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).