Thursday, July 13, 2017

Punishment and Wrong Action

I had dinner with Jonathan Spelman yesterday. He's the graduate student whose PhD dissertation, Moral Obligation, Evidence, and Belief that I read about a month ago. Our conversation concerned points of disagreement about his paper.

However, there was a point of agreement that seemed to surprise Dr. Spelman. There is a chapter in which he defends the association of "wrong action" to "deserving of punishment". He actually seemed surprised that I accepted his claims here.

Today, I sent him an email explaining my support for his thesis here.


I valued our conversation last evening. I had not been able to do that in quite some time. It seemed to have gone well.

In terms of follow-up, you seemed surprised at me comment that I agreed with your claims that blameworthiness and punishment were associated with wrongdoing. I thought I would explain that position.

By way of background, recall that I present moral reasoning in terms of a moral syllogism.

(1) The moral principle.
(2) The agent's beliefs about the current situation.
(3) The right action.

I claim that right action depends on the agent's beliefs, but the moral principle does not.

Take, for example, honesty.

(1) One should tell (what one believes to be) the truth.
(2) Tim believes that Tony took the tokens from the till.
(3) The right thing for the Tim to tell the police is that Tony took the tokens from the till.

If Tim's beliefs change, then the right action changes. If the agent instead believed that Thaddeus took the tokens from the till, then the agent should say that Thaddeus took the tokens from the till.

Other examples include:

(1) Care for one's patient.
(2) Belief that drug A will relieve symptoms and B and C each have a chance of killing the patient.
(3) The right action is to give drug A.


(1) Care to prevent childhood illness.
(2) Belief that vaccines cause - and do not effectively prevent - childhood illness.
(3) The right act is to campaign against vaccinations.

NOTE: Care to prevent disease also implies that right action includes being concerned to make sure that one's beliefs are well founded. Intellectual recklessness resulting in death demonstrates a lack of compassion.

My roughly described my views at the level of principle as motive utilitarianism. Honesty and care for others are good motives - motives we have reason to encourage in virtue of their consequences.

It turns out that praise and rewards (awards) promote or strengthen desires, while condemnation and punishment promote or strengthen aversions. To create an aversion to lying, we condemn and punish the liar. To promote compassion, we praise and reward the compassionate.

However, we cannot read a person’s motives directly from their action. To determine their motives, we have to also look at what they believed at the point of action. If their beliefs and actions indicate they acted from good motives (e.g., honesty, a doctor’s concern for her patient, a person’s concern for the health of children), then we have reason to judge that the motives are those we have reason to promote (or, at least, not to inhibit). If, on the other hand, their beliefs and actions indicate that they acted from bad motives, then we have reason to respond to those actions with condemnation and punishment.

Consequently, I would agree that there is a connection between wrongdoing and reasons to condemn/punish. This is because I tie both wrongdoing and reasons to condemn/punish to bad motives.

Wrong action comes from bad motives. Bad motives are motives that tend to produce bad consequences for others. Those bad consequences are what give others reason to mold or modify those motives in the agent and other people. Condemnation and punishment act on the limbic system to mold or modify motives. Wrong action is action that people generally have reason to respond to with condemnation and punishment.

So, I am quite comfortable with linking wrong action to punishment.

In fact, if I should have reason to write on this topic, I will certainly reference and draw upon your chapter.

Richard Alonzo Fyfe

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