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).

3 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.


  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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