Thursday, January 15, 2009

Ignoring Reality Ain't So Ideal Either

Paul is unimpressed with non-ideal theory that takes into account agents' own moral failings or unreliability when prescribing what they ought to do:
Moral obligations ought not to depend on an agent’s character. We ought to insist that an agent with a bad character act entirely like an agent with a good character...

That seems inadvisable. Cases like the bad squash loser show that we ignore our moral failings at our peril. For a more high-stakes example, suppose God offers me a deal that's a freebie for a saint, but insanely risky for the rest of us:

(SaintOrSinner) God will save one innocent life now, but if I ever fail to meet a moral obligation for the rest of my life then a million innocents will be tortured and killed.

Should I take the deal? If I'm a saint (and know it), then it's clearly obligatory: I can save a life at no real cost, since - as a saint - I'm sure to meet my later obligations whatever they may be. But since I'm not a saint, it's very clearly impermissible -- I'd almost certainly be condemning a million innocent people to torture and premature death.

More generally, it's fallacious to move from the fact that it would be good to do P and Q to it would be good to do P. Remember that evaluations of act-aggregations and of individual acts may diverge:
If my future self cannot necessarily be trusted to do the ideal thing, this could radically alter what current decision would be for the best. Suppose my currently φ-ing could lead to (i) the best possible outcome if I were to follow this up with a series of acts S which I could, but actually won't, perform; and (ii) the worst possible outcome otherwise. In those circumstances, it is not best for me to φ -- doing so would have very bad consequences, due to my subsequent failure to S -- even though it's part of the best possible life. The divergence arises because at any given time I can only choose how to act then; I cannot perform a lifetime's aggregation of acts with a single decision.

So we need to be clear about what normative question is being asked. It may be advisable both (i) to do P-and-then-Q, and yet (ii) not to do P (because one is unlikely to follow up with Q, and the consequences of P without Q would be disastrous). This is perfectly consistent, because the two answers address different questions: one concerning the aggregation of acts that would be best, and the other concerning what present individual act would be best. It's just a basic fact that in non-ideal agents, these may diverge.

Two postscripts:
1. Although we will typically be more interested in deliberating over individual acts than collections thereof (since we can really only perform the former), there may be exceptions. See, e.g., my complaints about illegitimate appeals to 'Political Reality': they may be fine from an individual perspective, but sometimes we want to deliberate from an explicitly collective perspective, about the question of what 'we' (rather than just 'I now') should do. This shift in focus can be vital for breaking out of a bad equilibrium.

2. My old post on 'Accommodating Unreason' offers some reasons why, at least in low-stakes contexts, it may be better to treat people as if they are morally more reliable than they really are.


  1. I don't think we really disagree on anything here, except possibly the extent to which the question you're asking ("what's the most advisable moral option given my character flaws") is worth asking instead of the question I'm asking ("what's the morally right thing to do.") Too many people seem to jump to your question whenever there's the slightest breath of people behaving badly, particularly in political philosophy, where "ok, since you guys aren't voting for justice, you ought not to be voting for this good thing that requires justice either" is practically non-idea theory move number 1. But I take it that you'd agree that we ought to ask your question only where there is some reason to genuinely believe that the bad squash loser can't help pummeling the other guy with his racket, etc.?

    This is a particular problem in certain literatures. Two prominent examples: 1) Rawlsian distributive justice and the difference principle, which rests on claims about the unwillingness of people to work in order to help others (see Gerry Cohen's If You're An Egalitarian, How Come You're So Rich?), 2) the skeptical work in the global justice literature, much of which which relies on claims about, e.g., people being unwilling to treat people of different nationalities with the level of trust and regard necessary to establish relations of distributive justice between them. In both cases, it seems like the move is made way too fast between "people are behaving badly" and "people are always going to behave badly, so let's cripple their moral duties."

  2. Paul - I'd also like to separate "what's the morally right thing to do" (which is more like my question) from "what would be morally right if I could be relied upon to fulfill my subsequent obligations?" (your real question). These come apart, even when talking in terms of obligations, as my SaintOrSinner case shows.

    "I take it that you'd agree that we ought to ask your question only where there is some reason to genuinely believe that the bad squash loser can't help pummeling the other guy with his racket, etc.?"

    No, I think my question is the standard question of ethics (or practical reasoning generally), and the importance of it emerges not only when one "can't help" failing one's future obligations, but also when one quite simply won't manage to do so (for whatever reason -- be it apathy, weak will, viciousness, or whatever).

    For political questions especially, the stakes are so high that it would be insanity to ignore the likely consequences of the fact that people aren't saints. (As per my PS.1., you can ask more explicitly 'collective' questions of ideal theory, say about what combination of policies and attitudes would be best. But if you ever want to step in and recommend a particular policy for the real world, you work with the attitudes you've got, not the attitudes you wish folk had.

  3. Hmm... then our disagreements run much deeper than I thought. It seems to me that ethics is fundamentally critical, in the following sense: what X will in fact do is not directly relevant to the truth of any statement of the form "X ought to P." It can be indirectly relevant, in that what X will do might create facts that are relevant to the reasons that weigh in favor of the truth of the basic normative statement (for example, if P is "save money," surely the fact that X will have a kid, for whom he will have duties to provide, is relevant to the truth of the normative statement). But that seems fundamentally different from allowing moral claims to change depending on whether the object of those claims has a disposition to comply with one's duties or not.

    If nothing else, your formulation of the basic form of a normative claim isn't one that allows us to capture the sense in which it is additionally wrong for the sinner to turn down god's offer. But surely there is such a sense: it's wrong that the sinner is a sinner, and it is additionally wrong that the sinner is such that he is disposed to be the sort of person who can't take the deal, and thus has caused an extra death.

  4. (1) Your first paragraph confuses me. I thought my post pretty conclusively established that our future dispositions to neglect our duties are highly relevant to what we ought to do now. I assume it can never be the case that we "ought" to act in a way that will bring about catastrophic net harm. Do you really want to deny this? You think the sinner "ought" to accept the deal? (That's insanity, not ethics.) Or do you deny that this is an instance of "allowing moral claims to change depending on whether the object of those claims has a disposition to comply with [their future] duties"?

    (2) I don't think there is anything wrong (let alone "additionally" so) about the sinner turning down the offer. It's absolutely the right and appropriate decision, one he has every reason to make, given his circumstances. Of course, we can assess things other than this individual decision. We can lament, for example, that the sinner won't live out the perfect life that includes the aggregation {accepting the deal + acting perfectly thereafter}. And we can assess his moral character, lamenting the fact that he lacks the perfect dispositions that would have allowed him to save a life. That's bad or 'morally unfortunate', for sure. I can capture all that. They're just different kinds of evaluations we can make. It would be a mistake to conflate them.

  5. I need to think about this a little more... I suspect my position might need revision, but I'm not sure how extensive.

    Preliminarily, on further reflection, I think the sinner ought to [(be a person who is not a sinner) & (accept the deal)]. I'm not sure why you think the act-by-act question of whether the sinner should take the deal is somehow prior to the question of what the sinner ought to do over his whole life, when that answer is directly relevant to the act-by-act question. So in that sense, I do think the sinner ought to take the deal.

    Perhaps some of Broome's deontic logic tools will be useful here. I agree that "X ought to P" is not necessarily detachable from "X ought to P and Q," but I deny that "ought X to P" is the right question to ask in isolation.

  6. "I'm not sure why you think the act-by-act question of whether the sinner should take the deal is somehow prior to the question of what the sinner ought to do over his whole life, when that answer is directly relevant to the act-by-act question"

    I wouldn't say it's "prior" (though it is typically more significant to our moral deliberation -- see below), and nor do I think the whole-life answer is "directly relevant" to the individual-act question. Rather, I think they are two completely independent questions, as per my linked post on 'non-integration'.

    We should be clear what each question is about, since it seems to me that you are conflating them. The question 'What ought I to do?' is a question about an individual act. "Should I accept the deal or not?" is an important moral question that someone might deliberate over; if they reason correctly, they will conclude: "no, reject it". Morality is action-guiding, and this is the guidance it offers. This shows that good moral advice - advice about how to act - is sensitive to one's imperfections of character.

    Now, we can ask other questions besides the practical one of what to do. We can ask, for example, 'what sequence of actions would be best?' But note that this is a different question, and it would be a mistake to think that it provides the answer to the former practical question of what one ought to do now (e.g. whether to take the deal or not). It doesn't.

    I would further argue (though slightly more tentatively) that the 'sequence' question is actually 'theoretical' rather than 'practical'. But I found this was getting too long for a comment so I've shifted it to a new post: Only Action is Practical

  7. One thing this discussion seems to be missing is reference to the moral goodness of the relevant actions. Here’s a viable position for someone who wants moral obligations to be independent of the character of the agent:
    The non-saint, just like the saint, ought to take the deal. However, it is a morally better outcome for the non-saint to refuse the deal, given what we know about his character.
    Which outcomes are morally better can vary based on the character of the agent without moral obligations necessarily doing so as well.

    I’m attracted to offer this sort of answer on behalf of someone who thinks the non-saint ought to take the deal because this situation is quite similar structurally to supererogatory acts (if there are such). A supererogatory act is such that it is not the case that one ought to perform it, but it is morally better than the alternatives: it is morally best but not morally obligatory. If the morally best and morally obligatory come apart with supererogatory actions, at least conceptually, then maybe they also come apart in the SaintOrSinner and Bad Squash Loser cases. At least, this seems like a promising line of argument for someone who wants to insist that the non-saint ought to take the deal, while at the same time wanting to explain the contrary intuitions of his opponent.

  8. Matt -- take care to distinguish "not obligatory to phi" and "obligatory not to phi". Supererogatory acts are not obligatory, but they are certainly not impermissible either!

    It would be bizarre to hold that the morally best/advisable action was actively inconsistent with duty, the way you seem to be suggesting in the non-saint case.

    P.S. If moral duty and advisability can come apart, then I would use 'ought', 'should', etc. to indicate the latter. If you're wondering whether to do something supererogatory, the answer is "Yes, that's a great idea, you should do it." That's the guidance offered from the moral perspective -- and the whole point of morality is to be action-guiding. The weaker notion of mere obligation is far less important. (And if you really think "obligation" conflicts with moral advisability, then it's hard to see why we should pay it any attention at all.)

  9. Richard: I emphatically agree with you here, but it seems like a turn away from your traditional positions such as those in your accommodating unreason post. The political reality post is different, as in that case we explicitly are addressing the question "what policy would be best". We may then later have to address the question "how should I act" from the framework imposed here, but informed by our less constrained objectives.

  10. Richard,

    You mention that distributivity fails for 'one ought to'. What kind of Kripke-models exist for deontic modal systems incorporating that failure? Such a system can't be grafted on to K since distributivity of necessity over conjunction is a property of K.


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