Wednesday, October 01, 2008

Are there non-moral reasons?

If we can divide practical reasons up into moral reasons and non-moral reasons, presumably the latter could come to outweigh the former, such that one has most reason to do the wrong thing. But that seems incoherent: insofar as you did what you had most reason to do, all things considered, you have made no practical error -- on the contrary, you did precisely as you ought to have. It's platitudinous that an immoral act is an unjustified act ("there's no excuse for immorality," we might say) so insofar as one has sufficiently good reasons to justify an action, that action is thereby shown to be morally permissible.

In other words: to say, "You morally ought to phi, but all things considered you shouldn't," strikes me as downright incoherent. The moral point of view is precisely that which takes all things into consideration. So there are no purely "non-moral" reasons, if by that it is meant a genuine normative reason that is nonetheless irrelevant to the question what you morally ought to do. If it's a reason at all, then it counts morally.

I take it people are sometimes tempted to deny this because we usually talk about moral reasons in relation to advancing others' interests, and instead call them 'prudential reasons' when the interest being advanced is our own. But can't this be explained in Gricean terms? Insofar as prudential reasons are a proper subset of moral reasons, it provides more information to specify a reason as prudential. To call it a moral reason, though technically correct, would be odd in the same way that it would be odd to call Fluffy an animal instead of a cat.

To bring out the difference, note that whether we "prudentially ought" to do something doesn't suffice to settle the question whether we should do it. Maybe there are other, non-prudential reasons, which outweigh the prudential ones. But, as noted above, the moral question is the final practical question. If something is established as morally wrong, it's off the table.

Perhaps a moral minimalist could accommodate all this whilst denying that all practical questions have moral significance. Maybe the moral reasons are primary, and cannot be outweighed, but are also limited in scope. That is, moral reasons might serve as "side constraints" to remove certain options from the table, but then remain silent on which of the remaining options we should choose. None are morally obligatory, but perhaps some of the remainder stand out on other -- e.g. prudential or aesthetic -- grounds. Such a hierarchy of reasons seems coherent (contra the opening sentence of this post), but it seems to rest on the implausible assumption that no finer-grained moral distinctions can be made besides the crude division of options into permissible vs. prohibited. That seems implausible: even among the permissible options, some might be (morally) better or worse than others. Plausibly, one might be the morally best option, the one we should pick, even if we wouldn't be blameworthy or failing in our obligations were we to pick some nearby alternative.

Is it merely a terminological dispute whether we are to say that the (all things considered) best option is thereby the morally best option too? Perhaps. But if it is a clearer way of thinking and talking then perhaps it's worth pressing the point all the same.

21 comments:

  1. You're assuming the categoricity of the moral, which begs the question against the view you want to deny. I'm not sure why we should accept that moral reasons have this feature (unless we want to slavishly follow Kant). If moral reasons are non-categorical, then it follows that they can be outweighed, in which case it is not incoherent to say, "Well, morally, you ought to phi, but you have more reason not to."

    It also strikes me that particularists, like Dancy, have a point when they says that context can affect which reasons are relevant -- and the reasons which become relevant may not be moral ones. The moral point of view, e.g., claims that if something benefits me at someone else's expense, that's a reason not to do it. But in severe situations (e.g., life or death), that something benefits me at someone else's expense can not only be relevant to whether I should do it but overwhelmingly so. Think of Hobbes' state of nature: if everyone's out to get me, I'd be an idiot not to let morality slide and do what keeps me safe. (Yes, I know Hobbes says there is no morality in the state of nature, but the reasoning behind that rests on a tendentious understanding of what morality is.) So, practical reasoning and moral reasoning pull in opposite directions.

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  2. Part of my suggestion was that within morality itself, there is a recognition that acting on sufficient reason is morally exculpatory. This is just the contrapositive of the claim that there's no excuse for immorality. If you've got a good excuse -- as you suppose you do in the Hobbesian state of nature -- then what you did wasn't wrong.

    Consider: there are at least two ways someone might reconcile an initial divergence between the moral and the practical. They might shift the practical to match their prior notion of the moral, or they might shift the moral to match their prior notion of the practical. (Or any middling compromise.) I'm simply suggesting that the divergence cannot be maintained; I remain neutral on which resolution to prefer, so I am not necessarily inflating the importance of (one's prior notion of) morality.

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  3. That still looks question-begging. You're assuming that acting on sufficient reason gets one off the hook morally, which is the point at stake. The very issue is whether acting in the way that is favoured by the reasons is necessarily consistent with morality.

    And, technically, it's not the contrapositive. Starting with "If an action is immoral, then there is no excuse", contrapositing we get "If there is an excuse, then an action is moral." What you've said looks more like a substantive claim about what counts as an excuse, i.e., acting on sufficient reason.

    Look, the point is, underneath technical wrangling, that you want to say following practical reasons (i.e., being practically rational) is either the same as or part of being moral. I want to say -- and I'm not alone in this -- that being practically rational is one thing, and being moral is another. They may coincide in some situations, but not in all or even some recognizable subset of cases. You've -stated- your claim, but you haven't really mounted an independent argument for it.

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  4. It seems to me that Richard arguably does have an independent argument, or at least the start of one. Let's take his claim that the moral point of view takes all things into consideration; this is a different claim from the claim that following practical reasons is the same as or part of being moral -- e.g., if I say that the Canadian point of view takes the interests of the United States into consideration, I'm not saying that the acting according to the interests of the United States is the same as or part of being Canadian.

    So the moral point of view takes all things into consideration. But then Richard would seem right that "You morally ought to phi, but all things considered you shouldn't" is incoherent; since the moral point of view is a point of view when all things are considered, if you morally ought to Phi, then all things considered you should Phi. But then it seems that we can't maintain a sharp divergence between moral reasons and practical reasons.

    Needless to say, there are several points at which objections could be leveled against this argument, but there is an argument here, and it's not question-begging, since what is really being indicated here is not that practical reasons are moral in themselves, but that moral judgments are always all-things-considered judgments that include (among other things) practical reasons. This does not require the assumption that 'acting in the way that is favoured by the reasons is necessarily consistent with morality'; rather, it is a substantive claim about what is involved in making a moral judgment, and it is from this substantive claim that the conclusion appears to follow.

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  5. The analogy looks like apples and orangesto me. It's true that saying the Canadian POV takes US interests into account doesn't imply US interests are the same as the Canadian POV (although it does imply that US interests are part of the Canadian POV, by definition). But that's a bad analogy to the case at hand, i.e., that the moral POV takes all things into account.

    Key is the word "all". The assumption is that morality takes all things into consideration -- not that it takes some other class of reasons (say, aesthetic reasons) into consideration, but that it encompasses all reasons. The appropriate analogy would be that the Canadian POV takes into account all geopolitical or national interests. And from that claim it is trivial to show the Canadian POV is no more than some part of all geopolitical or national interests. That's become true by definition.

    Again: the claim that morality is all things considered judgements begs the question against those who would argue that moral reasons are one thing, and non-moral practical reasons are another, and thus sometimes the latter can outweigh the former. The assumption -- and it is an assumption -- that morality includes everything gets the conclusion for free as it is built into what is being presumed.

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  6. If morality takes all things into consideration, it does take some other class of reasons into consideration, namely, the class of reasons that are not distinctively moral in their own right. So that can't be the reason the analogy fails. You are incorrect, in any case, to claim that if we make the analogy "the Canadian POV takes into account all geopolitical or national interests" that it is then "trivial to show the Canadian POV is no more than some part of all geopolitical or national interests". First, because you are then saying that because the class all geopolitical or national interests is part of the Canadian POV that it would then be "trivial" and "true by definition" that the Canadian POV is part of that class. It's like converting an A proposition: there is nothing trivial about it. Second, there are alternatives that could be put in where it would not be 'trivial' or 'true by definition'. For instance, if the New York Times's POV were said to take into account all geopolitical or national interests, it would not follow that that POV was a geopolitical or national interest.

    As I said before, it is quite clear that the claim that morality is all things considered judgment does not beg the question in this case because it can be investigated independently of the question of whether the conclusion is true, by looking at what moral judgments do, in fact, involve. Additionally, there is no inconsistency between this claim and the conclusion that "moral reasons are one thing, and non-moral practical reasons are another"; taking the all things considered claim as a reason to reject this particular conclusion would require additional assumptions, because even if non-moral practical reasons are very different from moral reasons, it's still possible that moral judgment might take them into account. Indeed, one of the things the argument shows is that you can't get from "moral reasons are one thing, and non-moral practical reasons are another" to "sometimes the latter can outweigh the former" without either adding additional assumptions or begging the question, since without any inconsistency you can accept the former without accepting the latter. So it's pretty clear that "Moral judgments are all-things-considered judgments," is not the same as saying that "Morality includes anything," and your claims of question-begging are groundless.

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  7. Richard,
    I think there are some who think that moral reasons can be distinguished from non-moral reasons in such a way that it immediately follows that the former are overriding, but if that's not a guiding assumption, I don't see any incoherence in distinguishing the all things considered ought from the ought of morality.

    You wrote:
    In other words: to say, "You morally ought to phi, but all things considered you shouldn't," strikes me as downright incoherent. The moral point of view is precisely that which takes all things into consideration. So there are no purely "non-moral" reasons, if by that it is meant a genuine normative reason that is nonetheless irrelevant to the question what you morally ought to do. If it's a reason at all, then it counts morally.

    I take it people are sometimes tempted to deny this because we usually talk about moral reasons in relation to advancing others' interests, and instead call them 'prudential reasons' when the interest being advanced is our own. But can't this be explained in Gricean terms? Insofar as prudential reasons are a proper subset of moral reasons, it provides more information to specify a reason as prudential. To call it a moral reason, though technically correct, would be odd in the same way that it would be odd to call Fluffy an animal instead of a cat.


    Why would you regard prudential reasons as a subset of moral reasons? If PR's aren't really MR's, it seems that you might have two options equally balanced in terms of the moral requirements where prudence might then tip the balance. Ought all things considered X will depend on moral reasons in a sense (i.e., that there is not a decisive moral case against X-ing), but that you ought all things consider X is not something that can be understood from the moral point of view. Not unless PR's are MR's.

    I thought that earlier you held the view that the moral point of view was a kind of impartial point of view. Much in the way some have faulted utilitarians for trying to understand the reasons of friendship from an impersonal standpoint, I think we can say that there's a similar problem with understanding PR's from the moral standpoint. From the point of view of morality, you are just one more person who can benefit or be harmed by someone's actions. The prudent person doesn't think of himself or herself as just the nearest person on hand to benefit, they think of their interests characterized in personal terms. So, I would have thought that the prudential person understands prudential reasons only by adopting a stance or perspective that includes information that's not included in the moral point of view.

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  8. I suspect that this may be just another way of saying things which have already been said, but: Richard’s argument makes two moves. (1) assert that there is one thing which is what one ought to do, all things considered; (2) claim that this thing is (by definition?) the moral thing to do. I don’t see that a partisan of non-moral reasons need accept either move. Against (1), she could argue that there are real tragedies, where there are two things such that one ought to do each of them, but can’t do both. Antigone is right to think that she must bury her brother, and also right to think that she must obey Creon. But Creon has commanded that her brother not be buried, so whatever she does, she’s done wrong and must suffer for it. Against (2), the partisan can claim that the realm of the moral, although hard to limit precisely, doesn’t include reasons to do with, for instance, artistic self-development (consider Williams on Gauguin in ‘Moral Luck’), or athletic achievement, or being committed to a utopian cause. These reasons weigh heavily with many people, and it’s at least not obvious that they should always be trumped by reasons which are moral in the ordinary sense of the term, i.e. to do with what we owe to others and the side-constraints on our actions.

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  9. Chalk me up on side with Clayton and Sam C.

    Brandon,

    The analogy does fail, for the reason stated. If we assume -- I thought this was obvious, but perhaps not -- that "the Canadian POV" names some geopolitical interest, then if that POV takes all geopolitical interests into account, it does follow trivially that the Canadiain POV (as a geopolitical interest) is part of the set of all geopolitical interests. This shows that the modified version with the NYT is irrelevant: the NYT's POV is not a geopolitical interest (it is, perhaps, a journalistic interest).

    Your point that the moral POV may "just" take non-moral PRs into account just blows right by the point I was making: namely that you can't just assume -- as Richard has -- that the moral POV counts all reasons, not just the moral ones. Trying to say, as you have, that the moral POV "just" takes into account the non-moral PRs, as if that's somehow different from taking all reasons into account, is silly.

    You also say that "the claim that morality is all things considered judgment does not beg the question in this case because it can be investigated independently of the question of whether the conclusion is true, by looking at what moral judgments do, in fact, involve." This is irrelevant. Whether it can be investigated independently of whether the conclusion is true is not at stake. What's at stake is that Richard is asserting the claim in order to prove the claim. If there is some independent investigation possible, then let's do the investigation and see what happens.

    In short, you're operating on some bizarre understanding of what "begging the question" amounts to, whereby if there could be an independent proof of or argument for some claim, then no case of asserting that claim is question-begging.

    I don't agree with Richard's claim, and thus why I'd like to see him actually defend it rather than just explain it. But I'm done trying to figure out why you're so convinced there's an actual argument here.

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  10. that "the Canadian POV" names some geopolitical interest, then if that POV takes all geopolitical interests into account, it does follow trivially that the Canadiain POV (as a geopolitical interest) is part of the set of all geopolitical interests

    No, this is straightforwardly false; whether the analogy fails or not, your reason for its failure is simply confused. You are saying that:

    If POV includes all geopolitical interests
    Then: the set of all geopolitical interests includes the POV.

    This is like converting an A proposition. For comparison:

    If the set of natural numbers includes all even numbers, the set of all even numbers includes the set of natural numbers.

    It's like trying to convert an A proposition, or saying that because the leg is part of the table, the table must be part of the leg. Of course, it's even more complicated than that, since the relation 'taking into account' is actually weaker than inclusion, since inclusion is constitutive, but taking into account obviously is not. Consider the Canadian case again. If the Canadian POV takes into account all geopolitical interests, it does not follow that all geopolitical interests are part of the set of interests that constitute the POV; rather, the only conclusion that can be drawn is that among the set of interests constituting the POV are interests that involve consideration of all geopolitical interests.

    What's really doing the work in your so-called 'trivial' inference is not the consideration of interests, but that little bit in the parenthesis ["(as a geopolitical interest")]. Of course, on the (in this case, correct) assumption that the Canadian POV is a geopolitical interest, it follows that it is an element in the set of all geopolitical interests. But that's a completely different trivial inference than the alleged one you've tried twice, absurdly, to get me to agree to.

    Of course one can assume that the moral judgment takes into account all reasons. It's an assumption that requires support, but there is an independent way of finding that support if it exists: the one I mentioned, namely, looking at what considerations actually go into moral judgment. There are moral judgments; so there are facts about what goes into them. If one's prima facie assessment is (as Richard's was) that moral judgments take all reasons into account, then Richard's conclusion, that "You morally ought to phi, but all things considered you shouldn't" is incoherent, follows. If that follows then there is nothing in the reasons that supports the divergence thesis. Given the assessment of evidence, it follows but only as a nonmonotonic inference that it is false that "that moral reasons are one thing, and non-moral practical reasons are another, and thus sometimes the latter can outweigh the former," which is, in your own words, the position Richard is opposing.

    Your claim was that this sort of argument begs the question. It does not. As I've pointed out, the original starting point can be addressed independently of any commitment to the conclusion. Contrary to your claim that it is irrelevant, it is not; for if I have a premise P, which is put forward as a reason for a conclusion C, and I can investigate the truth of P independently of any assumption of C, this is very relevant to the matter. Begging the question, you will recall, requires one of two possible situations: (1) P and C are simply the same claim stated differently; (2) P, while different from C, cannot possibly be held on any basis that does not already assume C. If the truth of P can be investigated independently of C, (2) does not obtain. So the only question that remains is this: Is P really just the same claim as C, differently stated? You have not shown this, and it is not prima facie plausible. It might be helpful to remind ourselves of what P and C in this instance are:

    P: The moral point of view takes all things into consideration.
    C: The claim that "moral reasons are one thing, and non-moral practical reasons are another, and thus sometimes the latter can outweigh the former" is false.

    But P is consistent with moral reasons being one thing and non-moral practical reasons being another. P doesn't tell us anything about moral reasons; it talks about moral judgments, and says that they take all the reasons into account. So what you need to show is that P just is the claim that "No reasons ever outweigh moral reasons." But I suggested above that the link between the two is nonmonotonic: that is, P may be said plausibly to suggest that no reasons outweigh moral reasons. If the link between the two is nonmonotonic, they can't be the same claim, however similar. You, on the other hand, have done not one single thing to show that they are the same claim. Instead, you have simply claimed, over and over again, that P just is C.

    But this is begging the question in the argument before us.

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  11. ADHR -- I take the exculpatory principle ("if you have sufficient justification/reason to phi, then it isn't wrong to phi") to be a platitude of our ordinary moral conception and practice. That is, I'm committed to the norm that I must revise any judgment of wrongdoing if it can be shown that the actor was actually justified (i.e. acting on sufficient reason). If I didn't hold myself to this norm, it seems I would be making a narrower kind of judgment -- perhaps a judgment of altruism -- whereas I take myself to be saying something more than just that.

    Of course, insofar as I'm merely engaging in conceptual analysis, it's open to you to say that you have a different concept. Then we might be talking past each other -- I use "moral" to mean a kind of all-things-considered judgment, whereas you use it to mean a narrow judgment of altruism, or some such. That would be uninteresting. So to shift the debate to more substantive ground, we might relate it to moral practice, especially as regards moral censure. It's surely unreasonable to blame someone for acting on sufficient reason, or doing what they really ought - all things considered - to do. That would be ridiculous. So, insofar as we are committed to not being ridiculous or unreasonable in our moral practices, we had better accept the exculpatory principle.

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  12. Clayton - "Why would you regard prudential reasons as a subset of moral reasons?"

    You have moral reason to make the world a better place -- to make each person better off (all else equal) -- and one of those people is you.

    Could you say a little more about how you see the relation between reasons and POVs? I agree the prudential POV seems quite different from the moral POV, but I'm not sure why that should concern us.

    "you might have two options equally balanced in terms of the moral requirements where prudence might then tip the balance.

    That sounds a bit like what I discussed towards the end of my post. My thought there is that there's more to the moral POV than just "requirements". Even within the permissible options, some will be better than others. But I gather you want to suggest that even then, it's possible for the moral considerations to balance perfectly, in which case self-interest might act as a tiebreaker, so that "all things considered" you really ought to give the bonus benefit to yourself rather than to some otherwise similar stranger.

    Yeah, I guess that's a coherent view, and compatible with the main claims I'm wanting to make (i.e. the exculpatory principle). It seems a bit odd to me to think that there's really any more reason to benefit yourself than anyone else, such that breaking the tie in the other guy's favour is somehow less reasonable. So I would reject that view in the end. (The prudential reason here is perfectly balanced against an altruistic reason on the other side.) But perhaps that's a separate issue.

    Sam - I don't think I need to assume that there is always one all-things-considered thing to do. My exculpatory principle merely claims that if there is such a thing, then it can't be morally wrong to do it.

    "Against (2), the partisan can claim that the realm of the moral, although hard to limit precisely, doesn’t include reasons to do with, for instance, artistic self-development"

    Why wouldn't it? Excellence (presumably) has significant value, and anything which makes the world a better place thereby has some moral relevance.

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  13. Richard,

    I'm not sure how to reply to this, since I just don't think of morality in the way that you do. Here's an example to try and show what I mean:

    If I choose to save my own life at the cost of your finger, I think I've acted as I am obliged to, and done so because my prudential reason to save my own life vastly outweighed my moral reason to save your finger. I presume that you want to redescribe this as two moral reasons competing, but I just can't imagine anyone referring to what I did as morally obligatory. If I instead sacrificed my life to save your finger, I'm not *immoral* for doing so. I'm just bloody stupid, silly, irrational, or some other term of prudential evaluation.

    Alex

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  14. Alex - what's wrong with my Gricean explanation of why people wouldn't typically describe that as a moral (rather than specifically prudential) failing?

    From the more principled perspective of systematic philosophy, it seems awfully ad hoc to hold the moral principle that you're morally obliged to save lives over fingers except when the life in question is your own.

    And, just to point out the obvious counterexample, any utilitarian will say that your action - by making the world worse - is not just imprudent but morally wrong as well.

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  15. Well, the Gricean explanation might be available, but I just don't see why we should bother with it when there's a simpler explanation of what's going on: that people are speaking literally.

    The second point shows something interesting. I take it that the moral principle won't be "save lives over fingers, except your own", but just "save lives". It's just that this principle only *applies* to certain lives (I also imagine that's how to best incorporate the exclusion of certain animals from moral principles: the principle equally won't be "save lives, unless it's an ant").

    Consider a possible prudential principle: It won't be "no-one but me should take the best means to their ends", but "take the best means to ends", and this is a principle that applies only to me. We might say that the restriction of scope comes in the application and not the content.

    On the final point, I'm inclined to think of utilitarianism as a principle of morality, which says nothing about prudence. That might not be how it's been presented historically, but I think it's the least objectionable version of the view.

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  16. Is there any motivation for that approach, other than fitting common (unreflective) usage? Because the principled considerations I've brought up strike me as more philosophically important.

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  17. Distinguish the following propositions:

    ==

    1. The moral point of view is precisely that which takes all things into account.

    2. There are no purely "non-moral" reasons, if by that it is meant a genuine normative reason that is nonetheless irrelevant to the question what you morally ought to do.

    3. There are no purely "non-moral" facts, if by that it is meant a genuine fact that is nonetheless irrelevant to the question what you ought morally to do.

    4. There is an ordinary sense of "reason" in which there are no non-moral reasons.

    5. There is an ordinary sense of "fact" in which there are no non-moral facts.

    ==

    There is no more reason to think that 1 implies 2 than that 1 implies 3, which it pretty clearly does not imply.

    Nor is there any reason to think 1 implies 4 or 5.

    Suppose Albert promises Betty that he will visit with her on Sunday. On Saturday it turns out that Albert will suffer a financial loss that he can prevent only if he does not visit Betty. Suppose the relevant morality allows him in this situation to skip his meeting with Betty in order to attend to his finances. But if he does, he is not doing what he morally ought to do (or what would be morally wrong for him not to do). He does only what he is morally permitted to do. He has a moral reason (deriving from his promise) to meet with Betty and a non-moral reason (deriving from financial considerations) to skip the meeting with Betty. Morality sometimes allows non-moral reasons to outweigh moral reasons without treating those reasons as moral reasons in any ordinary sense.

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  18. I'm not sure I follow the example. We are to suppose that: (i) "morality allows him in this situation to skip his meeting with Betty", but also that (ii) in that case, "he is not doing what he morally ought to do (or what would be morally wrong for him not to do)". That's just to say that he is doing something morally wrong, so morality doesn't permit this after all.

    But I grant the point that "Morality sometimes allows non-moral reasons to outweigh moral reasons without treating those reasons as moral reasons in any ordinary sense." What I'm really concerned with is whether they are reasons that count in determining moral oughts. Maybe this is a non-ordinary sense of 'moral reason'. I'm happy to instead call it a 'potentially morally relevant reason'.

    (I think the clarification in terms of potential relevance might help allay your worries about the step from 1 to 2 or 3. It might turn out that some facts or reasons don't end up making any moral difference. But none are to be ruled out as irrelevant, or beyond the scope of morality, in advance.)

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  19. The point about Albert skipping his meeting is that he is morally permitted to do this, but it is not the case that he morally ought to do it and it would not be morally wrong for him not to do it.

    I agree that your clarification in terms of potential relevance.

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  20. I keep trying to change my final "that" to a "with" but I haven't mastered this system.

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  21. Ah, I misread you as suggesting there was some other action that Albert ought to do (and that it was wrong of him not to do). Thanks for clarifying.

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