Sunday, February 05, 2017

Evening Note for Sunday, February 5

Thought for the Evening

In a recent post at "Philosophical Percolations", Jon Cogburn makes the following claim about the relation between moral evils and natural evils, and claims that it is common sense:

Moral evils would not be moral evils if the natural evil corresponding to the event brought about [by] the perpetrator of moral evil weren’t itself bad. Moreover, we rank the badness of moral evils in terms of the badness of the corresponding natural evils.

This is not so very clearly the case, and even if it were true -- which there is reason to doubt -- it would not be commonsensical.

There is some obscurity to the claim due to well known problems about how exactly we are to understand 'natural evil'. Cogburn is getting the notion from philosophy of religion, but there is no unified account of natural evil in the field. For instance, it is often used exclusive of moral evil; thus, for instance, dying by murder would be a moral evil and dying by accident might be a natural evil. Perhaps getting around this is why Cogburn talks about the corresponding natural evil; I am not sure. There is a broader question about what actually counts as natural evil in the first place; in general, people stipulate pain and death, and anything beyond that would be highly controversial. This is of some relevance because what things one takes to count as natural evil is obviously relevant to the cogency of the claim.

If we simply confine natural evils to pain and death, there are clear moral evils that (as far as common sense goes) do not involve natural evils. Injustices are particularly good examples; while there are injustices that involve pain and death, many injustices do not. For instance, if I deliberately, in order to prevent you from getting rich, switch out your winning lottery ticket with a losing lottery ticket, unbeknownst to you, or if for the same reason I deliberately prevented you from learning about your inheritance, most people would say that that was unjust. But it involves no pain or death -- just a denial of something that, unbeknownst to you, you have a right to have. One could perhaps claim that impediment to possible future good is a natural evil, but this makes natural evils quite profligate (lots and lots and lots of things impede possible future goods), and would cause serious issues for the claim as used in the context of Cogburn's argument. There are a great many injustices that involve legal status, or social status, or the like that involve no pain and no death. Lawyers and accountants and politicians have come up with a great many inventive ways to avoid actually hurting or killing people while doing what most people would consider moral wrong.

Even with injustices that do involve pain or death, it does not seem that common sense consistently ranks the moral badness according to the corresponding natural badness. Killing someone through negligence is commonly recognized as bad, but not, I think, anywhere near as morally bad as raping someone without killing them; but common sense seems to be quite consistent in treating death as just about the worst natural evil there is (some kinds of long-term and unusually terrible torment being perhaps the only exceptions). Rape is an extraordinarily evil thing; most people would regard being raped as a far greater moral evil inflicted on them than many other things that would involve a great deal more pain.

We also get obvious cases of purely internal wrongdoing. If I hate you and despise you out of envy for the good you do, without doing anything against you (perhaps I simply avoid you and seethe in my hate and envy), most people would (I think rightly) regard this as a more serious moral wrong than pinching you in a moment of temporary unjust anger; but the former involves no discernible natural evil at all. (This is, incidentally, one reason why vainglory and envy were traditionally considered the most wicked of the seven capital vices -- they are almost purely moral wrongs, and thus, for example, can increase indefinitely rather than being limited by the limits of how much damage you can do or the opportunities for physical expression. While the general run of common sense doesn't have anything that thought out, it does, I think, have room for purely moral wrongs with no physical expression.)

I have tried to stick with cases involving no natural evil, since this is straightforward; trying to assess the ranking claim in other cases is difficult from the beginning, because how does one measure the relative badness of a natural evil? I do not know; and I don't think common sense has any fully consistent way of ranking pain and death. Emergency rooms use rough-and-ready metrics, but these are primarily for getting a more specific sense of actual symptoms that goes beyond "I hurt here", not for assessing badness.

It's always handy to ask what kind of background theory a claim would require in order to be true. In this case, what is needed in order to link moral evil and natural evil in this way? The apparent counterexamples or puzzle cases often arise from the fact that we don't make moral assessments solely on the bases of consequences but on other things that can mess up any attempt to create a tight correlation between moral and natural evil. So, for instance, people can take intent and official responsibility into account when assessing moral evil, but neither of these has any effect whatsoever on the corresponding natural evil, nor is either dependent on any such natural evil. So it seems that Cogburn's claims require a purely consequentialist account of moral assessment. (One cannot imagine any Kantian agreeing with either of Cogburn's claims, for instance.) In particular, I think it requires an account in which there is no fundamental difference between moral evils and natural evils beyond the bare fact of intent (i.e., beyond the thing that distinguishes between the ideas of 'moral' and 'natural'), while not taking degrees or specificity of intent to affect assessment of moral badness. This is not common sense, which is pluralist about what can go into moral assessment, and certainly includes things that do not involve any actual natural evils.

Links of Note

* Italy's Greatest Detective and Master of Disguise, at "The History Blog", on Giuseppe Dosi

* Casandra Cheser, It's Not Okay for You to Pass Judgment on How Many Kids I Have

* Luke Barnes, Good God!, a review of Sean Carroll's The Big Picture

* Catarina Dutilh Novaes, The Logical Gaps, on the richness of the history of logic

* Peter Turchin, The Strange Disappearance of Cooperation in America (from 2013)

* TheOFloinn discussed Aquinas's First Way recently.

* Thomas Powers, The Private Heisenberg and the Absent Bomb, reviews a recent publication of letters between Werner and Elizabeth Heisenberg. I haven't read the book in question, but my own conclusion about the Heisenberg 'failure' from other reading I have done is that Heisenberg was leading the German nuclear research program away from anything to do with weaponry and deliberately kept its research even into nuclear piles at the minimum he could while still keeping young physicists in physics and out of the army. It sounds like the letters fit this view of the situation.

Currently Reading

John Steinbeck, The Acts of King Arthur and His Noble Knights
Mary Beard, SPQR
Joseph Ratzinger, Jesus of Nazareth
G. R. R. Martin, A Storm of Swords
Lois McMaster Bujold, Cryoburn
Giambattista Vico, On the Most Ancient Wisdom of the Italians

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