Can Acting on Moral Falsehood Ever Be Warranted?

I was never persuaded by Aristotle’s argument that happiness is the highest good (because it is the only thing that humans seek for its own sake rather than for any other end). The reason I never accepted it is that it is either circular (happiness gets defined as whatever it is you seek for its own sake) or obviously wrong (we sometimes do things for the benefit of others).

On the other hand, Kant’s argument that the only thing that is good without qualification is a good will has always seemed extremely persuasive to me and founded upon a deep, virtually universal moral intuition. If I pursue my own happiness at the expense of what I know to be right, any happiness I thereby win is not a blessing but a curse. We root for the “bad guys” not to profit from their wrongdoing. Further, we judge the rightness or wrongness of actions by the state of someone’s will. If I accidentally save someone falling from a burning house while I am engaged in trying to rob it, my “action” is not praiseworthy: there was no intent to do good. On the other hand, if I try to do the right thing, but the facts later turn out to show that I was mistaken, my actions may be regrettable but not blameworthy. For instance, if I see a man accost a child roughly and interpose myself thinking to stop an aggression, I am not to blame for my action even if it turns out the man was trying to stop a child who’d committed a serious theft, so long as, if I had known the truth, I would have acted differently.

But surely, good intentions are not enough! If I know that my actions will cause harm, but do them anyway under the guise that my intentions are good, my actions are still wrong. Politicians do this all the time, in raising subsidies or the minimum wage or in creating monopolies or in innumerable other ways. So reckless or negligent disregard for the consequences of one’s actions is blameworthy. But you don’t really have good intentions if you are reckless or negligent! A well-intentioned person will try to figure out what is best to do, and then act on that understanding.

So it’s settled: the only good thing is a good will. But wait: there’s another problem. What if I act on a moral principle that is false but which I sincerely believe to be true? Am I acting wrongly if I vote for drug prohibition on the grounds that hard paternalism is sometimes morally justified? Am I acting wrongly if, wrongly believing that hard paternalism is morally justified, I nevertheless vote against drug prohibition? It seems that Kant’s answers must be “no” and “yes,” respectively. And I agree: under some circumstances, it is morally wrong for a sincere paternalist to vote against drug prohibition, even though drug prohibition is, in the final analysis, morally wrong. Whaaa…?

This was the hardest part of Kant’s philosophy (or Adam Smith’s too, actually) for my intro political philosophy students at Buffalo to swallow. And it may be hard for you too, dear reader. Can we make sense of it in such a way that does not lead to absurd conclusions like, “It would be morally wrong for Hitler not to have commanded the Holocaust”?

Reading Jerry Gaus’ Order of Public Reason has helped me to sort out this difficult problem. (He’s drawing heavily on P.F. Strawson here, whose work I had not previously read.) From page 253:

The reasons you have must be accessible to you, and as a real rational agent in a world in which cognitive activity has significant costs, rationality does not demand one keep on with the quest to discover less and less accessible reasons. . . [E]xpert advice and the growth of social knowledge allows increasingly sophisticated and complex conclusions to be accessible as reasons to all with simply an adequate amount of deliberation. Think about all the reasons to believe and act that one has after twenty minutes on WebMD.

To have a reason to act in a certain way requires that reason to be cognitively accessible to you. You are not to blame for failing to act on very subtle reasons that only specialists could know and of which you are justifiably unaware. Then there’s this on page 254:

[T]he practice of morality is not an elite practice such as physics or moral philosophy, but a basic human practice in which all adults who have grasped the Principle of Moral Autonomy are competent. We cannot ascribe to moral agents reason to accept infinite utility calculations, the noumenal self, or the original position. These may be elements of philosophical theories that explain or further justify people’s moral reasons, and the philosophers who advocate them may argue that they are in some way the upshot of what normal moral agents do believe, but they are the result of specialist constructions based on long deliberations, and even their teaching is difficult.

Again, having the wrong moral theory is not blameworthy. Ordinary people can be expected only to act according to their good-faith understandings of their moral duties, having done a “respectable amount” of reflection on what the right thing to do is.

On page 257:

[O]ur morality must not attribute reasons to people the warrant for which is beyond that which can be accessed by the amount of deliberation we can expect from the average – or even the somewhat below average – participants. So we cannot ascribe to normal moral agents reasons based simply on sophisticated moral theories. However, our moral practice must also speak to those who have thought about moral matters at these more sophisticated levels.

So the legislator who reasons that drugs are bad for people, that the point of legislation is the common good, and therefore that banning drugs is a justifiable use of the legislative power, is wrong from the perspective of those who have thought more deeply about the purpose of legislation (not to mention the consequences of drug prohibition). But from his own perspective, he is not wrong. In the absence of coming across those reasons, he has good enough reason to vote for drug prohibition.

Are we then in the realm of saying a misguided Hitler could have been justified in the Holocaust? Not at all. Even the remotest flicker of human empathy and concern about the rights of others would immediately have shown to Hitler that the Holocaust was wrong. Either Hitler knew the Holocaust was wrong and did it anyway, or he should have known it was wrong, but failed to because he did not do even a tiny amount of moral reflection. In either case, he is blameworthy.

We libertarians should not be quick to accuse nonlibertarians of doing “evil.” Most nonlibertarians, possibly even most legislators, are acting in the political realm in accordance with what they believe to be right. The proper response to them is not political threats, verbal abuse, or forceful resistance, except in the most extreme, emergent circumstances, but careful persuasion. We need to get them to think more deeply about the reasons they have so that they will come to see that they should act in a different way.

14 thoughts on “Can Acting on Moral Falsehood Ever Be Warranted?

  1. “I was never persuaded by Aristotle’s argument that happiness is the highest good (because it is the only thing that humans seek for its own sake rather than for any other end). The reason I never accepted it is that it is either circular (happiness gets defined as whatever it is you seek for its own sake) or obviously wrong (we sometimes do things for the benefit of others).”

    Off topic, but I already disagree. The argument seems silly only when you translate “eudaimonia” with “happiness,” but that’s not really accurate. “Flourishing” is much closer to what is meant, and it’s not at “obviously wrong” once we make this correction. Aristotle is completely on board with doing things for the benefit of others – that’s built right into his account of friendship. Having friends is one constituent of a flourishing life, and the friend seeks to benefit his friend for the friend’s own sake.

    1. Fair point. I shouldn’t have been so dismissive of the basic claim, although I still think Aristotle’s argument in Nicomachean Ethics isn’t very persuasive. He avoids circularity by being specific about what happiness/flourishing requires, but in so doing introduces controversial standards of judgment. (Contemplation is the highest flourishing because it is the way in which humans are like the gods.)

  2. What’s so “obviously wrong” in “doing things for the benefit of others”? If it gives you happiness to help others (e.g. social workers) then it contributes to the “highest good.” If it doesn’t give you happiness (e.g. wage slaves) to do so, then it doesn’t contribute to “higher good.”

    1. Sometimes I think it is the best thing to forego my own happiness for some better end. Now, of course, having done the right thing I am more satisfied than I would have been had I not done the right thing (by my own lights), but that satisfaction was not my objective, but a byproduct.

  3. Now to the substance of your post: “having the wrong moral theory is not blameworthy” Not sure that’s right either. You are responsible for the character you develop. See, e.g.,
    But it’s not just on virtue ethics that this is so; Kant also would call it blameworthy if you fail to recognize the logic of the categorical imperative. I agree with your conclusion, that “We libertarians should not be quick to accuse nonlibertarians of doing “evil.”” But it doesn’t follow from that charitable stance that it can be morally justified to act on wrong principles. This “But from his own perspective, he is not wrong.” proves way too much – on that view, everyone is right.

    1. Well, those who don’t do the “respectable amount of reasoning” are clearly wrong. But it is tough to see how, since moral philosophers themselves disagree about the correct moral theory, you could be blameworthy for acting sincerely in accord with a moral theory that may be wrong for some arcane reason. Suppose a utilitarian like Richard Epstein votes for a narrow antitrust law, thinking it morally obligatory, while a deontological libertarian like Randy Barnett votes against it, thinking it morally wrong. Obviously, at least one of them is mistaken about his duty. Do we want to say that he should have done otherwise, that he was not warranted in voting as he did? I would say that at least one of them has done wrong in the “in the final analysis” sense, but it is possible that neither of them has done wrong in the situation in which they were placed, with the information that they had.

  4. “We need to get them to think more deeply about the reasons they have so that they will come to see that they should act in a different way.”

    –you mean we should persuade them?

  5. I don’t agree with the last part about careful persuasion. Most of our legislators are willfully ignorant. By this I mean to say that they have the necessary power and resources at their disposal (where most others do not) to ask simple questions about important issues and to receive extremely accurate and educated information upon which they can then make intelligent, forward thinking decisions. (Breath) Most of them don’t even need to do it themselves, but can assign scads of zealous followers. And if they (legislators) are astute enough to understand the inherent bias laced in every person’s perspective, then they’d do well to hire a variety of people from different backgrounds in order to insure that they receive a balance in the overall information provided them.

    This is a luxury that most of us do not have. That, in the end is why many of us are simply ignorant rather than willfully so. All told, however, I think that most people’s ignorance – even for those in power – is a result of cultural programming and life experience. If you haven’t walked enough on the other side of the tracks then there’s truly no way that you can understand where, say, the poor (i.e. people with real problems) are coming from. Once you come to terms with the fact that cultural programming and life experience dictate so much with respect to perspective, it’s easy to understand why so many people don’t have a clue – especially in the US… or a sense of urgency for the very serious threats that things like overpopulation, species collapse, climate change and the like all pose.

    Cultural programming in our country: So much of being human these days is just an ongoing exercise in refinement. It’s repulsive considering the fact that every human mind begins with such a beautiful state of innocence and boundlessness. We start out open to exploration, newness and unconditioned knowledge and facts. Everything to a child holds the same level of importance and inspired awe and beauty. Almost nothing is filtered out. Then we’re taught to build lives, personas, careers and lifestyles – all of which are then projected into the myriad situations that we’re expected to encounter in our productive lives. And we refine and refine and refine – painstakingly, methodically… maddeningly persistently. Eventually many of our skillsets and learned behaviors and reactions become rigidly habitual – programmed as second nature. A great deal of effort slowly becomes effortless. In the process almost everything becomes invisible, filtered out as uninteresting and irrelevant in the presence of life and career building. And unless something comes along to disrupt that process, we just continue on refining and refining until edges are sanded and smoothed and we know and do nothing else. Habit and routine take over. The openness and wonder of childhood are utterly overwhelmed by conditioned thinking and judgment and, more often than not, partial truths that fit comfortably within the confines of our desired lifestyles and trajectories.

    Captives of Civilization: Civilization is so compartmentalized and insulating at this point that we’re getting caught up in the metronomic beats of our little lives; in the sense of security, importance and entitlement we feel in our jobs and daily routines. Much like politicians, we’re all being swept up into the game of it all, taking ourselves too seriously at the expense of everything else… sidelining and trivializing the importance of what actually matters and needs to get done.

    So morality… back to morality. Flexible morality. The biggest issue that I have with allowing corporations the rights of individuals involves the following. When a person, an individual, considers choices and subsequent actions from a personal standpoint, ethics and morality often enter the picture. In this context choices and actions have very personal consequences and are therefore considered more carefully and comprehensively as a result. In other words, lacking moral or ethical fiber has proven hazardous to most in our society (in a personal context anyway) and is therefore usually avoided to the extent that it appears to matter. Beyond that depends strictly upon the person and their own moral and ethical boundaries.

    Now. When individuals are making and carrying out decisions for an employer, they’re often a layer or more removed from the personal consequences of those choices and actions. and it allows them to pursue opportunities that they might otherwise find to be personally unethical or immoral. It’s even likely that they’re so well insulated from the consequences that they’re only affected in what could be considered as positive ways (raises, bonuses, advancement opportunities, etc.).

    The thing is, human beings are very adept at changing and conforming to different layers of abstraction. For example, an experienced driver can hop into a car and essentially become the car. The car’s boundaries and limitations effectively become his/her own while driving. It’s destructive capacity becomes his/her destructive capacity, its performance capabilities his/hers… as long as he/she has the skill to harness its full potential.

    So why is it so hard I believe then that corporations – entities that essentially lack any aspect of human-centric moral and ethical hazard – can transform their employees into sociopathic beings that only account for the needs of that entity?

    Just like driving a car is context sensitive, so are decisions in the workplace. When your in a car you do what the car allows or essentially wants. Not that the car has desires, but even in the absence of such, human beings can extrapolate what those desires would be based on the fact that we’ve done the same with another nonliving entity called a corporation. The supreme court just did that! They essentially gave corporations the same rights as individuals in important respects and said that they were essentially human since they were run by human beings. Nothing could be further from the truth, considering that an entity like this has very different needs than a human being.

    I have plenty of friends and colleagues who honestly believe that they make ethical and moral choices at work in the context of what they’re doing there. But therein lies the problem. They’re doing it “in context of” what the needs are of a soulless, nonliving entity that only puts value to profit. It’s not in any absolute, rigid sense.

    This leads us to an inevitable conclusion — People don’t normally have an absolute sense of anything let alone morality and ethics. It’s relative – flexible and capable of changing with changing conditions like everything else. There are exceptions of course, but this is not the norm. So expecting most people to make holistic, intelligent choices with respect to morality – especially in light of everything I’ve just said – is probably asking too much… unless of course people are educated to do otherwise. And then it’s a whole different ball game. Still – I think that people should be trying to become something more in life and that includes evolving states of moral and ethical judgement. And they should therefore be held accountable in that regard. A consistent message here would go a long way toward sending a message that people need to evolve.

  6. Now that I’m done ranting, think about this for a minute… Positive reinforcement, and the fact that it should not automatically equate to goodness or rightness. And yet it often does. People start working for a company that they can’t really stand, say, because of it’s culture or apparent lack of ethics. But they do a good job and keep getting raises and bonuses and the like. And it has a way of seducing many into believing that what they’re doing is actually good or maybe even right. A lot of times it never occurs to them that goodness and rightness have nothing to do with positive reinforcement. The saddest part is that these are smart people. I know many, many of them. It doesn’t phase them at all.

    1. If you allow your environment and social pressures to lead you to act differently from what you know to be right, you are indeed culpable. I certainly agree there. I don’t think that associations of human beings are inherently amoral. If you and I get together on a project, create a bank account for that project, a governance structure for that project, and start making decisions on behalf of that project, our moral responsibilities remain exactly the same. Those of us who have joined together to create and guide the project have a responsibility to act ethically & encourage those whom we hire or delegate responsibilities to, to act ethically.

      At the same time, I would say limited liability should be abolished, which means that the corporate form would be abolished. We would just have unincorporated associations. But those associations will still be made up of human beings, and any decision an association makes is a decision made by a human being.

  7. @CCT I believe it could be argued that these people who are “seduced” into working jobs that they dislike are not conducting a “respectable amount of reasoning”.

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