Thursday, December 05, 2013

Manipulating Morality's Demands

We shouldn't aim to act rightly (as such).  For one thing, it would be fetishistic to care about abstract rightness rather than the concrete features that make an act worth choosing.  But, more than that, rightness is an unworthy goal because it is influenced not only by the intrinsic choiceworthiness of the action but also by the capabilities of the agent.  This suggests two very different strategies for acting rightly: One is to perform morally great actions.  Another is to stunt your own agency: become irremediably ignorant and/or incompetent, and very little can be required of you in future.  By manipulating morality's demands in this way, you can be confident in meeting its (now minimal) demands without difficulty.

Granted, the act of self-disabling should itself qualify as pretty seriously wrong (on any plausible account).  But if one's sole moral aim was to act rightly (wrongly) as often (rarely) as possible, then it might still seem an effective strategy, since more-capable agents are likely to often fall short of morality's demands in future.  One wrong act now, to prevent many wrong acts in future, might seem a worthwhile trade-off.

But of course this is a misguided way of thinking about our moral goals.  An act that is wrong for a highly capable agent (because they could reasonably be expected to do even better) may yet be a morally better -- more choiceworthy -- act than the best remaining (and hence permissible) option for a less capable agent.  As moral agents, we should prefer the former prospect to the latter.  So we should not aim merely to act rightly, or to avoid blameworthiness, or to achieve any other capability-relative moral status.  Our goals should instead reflect what's truly of value, or worth achieving: the promotion of human flourishing, perhaps.


  1. Jung made a similar point he said in "Alchemy and Psychology" that good and evil were meaningless when taken abstractly, and only meant something when applied to humans and their concrete actions.

  2. I wholeheartedly agree with most of this post. Keeping ignorant (or limiting one in some other way) to avoid knowing better moral choices is just as immoral as rejecting those choices.

    "Our goals should instead reflect what's truly of value, or worth achieving: the promotion of human flourishing, perhaps."
    The key here is to carefully define what we mean by "flourishing". I might define it as having lots of friends and family, being well educated, and financially well off. A religious person might see it completely in terms of someone's adherence to religious precepts.

  3. If you begin by defining "rightness" in an obtuse and ridiculous way, you can of course easily argue that it would be wrong to be right. What else have you shown here, really?

    1. You seem to have hallucinated a different post from the one I wrote. Try re-reading it more carefully.


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