Monday, August 06, 2018

Praise and Condemnation 05: Negligence and Moral Indifference

From the very first days of desirism, I have argued that one of the things that gives it a unique advantage is the way that it handles moral negligence.

This springs from reading The Methods of Ethics by Henry Sidgwick. Sidgwick argued against desire-centered theories of morality that an act cannot get its moral value from the value of the desires from which it springs. To argue against this thesis, he provided examples of a person with a bad desire performing a right action (a prosecutor who performs her job flawlessly while motivated by a desire to see the accused person harmed for reasons having nothing to do with guilt). He provided examples of a person performing a wrong action from a good motive (a person who commits perjury out of a desire to protect his parent from the harm of a criminal conviction). And he provided examples of a person who commits a wrong action while acting out of perfectly normal motives - the drunk driver who simply wanted to get home.

Desirism began when I responded to Sidgwick that his arguments are not applicable to the thesis that the right action is the action that a person with good desires would perform (regardless of his reason for performing it). So, the prosecutor still did what a person with good desires would do and perjurer did something that a person with good desires would not do.

In the case of negligence, the act is also something that a person with good desires would not do because the person with good desires would have had a concern for the welfare of others that the immoral agent did not have. In other words, a person can be blamed for an action that displayed the absence of a good motive.

Arpaly and Schroeder provide a similar action in Chapter 7 of their book In Praise of Desire where they discussed moral indifference.

Moral indifference is a lack of good will. A person is more morally indifferent the less good will she has.

Okay, there's that idea of "good will" that the authors use . . . the concept that I think we should do without. While the authors consider moral indifference to be the absence of a desire for the right or good properly conceived, I would call it the absence of a desire that people generally have many and strong reasons to promote universally using the social tools of reward and punishment. The wording is different, but the ideas are quite similar.

What Arpaly and Schroeder's "good will" argument lacks is an explanation as to why agents are (or, more accurately, should be) condemning this absence. This is because they have many and strong reasons to promote a concern for others (or, at the very least, an aversion to causing others to come to harm), and condemnation works on the reward (punishment) systems of the brain to create and promote this aversion, not only in the agent, but in others through sympathetic learning. That is, people can learn by observing the condemnation of others, even when that condemnation occurs in a parable or story.

The authors take this issue a bit further. They also argue that a certain amount of ill will is natural to humans. In desirism terms, this translates into people having desires that people generally have reason to inhibit in others universally - desires to harm others or desires to favor one's race. A person can have "negative moral indifference" if she lacks a bad desire that people share. The authors use an example of a person who is not inclined to snap back at somebody who unjustly accuses her of some wrongdoing.

We can, in fact, praise a person who does not seek to get even or get revenge - somebody who is willing to forgive or simply is not bothered by behavior that others would typically find an imposition. People, indeed, have reason to promote in others around them a decreased drive to "get even" or "retaliate" against wrongdoing.

Furthermore, in just the same way that a person can be overcautious in preventing harm to others - refusing to perform even ordinary every-day actions out of the off chance that she might inflict unwanted harm on others, a person can be "too forgiving". A person can fail to promote justice by failing to condemn those that people generally have reason to condemn.

The issue of moral indifference supports the thesis that praise and condemnation have a purpose - to act on the reward system to change what people value. They seem to think that the having or lacking of certain intrinsic desires (a "good will") intrinsically warrants praise or condemnation. However, we respond to moral wrongdoing with condemnation for a reason. This is the correct response precisely because we have reasons to perform actions that act on the reward system in particular ways so as to produce particular results.

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