MERELY NON-IDEAL VS. OBJECTIONABLE RESPONSES TO SOCIAL INJUSTICE

Suppose I’m a judge in state (government) S1 and, in the judicial system of this state, due to cultural and institutional factors that do not prominently include explicit bigotry or anything like this, those in the non-dominant ethnic groups are twice as likely to get a death sentence than are those in the dominant ethnic group. If I’m in this position, it seems morally objectionable for me not to speak out and do something (or this or that specific thing) about the situation or my connection to it. It is not just that speaking out and doing something (or some particular thing like organizing for change or quitting) is morally best, morally ideal, apt for moral praise (as supererogatory acts are).

However, such claims are less plausible if I am simply a citizen of state (government) S1. In fact: from this position, it seems that failing to react or do anything about the unjust conditions (that I am less directly a part of than from the position of judge), though not morally best (and perhaps a moral failure of some kind) is not morally objectionable. This points to some kind of boundary of degree or importance of participation in sustaining unjust institutional or social conditions that triggers moral obligation (and moral objectionability). 

(We might say something somewhat similar about degrees or kinds of complicity, where complicity, unlike participation, has an essential element of knowledge, intention, implicit or explicit allowance or approval, etc. By contrast, I’m thinking of participation in purely causal terms and of the obligation as a function of actual conditions, not knowledge of them, belief about them, intentions, etc.)

So I’m wondering: to what extent do “the woke” (or “social justice warriors”) make the error of treating this sort of moral shortcoming (the sort that the citizen of S1 might exhibit) as if it were morally objectionable (and hence suitable for condemnation, outrage)? Compare: positively modeling and encouraging gender-neutral pronouns (on the basis of this being morally better than the status quo) versus requiring their use and condemning status-quo pronoun use (on the basis of status-quo use being morally objectionable). Regardless of the truth regarding what is morally objectionable here, I’ve seen both approaches (and I think there are also borderline cases – e.g., fostering atmospheres of social pressure and disapproval that fall short of clear moral condemnation or the condoning of such). 

However, there is another, perhaps more relevant, context to consider: if some things are morally objectionable in a basic way (say, internal to the point and motivation in moral practice), perhaps other things (perhaps just more specific things, tailored to contexts, options in moral priorities, etc.) are morally objectionable because enough of us around here (with good enough reason, taking into account our context) have settled on being outraged and objecting when people do this or that particular thing. Perhaps, in this process of coming to consensus, ideally we reason with each other (and make reasons evident to each other via the gentler or more positive forms of moral suasion) to come to a kind of rational-enough and mutually-respectful consensus. But a morally-non-ideal shortcut here is treating one’s favored non-basic trigger for moral outrage and condemnation (where the line gets drawn here amongst the moral shortcomings) as if it were a basic, self-revealed fact – and getting on with the outrage and condemnation. 

Such a move, despite being morally non-ideal, might not be morally objectionable in any basic way. But it seems to be morally objectionable from a (more morally aware or complete) liberal social perspective that prizes individuality, individual judgment and broadly rational persuasion. It might be that, in the context of these values and relevant circumstances, we are not to establish which specific things are apt for moral condemnation by simply dominating the conversation and condemning that which, according to our contestable sensibilities, we think should be condemned (it might be that such attitudes and behavior is worthy of condemnation, if liberal values are apt and we are committed to them).

Though (as is probably obvious) I lean into certain (broadly less moralistic or against-woke-tactics) answers here, my main point here is simply to present the relevant framework and ask the questions.

30 thoughts on “MERELY NON-IDEAL VS. OBJECTIONABLE RESPONSES TO SOCIAL INJUSTICE

  1. The first thing I’d say is that one of the best contributions to this topic is Roderick’s paper, “On Making Small Contributions to Evil.” It’s online, but for some reason I can’t seem to access it, and can’t seem to find my own copy, either. But I highly recommend it.

    The other thing I’d say is that I think you’re both over-stating and under-stating the relevant obligation. In Kantian terms, some of our duties are perfect, others imperfect. The perfect ones are strict in the sense of being indefeasible and demanding a specific token action performed (or omitted) at a specific time. The imperfect ones are obligatory as a category or type, giving us latitude as to their performance in token cases. You can blame someone for violating a perfect duty on a specific occasion, but you can’t (or usually can’t) regard someone as blameworthy for failing to satisfy an imperfect duty simply by observing a single occasion of non-performance. On the other hand, if a person exemplifies a pattern of non-performance over time, or explicitly expresses indifference to the requirements of the duty, that seems blameworthy.

    I don’t think the duty to condemn a racially discriminatory version of the death penalty is a perfect one, whether for judges or for mere citizens (unless the judge in question is specifically concerned with sentencing in death penalty cases, and is obliged to impose that sentence against his better judgment). What each party has is an imperfect duty to advance the cause of justice. That duty probably demands more of the judge than of the mere citizen, but it demands something of both. What’s blameworthy is not a failure to advance justice with respect to this cause rather than that, but a failure to devote some part of one’s resources to the cause of justice as such. Justice is not just “the first virtue of social institutions,” but a personal virtue as well, and like all of the other virtues, has to be enacted in a systematic, habitual way.

    LeBar gives a good overview, even if his emphases are different than mine:

    https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/justice-virtue/

    LeBar only discusses Kant very briefly, but I think the Kantian point I made above is broadly consistent with the Aristotelian conception of justice that he discusses there.

    My own view, incidentally, is that once you accept the idea that justice is a personal virtue, you’re committed to some conception of activism, however weak. If justice is a personal virtue, it has to be enacted in one’s personal life, as all virtues do. But the enactment of justice in this sense just is a sort of activism. It requires you to do more than merely not-violate the perfect duties or respect the rights of others, but to treat the promotion of justice as a kind of personal project that goes beyond those minima. No matter how they’re couched, global criticisms of activism amount, in my view, to the repudiation of the idea that justice has that status. They’re either downgradings of the normative status of justice itself, or repudiations of the idea that it’s a personal virtue. That, as I see it, is the deep philosophical issue that underlies the disagreements we’ve been having about activism and cancellation.

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    • That is an extremely helpful response, Irfan. There are some deep differences at the “framing” level between us and this helps me see, at least a little better, what they are (and what my own commitments are, where I need greater clarity, etc.). So several brief responses.

      (1) I’ll definitely read Roderick’s piece. Thanks for posting the link, Sean!

      (2) I’ve never come across a rendition of the perfect/imperfect duty distinction that is satisfactorily clear and adequate. One problem with your (and other) characterizations is that there are always different ways to discharge duties (trivially, I could not tell the lie standing on my left foot or standing on my right foot). Here is what I would roughly map onto what Kant calls “perfect” duties: norms that instruct us to rule out, from serious deliberation and choice, instances of a specified action-type in any given (or most) relevant choice-situations (e.g., lying, killing, failing to render urgently-needed aid when doing so is easy-enough and not too costly). However, a norm like “render aid to others in need to extent E, over some period of time and across distinct choice-situations in a life” does not do that (except in certain very special circumstances; compare this principle to “the rescue principle” mentioned above that also concerns rendering aid). I think this sort of principle roughly maps onto what Kant and others call “imperfect” duties.

      (3) The question I was addressing in my cases was that of whether a judge or a citizen is morally obligated to (and would be aptly morally condemned for failing to) do this or that with respect to unjust social conditions that she, to some extent, participates in (not with respect to unjust conditions generally, though there is certainly a kind of moral, normative force favoring fighting injustice in general). We are agreed that one is morally obligated not to act unjustly (and subject to apt moral condemnation if one acts unjustly). What is less clear to me is whether one is acting unjustly (or otherwise acting against a moral obligation and hence subject to apt moral condemnation) in failing to withdraw from participating in the perpetuation of unjust social conditions (generally or in this or that specific circumstance or from this or that specific position of participation). I worry that your business about justice and virtue (that, I will admit, I did not initially follow or spend super-much time trying to grok) elides the second thing into the first.

      (4) The position I was broaching was this: if one’s participation is incidental or minimal (and perhaps if other conditions that are often met are met — say one cares, feels sad or angry at the situation, feels somewhat badly about one’s incidental participation), then one is not obligated to cease participating. More to the point (with reference to woke-ism and cancel culture), if this position is right, then the not-particularly-justice-warrior-y folks are not apt for condemnation (at least not as one aptly is for violating, say, the rescue principle) — and so, arguably, the “social justice warriors” often slip into inaptly (and objectionably) condemning people who are simply not being as moral as they might be. I do take this question to address principles that, when specified fully, instruct us to rule out specific options from choice-situations. The action-types or descriptions here (for doing the ruling-out work) might be somewhat-complicated, since they reference relational features of the choice-situation, costs to agent, etc. I think the right kind of principle here would say something like this: when one is participating in supporting the unjust social conditions in the right kind of way or to enough of an extent, one is obligated to PHI (feel badly, speak out if easy/not-costly enough, condemn if easy/not-costly enough, withdraw participation if easy/not-costly enough, etc.).

      (5) It is a separate issue whether we have (and what it means) to have a duty (an “imperfect duty”) to fight injustice (or even injustice that one is participating in), to some extent X, across some period of time and plethora of choice situations in a life. Perhaps the viable idea here is that, regardless of the distinctness in deliberation or action-guiding function (presence or absence of option-ruling-out function), violating this kind of standard nevertheless makes apt precisely the kind of moral condemnation that violating the other principles (like the rescue principle) does? Just beginning to work that out would require a post of its own, but the idea strikes me as somewhat promising. In the meantime, at least for now, I’m inclined to think of simply fighting injustice (as against condemning, withdrawing participation, etc. when one’s participation is of a certain kind or degree) as something that merely makes one a morally better person, but that one has the moral option (is permitted but not required) not to do (and something that one is not aptly condemned for failing to do). But my intuitions (regarding apt condemnation and the aptness of other forms of moral criticism) are duck-rabbiting so my confidence here is rather low.

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      • Let me start with Michael’s point (2) for now. I guess I don’t see the problem with the Kantian distinction. Your example (Michael) seems clear enough, so I don’t understand why you find it unclear.

        A perfect duty is an action or omission whose every token instance is either obligatory to perform or obligatory to refrain from. A cheap example is murder. Since “murder” is defined as wrongful killing, refraining from murder is (in every instance) a perfect duty. Refraining from rape is another perfect duty. Refraining from child abuse is a third. There are some act-types that require specification before you can get a perfect duty out of them, but that doesn’t change the underlying conceptual issue: even if some lies are justified, there is a proper subset of lies such that not telling them is a perfect duty. (Though I think it would confuse the issue to discuss them, I actually think there are perfect duties that are positive in character, but never mind.)

        I don’t see how your objection connects with that. Yes, there are different ways of discharging a duty, but the example you give doesn’t affect the nature of the relevant act type. Take the proper subset of unjustified lies, X. Telling any one of those lies is morally wrong. Refraining from telling them is morally right. There may be different ways of refraining-from-telling-them, but each remains a way of refraining-from-telling-them, so the variations between them don’t have much significance. As long as they exemplify refraining from telling a lie from set X, that suffices.

        Just negate the preceding definition of perfect duty and you get a definition of imperfect ones. An imperfect duty is an action or omission whose every token instance is not (either obligatory to perform or obligatory to refrain from). Rendering assistance is an obvious example. It obviously is not the case that in every situation where we face the option of rendering assistance to some or not, we have the duty to render assistance. Eating healthy foods is another. It would be unreasonable to construe the obligation to eat healthy foods as a duty such that in any case where you face “eat healthy food” or “eat unhealthy food” you must do the former (which would imply, preposterously, that eating dessert is always immoral). Likewise, “be prompt in answering correspondence.” (Maybe even “be prompt.”)

        I think that answers Sean’s criticism, too. I don’t, in Sean’s case, understand the basis of his criticism. Anyway, I’ve laid out the perfect/imperfect distinction as I understand it, and it seems sensible enough to me. Can it be abused to justify bad behavior? I’m sure it can, such as when someone turns a perfect duty into an imperfect duty, or vice versa. But the abuse of a distinction doesn’t invalidate the distinction.

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        • That’s helpful, Irfan. I withdraw my objection in [2]. There are imperfect requirements. Take an arbitrary game. The rule “in each choice situation in which one of the choices is to jump up and down on your left foot, all other options are ruled-out from serious deliberation and choice” would be an “perfect duty” in the game. We could add some bells and whistles to the principle so that it is defeasible or context-dependent in various ways — whether or not we do is inessential. By contrast, the rule “in the course of this game, you must, in one (or several or many) of the choice situations, take the option of jumping up and down on your left foot, when that is an option.” Though it remains somewhat puzzling to me that, for this latter sort of principle, there is no necessary connection to the existence of specific choice situations in which an option being of the type in question makes all other options ruled-out, there is no mistaking the deontic language and it making good intuitive sense. From the standpoint of the agent guiding her action, principles like these seem to say something like this: “there is some ‘deontic urgency’ or the like to taking the type-T option when it is present, but not enough to make it the case, across a broad range of typical choice-situations, that the type-T option being present makes all the other options are ruled-out.” And so I also withdraw the skepticism expressed in [5]: it is not obvious that there is any need to appeal to obligation-violation-associated reactive attitude and action norms for observers in order to find a common element between perfect and imperfect duties. I more readily think of perfect duties when I think of duties (obligations, requirements) and I think also that sometimes perfect and imperfect duties are characterized in terms of their inessential features (the essential distinction being captured by the difference between the two sorts of rules directing one to jump up and down on one’s left foot, in my rather schematically imagined game).

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          • This is a promising start. Before you know it, I’ll end up convincing you that we are in fact noumenal selves exercising noumenal freedom in a noumenal realm, and that the phenomenal realm that appears to our senses is all mere appearance. Baby steps.

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      • On (3), I guess I would quarrel with your framing. Your question is, do we have the functional equivalent of a perfect duty to condemn unjust institutions that to some degree we participate in?

        Even apart from whether you agree that you’re asking about the functional equivalent of a perfect duty, I think the question you’re asking is overly vague.

        One problem is: how strong a duty do you have in mind? If it’s not perfect, then is it imperfect? Or do you want to reject the perfect/imperfect distinction and just insist that it’s a stringent duty of some kind? That gives us:

        Do we have a stringent duty condemn unjust institutions that to some degree we participate in?

        Next issue: by “condemn unjust institutions,” do you mean that the duty requires us to condemn every single unjust institution we “to some degree participate in”? Or do we have some discretion as to which ones we condemn and which we can permissibly ignore? The first option seems unrealistically broad. But in the latter case, I’d say you’ve just turned your duty into an imperfect duty.

        So we have two variants:

        Broad version, verging on a perfect duty: Do we have a stringent duty to condemn every unjust institution that to some degree we participate in?
        More realistic version, verging on an imperfect duty: Do we have a stringent duty to condemn a proper subset of the unjust institutions that to some degree we participate in?

        Third issue: “to some degree participate in” is a very vague formulation. It straddles completely attenuated, involuntary involvement and completely voluntary, wholehearted involvement, plus everything in between. I don’t think much mileage can be gotten by eliding so many different things and asking a single question about all of them at once. So I would say that the phrase “to some degree” has to be replaced with a qualitative criterion that specifies a morally significant threshold. The “participation” in question has to be somewhat voluntary, and somewhat causally significant with respect to the outcome (among other things it has to be).

        Final issue overlapping with the third: “participate” is one of the most problematic verbs in the history of philosophy. (Recall that particular objects “participate” in Plato’s Forms, and vice versa. I don’t mean the Plato reference as a merely pedantic point. I actually think that the ambiguities in Plato’s conception of “participation” are diagnostic of problems with the concept as such.)

        I would say that your question has to specify a form of participation, i.e., something about the relevant kind of participation that would tend to make it culpable. I may be institutionally tied to some injustice by a thousand degrees of separation, and yet still somehow tied to it, hence “participate” in it. That’s a kind of “participation,” but it doesn’t even begin to indicate culpability. (How many Russians are “participating” in Putin’s invasion of Ukraine?)

        To come back to your example: suppose we live in a society that imposes the death penalty for some crimes, and does so in a racially discriminatory manner. Does every member of that society have the obligation to condemn it? My answer: no. Obviously, children don’t. Neither do those consumed with problems that render them incapable of paying attention to issues of public concern. I wouldn’t expect someone fighting a dread disease to have an added obligation to take a stand against the death penalty. You wouldn’t, for instance, expect someone on a ventilator to extubate himself just long enough to declare his opposition to the death penalty. That seems a bit much.

        But to use a more pedestrian example: there are many people who non-culpably do not know what to think about the death penalty, and can’t be blamed for failing to make an inquiry on that particular subject. I would say that we have a perfect obligation to tailor our beliefs to evidence, and to respect the complexity of the complex issues out there. So if you don’t know anything about the death penalty, and aren’t in a position to make the inquiry, you can’t have the obligation to pass judgment on it. What you have is the imperfect duty to advance justice in the way that best fits your knowledge, temperament, and circumstances.

        Suppose that I have no particular view on the death penalty, but am strongly opposed to the poorly designed nature of American crosswalks, which kill more people than ought to die while crossing the street. Must I have both beliefs, or is it OK for me to have just one? I’d say it’s OK to have one.

        Suppose I’ve devoted my life to advocating for those suffering from chronic pain. Must I also take positions on the death penalty on top of all that? No.

        https://www.practicalpainmanagement.com/author/27318/lawhern

        What is problematic is not the failure to hold a particular belief about a particular injustice (unless you bear a close relation to it), but indifference to the requirements of justice and injustice as such. Among people who work to advance the cause of justice, I think it’s appropriate to tolerate a wide variety of interests (and lack of interest). One person’s pet topic is not going to be another’s (or everyone’s). That’s something to celebrate, not to lament, much less to condemn.

        Racial justice and criminal justice are important, but they’re not the only important things in the world. As long as someone has something else of equal moral weight on their plate–some morally significant project they can call their own–they can be excused for not fixating on those two topics, or some other particular topic (even the liberation of Palestine). There is no perfect or quasi perfect duty to “drop everything else and condemn the racially discriminatory nature of the death penalty because you happen to inhabit a society that has one.” Too much is wrong with our society for a duty like that to make a realistic claim on anyone.

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        • I half-agree with you on (4), even if it took me three attempts to understand this conditional of yours below. I’ve deleted the parenthetical in the original.

          (4) The position I was broaching was this: if one’s participation [in an injustice] is incidental or minimal… then one is not obligated to cease participating.

          This claim highlights the ambiguity of the concept of “participation.” In one sense, “participation” merely implies causal involvement, no matter how involuntary and attenuated. In another sense, “participation” implies a culpable form of complicity. And it implies the range between those extremes. What really needs unraveling are the various forms of “participation” in an injustice, including the participation-from-afar that happens when people are involuntarily enrolled in institutions to which they don’t consent. Until we get clear on that, talk of “participation” is likely to confuse more than it clarifies.

          That said, I can easily imagine (or come up with) examples that fit my own interpretation of (4). Let me describe a real-life example, and let you decide how close an approximation to (4) it is.

          I’m currently corresponding with an elderly woman in her 80s who lives in an isolated, half-inhabited outpost in some woebegone part of the California desert. She’s had a terribly hard life, and has recently been the victim of some terrible tragedies. She’s lived in this isolated way for decades. Her greatest desire is to be left in peace–literally, to be left alone.

          Does she “participate” in the injustice of the death penalty? Well, if paying the taxes that support it qualifies, I suppose she does. She lives on a fixed income and collects Social Security, but still has to pay state sales taxes, which go, in part, to funding the death penalty. Is that incidental or minimal participation? It would seem so, assuming it counts as “participation” at all.

          If you asked her whether she’s in favor of having police departments and a criminal justice system, she would no doubt say “yes.” Does that count as “participation in” the criminal justice system? Sort of. Does it count as the relevant sort of participation to make her blameworthy for not condemning the death penalty? No.

          I’ve never specifically asked her about the death penalty, and don’t intend to; I couldn’t begin to guess what she’d say about it. If I were forced to place a bet on the subject, I’d bet that she’s against it. She’s a kindly person, and kindly people tend to be against the death penalty (or so I believe, or would like to believe).

          But I’ve never asked, so I don’t really know. I used to teach the death penalty, so I’m vaguely familiar with how people think about it. Here’s one common line of thought: There are heinous people in the world, and ordinary, decent people (even kindly ones) often infer that if a person is sufficiently heinous, he deserves to die; since every society has its share of these heinous people, they deserve to die. Hence we need a death penalty.

          This is a bad argument, but I wouldn’t call someone culpable for believing it, especially if their “belief” was elicited, not by any unilateral declaration on their part, but in the course of a Socratic dialogue in which one asked them a series of questions aimed at “uncovering” their “latent” beliefs about a subject they had never much considered until the day of the dialogue. (One undiscussed problem with Socratic dialogues is that they tend to create beliefs in a person where none previously existed. If I put you on the spot and ask you questions about the death penalty, all of a sudden, it seems as though you have an obligation to have beliefs about it–even if you don’t.)

          Does the woman in my example have an obligation to take a stand on the death penalty? No. What if she’s white? Still no. What is she’s really, really white? Same answer. I know how radical this will sound, but I don’t believe that being white is a form of participation in injustice. Crazy, I know.

          One problem I have with the whole neologistic vocabulary of “wokeness” blah blah blah is that if we use it as a synonym for “the requirements of justice,” it commits us to all kinds of stupid things that should not be piled on genuine advocates of social justice. Maybe a commitment to “wokeness” requires us to demand that the elderly white lady declare her white privilege before the world, condemn the death penalty, and send a check to BLM. But I’ve never said any such thing, and I don’t think that any sensible advocate of social justice is committed to it. I realize that many social justice warriors desperately want to exemplify the craziest stereotypes of the so-called “woke” leftist, but I’ve spent the last few months battling that view. You can be committed to social justice and not be committed to fanatical, quixotic positions like “Either everyone joins my personal crusade for social justice, or they are evil and must be cancelled!”

          I still insist, however, that the latter phenomenon is more the confabulation of right-wing imagination than it is the reality that governs the world we inhabit. Yes, there are leftists who would chase down my old lady and make impertinent demands of her. But there are far more of them in the fevered imaginations of right-wing critics than there are in the real world.

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        • Regarding my [3], let’s shift the obligatory action-type to withdrawing participation, since condemnation applies as much to injustice as such, not injustice that one is participating in. The broad context is the possibility that, at a certain low level of participation, no (perfect) duty is triggered – one would simply do better morally or be a morally better person for withdrawing participation.

          ‘Participation’ is vague. Maybe it is worth narrowing down a bit. I’m concerned with actions and omissions that reinforce social norms or institutions that are unjust. So we all do this, to some degree, in simply paying our taxes. One also does this if one is at a management position in a firm and one fails to speak up (maybe because one does not know about it) regarding a hiring process that favors “more aggressive” behavior more typical of men than women, thus favoring men in a way that has nothing to do with merit.

          I had perfect duties in mind. There are interesting and important questions to ask here regarding the kind and degree of participation (of the sort specified) that yields a (perfect) requirement to withdraw participation. All parties should agree that, when this sort of line in degree of participation is not crossed, though one would be a better person for withdrawing participation, one has no (perfect) requirement to do so. The important questions are: (i) is there a different sort of (imperfect) obligation to withdraw participation, according to which one is required to, sometimes or with some regularity, to withdraw participation, when to do so being entirely up to one’s discretion and (ii) is there the kind of perfect obligation that I just sketched (we might have perfect only, imperfect only, or both perfect and imperfect combinations with regard to obligations to withdraw participation).

          I think there are perfect obligations of this sort (though I’m not sure just how and where we should draw the line regarding kinds and degrees of participation that trigger the obligation). The question for me is whether there are imperfect obligations (and if so what their form is). If not, then the suggestion or possibility that, below some threshold of participation that triggers obligation (perfect duty), withdrawing participation is merely ethically good or praiseworthy is viable (and so entirely up to the agent and such that not choosing non-participation enough or even across the board is not liable to the kind of criticism or condemnation that goes with violating obligations).
          Are there imperfect obligations of this sort?

          One way to tackle this question (and to think of imperfect ethical obligations generally) is to focus on the element of conditions for apt moral criticism (and the sort of moral criticism that is apt). Suppose I never withdraw low-level support for unjust norms and institutions in social systems that I am a part of, even when the competing personal interest is something like how much I’m paying for toothpaste – but I always abide by the corresponding perfect duty (in each case, when my kind or level of participation is beyond a certain threshold – and certain other conditions like non-participation not being super-costly to me and there being no stronger obligations competing – I withdraw my participation). Is moral condemnation apt?

          My intuition: it is not because, due to my abiding by the relevant perfect duty, I have demonstrated enough moral concern and hence adequately non-shitty character (with regard to participating in the perpetuation of unjust social conditions). Perhaps some milder form of moral criticism (maybe something like what Robin Zheng calls “formative criticism”) would be apt, but not condemnation (or what Zheng calls “summative criticism”). This might come to there being no imperfect duty, here (though, obviously, only the reactive not the action-guiding normative elements have been addressed). Perhaps this verdict would be reversed if there were no such corresponding perfect obligations (that could be abided by, thus expressing relevant aspects of good character)? Maybe this indicates that perfect and imperfect obligations that broadly concern the same action-type “compete” or push each other out?

          Though my thinking has shifted quite a bit (on these issues broached in my [3]), I’m still apt to press for the viability of the idea that, in these sorts of cases, there are perfect duties to withdraw participation and no imperfect duties to withdraw participation, leaving one free from apt moral condemnation if one’s perfect duties having been discharged (even if one could be, but is not, a morally better person with respect to withdrawing participation in the support of unjust social conditions).

          (I know there many points you make that the above does not address. I hope this at least hits on one or more of the essential of your points.)

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          • This is an interesting proposal. As I understand it, your claim is that there are contexts such that one has a perfect obligation to withdraw participation after some threshold, but in those cases, no imperfect obligation of withdrawal up to that threshold. Put in that abstract way, I guess I’d agree that there are such cases, but I find it hard to think about the issue completely in abstraction from actual cases. In other words, it’s not clear to me how general your principle is, or what its scope ends up being.

            Though this is an admittedly trivial point, there might be many cases in which practicing an imperfect duty of minimization might be useful training for the day when the threshold is met and one is confronted with a perfect duty of total withdrawal (apologies for the unintentionally sexual tone of this thought). But of course, that’s a highly contingent matter that doesn’t really go to the heart of your proposal.

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            • That is helpful.

              Yes, I’m partial to just this proposal, both for withdrawing participation in unjust social norms and institutions and for other structurally similar cases as well.

              What is behind it, though, is a further proposal that fleshes out the difference between (i) merely failing to exhibit praiseworthy virtue over time and (ii) doing this but it also, in virtue of this, being the object of apt criticism of the sort that goes along with failing to meet a moral requirement or obligation (say, shame-inducing criticism). By committing to obligations having an apt-criticism-upon-violation feature, we open the door to appealing to this feature to decide whether there is an imperfect duty.

              One thing we might do with such a model – instead of just shifting the head-butting from intuitions regarding imperfect duties to intuitions regarding apt shaming-type criticism – is ask what sort of social control (or other relevant social end) is achieved by such criticism and whether it is important for people in whatever context is at hand. That takes us to the factors (“reasons”) that might make for shaming-type criticism (as against, say, merely being disappointed) being apt or not. For example, we might use this general sort of framing to answer the question of whether there are imperfect duties of self-care as against mere praiseworthy self-care virtues (as Kant thought there were). I agree that examining actual cases (in adequate detail) is important.

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    • Irfan;

      My only other comment is that I simply reject the Kantian view as you present it. In my opinion, there are no “imperfect” obligations. There also are no perfect persons, including me. The distinction between “imperfect obligations” and “perfect obligations” strongly resemble excuses we all make for failure to do what we should do.

      sean s.

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  2. Your second and third paragraphs feel like convenient rationalizations. Failing to even react to injustice is especially inexplicable. A citizen of some state might fear to do anything about minority oppression, but that would point to an additional problem. Knowledge of, or belief about oppression are part of the “actual conditions” an individual might have a moral obligation toward. The failure to react in any way is not justifiable by any means I am aware of.

    There is no error in rejecting your assumptions about the limits of moral obligation unless your limits can be defended as morally compelling from a perspective that prizes individuality, individual judgment, and broadly rational persuasion. Such a reasoned defense of your assumptions seems problematic to me, and perhaps to others as well.

    The “woke” rarely “attack” individuals for their mere failure to act against structural injustice, their “attacks” are generally aimed at those who, by some act, lent support to, or participated in those injustices. Not because the failure to act is blameless but because there are bigger fish to fry.

    I am not aware of anyone “condemning status-quo pronoun use”; when asked what my pronouns are (he/him/his) I have never been “attacked” or even criticized for them. Never. Condemnation is normally reserved for the unwanted imposition of status-quo pronouns on others. I’m sure there are persons on the fringe who say or do silly things, but it’s erroneous to attribute fringe exceptions to the whole.

    Treating one’s favored non-basic trigger for moral outrage and condemnation” is a common, human trait; it is not confined to the “woke”. Perhaps you implied that, but it’s not clear that you did, so it needs to be said explicitly.

    From a “a … morally aware or complete liberal social perspective that prizes individuality, individual judgment and broadly rational persuasion” most of the things that trigger “woke” activists are things that a … morally aware or complete liberal society that prizes individuality, individual judgment and broadly rational persuasion should have settled long, long ago. “Justice delayed is justice denied”; that thought is much, much older than our contemporary problems.

    Dominating the conversation is no way to establish which specific things are apt for moral condemnation but ignoring relevant facts is not the way either. I appreciate your efforts to present a framework for asking important questions. My point here is to flesh-out your questions with some necessary context. These things are not happening in a vacuum.

    sean s.

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    • Thanks, Sean. I feel badly about being too abstract and not filling-in enough relevant context. Maybe this led to some miscommunications.

      (a) I agree that something is wrong morally with one if one does not react to injustice (whether or not one is participating in that injustice in some tangential or more-than-tangential way). The primary reaction would concern attitudes (moral anger or outrage). Though it would be inapt to fail to have such attitudes, I think it is incorrect to say that we are morally obligated to have these reactions (because the concept of moral obligation seems to apply mainly or exclusively to action).

      (b) The idea of imperfect duties (obligations, requirements) now makes more sense to me. The rules of a game might be such that, though I’m never required to choose the waving-my-hand-around option in any particular choice-situation in the game, I’m required to choose the hand-waving option for some (or one or two or many or 2/3 of the) choice-situations in the course of the game (maybe if I don’t wave my hands at some point in the game, I lose or am penalized). This seems to be the logical structure of imperfect requirements (simply as rules, whether moral or not). Though such requirements do function differently from perfect requirements, they still “bind us” in a similar way that is captured, quite intuitively, by the concept of requirement (e.g., “you are required to wave your hands at some point in the game”). Like you, I’m a bit skeptical about the importance (or existence) of such requirements (as against the perfect ones) in morality. But I’m open to persuasion.

      (c) Quite correct regarding “the woke” condemning people mainly for participating in social injustice. The possibility that I’m bringing up (not necessarily endorsing) is that small degrees or ways of participating might not trigger a moral requirement or obligation (say, to cease participating). In which case, while it is morally best not to participate in unjust systems in certain small ways (say, by paying my taxes that support an ethnically discriminatory system of capital punishment), this would not be morally required of me (and my continued, quotidian participation would not justify moral outrage and condemnation being directed toward me). This more concerns how the woke regard and treat the non-woke (or the anti-woke) — you know, the flyover folks, etc. — than the propriety of the various woke cancellation actions (I’m happy enough to concede, for my purposes here, that the woke are 100% right in their causes and 100% right in their cancellation targeting and strategies). I’m not sure I was so clear about this earlier.

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    • (Responding to Sean below):
      Given my response to MY, I think you can infer that I agree in part, and disagree in part with your comment just above. This paragraph captures both aspects:

      The “woke” rarely “attack” individuals for their mere failure to act against structural injustice, their “attacks” are generally aimed at those who, by some act, lent support to, or participated in those injustices. Not because the failure to act is blameless but because there are bigger fish to fry.

      I agree that the woke rarely attack people for mere failure to act against structure injustice. Huge numbers of people go completely unattacked and unchallenged by anyone. The numbers who are ever attacked are miniscule, and dwarfed by much bigger injustices.

      That said, I agree with MY at least to this extent: there is no moral duty, binding on literally everyone, to condemn structural racism simply because it exists in the society one inhabits. The relevant point, as I see it, is there are few specific injustices which literally everyone has a duty to condemn. The duty of justice we have is more general than that. We have an imperfect duty to condemn injustice, not a perfect duty to condemn some specific set of them. The duty we have involves the condemnation of a subset of injustices that are in some hard-to-define way relevant to our lives. It’s hard to specify this subset in an abstract way, but it still seems unreasonable to single out some particular subset and demand that everyone sign on to condemning it no matter how their life is structured or what their life-circumstances.

      All of that is to say that on my view, a failure to act can be blameless.

      Incidentally, I bear no blame for the fact that these goddamn comments never end up going where I want them to.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Please forgive me if I combine comments on your two latest replies to Irfan, and myself.

    I think you answered your own question (to Irfan); participating in the perpetuation of unjust social conditions is acting unjustly. Such acts make one an accomplice to the injustice, if not more.

    Incidental or minimal” participation is still participation. Significant injustice is created or enabled by the accumulation of incidental or minimal acts. So, small degrees of participation merit at least small degrees of moral condemnation. This is especially true when considering social injustice.

    One always has the option to do nothing about injustice, but that option is not a “moral option”. One of the things significant players count on (re. social injustice) is the passivity of those who disapprove.It is cliché but still true: “All that is necessary for evil to triumph is for good people to do nothing.

    Moral anger or outrage is appropriate in some degree toward those who simply fail to react. Since I reject “imperfect requirements” in toto; I am well beyond skeptical of them. If it is “morally inapt” to fail to react, then objecting to the idea of a “moral obligation” to react seems another rationalization.

    I like what you’re doing, please do continue.

    sean s.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. While it has nothing to do with your thesis, your initial example conflates two cases that really ought to be distinguished, since they call for quite different responses:

    1) Given similar situations, members of an ethnic minority are twice as likely to be charged with and convicted of a crime punished by death than non-members are.
    2) Members of an ethnic minority actually commit crimes that are punished by death at twice the rate (per capita) than non-members do, and those who do are just as likely to be caught and convicted as anyone else.

    Case 1) is a genuine case of bias in the judicial system that calls out for investigation and correction; indeed, it’s hard to see how it could occur without conscious bigotry among judges or prosecutors. In case 2), however, while there’s clearly a problem, it doesn’t lie within the judicial system, and no changes made to that system will address the actual causes. In fact, the only way to “reform” the judicial system that reduces the rate of executed minorities, if case 2) holds, is to make it biased against imposing the death penalty on minorities, or in favor of executing non-minorities. That would be an injustice of the same kind that exists in case 1).

    This is merely an instance, of course, of the general fallacy embedded in the concept of “disparate impact” in civil rights law. It leaps from the true statement that traits which deserve reward or censure aren’t caused by ethnicity, to the false conclusion that such traits can’t be correlated with ethnicity – so if they seem to be, that implies members of the ethnicity in question are treated unfairly. And, where this concept holds sway, it conceals genuine social evils from the eyes of those responsible for opposing them.

    Liked by 2 people

    • (Responding to Michael Brazier)
      I agree with that, except that if it’s true (or since it is), it does in fact have a bearing on MY’s claims: he needs to re-formulate his question so as to observe the distinction you’ve drawn. One can’t have a moral obligation to incorporate a fallacy or conflation into one’s thinking. But as stated, his question requires both.

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  5. Although it seems to have caught on here, I still cannot buy into the idea of “perfect” or “imperfect” duties.

    Suppose there is some duty D, and for person A, duty D is regarded as “perfect” but for person B, duty D is “imperfect”. There are many examples.

    This distinction is not driven by anything about duty D, but by some difference between persons A and B. So, attributing the distinction to D seems senseless to me. Something about A’s relation to D being different from B’s relation to D is what drives this. That difference might be about the person’s awareness, involvement, competency, proximity, or something else. But whatever that difference is, it’s an attribute of the persons A or B. Duty D is the same either way.

    This is why I reject the notion of “perfect” or “imperfect” duties. A duty is what it is. It’s the persons involved and their relationships to that duty which vary. So, the attribute should be on the person, not the duty. The duty just is. If one wants a reason to not fulfill a duty, then that reason should come from something about them, not something about the duty. If someone seems to merit condemnation vis-à-vis a duty, it is because of something about that person, not the duty.

    sean s.

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    • You’re mischaracterizing the distinction from the outset by using a single variable for both perfect and imperfect duties.

      Suppose there is some duty D, and for person A, duty D is regarded as “perfect” but for person B, duty D is “imperfect”.

      Correct, there is no duty D such that it is simultaneously perfect and imperfect relative to different persons. That’s not an objection to the distinction, but a misapplication of it. The distinction between perfect and imperfect duties is a distinction between types of duty, not a distinction in how a single duty is applied to different people.

      I just saw a woman walk down the street. Let’s say that her name is Julie.

      (1) If I walk down the street in Julie’s proximity, I have a duty not to murder her.
      (2) If I walk down the street in Julie’s proximity, and she tells me a story of woe and asks for money, I don’t necessarily have a duty to give her any. Yet I do have a duty to help some people in need sometimes.

      Let’s say that there is only one occurrence of my encountering Julie on the street. It happened at 11:10 am on Sunday, February 27, 2022 on a certain road at a certain location in Princeton, New Jersey. (Assume that Julie’s story of woe took 58 seconds to tell, and I decided on a “no” in the remaining 2 seconds of that minute.)

      Clearly, I have both duties at exactly the same time and place.

      The duty not to murder and the duty to render assistance are two different duties, not the same one applied in different contexts.

      By stipulation, Julie is one and the same person in both cases. So I don’t have one and the same duty in two different forms to two different people. This is a case of applying two different duties at one time to one person.

      The duty not to murder is perfect because there is no case like this such that I could violate it without wrongdoing. By contrast, the duty to give assistance to someone in need is imperfect because I could often fail to satisfy it without wrongdoing. Just one instance of failing to observe the first duty is wrong. But one instance of non-observance of the second duty is not necessarily wrong. The cases of non-observance have to add up. The cases of observance of the imperfect duty are somewhat at my discretion. To the extent that the imperfect duty is obligatory, it’s obligatory as a set of actions spread out over time and space, not as a particular instance at a particular time and place. The imperfect duty to give assistance to the needy is a duty, over time, to give some assistance to some people sometimes in a manner that is partly at one’s discretion. I would say the same thing about condemning injustices to which one has made no clear or direct voluntary contribution.

      Take Julie again. We know nothing about her in a personal sense. Even without knowing anything about her, we know she has a perfect duty not to murder anyone. We can also say that she has an imperfect duty to condemn injustice. But assuming she has no particular connection to the Russian government, does she commit any wrongdoing by not condemning the invasion of Ukraine? No. Would she be in the wrong if she never managed to condemn any injustice, ever? Yes. To figure out the structure of her imperfect duties, we’d need to know something about her biography–her personality, her circumstances, her goals, etc. We don’t need that kind of information for perfect duties. We only need to know that she’s a moral agent.

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  6. Irfan;

    Regarding, “Correct, there is no duty D such that …

    There must be a typo; otherwise, you are simultaneously agreeing and disagreeing with the quote you cited. I will take this to have meant “Correction, there is no duty D such that it is simultaneously perfect and imperfect relative to different persons”.

    In any event, thanks for the clarification on what you mean by “perfect” or “imperfect” duties. However, what I see now still fits my initial response when this thread began: “imperfect” duties seem to be elaborate rationale’s for failure to carry out duties. They almost turn moral duties into transactions: earn enough good-deed brownie-points and you get to ignore other duties. They resemble the Roman Catholic concept of indulgences: do enough little good deeds and you’re off the hook for your sins. Fundamentalist Protestants similarly claim these days that once you join their club (“accept Jesus as your personal savior”) then you are effectively saved regardless of what you do.

    The exclusion of some bad acts from this transactional system seems capricious: if one does enough other good works, why fret about the occasional murder?

    Furthermore, if murder is defined as a “wrongful killing” then saying we have a “moral duty to not murder” is equivalent to saying, “it’s wrongful to commit a wrongful killing”. While true, that seems tautology and not particularly helpful. Perhaps there is a “moral duty to not do X” where X is “wrongfully withhold assistance” or some other “imperfect” duty. Does that make a “moral duty to not do X” a “perfect” duty? Does this ever add clarity? I think not.

    It seems to me that “perfect” duties are simply duties where wrongfulness has been included by fiat. If there is a “duty to not murder”; what is the status of a “duty to not kill”? The acts are the same; the difference is in the presence or absence of presumed wrongfulness. Any duty can be reframed as a “duty to not [insert action] wrongfully”. In that framing, no duties are imperfect. But that framing is not helpful; and “do not murder” is unhelpfully framed that way; perhaps all “perfect” duties are.

    This “Kantian” mode of analysis strikes me as unhelpful. I think the action and consideration of what makes the action wrongful or virtuous should not be commingled this way.

    Regarding, “The duty not to murder and the duty to render assistance are two different duties, not the same one applied in different contexts. By stipulation, Julie is one and the same person in both cases. So I don’t have one and the same duty in two different forms to two different people. This is a case of applying two different duties at one time to one person.

    Since nothing I said comes remotely close to the point you seem to be refuting, why you felt a need to make this point is mysterious to me. I’m sure there was a reason; and I’m sure there is nothing in that part of your comment to disagree with, not now, not ever.

    sean s.

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