Sunday, July 15, 2012

Types of Excuse: Greater Good

This post is continuing a series on the moral concept of "excuse", aiming to show how a theory that says that morality is primarily concerned with evaluating malleable desires - rather than actions - accounts for a substantial part of our moral practices.

A part of our moral practice includes the opportunity to offer an excuse to defend oneself from moral condemnation.

An excuse is a claim that blocks the inference from an act that appears to be wrong at first glance (an act that a person with good desires would not have performed) to the desires of the agent who performed the act. It says, in effect, "You cannot use this act to infer that I have desires that people generally have many and strong reason to condemn."

The excuse of Accident and False Belief blame the state on either the unavoidable laws of nature or false but responsibly acquired beliefs. The excuse of Denying Harm and Consent deny that a person with good desires would have performed the act because precautions were taken to ensure that no harm was done and one had the consent of all people intimately involved (or their guardians).

In his posting, I will present the case of Greater Good. When using this excuse, the agent claims, "Yes, a person with good desires would not have acted as I did in ordinary circumstances. However, in these extraordinary circumstances she would have sacrificed that lesser good for a greater good."

Here are two examples in which the excuse of "greater good" is applicable.

Example 1: A driver is in her way to a meeting. On the way, the car ahead of her blows a tire and runs off the road. The driver stops to aid the people in the other car. She tries to call for help and discovers that there is no cell phone coverage. While she stays to help the victims of the accident, she sends the next car ahead to call for help. As a result, she leaves the people she had promised to meet waiting for her - a state that a person with good desires would want to avoid.

Example 2: A father and daughter are out fishing when the child is stung by a bee. She starts to get an allergic reaction. The father cannot find the keys to his own car. However, there is another car nearby with the keys inside. The owner of that car is nowhere in sight. He throws his daughter into the car and speeds her to the hospital. A person with good desires is averse to taking the property of another without their consent. But he is also averse to letting his child die.

In both of these cases, the agent appeals to a greater good to excuse their action. The greater good is a desire that, in a good person, would have outweighed the violated interest that the good person also would have had.

In offering this excuse, it must actually be the case that the greater good has been served. This means that, in this case of conflict, the agent acted on what people generally have reason to promote as the stronger desire. Speeding through a school zone to make it on time to work is seen as a poor excuse.

One of the things we see in this excuse of Greater Good is that people generally have many and strong reasons to promote a number of different desires - not just one. They have many and strong reasons to promote an aversion to making promises, aversions to taking the property of others without their consent, a concern for the well-being on one's children and for strangers in need of emergency help.

Furthermore, people have reason to make some of these desires stronger than others.

Sometimes, these different desires come into conflict. When they do, an agent can appeal to the excuse of Greater Good to claim that she acted on the desire that people generally have reason to make the stronger desire.

However, we should note that the agent must still demonstrate that the lesser desire was in play. She must show some frustration over her ability not to have objectively satisfied the weaker desire.

The woman who missed the meeting is expected to contact those left waiting and apologize - reporting that she appreciates the fact that a good person does not break promises, but she broke a promise.  The father who took the car will apologize to the owner and seek to minimize or compensate for any harm done.

In both of these cases, the agent is communicating to the world, "Yes, I was properly averse to breaking the promise or taking the car. I hate the fact that was forced to do so. I would have avoided that situation if I could."

As a part of our Greater Good ritual, the victims are then expected to forgive the agent. In doing so, the victim acknowledges, "You acted on the better desire. I recognize that an agent with good desires would have done the same thing."

Still, we seek evidence that the lesser desire was in play, even though it was overruled.

One reason that the lesser desire must be in play is because it motivates agents to avoid the conflict. An agent with an aversion to P and an aversion to Q has reasons to anticipate and avoid circumstances where they must choose between P or Q. There are people who seem always to be missing appointments or making and failing to promptly pay back small loans. They seem always to gave an excuse. However, with enough evidence, we can start to suspect that the agent just does not care about the lesser duty.

Another sign of the lesser duty being in play is that the agent tries to resolve the conflict before sacrificing the lesser duty. The woman missing the meeting is expected to call and say, "I can't make it," if she could. The father looks around for the owner of the car and is desperate to seek permission before concluding that there is no time to waste. Both express frustration over not being able to do both.

Desirism explains these aspects of Greater Good because morality is not concerned with rules or natural laws weighed against each other. It us concerned with the weighing of desires that people generally have many and strong reasons to promote. It is the property of conflicting desires that they motivate agents to avoid conflict and frustrate those who must choose. These are understandable elements of the practice if excusing a wrong by appeal to a greater good.

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