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 going to defend this proposition in a series of posts where I hope to show how well it explains a number of elements of morality; including such things as negligence, non-obligatory permissions, and moral dilemmas. I am going to start with the subject of negligence.
Please note, I am not going to defend it by showing how well it conforms to popular moral judgments. I am not testing this proposition by showing that it yields the “correct” conclusions on slavery, rape, the obligation to repay debts, the legitimacy of lying to the Nazis when they come looking for Jews, or the right to freedom of speech.
People who make those types of arguments assume that their prejudices are already correct, and that we only need to account for them in a moral system.
The arguments I am making aim to show how the proposition above accounts for the elements that define a system as a moral system.
One of the elements of a moral system is that it contains the moral categories of "negligence" and "recklessness." What are these categories and what makes them legitimate objects of moral condemnation?
The problem of accounting for negligence was a fatal blow to a moral theory proposed by James Martineau about 100 years ago. He argued that the moral quality of an action is derived from the moral quality of the motives (desires) from which it sprang. If an agent’s motives were good, then his actions were praiseworthy. If, instead, he acted from bad motives, his actions were wrong or blameworthy.
A contemporary of Martineau's, Henry Sidgwick, wrote that this method of ethics did not account for the wrongness of negligence.
In my previous post, I described a case of negligence that involved somebody transporting goods on a truck, but failing to secure his load well. As a result, part of his load fell onto a freeway, putting other people at risk of serious harm.
It is almost certainly the case that this agent's only motive was to transport the goods from one place to another. This is not a bad motive – not the type of motive that would generally make a person worthy of condemnation. In fact, it is a very common motive – one that almost every one of us share every day.
Sidgwick was an act utilitarian. He sought to defend the thesis that acts can be measured by their consequences. One of the problems with this theory is that it generates a great deal of moral luck. Because I saw the load on the truck shift seconds before it fell, I was able to prevent an accident. This reduced the bad consequences of the agent’s actions. How is it the case that the agent can claim moral credit for the actions that I performed?
The proposition above can account for the moral category of negligence.
The negligent person is not to be condemned for the motives that he had. Instead, negligent people are to be condemned for the motives that they lack.
A good person is a person who would have a certain level of concern that his actions not put others at risk of harm. We (those who would otherwise be harmed and who care about people who would otherwise be harmed) have many and strong reason to promote in others a desire to take care to foresee and avoid accidents such as this. So, we have reason to use our tools of praise and condemnation to help to ensure that others take care to avoid accidents such as this.
It is not the motives of the action itself that determines its moral quality. Nor is it the consequences of the actions. It is, instead, whether the action is one that would have been performed by a person who has desires (and aversions) that people generally have reason to promote and discourage.
This theory not only shows how the concept of "right action" given above accounts for the moral categories of negligence (and recklessness). It also explains why condemnation is a reasonable response to negligence and why praise is a reasonable response for those who are careful and responsible. This is how we make concern for the welfare of others more common in the population as a whole – and how we better secure ourselves from accidents that less careful people will tend to cause.