Thursday, November 12, 2009

Ethics without Act-Sequences

Doug Portmore comments:
Do you deny that we make moral judgments concerning act-sequences or that moral theories need to account for such moral judgments? And what about my claim that we can fulfill and surpass imperfect duties only by performing certain act-sequences? Do you deny this? [...]

My argument is that we make moral judgments regarding the deontic statuses of act-sequences and that, therefore, we should expect our moral theory to be able to account for these moral judgments and that a moral theory that tells us only what deontic statuses individual acts have can't account for these moral judgments because deontic status doesn't agglomerate over conjunction.

Agglomeration fails for unspecific act types, e.g. "driving home". Driving home is (typically) permissible, as is drinking alcohol, but the combination of drinking and driving is not permissible. But suppose we offer more specific descriptions of the token acts, e.g. in the form "φ-ing in circumstances C". What's the argument that these fail to agglomerate? After all, the token action of driving in the circumstance of being drunk is precisely what seems impermissible here. We may expect that in any such case of an intuitively "impermissible" act-sequence, at least one of the individual token actions - fully specified - is impermissible. Stronger still, I think that whenever we seem to "make moral judgments concerning act-sequences" what we are really doing is making a moral judgment about the individual actions in context.

This seems intuitively plausible. Suppose you tell me that one shouldn't drink and drive. I concur: "One shouldn't drive when drunk." It would be odd for you to reply, "No, that's not what I meant! Not only is the act of driving in those circumstances impermissible, but moreover, the whole sequence of drinking and then driving irreducibly possesses this deontic status." I would not have the foggiest idea what further claim you were wanting to make here.

So yes, I deny that people make moral judgments that are fundamentally about the permissibility of act sequences. (Which is just as well, if my previous arguments are right that this would be incoherent.) What we commonly do is make moral judgments about individual acts, in the context of a sequence, or against the background of having performed other acts (and omissions). So it seems to me that Portmore is confusing ordinary judgments of the form "it's wrong to φ in the circumstances of having previously ψ-ed," with the far less comprehensible claim that the act-sequence of {ψ, φ} is primitively impermissible (i.e. impermissible in a way that doesn't just reduce to my previous claim about the impermissibility of an individual act in context).

What about imperfect duties? The same strategy applies. Suppose I have a duty to give to charity either at home or at the office, but it doesn't matter which. Portmore interprets this as meaning that the act sequence {failing to give at the office, failing to give at home} is impermissible. But we may just as well interpret the situation as one in which the latter token act is (given the circumstances) impermissible. Given that I failed to give at the office, the token act of failing to give at home is a straightforwardly impermissible action. If I had instead given at the office, then an act of this type -- failing to give at home -- would, in these altered circumstances, instead be permissible. But at no point are we forced to assess anything other than token acts (in context) in order to make sense of this.


  1. So, then any act-sequence is convertible into a single action within multiple contexts? That, any act-sequence we would generally agree to be impermissible, can instead be broken down into one action (or omission) that changes the context and a further action-plus-context?

  2. Yeah, that sounds like the basic idea.


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