do the wrong thing?

My last post concerned the Scanlonian contractualist idea that the wrongness of wrong action is constituted by the action not being justifiable to others. I criticized this idea on the grounds that justifying to others presupposes the existence of the justifiability-independent and entailed-by-wrongness (or more specifically partially-wrongness-constituting) normative feature of the action warranting resentment (and hence objection) by the patient — patient-objectionability. I also suggested, in the post and in replies to comments, something of a positive view of wrongness. Specifically, that the wrongness of a wrong action is constituted by the following distinct normative features (and their being tied together in some necessary way): (i) patient-objectionability, (ii) observer-objectionability, (iii) (collective) disallowability and (iv) agent-avoidability (specifically such that the agent ought not and must not perform patient-objectionable actions). That is rough, but adequate for working with. In this post, I want to make some modest proposals regarding agent-avoidability and how this might be tied to patient-objectionability.

Stated in generic form, my proposal is this: agents appropriately respond to their actions being patient-objectionable by (a) feeling guilt (or remorse or shame) and by (b) avoiding performing the action (among other behaviors, such as apologizing and making amends).

I want to say a few things about this proposal.

First, we might get a little more precise by noting that — intuitively — avoidance is the appropriate response to one’s own (prospective) patient-objectionable behavior because one’s appropriate attitude-type response to this behavior is feeling guilty (remorseful, ashamed). So, whereas feeling guilty is simply the appropriate response to performing patient-objectionable actions, avoiding performing a patient-objectionable action is an appropriate response to both of (i) the action being objectionable and (ii) feeling guilty (remorseful, ashamed) being an appropriate response to the action being objectionable. But it seems most natural, along the lines of distinguishing the cause of something from background conditions, to say that appropriate avoidance of objectionable action is a response to the action being objectionable, with the appropriateness of feeling guilty in response to the objectionable action as a background condition (analogously to “the cause” of an event being an element of the totality of conditions necessary to produce the event that, for reasons of pragmatic context and understanding, gets picked out as the salient element).

Second, because the totality of conditions being responded to by the agent in appropriately avoiding the performance of patient-objectionable does not include actually having the guilty (remorseful, ashamed) feeling or attitude, the agent is not, in conforming with this standard, avoiding the patient-objectionable actions as a way of avoiding feeling guilt (or even appropriate or warranted guilt). (This is not to say that the agent does not face this sort of normative pressure as well, when she experiences guilt or perhaps guilt that is or that she represents as appropriate.)

Third, ‘avoiding performing the patient-objectionable action’ is deliberately vague. It covers two things: (a) not performing the action and (b) preemptively ruling out choosing the action from most of the option-sets one faces. In this way, it seems to me, there is plausibly the right sort of normative pressure to support both the idea that (i) we ought not (or have most reason not) to do wrong (or patient-objectionable) things and the idea that (ii) we must not do wrong (or patient-objectionable) things. The last description is a way of expressing that something is normatively required.

Fourth, though there are — outside of very odd and maybe just super-odd, philosopher-cooked-up scenarios — no sources of normative pressure competing with the attitude-internal standards for experiencing guilt (remorse, shame), the same is not true of the broadly action or behavioral responses (not PHI-ing, preemptively ruling-out PHI-ing) to the reality or prospect of performing patient-objectionable actions. So the proposal here does not, for these very general reasons, demonstrate that we ought not or must not perform wrong (or patient-objectionable) actions. All I’m claiming here is that such actions are avoidable — appropriately avoided — only in the local sense associated with appropriate guilt (remorse, shame).

6 thoughts on “do the wrong thing?

  1. I wonder whether patient-objectionability is really a necessary condition of wrongness. Both halves of it seem too narrow to me.

    To take the simpler half first: think of wrongful actions that are welcomed by the would-be “victim,” like flattery or a bribe. It’s clear that it’s wrong to flatter or bribe someone. It’s less clear whether doing so wrongs the person being flattered or bribed, though I tend to think so. But being-flattered or -bribed is only objectionable from the “patient’s” perspective in a very idealized counterfactual sense: the agent would object if he were more attuned to what’s morally salient about the situation, and were more motivated to act accordingly. But the salient property that he’s attuned to and that motivates him to object is the ground of objectionability, not objectionability itself. Objectionability seems too far downstream to do the right explanatory or justificatory work.

    The same example suggests that the wronged person need not be a patient in the usual sense. Some victims are straightforward patients, but being a victim is not a necessary condition of being wronged, or of having a wrongful action done to you. You can welcome being on the receiving end of wrongful action with open arms.

    Likewise, it may be wrong to nurture envy or spite for others, but the patient-objectionability of the envious or spiteful feeling doesn’t seem like the relevant wrong-making property.

    A slightly different example: it may be wrong to nurture a generalized misanthropy or pessimism, but in that scenario, there are no actual patients to do any objecting at all.

    The preceding examples are still directed toward others rather than self, but your account is hard to apply to self-wrong, unless you want to partition the agent into separate selves. But it could be that the very act of distintegrating yourself in that way is wrong, in which case, you’d have to introduce a unified self that is wronged by the act. Maybe you want to say that that unified self objects to the distintegrating activities of the warring selves? Or maybe you want to set the whole issue of wronging oneself aside.

    I’m probably operating with a much broader conception of moral wrongness than you are, in which case just take my comment to point to the fact that there is some such conception.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Several points.

      (1) It is, or should be, common ground that there are wrong actions that are not wrongings. I think of this in terms of things that it is morally impermissible to do (where there is no correlative claim or right on the part of others that the agent not do the thing). Some of your cases are best interpreted as examples of wrong actions that are not wrongings, but I’m concerned with wrongings (“what we owe to each other”).

      (2) Thinking about your comments here has more or less convinced me that — as I think you contend — there are victimless wrongings (or wrongings without patient-objectionability). I’m not swayed by any of your cases, but here is one that does move me: Phil, just for fun, knowingly cuts down a majestic, historically-important 300-year-old tree. This, it seems to me, is objectionable — appropriately elicits moral anger and objection — from each of us as observers. In the agent role, one might respond to moral anger and objection being the appropriate response to this action — on the part of anyone, as observers — by not taking it (or by feeling guilt or shame after the fact). The agent, then, need not respond to patient-objectionability only on my sort of approach. In this way, my framework can accommodate victimless wrongings (or at least the part of the being-a-wronging feature that is it being appropriate for the agent to avoid patient-objectionable or observer-objectionable action).

      (Though it could be said that we are all victims in such cases, the point, and why such cases are distinctive, is that there are no distinct patient and observer roles. Interestingly, Scanlon either does not allow for victimless wrongings or allows for them only via the ad hoc move of guardianship (you or I or someone else “objecting on behalf of the tree” or the like).)

      (3) The possibility of self-wronging is a hard case. But I think self-wronging is coherent. At any rate, the following case of patient-objectionability is coherent (without resort to separate selves): Nancy, through sheer negligence, fails to look after her own vital interests in some way — and appropriately resents herself for doing this and objects to herself doing this (perhaps silently or mutteringly berating herself). Maybe or maybe not is this how it goes in our world, but this scenario seems coherent. It is similar to my appropriately berating myself (with only one self) for, once again, eating the whole bag of potato chips. A good theory would settle this contentious issue (both with regard to coherence and with regard to how things go in our world).

      (4) Welcome bribery: the patient would appropriately resent and object even if she is not apt to (since she wants to be bribed). If there is any normative pressure against resenting and objecting due to wanting to take the bribe, it is a “wrong kind of reason” and does not affect the resentment-centered normative appropriateness-standards governing basic patient reaction. Plausibly, resentment being appropriate does not entail that what one has most reason to do attitude-wise is resent (as against not resenting) — the other (or “wrong kind”) of normative force can carry the day (at least in wild philosophical scenarios, maybe sometimes in real life). So the point is not that the other sources of normativity (maybe the money from the bribe) cannot carry the day, such that one has most reason all-in not to resent being bribed, to the extent that one can directly control such a thing via choice, attention, etc.


    • I wish I had given more thought and done better replying to your comments, Irfan. They have been really helpful. I’m retracting [2] above, in favor of the following alterations or additions to the kind of approach that I’m working on (I more or less stand by [1], [3] and [4], however sloppy or merely adjacent to the essential points they are). I have two substantive, take-away points, two revisions to my carving-up of the conceptual territory, and to some central claims, in the vicinity of patient-objectionability (and its relationship to wronging).

      I end up agreeing with your point that you don’t need someone in the patient position in order to have a wronging (and your case of one person being needlessly spiteful toward another seems to support this idea — this case seems to do its work). One basic idea here is that you don’t need actions, and patients, in order to get appropriate resentment or moral anger. But I continue to find the following idea promising: in order to get wronging, obligation-to and claims or rights, you need something like resentment or moral anger as an appropriate response (i.e., objectionability). So I end up agreeing with your problems with the ‘patient’ part of patient-objectionability (as something necessarily covarying with wronging), but disagreeing with your problems with the ‘objectionability’ part of patient-objectionability (as something necessarily covarying with wronging). The latter because: welcoming something that is appropriately resented does not make it any less appropriately resented (at least not without drawing out some significant normative upshots that do the right work, but I don’t see this as being plausible). Here are my takeaways.

      (I) There are victims that are not patients. There can be victims (and hence wrongings) without these victims being patients. That is shown in cases like this. Setup: I resent you for not calling me on my birthday, but this is entirely inappropriate because we don’t call each other on our birthdays. Maybe or maybe not is this error in bad faith (if it is, we just have a stronger case). Now the important part: you would appropriately resent me for inappropriately resenting you (perhaps you find out that I resent you for not calling me on my birthday by way of my facial expression and body language when we talk about your birthday having just happened). But: I didn’t do anything to you! We might stretch things and say I’ve mistreated you in inappropriately resenting you, but that really is stretching things. So being in the patient role need not be part of the basis for your resenting. Broadly speaking, you can appropriately resent my regard for you not being appropriate (or otherwise not passing some relevant sort of normative muster). We might call this the appropriate moral anger role, but it also makes sense to say that you are the victim of my mis-regarding you. And ‘victim’ is a regular, ordinary word that we all know. So: call it the victim role and one can be in this role even if one is not also in a corresponding patient role in being in the victim role. If, whenever you have a wronging, you have a victim (but not necessarily a patient) and vice versa, then wrongings require victims, but not patients.

      (II) To be a victim is just for it to be appropriate that one have the relevant sort of moral anger (e.g., resentment) toward the agent for doing some particular thing (having some attitude, taking some action). In making the above point [I], I might be interpreted as saying that there is one thing, being a victim, that is the basis for another thing, appropriately resenting (being indignant, etc.). But this seems wrong to me. It seems to me that — once we get out of our heads the paradigm wrong actions, paradigm victims of those actions who are patients of those actions and observers who would appropriately (perhaps empathetically) be morally indignant because the victim appropriately resents — appropriate resentment at the agent for her actions or attitudes is all there is. There is no separate thing that there is to be a victim. This is significant because it allows us to take “victimless crimes” (e.g., desecrations of nature or of good and just institutions) under the umbrella of “what we owe to each other” — without Scanlon’s surrogacy move of folks “speaking for the trees” or the like. (Also: because I frame my sort of “complaint theory” of obligations to others in objective terms, rather than in terms of justifiability, reasons, reasonableness, etc., I don’t have to worry that mistreatments of animals — that cannot rationalize and cannot object to their treatment — are non-wronging wrongs unless the surrogacy move is legitimate; but this difference is something of another topic). We are not stuck treating such cases as moral requirements that are not also obligations to someone (with associated claims or rights). So, if I cut down a magnificent 300-year-old tree, it might be (and it is plausible that) anyone would appropriately resent me or be morally angry with me for doing this (or maybe it would just be people who care a lot about trees or old things or history or some such). If so, then, in this case: (i) all of us are victims and (ii) I wrong each of you (and myself as well) and (iii) plausibly, each of you has a normative claim against me not to cut down the tree (though note that I have not yet officially said anything about what normative claims or rights are and how they fit into my scheme). In this way, fewer wrongs come out as non-wrongings and, more importantly, things that are probably best thought of as wrongings are not instead taken to be mere wrongs that are not wrongings.


      • I agree with (I), but not with (II). Here’s II:

        To be a victim is just for it to be appropriate that one have the relevant sort of moral anger (e.g., resentment) toward the agent for doing some particular thing (having some attitude, taking some action).

        You’re reducing victimhood to an actual or counterfactual disposition to feel “appropriate” anger at the wrongful act. I don’t dispute that wrongful acts actually or counterfactually entail such a disposition. What I dispute is the reduction. A reduction has to be explanatory, but I don’t see that this one is. All of the work is being done by “appropriate.” But unless “appropriateness” can reductively be cashed out in terms of an actual or counterfactual disposition to feel anger at another’s action, I don’t see that your reduction succeeds. And I’m skeptical that such a reduction can succeed. As it stands, the quoted claim above just seems like an uninformative circle: victimhood is a matter of appropriate anger, which is felt when one is victimized.

        Take the victimization of a very small child, or a cognitively impaired person, or perhaps an animal. Imagine that in all three cases, there is no resentment in the actual case. Resentment is a rather sophisticated emotion, and some forms of victimization are opaque to the victim. So we can easily imagine cases where a child, a cognitively impaired person, or an animal, feels no resentment whatsoever at their victimizer. Imagine that the victim dies before they’re capable of resentment, so that one can’t cash out resentment in any terms that apply, even counterfactually, to the actual victim. And suppose that the act is undiscovered, so that there is no (actual or actualized) third-party resentment. To apply your analysis, we’re forced to employ an extremely complicated set of counterfactual conditionals in order to conceptualize something pretty plain and simple. I don’t get the rationale, and don’t see how the strategy would succeed.

        By all accounts, if you sexually victimize a very small child, or torture an animal, you’ve done something wrong, and also wronged someone (or something, if we insist on referring to animals that way). What you’ve done is certainly resentment-worthy. But ex hypothesi, there is no actual resentment in the scenario. On the other hand, there is actual wrongness in it. Why should it be necessary to invoke counterfactual resentment in order to explain actual wrongness? And what’s gained if we do?

        Yes, if the small child or cognitively impaired person understood the implications of the wrongful action, she would feel both terror and resentment at it, not just terror or confusion (or whatever she feels in the actual case). But why is it obvious that the wrongfulness of the act is reducible to the resentment rather than the terror (or whatever)? Why not say that if we truly understood wrongness, we would be terrified (or more weakly, fearful or made-uneasy or anxious) by the evil it represents? Granted, we tend not to be. But that seems as appropriate a reaction as resentment. I don’t see the point of singling out one of the set of appropriate reactions.

        You invoke third party resentment, but for obvious reasons, this has to be counterfactual third party resentment: if third parties were to discover the act, they would feel resentment, whether or not they discover it, and whether or not they feel it. But again, why the need for counterfactuals to explain the actual?

        It seems to me that there’s some implicit Scanlonian motivation here that needs to be stated and unpacked. In your previous post about Scanlon, I wondered what Scanlon has against ordinary “objectivist” views (Aristotelian, Kantian, whatever) that locate the wrongness of an act in the act itself. I guess I’m still not clear where Scanlon stands on that. There only seems to be a motivation for his view if you dismiss that relatively commonsense approach.

        PS. An afterthought: one downside to your view is that it holds moral realism hostage to an account of the truth-conditions for counterfactual conditionals. If the latter end up not having truth-values, your view entails the wholesale rejection of moral realism about wrongness (taking “moral realism” minimally to entail truth-aptness for propositions about wrongness). That seems a steep price to pay, and I guess I’m wondering why we have to pay it.

        It seems wrong to have to pay it. I would resent paying it. But there is more to its wrongness than my resenting it.

        Liked by 1 person

        • Two quick replies.

          (a) I mean ‘appropriate’ in a normative way, not a dispositional way. As in the fitting-attitudes analysis of value, as in what actions you ought to resent (or otherwise have moral anger at). So no counterfactual conditionals are required.

          (b) I did not distinguish between the victim-role in the approach I’m developing and ordinary victims. Thanks for pointing this out. I’m meaning to specify the first, not provide an adequate account of the second. So no reduction. The feature I’m specifying, though I think it picks out an intuitively-accessible property (and one in the vicinity of ordinary victimhood), is to be judged mainly by the explanatory work it does or can do. I should not speak as if my kind of victimhood tracks ordinary victimhood very well — so I should revise [II] accordingly.


  2. Thanks for these points, Irfan. These are good, helpful challenges. Some I have ready answers for, but others I’m less sure about. I’ll take a bit of time to digest and maybe in the next day or two write a reply (brief replies to each of your points).


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