Prospectus: Part 5

 Posted by on 14 December 2007 at 7:22 am  Moral Luck, Philosophy, Prospectus
Dec 142007

This post contains Part 5 (“Moral Judgment”) of my dissertation prospectus, written in pursuit of my Ph.D in philosophy at the University of Colorado at Boulder and submitted to my committee in early December 2007. The full prospectus is available in PDF format and as an MS Word file. Comments and questions are welcome. While they won’t change the prospectus, they might be of use as I write the dissertation over the next year.

Moral Judgment

The basic task of a theory of moral responsibility is to determine what is properly subject to moral judgment. So imagine that Mary bashes John over the head with a rock while out hiking, seriously injuring him. Why blame Mary for John’s injuries, rather than John or the rock? What might excuse Mary from blame: a brain tumor, too many lollipops, a violent childhood, dehydration, raging hormones, John’s unfunny jokes, ignorance of what rocks do to skulls? Is John’s roommate partially culpable for the injury because he suggested the hike? Is Mary to blame only for injuring John–or also for her violent character, her malicious intentions, John’s medical problems, and/or copycat crimes?

The answers to such questions about moral responsibility depend on underlying views about the demands and purposes of moral judgment, as well about as the nature of human agency. In this section, I will sketch my view of moral judgment. In the next section, I will develop a general theory of moral responsibility (with some remarks about human agency). Finally, that theory will be applied to the three kinds of moral luck. So let us begin with an examination of the purpose that moral judgment properly serves in human life.

A person’s flourishing depends on his effective pursuit of a wide range of values: a career in advertising, a happy marriage to Joanna, a relaxing vacation in Montana, careful management of diabetes, and a good grade on a biology exam. The pursuit of such values primarily depends on the thought and action of the individual–on his choices, capacities, resources, knowledge, foresight, perseverance, moral virtues, and so on.[60] When a person pursues values, however, his success also depends on factors external to him, such as available technology, natural events, social institutions, and other people.[61] So the pleasure of a hike depends on the scenery and the weather, the effectiveness of treatment for breast cancer depends on access to advanced technology, and the profitability of a retail store depends on a slew of hard-working clerks. To ignore the possible impact of such external forces on our pursuits would put those pursuits in serious jeopardy. It would be foolish, for example, to fail to check the weather report before a day-long hike in the mountains or to leave all rain gear at home when downpours are forecasted. To protect our values, we must identify the state of the world, evaluate its likely impact on our plans, and act accordingly.

As concerns other people, such evaluations permit us to differentiate between those who will impede us and those who will assist us in the pursuit of our values. As Tara Smith observes:

Whatever the ends that individuals seek, their attainment of those ends depends on what they themselves as well as others do. Our values are vulnerable, since their achievement is uncertain. They must be carefully pursued, nourished, and protected. Whether a person seeks a house in the country, a career in journalism, or a rewarding marriage, other people’s actions may affect her success. If a person simply wants to secure a ticket to the big game, she must evaluate the person offering to sell her one. Either through deliberate attempts to influence her fate or through actions which would indirectly aid or impede it, others can have a significant impact on a person’s chances of attaining (or retaining) her values. Will a realtor mislead you about the house she is selling? Will a colleague fairly portray your work to others? Will a friend seek to sow distrust between you and your husband?[62]

We need to judge other people because of their potential impact on our values. Those judgments are normative: they identify a person as in some way better or worse in his capacities, skills, intelligence, knowledge, talents, virtues, preferences, efforts, actions, and so on. Not only will they inform our choices about appropriate interactions with the person, but they may also shape the course and character of our projects themselves.[63] For example, a graduate student might legitimately choose his dissertation topic in part based on the expertise of the professors in his department. Only by such evaluations can we act purposefully and intelligently to protect and promote the values that constitute our flourishing.

Evaluations of persons are governed by the demands of the virtue of justice, understood as “the virtue of judging other people objectively and of acting accordingly, treating them as they deserve.”[64] While all such evaluations are judgments of a person according to some relevant standard, they are not limited to a person’s moral qualities.[65] Sarah’s lack of skill in playing the violin is not a moral defect, but if I want to learn to play the violin I should choose someone else as my teacher. However, moral judgments are properly distinguished from other kinds of assessments of persons in that they concern the principles that underlie and guide a person’s voluntary actions, products, and qualities.

Moral judgments must be limited to a person’s voluntary aspects for the simple reason that all normative claims, whether moral or not, presuppose an agent with the power to conform to the prescription or not. Absent that power, to assert that X ought to do Y would be senseless: even if Y is the best course, that fact has no bearing on X’s course of action. That is why we don’t condemn a hurricane, however distressed we might be at the damage it causes, or tell paraplegics that they ought to walk, however much that activity would improve their lives. Notably, the point is not merely that “ought implies can.” Normative prescriptions from which one cannot deviate–such as “you ought to obey the law of gravity” or “you ought to die if shot through the heart”–are just as senseless as prescriptions that one cannot fulfill. The point is that “ought” presupposes the capacity to do the act or not, i.e. voluntary action.

Ultimately then, moral judgments identify and evaluate the principles (whether consistent or not) by which a person governs his own actions. They ask, for example: Does this person indulge his feelings without thought for the consequences? Is he willing to admit his mistakes? Does he vigorously pursue his goals or cave in face of opposition? Does he put off thinking about unpleasant matters? Does he act on the basis of clearly defined principles? Does he discuss problems as they arise or secretly nurse bitter resentments? Does he act on personal biases? Can he be trusted to honor his promises? Does he blame others for his failures? Does he lie, cheat, and steal–or deal with other people justly? Obviously, the answers to such questions are hugely important to our dealings with other people, particularly if we regularly interact with the person or substantially depend on him. Our most general moral evaluations of a person, e.g., that John is dependable but Mary not, will be relevant to most if not all of our interactions with that person, whatever the particular circumstances at hand. That is not true of judgments of skills, knowledge, talents, and the like. Moreover, a person’s moral qualities determine the value of his other qualities. The low prices of a local grocer serve no good purpose if he sells tainted goods. Even worse, seeming strengths become liabilities when possessed by a vicious person.[66] So a dishonest employee is significantly more dangerous if also charming and clever. For these reasons (and others), the importance of moral judgments to our own flourishing cannot be overstated.


[60] For an argument that flourishing is fundamentally self-created, see Smith 1995, pp. 67-9.

[61] Smith 1999, pp. 368-9.

[62] Smith 1999, p. 369.

[63] Smith 1999, p. 368.

[64] Smith 1999, p. 362.

[65] Smith 1999, p. 366.

[66] Kant 1990, p. 394 makes a similar point.

Go to Works Cited or the Proposed Bibliography.

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