Moral Rightness and Metaphysical Possibility
March 20, 2011 — 11:05

Author: Michael Almeida  Category: Uncategorized  Tags: , ,   Comments: 9

I want to talk about a problem I should have noticed sooner. Of course I’d appreciate any help with clarifications, corrections, objections, etc.
Many discussions of moral rightness converge on the assumption that there are right-making characteristics or properties of actions that determined the *objective* rightness of actions and that actions exemplifying a certain number or degree (or an on balance number or degree) of such properties are objectively morally right.
We can perhaps distinguish the metaphysical question in (1) from the practical question in (2): (1) what makes an action right?, (2) what should we do? I want to worry about (1). If it is true that properties P make an action A objectively right, then I claim that properties P make A objectively right for everyone (including God). I’d also like to avoid contextualist (and neo-relativist) worries that seem to arise mainly with respect to question (2).


My first reason is that moral assertions are going to vary in truth value on such accounts depending on the nature of proposed actions and variation in moral standards endorsed. But I see no reason from a theistic perspective to deny that there is a single correct moral standard for everyone. Second, barring some new commitment to ordinary language philosophy, I’m not even sure how linguistic data concerning ordinary use of moral language (which feature so prominently in these discussions) is supposed to figure in genuine metaphysical disputes. So I’m setting these aside.
Let’s take two views.
P1. An act A is (objectively) morally right at t in w iff. the *causal* consequences A at t are better than those of any alternative to A at t.
P2. An act A is (objectively) morally right at t in w iff. the *best* possible consequences of A at t are better than those of any alternative.
Note that (virtually) every discussion of pointless evil assumes that P2 is true. That is. God is morally required to prevent an evil E if the best possible consequences at t includes God’s preventing E at t.
If P2 is true then the range of worlds that matter to the moral assessment of A at t includes the set of all metaphysically possible worlds available at t (or perhaps more cautiously, the set of worlds an omnipotent, omniscient, perfectly good being could actualize at t).
So, if P2 is true, almost every action we perform on any occasion is *objectively morally wrong*. We almost never do anything objectively right since we almost never actualize one of those best possible consequences. This of course is not to say that we do not do the best that we can do. It’s just that the best we can do is often objectively morally wrong.
But I think it is crazy to believe that anything like P2 is true. Certainly no moral theorist (and no one else) believes it’s true. But then suppose something like P1 is true.
If P1 is true then the range of worlds that matter to the moral assessment of A at t includes a subset of the set of all causally possible worlds. If P2 made relevant all causally possible worlds we would again almost always be acting wrongly. No finite being (or set of beings) can actualize the best causally possible worlds, either.
If P1 is true, it is true for everyone, including God. Notice then that God would be morally required to prevent those evils whose prevention would result in the best causal consequences (in some restricted sense of causal consequences). And this makes the problem(s) of evil much more manageable.
So, two possible conclusions:
C1: Everyone is almost always acting in ways that are morally wrong.
C2: God is not required to prevent evils whose causal consequences are better than those of preventing that evil.

Comments:
  • Dianelos Georgoudis

    Mike,
    I’ll have to chew on the rest of your post, but I have a strong opinion on something you write at the outset, namely: “If it is true that properties P make an action A objectively right, then I claim that properties P make A objectively right for everyone (including God).”
    I think that what makes an action right is a conjunction of properties of the external state of affairs *and* of the internal state of the person who performs that action. An example I like to use to illustrate this comes from the Gospels: It seems clear to me that whereas it was right for Mary to use the costly perfume to wash Jesus’ feet, the same action would not have been right if it were performed by Judas. Indeed the right action by Judas would have been to sell the perfume to help the poor. A way I use to elucidate this picture is to imagine the moral dimension of reality as the topography of a mountain, and that what makes an action right is that it moves one towards the peak of the mountain (which stands for God in that picture). For a person located on a particular spot of the mountain (which stands for her personal state) the right action may be to move north, but for another person located on a different spot the right action may be to move south.
    If I am right then ethics remains objective (albeit also person-relative), as both the external state of affairs and the state of the person who performs an action are objective. On the other hand, if I am right then an action A will not be right for everyone, contrary to what you are saying above.

    March 20, 2011 — 16:51
  • Mike Almeida

    Dianelos,
    Thanks. The only way I can make sense of this view is to take the action of Mary to be distinct from the action of Judas. They would not have been performing the same action token (obviously) but they would not even have been performing the same action type. If we stipulate that the action is the same, the non-moral facts are the same, the moral standards are the same, then as far as I can see we get incoherence in claiming that A is right for S and not right for S’.

    March 20, 2011 — 16:59
  • Mike:
    Does P1 presuppose lots of non-trivial conditionals of free will, since without them there won’t be enough facts about what the causal consequences of A’s alternatives would be?
    I don’t see any plausibility to P2, but perhaps I am misunderstanding P2. Suppose I have a forced choice which determines which of two games will be played. Game 1: A coin is tossed. If it’s even, my best friend gets $100. Otherwise, my best friend dies. Game 2: A die is tossed. If it’s 6, my best friend gets $200. Otherwise, my best friend dies.
    By P2, I am obliged to go for Game 2, since the best consequence of Game 2 is my best friend getting $200, which is better than the best consequence of Game 1, which is my best friend getting $100.

    March 21, 2011 — 10:03
  • Mike Almeida

    Alex, here’s P2.
    P2. An act A is (objectively) morally right at t in w iff. the best possible consequences of A at t are better than those of any alternative.
    I agree that it is not a plausible principle. It’s an overly optimistic moral principle. But it is a principle that we adopt–or so it seems to me–when assessing the actions of God. Think of the objection that God must prevent any evil E such that E is not metaphysically necessary for some greater good. So, if there is a metaphysically possible world W such that W is among the best possible worlds (assuming there are such) and E does not occur in W, then God must prevent E. This sort of objection appeals to a moral principle (P2 or some analogue) that no one believes is true. If we believed it were true, we would believe that most of what we do everyday is seriously morally wrong. But we don’t believe that.

    March 21, 2011 — 10:50
  • Mike:
    I don’t see how to argue from
    P3. One ought to prevent any evil E such that E is not metaphysically necessary for some greater good
    to anything like P2.
    Though it would be right to say that P3 is in itself not very plausible.

    March 21, 2011 — 12:35
  • Mike Almeida

    I was arguing the other way around. From P2 to (something like) P3. I say this,
    If P2 is true then the range of worlds that matter to the moral assessment of A at t includes the set of all metaphysically possible worlds available at t (or perhaps more cautiously, the set of worlds an omnipotent, omniscient, perfectly good being could actualize at t).
    So, suppose you say that God ought to have prevented the evil event A at t. That follows from the assumptions that the metaphysically best histories available at t do not include A at t and God ought to actualize one of those best ~A at t histories.

    March 21, 2011 — 13:11
  • There is a familiar idea that gives some support for P1 over P2.
    Suppose a person tells me that if I do not rape a randomly selected person they will kill themselves. I refuse to commit the rape, and they kill themselves.
    One can say that the person’s death is a foreseeable consequence of my failure to rape so by not raping I bring about a state of affairs in which another is killed. Yet it seems wrong to suggest I committed homicide here, it also seems wrong to say I am responsible for the person’s death. What seems intuitively correct, is to say the person killed himself and *he* is responsible for his death. The typical reason given is that I did not cause there death, it was caused by there free action, I foresaw it, but did not cause it, the chain of causation is broken by another’s actions.
    Examples like this suggest that we are not always required to bring about the best foreseeable consequences, but our responsibility is often limited to the foreseeable *causal* consequences of our actions.

    March 29, 2011 — 3:15
  • Hi Mike,
    I’m still struggling with some of the finer details of the posts. In particular, when I think about possible worlds and best possible worlds. Perhaps you can answer a few questions and clarify a few things for me.
    P2, I think needs to make reference to a moral agent in the definition doing the act. And the “best possible” consequences of A at t are better than those of any alternative needs to be qualified to the set of all deontic possible worlds where that agent can and does act morally (not necessarily morally right or wrong actions, but is acting in the sense that what they are doing has a moral status). So it would need to look, I think, something like this.
    P2* An act A is objectively morally right for moral agent S at t in w (as in “S ought to do A”) iff out of all the sets of deontic worlds where S can act morally the best possible consequences of A at t are better than those of any alternative.
    In addition, natural language semantics suggests, that an objectively morally permissible action is qualified to only some deontic worlds. That is some moral action is permissible if it is morally acceptable in some possible worlds (not all of them). I’m not sure how you would reformulate this to P2, but it seems that in the rape case that you presented it is permissible that you to avoid raping the person and allowing them to kill themselves, but intuitively it is not necessarily right. Personally I have competing intuitions about the case, since I’m not sure which is worse, rape or allowing someone to kill themselves. Nonetheless, I think your intuitions about the rape case borrow from intuitions about moral permissibility and deontic possible worlds, not necessarily moral rightness and deontic possible worlds. That is to say, you may avoid raping the person, it is not wrong for you to avoid raping the person but it seems wrong to say you ought to avoid raping the person. I find it difficult to qualify the actions in this case to all deontic possible worlds.
    Given this new formulation P2, when we do the morally best that we can do, we are actualizing the best possible consequences of A at t that are better than those of any alternative. So, doesn’t that mean that if P2 is true, then the intuition that “almost every action we perform on any occasion is objectively morally wrong” is false? Is it not the case that when we are doing the morally best that we can do, we are doing the morally right thing?
    ~Raymond Aldred~

    April 15, 2011 — 0:26
  • -Correction, the rape case was presented by Matt and not Mike. My apologies.
    Raymond Aldred

    April 15, 2011 — 0:28