Tom Hurka is back for a second helping of Soup! His post is below the fold.
“More Importantly Right”
my first post I asked whether we can make sense of the idea that some acts are
more seriously wrong than others. I suggested we can if the properties that
make acts wrong admit of degrees, though there are different ways of doing so.
We can say a wrong’s degree of seriousness depends on the absolute strength of
the prima facie duties it violates, or on the size of the gap between those
duties and the ones, if any, it fulfils, where this gap can be measured in
either absolute or proportional terms.
now turn to a different topic: whether there is or can be a parallel idea
whereby some right acts are more seriously or importantly right than others.
may well think there can’t, so rightness and wrongness differ in this respect.
For one thing, many of the manifestations of more serious wrongness don’t seem
present here. You deserve more severe punishment for a more seriously wrong
act, but don’t deserve any reward at all for acting rightly – that’s expected
rather than something specially commendable. And whereas you should feel more
guilt after committing a more serious wrong, it can be argued that there’s no
feeling that’s appropriate after acting rightly, or if there is, it’s the same
mild satisfaction for all right acts.
Tenenbaum suggested to me that you should feel more satisfaction if you acted
rightly in the face of greater temptation, but we should distinguish between
attitudes to acts as right or wrong and attitudes to the motives behind them.
Thus guilt, which is about acting wrongly, differs from shame, which can be
about your motives. (You can only feel guilt about something you could have
avoided, but can feel shame about something outside your control.) I think that
in Sergio’s example what you feel satisfied about is that your desire to do
what’s right was strong enough to overcome the temptation, so your object is
your motivation rather than the rightness of your act.
may be, then, that there’s no rightness-concept that admits of degrees, and
Shelly Kagan suggested an elegant theory that explains why. An act is right so
long as it meets some standard, which it either does or does not. But an act is
wrong if it falls short of the standard, which it can do either more or less. And
an act can also exceed the standard, as it does if it’s supererogatory, and it
can do that more or less. So in the middle there’s a concept of rightness that
in no form admits of degrees, while below and above it are concepts of
wrongness and supererogation with forms that do. And an act’s degree of
supererogatoriness can be determined in the same ways as its degree of
wrongness: by looking at the absolute strength of the prima facie duty it
fulfils, or the size of the gap, either absolutely or proportionally, between
that duty and the weaker prima facie one you were required to fulfil.
I’m not 100% certain this is right. First, the materials that allow a concept
of more serious wrongness are also present for rightness, i.e., any right act
has properties that make it so, and some right-making properties are more
strongly right-making than others, such as saving 100 people vs. saving 2.
Second, I think there are some
concrete manifestations of more important rightness.
recently attended a history/political science conference (it happened to be
about the 1963-68 Canadian government of Lester Pearson). One speaker quoted an
apparently well-known poli sci view as saying that in evaluating a political
leader the main question to ask is, was he right about the major issue of his
day? He’ll have been right on some issues and wrong on others, but was he right
about the most important one he faced? (The speaker thought for Pearson this
was Canadian national unity; for George W. Bush it was presumably Iraq.)
sounded right to me, and led me to think that a retired political leader
looking back on his career should care most about how he handled his biggest
issues and feel most satisfaction if got them, rather than any smaller ones,
right. This looks similar to feeling most guilt about your most seriously wrong
acts. And we may also give him something like rewards for getting his biggest
issues right; you can get the Nobel Peace Prize for making large contributions
to peace but not for small ones no matter how well judged. Which all suggests
the presence of a concept of something like more important rightness.
concept can be specified in ways that again parallel more serious wrongness. A
right act can be more importantly right because the prima facie duties it
fulfils are in absolute terms stronger, or because the gap between them and the
duties fulfilled by some alternative is larger, i.e., because being right in
this situation made a bigger difference. There are, however, some distinctive
it can’t be all absolutely strong prima facie duties that make for more
important rightness. The duty not to kill – even more so, the duty not to
commit genocide – is in absolute terms very strong, yet fulfilling it isn’t
something you should feel great satisfaction about or for which you deserve a
big reward. Maybe only the duties to promote good and prevent evil, or those
plus a few others, are such that weightier instances of them make for more
significantly right acts. And there’s a further difficulty about any kind of
gap measurement. In the case of more serious wrongness, we compare the wrong
act you did with just one alternative: the act or disjunction of acts you had a
duty to do, or the moral standard you were required to meet. But here there are
several possible alternatives to the right act: the least seriously wrong act
you could have done instead, the wrong act you were most likely to do (but then
does your act score higher if you were tempted by something worse?), the wrong
act most people would do, and perhaps others. Which one of these should we use
to determine the relevant gap? I don’t know how to answer this question or how
a gap view could be applied to more important rightness.
if there is a concept of that type, it seems less important morally than that
of more serious wrongness. It’s less clearly present in common-sense morality,
which talks less about it, as are its manifestations. Even if it’s fitting to
feel more satisfaction about more important right choices, it’s not as fitting
as feeling more guilt about more seriously wrong ones. And rewarding right acts
is surely something common sense cares less about than about punishing wrongs.
may be that, taking everything together, there isn’t a coherent or useful concept
of more important rightness. If so, that makes for an interesting asymmetry
with wrongness, where there is a useful concept that admits of degrees.
(Actually, if Shelly is right there isn’t an asymmetry, since including
supererogation makes for an overall symmetrical view.) But I’m not sure. Part
of me thinks that just as George W. Bush should be especially troubled that he
made bad choices about Iraq, Lester Pearson should be especially pleased that
he made good ones about Canadian unity. And that suggests that those decisions
were, though not more right, more importantly right than many other right ones