Thursday, August 16, 2012


Negligence is thought to be a problem for motive-based (desire-based) moral theories.

The reason is because negligence does not spring from any bad motive or desire. A farmer wants to get his hay to a neighboring farm. He does not want to make two trips - a perfectly common motive - so he stacks all of the hay on the trailer. Along the way, a few bails of hay at the top of the poorly secured stack fall off. They bounce into oncoming traffic where they cause a wreck.

The farmer is considered negligent and condemned for his actions. Yet, they spring from no bad motive - a desire to get the hay to a neighboring farm without taking two trips.

One task for somebody seeking to defend a motive (desire) based theory is to explain the moral category of negligence.

Henry Sidgwick, a philosopher at the start of the 20th century, used the problem of negligence to challenge the motive-based theory of James Martineau - and to defend act utilitarianism as a better theory.

Martineau argued that what matters in judging an action is not its consequences but the motives of the agent. According to Martineau, each motive comes with its own intrinsic value. We could know this value by calmly reflecting on the matter. God wrote this knowledge into the human brain at creation, and we have access to this information at moments if quiet reflection - prayer or meditation. Whenever we have a choice among two possible actions, our moral task is to determine the motive for each option, then choose the action that springs from the best motive.

According to Sidgwick, the moral concept of negligence proves that consequences are what matter in evaluating an action, not the value of the motive from which it sprang. Negligence springs from no bad motive. Yet, it is condemned. The reason it is judged harshly, Sidgwick tells us, is because of its consequences.

Yet, Sidgwick's response has its own problems.

One problem is that the farmer is guilty of negligence even if he does no harm. One can tell the farmer that it is wrong to stack the hay so high because it is dangerous even before the farmer leaves with the load. If the bails fall when there is no traffic, and the farmer clears the road before anybody is hurt, this does not allow him to escape the moral charge. Even if no bails fall and he reaches his destination safely then, like the person who drove drunk but arrived home safely, he can still be condemned for his negligence.

Nor is the farmer to be condemned just for creating a risk of bad consequences. Let us assume that one of the tires was made of substandard materials such that even a normal load would risk having the tire blow, causing a wreck. In this case, assume that the farmer did not overload the trailer but decided to make two trips. In this case, farmer is creating a risk. However, he is not guilty of negligence precisely because he has no way of knowing about the risk.

Here, then we have examples of condemnation without bad consequences, and bad consequences without condemnation, both of which create problems for the act-consequentialst.

Desirism differs from Martineau's theory in a number of ways. One important difference is that desirism evaluates motives (desires) according to their malleability and the degree to which they tend to objectively satisfy or thwart other desires. It does this because morality is concerned with applying social tools such as praise and condemnation to promote desires that tend to objectively satisfy other desires, and inhibit desires that tend to thwart other desires.

On this system, a right act is not necessarily an act that comes from good desires. It is the act that a person with good desires would perform. We do not say that the person who rescues a drowning child because he wants a reward should have let the child drown. We still say that rescuing the child was the right thing to do. However, we condemn the rescuer when he demands the reward or reports that, "If I had known I would not have been rewarded I would not have rescued the child." In these cases, we do not condemn him for rescuing the child (which still remains the right thing to do) but for the attitudes he has towards that rescue.

In the case of negligence, the good person would have sufficient concern for the well-being of others that he would have investigated potential threats and taken precautions against those threats he could predict. In this, an agent can be condemned not only for bad motives that are present, but for good motives that are lacking or nearly lacking. The reason is because condemnation is being used to build those good desires - in this case, an aversion to actions that bring harm to others. The moral crime that the farmer is guilty of is that of not caring enough about the interests of others. This concern is one that people generally have many and strong reasons to promote.

We hear this in the language of condemnation. "You should be more careful." What motivates carefulness? A genuine concern not to cause harm to others.

This account also handles the two cases that the act-utilitarian has problems with. The negligent person who, by luck, causes no harm still deserves condemnation because he did not care enough to prevent the risk. The person who causes harm by putting a normal load on a trailer with a defective tire is not condemned because people generally have no reason to completely paralyze society by making people unable to act until they have investigated every possible source of risk. Instead, we blame the tire manufacturer - the people who can more efficiently test the results of their manufacturing process.

Desirism even tells us where to draw the line between the two. We should demand a concern with the welfare of others that is strong enough to prevent easily prevented harms, but not so strong that people waste huge amounts of energy hunting down all possible sources of harm. We should draw the line between these at the point where the marginal cost of a marginally stronger aversion to having people harmed exceeds the marginal benefits. This defines the care that a reasonable person would take.

Desirism, then, shows its superiority over act-utilitarian theories on the issue of negligence. It explains negligence without bad consequences, bad consequences without condemnation, and where to draw the line between them. At the same time, it avoids the faults of a Martineau-like motive theory. It grounds the value of motives on the reasons people have to praise and condemn, and allows the application of praise and condemnation to cases not only where an agent acts on a bad desire, but fails to act on a good desire.


mojo.rhythm said...

This is a knockdown clincher against the travesty that is Natural Rights-based Libertarianism.

If you carry Libertarianism to its logical conclusion, there is nothing immoral about watching 1,000,000 helpless children suffer and die, even if you could save them all with a snap of your fingers. All that matters is that you yourself did not put them there by coercion in the first place.

Alonzo Fyfe said...

And if you can extract a payment on the part of those who are doing the killing not to interfere - so much the better.