoting and protecting the real interests of other people.

    So let me flip your question around: consider a horrible action that you would be (understandably) reluctant to perform -- say, torturing a baby. Are there any possible consequences that would make you reconsider, that you would be willing to sacrifice your "moral purity" for? Say the aliens would torture every baby if you didn't do this one, and then they'd blow up the world as an added bonus. Is there any point along the continuum of evil where you would take a stand and say, no, THAT I will NOT allow?

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  38. >"It is true that I do not have agreement on all the specifics. But I think my system makes such agreement possible in principle. Whereas the system that is extant does not."
    You keep saying this, but you never really describe how this consensus is to come about. Is the assumption that if we encourage people to look at everything and go with what seems right, we'll all come to the same answers about 'the essentials'?<

    Derek: The agreement about essentials ALREADY EXISTS. When I say harm to life, breach of trust, and injustice are wrong, this does not elicit gasps of disbelief. People question me about what they see as exceptions to the rule, not about the premise itself. Even Richard admitted that “most murders are wrong.” The difficult cases, many of them contrived, some not, are the interesting part, and certainly can be used to test how the system works. Nevertheless, as I say, the broad agreement is already in place.

    So the question is, how do we extend the agreement to the cases that are controversial and exceptional?

    In real world, people who have not given up on being moral still do wrongs. Sometimes they fall into malevolence. More often, they do them because they mess up. But sometimes they do them because they have no other choice. The last instance was virtually defined out of existence by justificationist ethics. Unavoidable evil, like irrational numbers among the Pythagoreans, was not permitted to cloud the horizon (originally, it was the theologians who refused to consider that God would build unavoidable evil into our world). But defining something out of existence does not make it go away. It just makes it invisible for a time. And lately, finally, some people have become willing to admit that no matter how much they try to clean up a particularly nasty evil with justification, the stench remains.

    Sophie’s Choice is an example of unavoidable evil. Once I had an argument about it with a religously orthodox person, and he insisted that according to his tradition Sophie should have refused to make such a choice and so escape the moral taint. So I said, you give both of your children to evil when evil asked for one, so that you remain unbesmirched? Besides, choosing not to choose is a choice also. Sophie’s Choice does not have a moral option. It only has three immoral options, and she had to take one of them. It does not even have a lesser evil the way Kant’s murderer puzzle does. There are two horrible evils and a third even more horrible evil. The existence of unavoidable evil drives home the necessity of dealing with evil directly, at least in such cases.

    If justification is not an option, evil ALWAYS has to be dealt with AS EVIL. You say that proxy-killing heinous murderers (capital punishment) is wrong, a state-sanctioned murder that brings into its scythe-sweep not only the guilty but also the innocent? Absolutely. You say that sticking them in prison where they are virtually robbed of any chance to redeem their life, where they can murder additional victims among inmates and prison workers and where they can get out and murder more people on the outside, and where they are a lifetime drain on all of us, that is wrong? I wholeheartedly agree! Both are terrible evils. There is no good here to choose from. So as a society we are trapped in Catch 22, damned if we do, damned if we don’t. The solution? We stop fighting each other about which evil to pick! They BOTH suck! After all, that’s why we call them EVILS! Instead of justificatin’, start brainstormin’. Once people realize that they really do not want either wrong and are united in their opposition to such awful choices, you’d be surprised at the good will and energy that is freed up to deal with the issue at hand. By tackling these evils together, we can craft something that is less imperfect than the choices we were fighting about. And the next generation can look at our solution, and say, hey, we can do even better than that. That, to my mind, is a realistic goal, and a goal worthy of a good society; would you agree?

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  39. Richard, you are a pleasure to argue with, and I understand your position much better now. Your argument has one weakness I can see: if you agree to kill all the children under 10 in order to save the earth from being blown up, assuming the aliens are completely credible and trustworthy, of course – it will take only 10 consequentialists who each agree to wipe out one decade worth of humans, to wipe out the whole human race. The aliens do not need to lie, all they need to do is coordinate the matters so that all 10 consequentialists act in unison, more or less. Then the aliens chuckle to themselves and say, we wanted to be rid of them, and here, we did not even have to do it, they did it all to themselves! Way to go! And hey, creatures this stupid and this cruel to their own, the universe will not even miss them…

    I very much believe that “there is no way to peace; peace is the way.” Similarly, the best way to make sure that the human race is not wiped out is do not do any wiping out myself, because myself is the only person I have real control over. (Which, I admit of course, is a different argument. :-)) I think this all impinges on the whole means/ends issue, and how the use of nasty means is a temptation that frequently backfires. A discussion for another time.

    I have realized that we share the same pet peeve: the fetishization of moral purity. I could not agree more, and this is one of the reasons I am speaking against moral justification. Consider it this way: Kantians say, I refuse to do evil, no matter what, to stay morally pure. (They delude themselves, but that’s another story.) But consequentionalists say, ok, I am willing to do evil, as long as I can whitewash it and make it look good. How is that not an effort for misguided purity?!

    Here is my way: If I have no choice and I must do evil (and I may torture someone in some situations, since you ask me), then I take full responsibility for the evil I have done (as well as, of course, for the good I accomplished). Evil remains evil, I am tainted, and I deal with it. To my mind, that is the only honest and responsible way to deal with evil. So my answer to your question, “is there any point along the continuum of evil where I would take a stand and say, no, that I will not allow?” is yes, I think there is such a point. But if I reach it, I do not pretend to moral purity via moral justification.

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  40. Derek, in response to your comments on the "recipe", I agree it's implicit, and I think meta-ethics should make it explicit and have a closer look.

    >On that second reading, I think that either the 'recipe' works or else nothing does.<

    Do I smell a bifurcation fallacy? :-) The recipe from authority worked for many people for many centuries. Before that tho, there was a better recipe that said, consult the accummulated wisdom of your tribe as well as the spirit world (i.e. authority plus intuition). It worked for most of human history. To go strictly by reason is a newfangled invention.

    As I think about it more, I see that to consider it further, we would have to look at the question itself that gives rise to the recipe. Some day, perhaps. This has been a great deal of fun, many thanks for making me think hard, and look at my ideas in a new light. I will keep checking this thread for any responses, and you can make them as long as you wish. I just wanted, I think, a sense of finishing up. But the arguments have actually gotten more interesting at the end of the thread, I think... :-)

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  41. "The agreement about essentials ALREADY EXISTS. When I say harm to life, breach of trust, and injustice are wrong, this does not elicit gasps of disbelief."

    Now we are going in circles, Vera. The agreement is only over slogans, not substantive principles. How long does this agreement continue when you tell them that included under these essential wrongs are self-defense, imprisoning criminals, eating meat, and killing plants?

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  42. That still leaves 90% of what I claim in place. When was the last time you had to kill someone in self-defense, eh? (Never did claim eating meat is wrong.)

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  43. What ethical system is there that doesn't imply that most killings are wrong? People agree with most claims of indirect utilitarianism, most claims of contractarianism, maybe even most claims of Kantianism if interpreted liberally enough. They all attempt to explain and build upon the same set of core moral intuitions. The question is how to generalize from these core cases to the contentious ones. I'm not sure how anything you've said helps with that, Vera.

    (P.S. Your response to me above makes me think our positions are not so different as I'd previously thought. I'll hopefully clarify this a bit more in that forthcoming post I've promised.)

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  44. Derek, I think I resolved the issue with re-evaluation we had discussed a while back. Re-evaluation is not a weaselish method, because it is applied across the board. If Huck decides that returning runaway slaves to their owners is not wrong across the board, then he is indeed off the hook and he can conclude that his remorse was misplaced and no amends are necessary. But it must be a change of heart and mind that applies to everyone, at any time and any place, not just Huck and Jim.

    In re-evaluation, a person decides that x is not wrong, universally; that he simply had made a mistake about it. In justification, a person decides that while x is normally wrong, in this particular case or set of cases there is a loophole. That's what makes it so weaselish. A way to duck, without having to deal with the congnitive dissonance.

    I am still looking into "blameless wrongdoing" for cases like killing in self-defense. It would recognize the tragic wrong of killing another human being, but would not demand anything more from the killer/victim.

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  45. Compare the following:

    1) It is wrong, always and everywhere, to kill another person.

    2) It is wrong, always and everywhere, to kill another person when no other lives are on the line.

    In re-evaluating the ethics of self-defence, I might move from universal rule #1 to universal rule #2. You would presumably call this "weaselish justification". But that's entirely uncharitable. It's not merely a "way to duck". One can actually reflect on matters and realize that absolutism is narrow minded and foolish, and that context matters.

    You are simply assuming that all attempts at justification are self-serving, and that none are done in the honest spirit of open inquiry. You have no right to assume that. What do you say to the principled opponent of absolutism, who has reached their conclusions from evidence and not merely wishful thinking? All along you've simply assumed they're wrong. But you have provided no argument or reasons to think this is so.

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  46. Richard, I am not interested in Swiss cheese ethics. Carving out loopholes smells unprincipled to me, because it is self-serving -- whether used by the philosopher who, say, wants to show that a death penalty is "right" or by a wrong-doer who wants to be off the hook morally. If you think it is not self-serving, I would love to see you argue that.

    Re-evaluation, as above, is not merely self-serving, it grants the same to everyone alike.

    >2) It is wrong, always and everywhere, to kill another person when no other lives are on the line.<

    Neat loophole for all the assorted terrorists and warmongers of the world. No, thanks.

    Richard, here is the deal. If murder is right sometimes, and wrong sometimes, if robbery is right sometimes, and wrong sometimes, and so on down the line, then what is the point of the whole moral philosophy enterprise?! You can call it fancy names, but it all really boils down to situationist ethics, which means really no ethics at all, just whatever suits me. Bah, humbug. Might as well roll over and surrender outright.

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  47. Yes, I am stating they are self-serving, because that is my moral intuition, and because I think it's rather obvious to anyone who really looks. If your self-interest is at stake, how can you argue with true openness? That is why Kant and Rawls have struggled with guidelines for such fair inquiry.

    If you really want me to mount a full-blown argument, then I will, but first, I would like to ask you this: search your heart and your powers of reasoning, your clearest moral sense of it, and tell me that no matter how you turn it over in your mind, you do not see it as self-serving. If you do that, I will do the argument.

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  48. Moral reasoning is a tool, as such it can be used for different purposes. I think that it is no more or less prone to self servingness than any other tool for moral evalution.

    Consider the 'listen to what everyone says, then go with what seems right' method that you seem to suggest. Whatever it is I want to do, I can find some tradition somewhere (after all, we're not leaving any source out - not even wacky philosophers) that will say it's okay to do it in certain circumstances. So I look around, find such a tradition and convince myself that it's the one that 'seems right.'

    Now of course you'll want to say that this doesn't give the method a fair shake, because people are supposed to be 'honest with themselves' about it, or somethign like that. But that's just what Richard and I have been saying in defense of the method of moral reasoning.

    In fact, moral reasoning has a leg up in this regard. Human beings have a tendency to rationalize (in the pajorative sense) their actions, and whatever method of decision making we use, it is in danger of being incorporated into such a process of rationalization.

    The special merit of moral reasoning in this regard, is that I can make explicit the reasons I am using to endorse my chosen course of action and make those reasons available for others to critique and debate. That allows them to respond, provide criticisms of my reasoning and offer reasons of their own. This provides a means to step outside of our own perspective and have our reasoning evaluated from another standpoint. This can never nullify the fact that it is ultimately from my own perspective that I will make any 'final' evaluations, but I think it does the best we can hope for in that regard.

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  49. >Moral reasoning is a tool, as such it can be used for different purposes. I think that it is no more or less prone to self servingness than any other tool for moral evalution.<

    Except I have not spoken against moral reasoning, have I? I have spoken against moral justification.

    >Consider the 'listen to what everyone says, then go with what seems right' method that you seem to suggest. Whatever it is I want to do, I can find some tradition somewhere (after all, we're not leaving any source out - not even wacky philosophers) that will say it's okay to do it in certain circumstances. So I look around, find such a tradition and convince myself that it's the one that 'seems right.' <

    None of this is what I have suggested or what I do. ZERO!

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  50. Look, Derek, I don't mind that you defend rational moral inquiry. But I do mind being mischaracterized and strawmanned. And I don't believe I need to tell you why I mind that, eh? Well, I mind moral justification for the same reason. It is not a principled way to argue. Period.

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  51. Vera, I mean the same thing by "rational moral inquiry" and (sincere attempts at reasoned) "moral justification". The enterprise of moral justification just is rational moral inquiry. That's what philosophers are doing when they discuss moral justification. (You keep confusing the term with insincere 'rationalization', which is simply unhelpful and question-begging.)

    As for your response to Derek, it doesn't square with your own earlier comments. Quote: 'I am totally suggesting that we should not engage in "rational inquiry as to the [moral] justification of particular acts."' Also, you've completed ignored the latter half of Derek's comment, which pre-empts your complaint:

    "None of this is what I have suggested or what I do. ZERO!"

    And of course the same is true of us, regarding your uncharitable misrepresentations of what moral justification is all about.

    So yes, I can quite honestly say that my position is held for reasons of principle and not self-serving whitewashing. (I've never had to kill anyone in self-defence, or anything like that.) I simply think that moral absolutism is rank stupidity, and utterly indefensible. But if you want to give it a shot, go right ahead.

    I should note though, that claiming "situationist ethics... means really no ethics at all, just whatever suits me." is not a good start. (And you accuse Derek of straw-manning!? Remarkable.)

    Let me be clear. In any given situation, there is one right answer as to what ought to be done -- and this answer is quite independent of what anybody happens to believe. If you think you should keep your hands clean and let the aliens blow up the world, then you are simply mistaken. No two ways about it. Certainly you can't do just "whatever suits" you. What utter rubbish.

    But nor can you ignore all the subtleties of the situation, ignore all the potential consequences, and merely make a decision about what ought to be done based on some simplistic "ten commandments"-style list of do's and do not's. That's awfully simplistic -- and life (and ethics) isn't.

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  52. Looks like we are back to sniping at each other. Let's not keep going down that path...

    I will be in touch anon.

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  53. What I am about to write is not a way to toss justification. It seems to me I am missing a part of the argument. It ties into what Richard had said earlier. I am looking for clarification. If I am being unfair to your words, Richard, please point out where. I am basically repeating what you had said (though in my own words).

    “We tell right and wrong through the process of moral justification. Moral justification produces a successful result (by definition) if the action turns out to be right.”

    This is what I am seeing: Moral justification produces a successful result if the action turns out to be right. How do we know the action is right? Because it’s morally justified!

    This is completely circular, and has nothing to do with any ambiguity or confusion with epistemic justification that I can see. It’s all strictly about moral justification.

    This is another way to put it (by analogy): Repairing my car by my favorite mechanic produces a successful result if the car runs well. How do I know the car runs well? Because it was repaired by my favorite mechanic!

    Clearly, the success of a method can only be ascertained if we have an independent criterion that can be used to falsify the results of the first method. Such as actually taking my car on the road and seeing how it runs. What is the independent method to ascertain right and wrong that acts as a cross check for moral justification?

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  54. Rationality. If careful and critical examination of an argument leads one to conclude that the premises are all true and the conclusion logically follows from the premises, then this suggests that the conclusion is true. (Obviously this process is fallible, but it's still the best one could possibly hope for.)

    The same holds for every form of evidence, and every form of philosophical argument. There's nothing unique about moral justification here. If you reject it, you reject the entire enterprise of philosophy.

    P.S. Be careful not to conflate the questions of (1) what facts determine whether an action is right/justified or not; and (2) how we can learn this.

    I'm primarily interested in the first question. You seem more concerned about the second. I'll discuss how they tie together in the promised forthcoming post. For now, note that a successful justification ties in with the 1st question. But of course we can't know for certain whether an attempted justification is a successful one or not, in this sense. Just like we can't know whether an attempted scientific explanation is a true one. In both cases, we have to appeal to the usual (and fallible) indicators of truth that govern rational debates.

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  55. Richard, I am not sure what you mean by #1 -- can you give a concrete example of the non-moral kind, so I can visualize what you mean? I tried it and got stuck.

    >If careful and critical examination of an argument leads one to conclude that the premises are all true and the conclusion logically follows from the premises, then this suggests that the conclusion is true.<

    The reason I raised the double checking issue is that we do not have access to Truth, and need different ways to corroborate. In science, it is experience in the world that corroborates or falsifies a theory (or a hypothesis); an argument by itself may look perfect but not pan out in the real world.

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  56. Re #1: no problem. Consider the question of what makes something red. The answer, let us say, is that it has the surface reflectance property R, such that only certain wavelengths of light will be reflected off it in normal conditions. (By contrast, we learn that something is red by a much simpler method: we just look at it, and allow our perceptual mechanisms to do all the hard work!) Similarly, what makes something hot is molecular movement. And what makes something wrong is, I argue, that it is detrimental to human well-being.

    It would be absurdly arbitrary to suggest that adherence to a list of do's and do not's could be what makes an action right or wrong. Surely there is some more fundamental property underlying this, and our rules are instead guidelines to help us track this underlying property in a more reliable fashion. (Much like using our eyes helps us to identify red things, but it is reflectance property R that makes things red. And our nerves can detect heat, but it is molecular movement that makes things hot.)

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  58. Hi Richard... been thinking for one reason or another of our discussion. Came across a uni site that lists moral fallacies, and thought it applied to our impasse here. "Just because something is necessary, does not make it moral." Maybe to kill all the 10-year olds to save the planet from the aliens is necessary, but it does not follow it's moral.

    But then again, maybe I already made that point earlier. Not sure. Would enjoy hearing if you had any further thoughts on this topic.

    Cheers,

    Vera

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  59. Hi Vera!

    If something is necessary, then it's presumably the best available action (perhaps for the trivial reason that no alternatives are available). Does 'moral' mean something other than 'best available action'? If so, you'll need to explain this.

    Oh, and I realize now that I never did write that promised follow-up post on "moral theory and practice". Apologies. I can't even remember what I was going to say any more (probably something related to indirect utilitarianism), though hopefully it'll come back to me...

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  60. Hi Richard. Necessary = best? I don't think so... If I torture (via grisly medical experiments) and kill a child (for organ harvest) to save ten children (of dying of a disease), and then meet this child-person in heaven to discuss it, I think he could agree the action was necessary to achieve the goal, but disagree that it was the best available since for him, it could hardly get any worse, and he certainly would have thought that letting him live & let the other kids die was the preferred way to go.

    It is a case of choosing the lesser evil, no? Conceivably, another person could argue that 1 case of medical torture and murder is worse than 10 cases of dying of a disease.

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  61. I tend to think that a person (who is not omniscient) cannot make the claim that some solution is the best available. They can only say that they do not see a better way.

    Hm....

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  62. Hello, I think that people should know what to do about moral justification for what they know is right, yes some people might "brainwash" themselves into thinking that what they are doing is justified but they should know on the inside what is morally correct. They shouldn't need any tools because for that in a way people would have to "give" them the tools, but a person can't teach another on what is morally justified. People may be able to help but won't be able to prepare them for every situation. To bring it back to the tool analogy, it would be like having a screwdriver when you need a wrench.

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