November 22, 2013

Morally Disappointing but Not Blameworthy Acts

Filed under: Ethics,Philosophy — camcintosh @ 3:59 pm

Are all morally disappointing acts morally blameworthy acts? By a “morally disappointing act,” I simply mean an act that justifies moral disappointment. So if you commit a morally disappointing act, I am justified in being morally disappointed in you. By a “morally blameworthy act,” I mean an act that either flouts or fails to fulfill a moral duty/obligation or expectation. I’m assuming that all blameworthy acts justify moral disappointment. But are there morally disappointing acts that are not blameworthy? Consider acts of cowardice. It seems to me that the following acts of cowardice are all morally disappointing, but only the last is not morally blameworthy.

1. You’re a soldier in an intense battle. Men are dropping to your left and right. You intentionally fall behind your comrades in the ranks to avoid getting shot. Your cowardly act is blameworthy. Why? For failing to perform your duty or obligation qua soldier.

2. The titanic is sinking, and you are in a lifeboat that’s already a little over maximum capacity. There’s a chance the boat could hold more, but you’re afraid. Just as you’re about to launch, another man begs to come aboard. You deny the man’s petitions and launch. Your cowardly act is blameworthy. But, arguably, not for failing to meet any duty or obligation (the boat was already over max capacity), but for failing to meet a moral expectation (the expectation to welcome him aboard given the chance that the boat could have held more). For an explanation of the category of moral expectations, see below the fold.

3. You get beat up really badly by a bully much larger and tougher than you. The next day you’re walking with me (your friend), and the same bully harasses me, but you do nothing. You are a coward for not sticking up for me. But are you blameworthy? Are you obligated or expected to stick up for me, such that, were you not to, you’d be blameworthy? Seems a bit much.

Let it be granted that you are not blameworthy for not sticking up for me (you did not flout or fail to meet any moral obligations or expectations). Nonetheless, it still seems that I’m justified in being morally disappointed in you. Why? Not sure. But if so, there are morally disappointing acts that are not morally blameworthy.

Here’s an argument against the conclusion I just reached. You are morally expected to not perform morally disappointing acts. So by performing a morally disappointing act, you fail to meet moral expectations. But if you fail to meet moral expectations, you are blameworthy. So, if you perform a morally disappointing act, you are blameworthy. Therefore there are no morally disappointing acts that are not blameworthy. Which position do you think is more intuitive? Can you think of better examples than the ones I sketched?

Ordinarily it is thought that one is blameworthy only if one has flouted or failed to meet a duty or obligation. But this seems false. One can blameworthy for flouting or failing to meet a moral expectation. A moral expectation is something one is not obligated to meet but is nonetheless blameworthy for not meeting. For example, suppose it’s cold and raining outside, and I’m standing in the warm lobby of a hotel. I then notice a woman with her arms full, child in one arm and groceries in another, struggling to come in. I could easily reach and open the door for her. But I don’t. While it seems too strong to say I have a moral obligation to open the door, it also seems like I’m blameworthy—to some degree—for not opening the door. Even if I’m not obligated to open the door, I’m expected to, and failure to live up to this expectation is blameworthy. For a full articulation and defense of the distinction between moral obligations and moral expectations, see Gregory Mellema, The Expectations of Morality (Rodopi, 2004).


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