Author Archives: Matthew Pianalto

Having to Do Something Wrong

Peter WInch discusses a case in which an Amish elder kills a man who is threatening to shoot a young woman (in “Moral Integrity,” from his collection Ethics and Action). Winch concludes that although this man did what he had to do, he nevertheless judges that he did something wrong in killing another person (which follows from his commitment to non-violence). (The case is taken from the 1950s film Violent Saturday.)

Some might claim that this simply shows that the elder is mis-judging his action (in thinking that it is wrong to act as he did), and that he should revise his moral views (that all forms of violence are immoral). How could this elder judge that he had to do what he did, if he believed that doing so is morally wrong? If he is to remain committed to Amish ideals, then he can only look back on what he did and judge that it was morally wrong. But equally, it seems that in looking back, he may continue to think that he had to do it.

If thinking in this way manifests a bias, it is not obviously a self-serving bias. (True, thinking this way might be a condition for his remaining in the community, so it might be.) He is choosing to live with the (deeply troubling) judgment that he has done something wrong even though he also believes he could do nothing else. Many of us might be inclined to think that the elder did the right thing, but he himself would disagree: he did what he had to, but it was still wrong.

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Moral Progress and Scope of Moral Concern

I just read the first few pages of Paul Johnston’s (1999) The Contradictions of Modern Moral Philosophy, and he makes an interesting opening suggestion that addresses some of Robin’s concerns about whether we can know that we have made any moral progress – as he puts it, whether we can know that our moral beliefs are better than, say, those of Kant or Aristotle.

Johnston notes that the success of scientific explanation and challenges to traditional religious beliefs have given rise to various forms of moral skepticism and moral relativism, and suggests that, "Overall, there seems to be a real question as to whether, knowing what we do, we can still believe in right and wrong." The following paragraph, however, presents an interesting assessment of the situation of ethics in "modernity":

This issue looks surprisingly different when considered from a less theoretical perspective. Measured against our actual practices the suggestion that ethical thinking has lost its hold in our society seems exaggerated. Paradoxically, the modern world seems characterised not only by scepticism about ethics but also by the clash of strongly held moral views. Take the controversy about abortion. This debate highlights the divisions that can arise in our society, but it also refutes the suggestion that modernity and moral certainty are antithetical. Indeed, it could be argued that in some ways people today are more ethical than their forbears insofar as certain aspects of human life that were previously not believed to raise moral issues are now seen as doing so. The rise of vegetarianism and of new concepts such as animal rights suggest that, far from withering away in our society, ethical notions are gaining new force and fresh applications. Despite theoretical misgivings about ethics, the modern world seems willing to embrace moral codes even more demanding than those held in earlier times.

I suppose one could object to Johnston’s argument by claiming that we simply make mountains out of what our forbears would have only regarded as molehills. But it seems that saying that would commit one to the view that abolishing slavery and condemning sexual harassment are not to be regarded as moral improvements, since these are simply, to abuse Paul Graham’s phrase, "moral fashions." (Thanks for the reference to Graham, Daniel and Richard.)

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Moral Dilemmas, Criticism, & Plumping

First, let me thank Robin Hanson for inviting me to Overcoming Bias. In this first post of mine, let me present a puzzle that has some bearing on both my area of study, moral theory, and overcoming bias:

Rush Rhees claimed that “in matters of morals it is not reasons which decide the issue” (“Deciding What I Ought to Do” in Moral Questions (1999)). I find this statement remarkably puzzling, and Rhees recognizes that this is an uncomfortable way to express his point, since he admits that reasons are relevant to moral decision-making. (He is not a moral relativist or subjectivist in any obvious way.) The question, then, is what does decide the issue? Rhees’ view is that our moral decisions are inherently personal, a point that he emphasizes by declaring, “Only I can decide what I ought to do.

At the very least, Rhees’ claims appear to make sense of moral dilemmas. These are situations in which a person has equally good reasons for choosing either of two courses of action (or where there is an incommensurability between the reasons – these cases are harder and more theoretically contentious). If we were to find ourselves in a difficult moral dilemma, we might begin to understand why Rhees claims that reasons don’t (and can’t) decide the issue, and that only we ourselves can decide what we ought to do.

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