Can an act be immoral if none of its component parts are?


Morality (Photo credit: dietmut)

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Take any complex immoral act: for instance, stealing a stereo system from a home. That act can be broken down into simpler acts: picking out the home, driving up to the home, walking onto the property, breaking in, finding the stereo, unplugging it, taking it out to the car, and selling it. Many of these component parts — planning out the theft, breaking into someone’s private place, taking someone else’s goods without permission or any other justification, etc. — are immoral. (Let me stress this: I’m not concerned with the question of which components are _illegal_, just with which are _immoral_). Other complex immoral acts might break down into many simpler acts, of which only _one_ is immoral. But are there any cases of complex immoral acts in which _none_ of the smaller components are immoral?

If there are, then I think there’s a problem for morality. Suppose I’m considering doing something — let’s call it The Big Thing — and that doing The Big Thing is simply of doing A, then B, then C, then D, then E, then F, then G, and then H. If there’s nothing morally wrong with my doing A, B, C, D, E, F, G, or H, then it seems that I can do The Big Thing without acting immorally. But if The Big Thing turns out to be immoral despite all its parts being morally permissible, then I am acting both morally and immorally in doing The Big Thing. And that just doesn’t seem to make much sense.

My view at present is that there are no cases of complex immoral acts in which all the component parts are morally permissible. However, there are a few sorts of cases that sometimes get presented as counterexamples. I think there are ways around these cases, but I won’t tell you yet how I think that’s to be done because I’d rather start off by hearing whether anyone else thinks there are problems with these counterexamples.

Here’s an example of each of the two types of case:

1) There are a thousand people strapped to a thousand beds, and each person is hooked up to a torture device. Each torture device has a dial with settings from 1 to 1,000. At setting 1, the person feels no pain whatsoever. At setting 1,000, the person feels excruciating agony. All the settings between 1 and 1,000 are evenly spaced out. Given any two settings right next to one another, switching from one to the next won’t create any difference in sensation (and if you don’t believe that, then you can imagine a case where there are 10,000 people strapped to 10,000 beds and the settings go up to 10,000).

Now, is there anything immoral in switching a dial from 1 to 2? Apparently not: how can there be, if the patient won’t even feel the difference between them? Same with switching a dial from 2 to 3, or from 203 to 204, or between any other two numbers. However, switching a patient from 1 to 1,000 is taking someone from a state of feeling completely fine and putting him/her in extreme agony, so _that’s_ definitely wrong. But now a paradoxical result looms. Suppose that there are a thousand torturers, each at a different bed. All the dials are currently at 1. At the same time, all the torturers switch the dials one notch forward, then they all advance to the next bed and switch that one one notch forward. So the first torturer begins by adjusting the first person’s setting from 1 to 2, then the second person’s setting from 2 to 3, then the third person’s setting from 3 to 4, and so on. None of the torturers ever adjusts any patient’s setting by more than one notch. So, it seems, none of the torturers has harmed any of the patients. And yet, when you look at the combined actions of all the torturers, they have moved a thousand people from painlessness to extreme agony. So, is this a case of a combination of individually innocent sub-actions being combined to form an immoral, larger action?

2) Now for another sort of case. It might be _rude_ of me to approach someone and ask him to give me $10,000, but there’s nothing _immoral_ in my doing so and nothing immoral in his giving me that amount of money or refusing to, as he wishes. It would be different if I were to ask for the money while holding a knife to his throat, since in that case I’d be giving him a choice between two outcomes, one of which (my cutting his throat against his will) is immoral. But what if the other option I gave him were morally permissible? Suppose the man is a public figure, and that I happened to snap some photographs of him being drunk and somewhat disorderly with friends one evening. I don’t think that his having been drunk then is a problem for him (he’s not a chronic drinker, but just wanted to let loose one time on a special occasion), but I realize the public might see things differently and that, if these images were publicized, it would probably spell the end of his life in politics. It doesn’t seem that I’m morally obligated to share the pictures in that case, but it also seems morally permissible for me to do so. So whether or not I publicize them, I’m not doing anything wrong. Now, I approach him and explain the situation, showing him copies of the pictures. I tell him that I’m somewhat inclined to publicize the photos, but that I definitely won’t if he pays me $10,000. I’m giving him a choice: give me the money (and as we’ve seen, there’s nothing wrong with my asking for it or his giving it to me), or else I’ll do something that I’m perfectly entitled to do, morally speaking. There doesn’t seem to be anything morally wrong either way, unlike in the knife-at-the-throat case; but when you put it all together, I’m engaging in blackmail, which seems clearly immoral.

What do you think, Episyllogists? Are these cases of immoral acts whose components are all morally permissible?

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33 thoughts on “Can an act be immoral if none of its component parts are?

  1. It’s the person’s “intent” that is immoral, no matter how many benign (or “moral”) steps are needed to reach that intent. If the intent is achieved, then the person was immoral. Police won’t arrest a person for thinking of ways to murder someone, but once the murder happens, everything that led up to the murder is also immoral.


  2. Thank you for this, Tara! I’m glad you raised the issue of intent. It’s actually central to the problem I’m working on, and I’m glad it came up in the very first comment on my post.

    Now that I’ve got your attention, may I please ask you a few questions about intent and morality? I’ll give you three different vignettes. In each case, the question is whether the main character in each vignette is acting with an immoral intent. You may have heard of some of these before. Here goes:

    Case 1: The Switch. There are five people working on a long trestle bridge over a deep and rocky ravine. Susan — an extremely good engineer — is watching them, and then notices to her horror that the brakes of a trolley loaded up with heavy supplies is improperly secured and is about to start running down the hill on the same track. She quickly works out that the trolley will gain enough momentum by the time it hits the bridge that it will run over each of the five workers one at a time, killing them all. There is no way that the any of the workers can run or jump to safety or otherwise avoid the trolley if it comes bearing down on them, even if she shouts a warning to them. Fortunately, she notices that there is a switch nearby on the tracks, and that the switch will divert the trolley onto a side-track. This isn’t a perfect solution to the problem, since there is a single worker on the side-track also. But it’s the only other option. Reasoning that five lives saved and one death is better than one life saved and five deaths, Susan throws the switch and diverts the trolley to the side-track. Did she act with immoral intent?

    Case 2: The Fat Man. Again, there are five people working on the same trestle bridge, and a runaway trolley, and the expert engineer (called ‘Suzie’ this time). This time, though, there is no switch, and Suzie is watching events unfold from a footbridge over the tracks. She considers throwing herself off the tracks into the path of the trolley to save the five, but she can see that the trolley would just kill her and still retain enough momentum to kill the five workers: she’s just not bulky enough. However, she notices an extremely fat man (a tourist) on the footbridge with her, and he is now leaning on the shaky railing of the bridge to get a photograph of the scenery. Suzie can see that this man’s bulk would be enough to stop the trolley and save the five, though he would surely die in the process. Reasoning that it’s better to lose one innocent life than to lose five, she shakes the loose railing and, as she calculated, the fat man falls onto the track and is killed by the trolley, saving the five workers from certain death. Did she act with immoral intent?

    Case 3: The Organ Transplants. It’s the year 2113. Organ transplants are now easy to perform and sure-fire: any healthy person can donate an organ to anyone else and the transplants are always permanently successful. Unfortunately, there are not enough organs to go around at one hospital. There are five patients in the intensive care unit. Two need kidneys, two need lungs, and one needs a heart. They’ve waited for weeks with no donors. Suzanne, the brilliant surgeon looking after them, realizes that they will all die within the day if they don’t receive transplants. Worse still, they can’t transplant organs to one another, since their health is compromised. But whichever of them receive transplants within the day will be restored to full health. At this desperate moment, someone wanders into the ICU by accident while looking for a different room (he’s an unemployed stranger in town and is looking for work). He happens to mention to Suzanne that he is in perfect health, having just passed a physical exam. Suzanne realizes that this man will have friends, family, loved ones, and incomplete life goals; but the same is true of each of her five patients. Reasoning that five living and one dead is better than five dead and one alive, she stealthily injects the stranger with a strong narcotic and transplants his organs into her five patients, saving them all at the expense of the stranger (whose other remains are thrown into the incinerator without anyone becoming suspicious). Did she act with immoral intent?

    Most people (when asked these questions _separately_) say that Susan acted with moral intent, and that Suzie acted with immoral intent. More or less everyone says that Suzanne acted with immoral intent. Do you agree with this? Whether or not you do, could you please clarify what it takes for someone to have a moral or an immoral intent? These vignettes are meant to show that it might not be a simple matter of acting with the intention of bringing about the most good.

    Thank you! This is helpful so far.


  3. The formula I remember is INTENTION – ACTION – CONSEQUENCES for moral assessment. And, of course, there are problems with each part of the formula. Justinfromcanada writes as if there is a clear notion of ACT. But what is an act? The 13 year old in Nevada who took an automatic weapon to school and shot a teacher, a student, and himself – there is a real example and not a made up example (which philosophers love because they put into their examples what they want to get out). Think of all the “component parts” of the “act” of his murdering the teacher.
    And so I ask “please clarify what” you mean by an act.


    • Hi, uscbalum. You haven’t said anything at all to support your charge that ‘philosophers’ (all philosophers? some philosophers?) “put into their examples what they want to get out.” Until you can substantiate that accusation, I won’t bother responding to it. If you’d like to pursue that line of discussion, it would be helpful for you to explain how you’ve come to know this general claim about philosophers.

      I’m not sure what problem you see with the notion of an act. What I mean is, roughly, something a person does on purpose (unlike, say, having an epileptic fit or snoring in one’s sleep).

      I don’t know the case of the 13 year old in Nevada or why you’re mentioning it, but it doesn’t seem that difficult to explain these kinds of cases. Presumably, he took a weapon to a school (generally immoral), shot his teacher (highly immoral), shot a student (highly immoral), and shot himself (possibly immoral). So that’s an example of an immoral act composed of smaller acts, most of which are also immoral.

      My question was whether there are any immoral acts constituted entirely of morally permissible components. The Nevada case doesn’t seem to be an example of this.


      • My guess is that ucsbalum is thinking about the earlier discussion on the blog about the last sermon I did for the U/U fellowship. I talked about several thought experiments and made the general claim that constructed thought experiments often have just the outcome desired! I may even have quoted Tom Lehrer “what you get out of it is what you put into it” in his followup to “Life is like a sewer…”

        I too have a dislike for manufactured cases. So, the most recent school shooting may be relevant.
        1. Where did the gun come from? Someone acted to purchase it or steal it or…
        2. Was it not locked up? Someone acted or didn’t act to make it available.
        3. What was the shooter’s problem?
        The act of shooting the teacher and himself is not an act per simpliciter but the end result of a string of acts many of them morally permissible but not as you point out “entirely”.


        • Right, Bob. At some point along the line in the school shooting case, the shooter presumably did some particular thing that crossed the line from morally OK to morally wrong. My suspicion is that all cases of immoral actions are like this. What I’m intrigued by is the idea that some of them might involve a sequence of steps or a set of components, each one of which is individually permissible.

          As for constructed thought experiments, they seem to be the best means we have of testing moral and other philosophical hypotheses. What are you proposing instead?

          When I was young, the property between our house and the corner was occupied by a single property, originally built by an old man (Mr. Vincent) when the area was still wooded. Mr. Vincent couldn’t keep up with his property taxes, unfortunately, so the home became vacant. My friend Scott and I used to hang around there, and one time we got the idea of throwing rocks through the garage window. We were caught by a neighbour who was passing by, and my mother was furious. “Why would you do a thing like that?”, she demanded. I explained that Scott was doing it, and she asked me whether I would jump off the Lion’s Gate Bridge if Scott had done that, too.

          And there you have a very common use of a constructed thought experiment. I was relying implicitly on a principle of rational action (‘It’s reasonable to do whatever Scott does’). My mother wanted to show me that it was a pretty stupid principle. And her method of showing it to me was to construct an implausible, counterfactual case that nonetheless was extremely effective in showing what was wrong with the principle I had in mind. If the principle had been a good one, then in that scenario I would have been completely rational in jumping off the Lion’s Gate Bridge. But obviously, that would be extremely irrational in that scenario. Hence, the principle is a failure.

          Now, I learned a lesson from my mother that day, and I wouldn’t have learned the lesson if I had sidestepped her counterexample by pointing out the irrelevant fact that Scott never had jumped off the Lion’s Gate Bridge and probably never would, and insisted that she give me a scenario that had actually happened! It seems to me that intelligent thinking relies in almost all cases on being able to imagine and assess the implications of counterfactual scenarios. And constructed cases — such as Einstein’s trying to figure out what it would be like to ride on a beam of light, which led to his revolutionization of physics — are the bread and butter of this sort of thinking. No?


        • Thinking imaginatively and creatively is absolutely necessary to protect against dogma! There are good thought experiments and not so good thought experiments. Mother of justinfromcanada used a good one and saved her son! Cheers.

          Generally speaking I prefer real life examples like that one from the rock throwing episode to the trolley problems with fat persons on the track, tracks that one cannot escape from, etc., etc. In the sermon that I think ucsbalum was thinking about I started with a couple of examples from my sons when they were young (you learned from your Mother; I from my children).
          I want to tell you a story. Last time I was here I told you about our first born son painting a picture of God. When he started to paint the teacher came up behind him and asked, “What are you going to paint?” – “God” he said. “Do you know what god looks like?” – “I will when I finish the painting.”

          Now from our second born son: Many years ago and in another country as I was sitting in the living room after classes one day reading the newspaper, I heard an argument on the front porch and after some harsh words a scream from our daughter. I went outside and she reported that her brother had pushed her off the porch. She was not hurt; just angry.
          I looked at her tormenter with my harshest look and said to him, “If I were you I would NOT do that!” He apologized to his sister and they went on playing. I went back in to finish reading the paper.
          After a few minutes he came in and looked at me, and when he had my attention he said, “But Daddy, you are wrong; if you were me then you would have done what I did.”

          The law of identity!

          I had to explain that we humans are not always to be taken literally and that what I had uttered was a threat. (a speech act, yes, but a special sort of act!)

          After discussing some of the good thought experiments I ended the talk:

          I tell you about these famous thought experiments in order to remind you of the importance of thinking carefully and with imagination about all human problems. I urge you to celebrate your children and your grandchildren as they challenge and struggle against the accepted traditions and beliefs of our community. And above all to celebrate rational thought and the scientific method as ways of dealing with the most serious of our human problems.
          I do this because I am intrigued by the popular slogan “Save the Planet” – for although I understand the idea behind the slogan I find it wrongheaded. The planet will save itself. The planet will flourish without us.
          It is humanity we need to worry about.
          Let me close by quoting from one of my favourite authors. In a sermon by Kurt Vonnegut Jr. he ended by saying:

          This has no doubt been a silly sermon. I am sure you do not mind. People don’t come to church for preachments, of course, but to daydream about God. I thank you for your sweetly faked attention.


      • So, justinfromcanda is back after a long absence. I stayed away before because of his arrogance and high regard for himself as well as his showing up only when he wants something. But, even I had to come back from lurking to welcome him back.


        • Frank, I’m going to resist my better judgment here (I think Bob has the right idea) and try to find out what your objection is. I really don’t understand it.

          This is the second time you’ve criticized me for not regularly contributing to the blog and for ‘showing up only when I want something’. I’m trying to get clear on what this amounts to.

          This blog is a big project of Bob’s, and I think he does a great job of keeping it up regularly. Bob has also invited a number of other people, including me, to contribute posts from time to time. My career demands are rather time-consuming at present, and I often don’t have much time for things like contributing to this blog (much as I wish I did have that kind of time). Bob knows this about me. A few weeks ago, Bob sent me an email asking me to join in a discussion that was taking place at the time; but I was swamped in a backlog of work-related duties and didn’t have a spare moment until a few days ago, at which point the discussion had ended. Still, I decided to start a different discussion.

          It’s quite normal for people who write articles, blog posts, or whatever else to get some benefit (quite often, the benefit of a useful discussion) by publishing them. I, like anyone else who posts on blogs, often enjoy reading the comments people make to them and engaging with these people in discussion. Since I’m fortunate enough to know many top philosophers (due to the geographical area where I live at present) who are willing to discuss my ideas with me, and since I also have many opportunities in my personal life to discuss my ideas with non-philosophers and in my professional life to discuss them with undergraduate students, this blog is far from the only forum I have for getting feedback on my ideas. So I’m not sure what you could mean by my ‘coming back because I want something’, unless you just mean wanting what everyone gets who posts on blogs.

          So: your repeated charge against me is that 1) as a non-regular blogger, I’m not always here and 2) I get some pleasure and sometimes interesting discussions by posting things. I have a hard time understanding why those things are grounds for criticism.

          You also call me arrogant. Perhaps I am — it’s difficult for people to see their own faults — but I’m not sure about this one, either. It certainly isn’t the case that I have disproportionate confidence in my own opinions on the matters I’ve been discussing, for the simple reason that I’m not sure what to think about these matters at all! I have less confidence in my position on these matters than most people, and have less and less confidence the more I think about them. If you mean that I have an undue confidence in my philosophical _abilities_, I don’t feel very confident that I have the ability to answer the questions I’m considering, whereas I used to. I don’t see what’s arrogant there, either.

          However, I do sometimes run into people who, on the basis of having taken one or two introductory courses (or none!) in philosophy, think they are entitled to make broad, sweeping generalizations with complete confidence. I consider _those_ people to be arrogant. And do I think I’m better at doing philosophy than they are? Well, yes, I admit that I do. I’ve devoted decades of my life almost exclusively to studying philosophy, and continue to subject my views and reasoning to rigorous professional criticism, which I take seriously. I didn’t stop doing this after earning my PhD in the field, but continue to sit in on graduate-level seminars taught by prominent philosophers far more brilliant and rigorous than I will ever be so that I continue to receive critical feedback on my ideas. Quite often, this requires me to tear down complex views I’ve developed carefully over the years and go back to the drawing board. It’s a humbling experience. And, admittedly, I tend to feel that confident people who are averse to having their views criticized and fly into a rage and become abusive whenever problems are pointed out with their positions are rather unlikely to be as good at philosophical reasoning as I am, just as serious marathon runners will tend to assume that those who quit and jump into their cars whenever they have to run half a block are probably not as good at running. Maybe that, to you, is arrogance. If so, fair enough.


  4. Thanks, Bob. I like those stories! But I’m not sure they’re thought experiments in the philosophical sense.

    Just as laboratory experiments are artificial means of testing a scientific hypothesis, thought experiments are artificial means of testing a philosophical hypothesis.

    If I want to know whether Vitamin C is a cure for the common cold, I have to put together a very artificial scenario. I have to assemble a large group of people and make sure they are chosen randomly. I have to give some of them vitamin C and some of them a sugar pill. I have to make sure that the experimenters don’t know which pills are which. I have to tabulate the results and do probabilistic analysis on them. And so on. If there turns out to be no significant correlation between those taking Vitamin C and those recovering from their colds more quickly than others in the group, and if this results is replicated in similar experiments, then the hypothesis is seriously called into question. I’m not sure how I’d respond to anyone who questioned the results of this experiment on the grounds that these people were brought into a laboratory and half were given sugar pills (which they would never normally take). That’s just the way science works: we get rid of some of the messiness of real life by creating these artificial scenarios in which the hypotheses can neatly and cleanly be put to the test.

    The same goes for philosophical thought experiments. Many people tacitly accept the principle “it’s better to act in a way that leaves five living and one dead than in a way that leaves one living and five dead.” If that principle is false, then we should spread the word about it, because decisions are being made on that basis! And if it’s true, then it should be true in all scenarios. So just as the scientist often has to devise tricky experimental conditions to test a hypothesis, so must the philosopher. Two such tests are the Fat Man and the Organ Transplant thought experiments. If the principle I just mentioned were true, then it’s right to push the fat man and right to transplant the organs. But most people agree that it isn’t. Those people thereby have good reason to reject the principle. And — this is the important part — they have just as strong reasons to reject the principle if the Fat Man scenario actually happened or if it was invented just to test the hypothesis, provided that they can see the wrongness of pushing the man.

    The stories you tell in the sermon seem different: they don’t seem to employ hypothetical scenarios designed to test hypotheses!


    • Good discussion. (except for Frank)
      Take the Nevada school shooting . . .now, as usual we don’t have all the facts, but could it be that we describe the ACT differently depending upon perspective? Was it
      1. an act of murder,
      2. an act of revenge,
      3. a joke gone terribly wrong,
      4. an act resulting from a drug overdose?
      I think I could write a scenario for each of the above that would make the description legitimate.
      Murder, of course, does require intent – malicious intent, I believe. (Tara’s point above)


      • We talked about this thought experiment in class yesterday. We agreed that the Nevada shooting was indeed bad, immoral, tragic, evil (all terms that were used by students to describe it) and the general notion was that one could tell a story in which each of the steps leading to the death of the teacher was innocent and yet the end result was wrong. The story developed is fairly complex but credible – involves replica guns/real guns. bullying, Mother’s advise, and so forth. Creative bunch of students!


      • Right, sob1989. But the point I was making in my response to Tara (that might have got lost in how long it was) is that if determining intent is crucial in determining the morality or immorality of an act, then we’re in trouble — not because we can’t always know what people were thinking at the time, but because we seem to be rather confused about what intent is!

        In the switch case, the fat man case, and the organ transplant case, we have someone saying “Well, it’s better for five to live than for only one to live, so I’ll trow the switch/push the fat man/harvest the organs to bring about that result.” So shouldn’t this make the intent the same all three times? But instead, many people (when pressed) say that the person at the switch was morally permitted to change the track of the trolley because her _intention_ was to save the five, but that the person pushing the fat man acted immorally because her _intention_ was to kill the man she pushed, etc.

        What we need is a clear way of distinguishing between intending to do something and merely bringing about that thing while foreseeing that it will happen as a result of pursuing some other goal.

        And it’s interesting, as you say, that the same act can be seen differently from different perspectives. Are you saying that it follows that there is no fact about whether it was right or wrong, though? I’m not sure I’d agree with that.


        • Well, it is an open question whether there are moral facts. Something happened – that’s a fact. Was that something right or wrong? That’s a value judgment.


        • But it’s also an open question — especially nowadays — whether there’s a meaningful fact/value distinction!

          If there is, then many more things are matters of value than just ethics. Epistemology is,f or one, and so is rationality.

          Suppose David believes that Jack went up the hill, and that he also believes that Jill went up the hill. One might think he is thereby committed to the conclusion that Jack and Jill went up the hill. Suppose he says instead, that it follows from Jack’s going up the hill and Jill’s going up the hill neither Jack nor Jill have ever gone up the hill. He explains that this follows from his epistemic principle, which tells him “Whenever you believe that A and that B, you should conclude that neither A nor B.”

          When we object that this is a crazy principle to follow, he objects, “Jack and Jill did something — that’s a fact. What should I conclude from that something? That’s a value.”

          Here’s another, better-known difficulty for the fact/value distinction in morality: the Frege/Geach problem.

          Suppose that Mary punches George, an innocent person, just for fun. There’s a straightforward way to argue that Mary acted wrongly:

          P1. Anyone who punched an innocent person just for fun thereby acted wrongly.
          P2. Mary punched George just for fun.
          P3. George is an innocent person.
          C. Therefore, Mary acted wrongly.

          This reasoning is straightforward when P1 is taken as a factual statement. But what sense can be made of the reasoning if P1 is nothing but a non-factual expression of values? Those who insist on a fact/value distinction have so far been unable to present a plausible account of this.

          For these reasons, most ethicists reject the rigid fact/value distinction now!


        • Two things:
          P1. Mary is always honest.
          P2. Mary is a caring person.
          P3. Mary never punches anyone in the face. etc.
          C: So, Mary is a good person.
          It seems to me that no matter how many factual statements apply correctly to Mary the conclusion is still not justified. What is it that justifies the move to the value judgment, “Mary is a good person” ?
          Does your search for an example of an immoral act which can be broken down into a series of moral acts depend on there being moral facts?


        • Hang on, hang on, sob1989! What do you mean by a moral act?

          If punching someone in the face just for fun is a moral act, then it’s a fact that it’s immoral to punch someone in the face just for fun. And so for anything that you say is a moral or an immoral act.

          Or are you maintaining that nothing is moral or immoral?


        • 1. I have read and re-read this sentence [“If punching someone in the face just for fun is a moral act, then it’s a fact that it’s immoral to punch someone in the face just for fun.”] and now admit that it doesn’t make any sense to me. It seems to say “if X then ~X.”
          2. I am not maintaining that nothing is moral or immoral. When I was a philosophy student, I think that when Bob lectured on Kant I was a Kantian and then when he lectured on Mill I was a consequentialist. I also came to believe that acting in a moral way in the real world had little to do with moral theorizing! It seemed to me that too often people acted and then sought out the theory that would justify what they had done!
          3. After several years in Montreal. teaching and living, I have come to believe that it is society that determines what is moral/immoral. Society does that by means of tradition, discussion, argument, twitter, facebook, laws, etc. – in other words by negotiation. In our multi-cultural society there are many traditions and practices – some are a merely a matter of taste and should be celebrated (food, dress, fashion) others are to be prohibited (honour killings, gender discrimination). Philosophers have had an influence on society’s beliefs but theirs seems a tiny voice in the social arena. I mean look at this philosophically oriented Blog: there are 125 regular readers, 10 of whom contribute comments, while everyone else in North America gets its beliefs from Murdoch’s right wing news outlets!


        • 1. Oops! You’re right, sob1989: there was a typo in the sentence. I meant to write “If punching someone in the face just for fun is an _immoral_ act, then it’s a fact that it’s immoral to punch someone in the face just for fun.” My point, again, is that if you judge something to be immoral, then you seem to be saying it’s a fact that that action is immoral. And then there’s a fact about morality.

          2. It’s true that people often act first and then look for rationalizations later. And I agree that people often use moral theories for this purpose. That’s clearly a misuse of moral theory. But the same is true for many domains aside from morality. For instance, huge corporations pollute or overconsume resources and then use spurious or cherry-picked scientific studies to try to convince themselves or others that they’re not harming the environment. But that’s no mark against science: it’s a mark against these polluters’ misuse of scientific thinking. The same goes or morality. If people misuse moral theory for their own questionable purposes, that seems to be a good reason to try to get morality taken _more_ seriously by a public that would otherwise be duped by this, not to get it taken _less_ seriously!

          3. Yes, it’s a shame that moral philosophers have much less of a voice in public moral discourse than Murdoch’s news outlets do. Again, this seems to be a reason to promote moral philosophy, not to abandon it or take it less seriously!

          4. It’s true that what people _think_ is moral is determined by many things (like religion, fashion, current national interest, and so on). It’s also true that what people think is _scientific_ is determined to an alarming degree by religion, fashion and current national interest, among other factors. I grant all that. But none of that undermines to any degree whatever the position that there are moral or scientific facts beyond what religion, fashion and current national interest happen to dictate.


        • jfc writes: “Suppose that Mary punches George, an innocent person, just for fun. There’s a straightforward way to argue that Mary acted wrongly:

          P1. Anyone who punched an innocent person just for fun thereby acted wrongly.
          P2. Mary punched George just for fun.
          P3. George is an innocent person.
          C. Therefore, Mary acted wrongly.
          1. “just for fun”??? – that is to suggest intent and didn’t you argue above that intent is problematic? Charge: inconsistent.
          2. What is the foundation or justification for P1? Charge: unsupported premise


        • In response to your charges, uscbalum:

          1. On the charge of inconsistency, I plead not guilty. I said that it was difficult to clarify what was meant by someone’s having an intention to do something, and that many of our intuitions about what might count as intending something could be at odds with one another. But it doesn’t follow from this that nobody ever intends anything.

          2. On the charge of unsupported premise, I’m not yet sure what to plead! What do you think would count as good support for a moral principle like ‘punching people just for fun is immoral’ (or any other moral principle you accept)?


        • OK, please name one single inconsistency! I just showed why the alleged inconsistency is no inconsistency at all.

          To make the point clearer, let me use an analogy. There is some lack of clarity as to whether certain objects count as blue (there are borderline cases, and there are cultures in which blue and green count as the same colour, etc.). One can maintain this while saying “Suppose an object is blue,” or even while asserting that a certain stereotypically blue object is blue. There’s no inconsistency there.

          But if you think you’ve discovered an inconsistency in it, I welcome your demonstration of that. Thanks!


  5. An aside, the first example applies fairly well to errors that are made in healthcare settings wherein the error of one healthcare provider in providing service/care/medicine to a patient compunds and directs the actions of future subsequent healthcare providers.

    I think in the first example the original immoral act that is committed is confining a person to a bed against their will and forcing their participation in the experiment. If the people on the beds were free to leave the experiment, then they could choose to stop their participation once the ‘torture machines’ have their levels increased to a point each individual finds unpleasant. The 1000 torturers are all proceeding to affect force upon the body of individuals confined to their beds.


    • I think you’re probably right there, Brant. I’m not sure about the details, though.

      The people in the beds could be legitimate prisoners. The machines they’re hooked up to could have some further function. In that case, there’s nothing immoral in their being confined to these beds and having the machines attached to them. Now, management tells an employee of the prison to adjust the dial forward one notch. The employee could think that it’s wrong to torture people, period, but might still wonder whether clicking the switch forward one notch could count as torture, given that it will cause no perceptible change in the person’s physical or mental state.


  6. In the second example the request for money is juxtaposed with the threat of publishing the embarrassing pictures. The inference we draw from this is that the two are being connected. Connecting the two “If you do X, then I will do Y” . I think most would likely find that a coercive action that is neither X nor Y, but Z. So, “If you do x, then I will do y” you infer Z. I’ve had people try to do this to me a few times. The trick is just not caring if Z happens.


    • I’m a little confused about this, Brant! The blackmailer is saying “If you don’t give me the money, I’ll publicize the photos.” So X is ‘give me the money’ and Y is ‘publicize the photos’. But what is Z, on your account?


  7. Thanks, sob1989 for commenting on this: “I have read and re-read this sentence [“If punching someone in the face just for fun is a moral act, then it’s a fact that it’s immoral to punch someone in the face just for fun.”] and now admit that it doesn’t make any sense to me. It seems to say “if X then ~X.”” – I think you were not the only reader puzzled by this howler. Turned out to be a typo. Case closed! BTW, good discussion. Now get out there and march!! That is one way to express a moral position.


  8. Pingback: Looking Back | Episyllogism

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