Dr. Jeremy Watkins
Two ways of being bad
In this post, I want to mention a puzzle about the nature of moral appraisal – and more especially the nature of the assessment of persons, as opposed to acts or states of affairs – that comes into focus when we consider the following pair of cases:
- Imagine that person A is a married, male, philosophy professor, who is away at a conference. One night he goes to the conference bar, where he meets a beautiful woman who propositions him. Although he doesn’t start out with the intention of using the conference as an opportunity for extra-marital affairs, one thing leads to another, and he ends up sleeping with the woman.
- Imagine that person B is a married, male, philosophy professor, who is away at a conference. One night, he goes to conference bar, which is deserted. He happily reads his newspaper, without any thought or intention of pursuing extra-marital sex. However, the following counterfactual is true of him: had he been propositioned by a beautiful woman (and perhaps had a few whiskies), he would have slept with her.
What should we make of the relative demerits of A and B? Is A morally worse (i.e. more blameworthy, more culpable) than B? Well, on first inspection, we might be tempted to think so. After all, A has committed adultery whilst B hasn’t, and surely committing adultery aggravates blameworthiness? But is this the full story? Isn’t it relevant that B would have committed adultery had he been exposed to the same circumstances as A? Doesn’t this mean that his character is just as bad (disloyal, lascivious) as A’s, assuming that character depends on dispositions. And doesn’t this mean, in turn that B is just as blameworthy as A, assuming blameworthiness depends on badness of character?
Well, perhaps, but perhaps we should say something more nuanced. Perhaps we should say that there are two kinds of blameworthiness: there’s blameworthiness in the sense of violating one’s obligations without an excuse, and there’s blameworthiness in the sense of having a bad character: A is blameworthy in the first sense when B is not (B hasn’t violated any obligations), but A and B are equally blameworthy in the second sense (since their characters are equally bad).
However, if we do say this, then a whole bunch of new questions come into focus. For example, why are there two ways of appraising people? Is one more fundamental than the other? If we’re interested in evaluating persons (as opposed to acts or states of affairs), shouldn’t we be more concerned with blameworthiness in the second sense since persons seem to be more closely tied to their characters than their actions. In which case, is the first sense of blameworthiness only of interest because of its relation to practical questions concerning criminal or civil liability?
I won’t comment on these questions here, but I suspect that thinking about them will shed light on a whole host of debates in moral philosophy, including the debate between virtue ethicists and their opponents, perhaps encouraging a form of reconciliation between the different views. In light of the foregoing distinction, for example, it might be argued that the contrast between virtue ethics and so-called “law conceptions of ethics” shouldn’t be expressed (as it is sometimes expressed) as a contrast between a conception of ethics which focuses on the evaluation of persons and a conception of ethics which focuses on the evaluation of acts; instead, it should be expressed as a contrast between two (equally important?) ways of evaluating persons, one focusing on character, the other focusing on compliance with moral obligations.