Thursday, December 15, 2011

Wrongmaking Characteristics of Right Actions?

I was looking at something in Tooley's SEP article on the problem of evil, which is one of those SEP articles that makes an interesting paper without being very good as an encyclopedia article, and stopped to read his "Concrete, Deontological, and Direct Inductive Formulation" of the PoE. Evaluating it he goes through each of the nine premises and concludes, "So all of the premises seem fine"; I don't actually think this is true, since several of the premises seem to me to be ambiguous as formulated. But this premise in particular just baffled me:

(10) An action is morally wrong, all things considered, if it has a wrongmaking characteristic that is not counterbalanced by any rightmaking characteristics.

It reminds me of Campbell's cutting comments (in his critique of Hume on miracles) about the bizarreness of Hume's principle of counterpoise. Clearly if we are accepting this principle as "by virtue of the concepts of rightmaking and wrongmaking characteristics, together with the concept of an action's being wrong, all things considered," we can't be using the phrase "wrongmaking characteristic" to mean "characteristic that makes an action wrong". And the same with "rightmaking characteristic". In every other discussion I've come across in which phrases like these have been used, 'wrongmaking' was the adjectival form of 'making wrong'. So what, then, are these wrongmakers and rightmakers that don't necessarily make actions wrong or right? What general features do they have?

When he first mentions them, he says that they are properties "that determine whether an action is one that ought to be performed, or ought not to be performed, other things being equal." I take it that the ceteris paribus clause here is supposed to be doing some major work, but combining it with (10) seems to convey the idea that wrongmaking characteristics are characteristics that make an action wrong when it's not a right action, and rightmaking characteristics are characteristics that make an action right when it's not a wrong action. And then (A) we need to have a clear account of how we identify them in a non-question-begging way, which we don't have; and (B) we need to have an argument that they are universally stable and not merely functional according to circumstances -- i.e., that characteristic of type C is not wrongmaking under some circumstances and rightmaking under others; and (C)we need to know how we assess the balance of rightmaking and wrongmaking. Indeed, rather weirdly, rightmakers and wrongmakers don't make actions right or wrong; rather, what makes an action right or wrong is the higher-order characteristic of how your wrongmakers relate to your rightmakers. This is not, as far as I have been able to determine, standard usage of the terms at all; in standard usage, 'rightmaking' indicates something that makes your action right. It's not normally used to talk about what makes your action right assuming it isn't "overbalanced" by the sort of thing that makes your action wrong (if it's not "overbalanced" by the sort of thing that makes it right...); or, to put it in other terms, we don't usually talk about oughts in such a roundabout, vague, and wishy-washy way.

Setting aside the unnecessarily confusing nature of the terminology, part of the weirdness is that this is a principle of the kind that usually indicates a consequentialist view, but it is stated in terms that are usually used to indicate a deontological view. (Tooley seems to want to get away from a consequentialist view in order to avoid certain controversies, but this sort of principle is not a usual part of deontological views, and so it's difficult to see how it avoids the problem of controversy.) We can make sense of:

(10') An action is morally wrong, all things considered, if it has disutility that is not counterbalanced by any utility.

But (10) is not obviously even coherent, and even if we assume it coherent, it isn't clear how we'd identify our wrongmaking and rightmaking characteristics as they'd have to be understood here (without begging any questions), and even if we assume we could, it isn't clear how we'd determine whether (say) 'letting Pinocchio become a real boy' was counterbalanced by (say) 'letting Bambi's mother die', and by what measure. Under what moral theory does it actually make sense to analyze actions this way?

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