Pleas
April 3, 2010 — 18:00

Author: Michael Almeida  Category: Uncategorized  Comments: 2

J.L. Austin famously distinguished excused actions from justified actions in (roughly) the following way. When we defend ourselves against the charge that what we did was wrong by claiming that the action we performed was justified, we accept responsibility for the action but deny that it was bad. But when we defend ourselves by offering an excuse, we accept that the action was bad or wrong, but we deny that we were responsible (or fully responsible) for the action (cf. ‘A Plea for Excuses’).
The distinction is a common one, and important in moral theory and philosophy of religion, but I don’t think it can be sustained. Suppose you are charged with letting a certain evil event E occur, and you want to defend yourself. You can say that you did let E occur and E was necessary to some greater good. In this way you accept responsibility for permitting E, but you deny that permitting E was on balance bad.
P1. If S permits evil E, and N(G ⊃ E), and V(E & G) ≻ 0, then E is a justified (non-gratuitous) evil.
P1 is more or less standard in discussions of gratuitous evil, but surely it’s wrong. Take any very minor good G such that N(G ⊃ E). Add S to G, where S is the great good of salvation of the human race. It follows that N(S & G ⊃ E),and no doubt V(E & G & S) ≻ 0. Now, it is easy to prove that every evil E is non-gratuitous. For every evil E, it is true that N(E ⊃ E). And it follows that N((S & E) ⊃ E), and certainly V(E & S) ≻ 0. So, P1 is wrong.
Suppose you defend yourself by claiming that you let E occur but permitting E is better than it would have been had you not permitted E. Consider P2.
P2. If S permits evil E, and (E N→ O1) and (~E N→ O2), and V(E & O1) ≻ V(~E & O2), then E is a justified (non-gratuitous) evil.
One problem with P2 is that there any number of ways of preventing evil E, many of which have importantly different properties.
Let S0 = {A1, . . .,An} be a set of actions that satisfy the description (i) preventing evil E and also satisfy the description (ii) (A N→ O1) and (~A N→ O2), and V(~A & O2) ≻ V(A & O1).
Let S1 = {An+1, . . .,Aj} be a set of actions that satisfy the description (i) preventing evil E and also satisfy the description (ii) (A N→ O1) and (~A N→ O2), and V(A & O1) ≻ V(~A & O2).
Suppose I can prevent evil E, but I cannot perform any action in S1. And suppose S1 is not empty, so E is a gratuitous evil. That is, there is some A such that A is a prevention of E and V(A & O1) ≻ V(~A & O2). Do we say that my action of not preventing evil E is justified, though E is not necessary to any greater good? Or, do we say that the prevention of E is not justified–after all E is gratuitous–but I have an excuse for not preventing E? But how could it be true that I’m excused, since I don’t have any excuse to offer other than I cannot perform an action in S1?
Let’s make it somewhat more concrete. You can perform an action in S1, I cannot. I can perform and action in S0. Since you can perform an action in S1 it is clear that the occurrence of evil E is not necessary to some greater good. E itself is unjustified or gratuitous. So we seem to have the following options:
1. S might be justified in not preventing a gratuitous evil E.
2. S is never justified in not preventing a gratuitous evil E, even if the best that S can do includes not preventing E.
3. S might be excused (but unjustified) in not preventing a gratuitous evil E, even if not preventing E is the best S can do.

Comments:
  • Jimmy Doyle

    Could you please explain your symbols Mike?

    April 4, 2010 — 3:05
  • Mike Almeida

    Sure, sorry. ‘N(G ⊃ E)’ is read, necessarily, G only if E, ‘A N→ O1’ is read, were A the case then O1 would be the case, and ‘V(E & G) ≻ 0’ is read, the value of E and G together is greater than 0. Does that help?

    April 4, 2010 — 6:38