Monday, February 23, 2009

Right Actions and Excuses

The right act is the act that a person with good desires would have performed.

Good desires, in turn, are desires that tend to fulfill other desires. For an account of how desires can be evaluated, and the sense in which agents can have motivating reasons to promote and inhibit desires, please see A Harmony of Desires

I am writing a series of posts to show how these propositions explain a number of the elements that we find in this institution we know as 'morality'. In this post, I focus on excuses.

What is an excuse, and why are they a part of a moral system?

Excuses are propositions that block implications from what appears on the surface to be a wrong action (an action that a person with good desires would not have performed) to the desires of the agent.

An agent drives through a red light, striking and killing a pedestrian. Or our agent points a gun at another person, pulls the trigger, and kills that person. We come upon one of these actions and we have reason to suspect that we are dealing with an agent who does not have the desires that a person with good desires would have.

Desires are like black holes. We cannot see desires directly. We know that they exist and what their properties are entirely by their effects on other things. So, we look for the signs of desires that we have reason to inhibit or the absence of desires that we have reason to promote. Going through a red light and striking a pedestrian, or shooting somebody, are good initial indicators that bad desires are present or good desires are lacking.

But, they may not be good enough. The agent has the opportunity to throw out an excuse and, in doing so, trump any implication that can be drawn from a prima facie wrong act to the conclusion that the agent had bad desires.

So, the agent who goes through the red light and strikes the pedestrian tells us that the car had a mechanical failing and he could not stop the car, even if he had wanted to. That is to say, even a person with good desires would not have been able to stop the car – so the prima facie bad act fails to show that I lacked good desires.

Or, the person who shot another tells us that he thought the other person was going to kill him. He acted in self-defense. Even a person with good desires can be expected to defend himself – with deadly force, if necessary. So, the self-defense excuse blocks the implication from the reasonable prima-facie claim that the agent had desires a good person would not have or lacked desires that a good person would have.

Let us assume that the agent who shot in self-defense discovers that the person he shot had a toy gun. In fact, the agent was not in any danger at all (since the would-be assailant had no potential to do real harm. However, our agent did not know that. The agent can offer the excuse that he made a reasonable mistake of fact.

It must be pointed out that just any old mistake of fact will work as an excuse. It must be a mistake that a person with good desires would not have made. The excuse, "I did not know the gun was loaded," is not good enough if the agent acquired that belief using less care than a person with good desires would have used. The moral concept of negligence is fully as applicable to the person who adopts beliefs carelessly as it is to the person who drives a care carelessly.

Perhaps the agents were on the set of a movie where one agent points a gun at another and pulls the trigger. Movie production allows stunt men and women to agree to accept a certain amount of risk in exchange for compensation (pay). In general, people can voluntarily assume risk.

This is justified in a desire utilitarian system because we have reason to leave decisions over what to do to the agents who participate in doing them. The person who obtains consent learns that the person with the most knowledge and most incentive to avoid mistakes believes that the action will fulfill the most and strongest of the agent’s desires. So, who are we to disagree – unless the agent is known to be incompetent at making such a decision (e.g., children).

So, the excuse of consent says that the agent trusted the best informed person’s judgment as to whether the act will fulfill or thwart desires. We have many and strong reason to promote an interest in trusting the judgment of the best informed, least corruptible agent.

So, here are four categories of excuse: (1) accident, (2) a greater value, (3) a mistake of fact, and (4) consent.

Each of them function to block the implication from a prima facie wrong act to the conclusion that an agent has some bad desires or lacks a good desire. Each of them is fully accounted for in desire utilitarian terms.

Name another theory that can explain what excuses are and how they work as well as desire utilitarianism does in explaining the elements of a moral system such as the element of excuse.

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