Tuesday, December 09, 2008

Condemning Acts and People

Annie has asked, in a comment made to Hate Speech and the Presumption of Innocence:

Would you please clarify . . . how and whether you make a distinction between condemning an act from condemning a person? If you don't make a distinction, would you elaborate as to why you don't? Thanks-

I think that condemning an action is as absurd as condemning a refrigerator or a chair. It only makes sense to praise or condemn a person. We may premise our praise or condemnation on the fact that the person performed or failed to perform a particular act. However, it is the person that we praise or condemn, not the act.

When I write about the tools of morality, I typically write about praise, condemnation, reward, and punishment. The absurdity of praising or condemning an action is easily illustrated by the absurdity of rewarding or punishing an action.

It is not even conceivable that we might invite an action to the front of a room or before a gathering of its peers so that we may provide it with a medal or a plaque of recognition.

Similarly, when it comes to punishment, it is absurd to fine an action, or to imprison an action, or to execute an action for its crimes.

We reward and we punish people.

We assign rewards and punishments based on actions. However, the reward and the punishment is directed at the action. It is directed at the person based on "the fact that you have demonstrated that you are the type of person who would perform such an act."

Clearly, a strong piece of evidence that a person to demonstrate that he is the type of person who would perform a particular action is for him to perform the action. We take the act as a reliable indicator of the quality of the person who performed it. However, it is still the person that we praise, condemn, reward, or punish – not the action.

Then we have the question of how we determine whether a given act provides evidence that the agent is somebody we have reason to praise, condemn, reward, or punish.

Acts that show that a person has desires that tend to fulfill other desires are acts that show that the person is somebody we have reason to praise or reward. Our reason comes from the desires fulfilled by desires that tend to fulfill other desires.

Acts that show that a person has desires that tend to thwart other desires are acts that show that the person is somebody we have reason to praise or reward. Our reason comes from the desires thwarted by desires that tend to fulfill other desires.

However, we do not praise or condemn desires either. We face the same problem – how do you praise or condemn a desire? Even here, we praise or condemn people – based on what that person’s actions (or non-actions) tell us about his or her desires.

(Technically, I hold that a person is a bundle of desires. Consequently, praising or condemning a person is the same as praising or condemning a bundle of desires. However, this track would take us deep into the philosophy of personal identity, where we do not have room to travel at the moment. As Eneasz says, you cannot disentangle a person from his desires.)

This slogan that one should "hate the sin but love the sinner" is nonsense rhetoric that certain groups of people adopt in order to deflect the charge of hate-mongering. In fact, only persons can be condemned or punished – never actions. Only sinners can be condemned, never sins. People who lie to themselves (by claiming they condemn actions and not persons) do so in order to blind themselves to the evil that they do. However, people who refuse to see the evil that they do still do evil. The wrongness of their actions does not depend on their willingness to see them as wrong.

5 comments:

chris said...

What would you say to the idea that certain actions tend to corrupt one's character or self? A possible move would be to say that person A cares about person B, and believes that if person B begins doing certain actions, that those actions will begin to tear away at the person?

I guess I am not fully versed on your desire theories, so maybe it would have something to do with that.

martino said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Annie said...

Thank you for addressing this. Paradoxically, as you have explained this and I am learning from it, I understand less than before.

I believed that humanism is built on the idea of inherent worth of the person. Indeed, in the nursing profession, that is an expressed ethical tenet.

I have tried to be consistent in rejecting/criticising/condemning actions and not people, thinking that the underlying fault in the act was a poverty of logic, reason or virtue, but that all people are inherently worthy and contain the possibility of learning/change/reformation/renewal.

There is much to contemplate in your response. I appreciate it and will think on it at length.

martino said...

First a couple of typos.

Para 7
"We assign rewards and punishments based on actions. However, the reward and the punishment is directed at the person[action]. It is directed at the person based on "the fact that you have demonstrated that you are the type of person who would perform such an act.""


Para 11
"Acts that show that a person has desires that tend to thwart other desires are acts that show that the person is somebody we have reason to condemn or punish [praise or reward]. Our reason comes from the desires thwarted by desires that tend to fulfill other desires."

Now a question. What actually is the utility within DU?

It does not look like to maximise or, rather to increase DF, (although that is the indirect consequence of DU). Rather DU focuses in increasing desires that tend to fulfil desires (DFD).

To me, this makes more sense, metaphorically, as a 1st order differentiation of desire, that DF being "distance",DFD being like "velocity" and the net degree of coherence and consistency in applying the social forces being a 2nd order differentiation "acceleration".(By this metaphor I do not mean 2nd order desires as traditionally thought of, e.g a desire to stop smoking)

I am not sure what you think of this metaphor/analogy but it helps me in showing how DU deals with Parfit's "repugnant conclusion" and in general highlights one of the key differences of DU over rule-, act- and decision procedure-consequentialism, that its relationship to wellbeing utility is not so much indirect versus direct but as I reflected above of the speed and acceleration of desire fulfilment

Alonzo Fyfe said...

Annie

You do not see a fundamental inconsistency between the claim, "I am not criticizing you," and "The underlying fault was a poverty in your logic, reasoning, or virtue?"

These sound like significant criticisms to me.